Meritocracy: the dystopian reality of the modern world

Meritocracy being a fair system is the biggest lie that we have been told all our lives. I too believed in it for a long time before I realized it’s inherent faults. In a society which divides people based on specific unchangeable metrics, there is bound to be few groups that are continuously privileged while the rest are continuously discriminated. Encouraging a meritocratic society increases inequality wherever it is applied.

The biggest downside of meritocracy is that it is an equality of outcomes and not equality of opportunities. It rewards one group of people who promise good outcomes and continuously keeps rewarding them whenever the expected outcome is realized. These rewards come at the expense of not providing equal opportunities to the group that got left behind at the start of the cycle. All the inequality in the world- race, caste, gender is rooted in this false concept of merit.

My mom’s childhood dream was to be a doctor. She was the last of 9 children- 3 brothers, 6 sisters. She was the best student in her town school, so my grandma got my mom to study in the city convent in Mangalore where my grandpa was a restaurateur. When she did really well at her high school exit exam, the lady principal encouraged her by telling her to take up the science stream for junior college which would have been her stepping stone towards medicine. My grandpa wouldn’t have any of it. He told the principal “I have 5 daughters who couldn’t get to college (My three maternal uncles have STEM degrees). I want at least one daughter to finish a college degree. Science is too difficult for girls. If she takes up arts she might end up with an arts degree. She’ll be the first graduate girl in the family” This was not an uncommon view in the 1970s in India so not at all surprising.

My mom ended up with a college arts degree of course and was promptly married off to a doctor in Bangalore. She wanted to work as a teacher after getting married. Her in-laws disapproved saying why she needed to work having a doctor as a husband and that was the end of that aspiration to be a working independent woman. The thing is my mom is one of the smartest, enterprising and most intelligent people I know. She would have been a great doctor and a successful one at that. In fact she might have been successful at whatever profession she took up. She instead threw all her energies in being an excellent homemaker and mom for us two brothers. In my opinion she could have been just as great as a homemaker and mom, even if she had chosen to work.

My dad’s childhood dream was to be a doctor. He was the 2nd child and the first son among 4 children- 2 brothers, 2 sisters. His dad-my paternal grandfather was a judge and a highly respected man in society. My dad was a decent student in school and was encouraged by everyone around him to take up science in junior college. It only made sense that the son of a judge went on to take up an equally prestigious profession like medicine. My dad did well enough at junior college to get into medical school and his father (my grandpa) could afford the fees (medicine is a rich man’s education). My dad achieved what he set out to do and he was rewarded each step of the way and has been living his dream for 36 years now.

This is “meritocracy” where my dad is celebrated for achieving his dream by the sheer dint of hard work, intelligence and ability. I would argue that my dad hit the patriarchy jackpot while my mom lost because of it. My mom was told what she was capable of doing and was not asked what she wants to do. She was told at every step of the way that her dreams were unrealistic. There will be people who hear my mom’s story and say, “well if she was that good she would have become a doctor despite the odds”. In the same era my mom lived, no one told my dad he wasn’t smart enough for science. No one would have told him he shouldn’t work because his spouse earned a lot more than him.

Women like my mom in today’s India are able to go to medical school and be successful doctors because the girl child is seen differently today than in the 1970’s. If meritocracy was the sole driver of Indian society, women like my mom would never get to do things they want to and will always be “told”.

The same argument holds good for any type of meritocracy. If you keep rewarding those who hit the privilege lottery while ignoring the others who did not, one creates the worst form of inequality. This in turn breeds discrimination. Every form of atrocity in history- racism, the caste system, female infanticide, religious bigotry, gender discrimination- is based on this flawed concept of meritocracy.

Politicians sell the meritocracy rhetoric in the form of egalitarianism to the masses. A false belief that anyone with ability and hard work will easily work themselves to the top no matter what the odds or the background. This belief is so ingrained in the privileged classes that they see social justice in the form of affirmative action, reservation, maternity benefits, abortion rights, laws against abuse of women as unnecessary impediments in the utopia of “best person for the job”.

Those who are delusional enough to believe that meritocracy is a fair and objective system to find the best person for the job often forget that what people consider as merit is actually heavily dependent on socioeconomic status, gender and family background- in other words merit is often a product of privilege.

It might be worthwhile to note the origin of the word “Meritocracy”. It has it’s origin in the obscure sociological novel called “The Rise of Meritocracy” by Micheal Young. It certainly doesn’t have the positive connotation that it is presently used in.

Set in 2034, the novel takes place after a social movement has succeeded in replacing the aristocracy with a system of advancement based solely on individual merit. Entrance to higher education in this new meritocracy, and to any position of status in society, is based on a simple formula: Merit = IQ + Effort. When an individual’s merit is accurately assessed, there are no longer high-merit folks languishing in the lower social classes, nor are there any stupid, lazy people sneaking by in the upper classes just because they were privileged by birth. Technology advances in this futuristic society mean that IQ and Effort are tested more and more accurately, at younger and younger ages. This purports to be a much fairer system, though when taken to its logical conclusion the results include children being taken from their parents at birth for placement in merit-based social classes, and a social division of such proportions that class warfare is imminent.

The GOP Platform and the Meritocracy

The concept in that book seems eerily similar to what we are heading towards- where governments all over the world embrace meritocracy and building possibly an AI system which would pick people for education spots and job vacancies based on “merit, results, intelligence and ability”. The biases are built into the AI system at the start treating those biases as absolute truths and unchangeable. In the end we will end up in the dystopian society that books alludes to:

“If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and, if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage.”- The Rise of the Meritocracy

Originally published at www.quora.com.