Meritocracy Legitimizes, Deepens Inequality

Yves here. Meritocracy is a pet topic, or perhaps more accurately, a pet peeve. This 2007 Conference Board Review article explains why meritocracy is unattainable, so the whole idea was always problematic.

Chinese mandarins, who won their positions via performance on the imperial examination, are an early, if not the first, example of a meritocratic system. Napoleon standardized education throughout France with the explicit goal of making it possible for poor but bright boys to be identified and further schooled to become bureaucrats.

This article includes issues regularly discussed in comments, such as how higher education has come to be mainly about credentialing. It provides a high-level, accessible discussion of how whatever value the idea of meritocracy had in theory, it has become perverted in practice.

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, who was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. Originally published at the Inter Press Service

How often have you heard someone lamenting or even condemning inequality in society, concluding with an appeal to meritocracy? We like to think that if only the deserving, the smart ones, those we deem competent or capable, often meaning the ones who are more like us, were in charge, things would be better, or just fine.

Meritocracy’s Appeal

Since the 1960s, many institutions, the world over, have embraced the notion of meritocracy. With post-Cold War neoliberal ideologies enabling growing wealth concentration, the rich, the privileged and their apologists invoke variants of ‘meritocracy’ to legitimize economic inequality.

Instead, corporations and other social institutions, which used to be run by hereditary elites, increasingly recruit and promote on the bases of qualifications, ability, competence and performance. Meritocracy is thus supposed to democratize and level society.

Ironically, British sociologist Michael Young pejoratively coined the term meritocracy in his 1958 dystopian satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy. With his intended criticism rejected as no longer relevant, the term is now used in the English language without the negative connotations Young intended.

It has been uncritically embraced by supporters of a social philosophy of meritocracy in which influence is supposedly distributed according to the intellectual ability and achievement of individuals.

Many appreciate meritocracy’s two core virtues. First, the meritocratic elite is presumed to be more capable and effective as their status, income and wealth are due to their ability, rather than their family connections.

Second, ‘opening up’ the elite supposedly on the bases of individual capacities and capabilities is believed to be consistent with and complementary to ‘fair competition’. They may claim the moral high ground by invoking ‘equality of opportunity’, but are usually careful to stress that ‘equality of outcome’ is to be eschewed at all cost.

As Yale Law School Professor Daniel Markovits argues in The Meritocracy Trap, unlike the hereditary elites preceding them, meritocratic elites must often work long and hard, e.g., in medicine, finance or consulting, to enhance their own privileges, and to pass them on to their children, siblings and other close relatives, friends and allies.

Gaming Meritocracy

Meritocracy is supposed to function best when an insecure ‘middle class’ constantly strives to secure, preserve and augment their income, status and other privileges by maximizing returns to their exclusive education. But access to elite education – that enables a few of modest circumstances to climb the social ladder – waxes and wanes.

Most middle class families cannot afford the privileged education that wealth can buy, while most ordinary, government financed and run schools have fallen further behind exclusive elite schools, including some funded with public money. In recent decades, the resources gap between better and poorer public schools has also been growing.

Elite universities and private schools still provide training and socialization, mainly to children of the wealthy, privileged and connected. Huge endowments, obscure admissions policies and tax exemption allow elite US private universities to spend much more than publicly funded institutions.

Meanwhile, technological and social changes have transformed the labour force and economies greatly increasing economic returns to the cognitive, ascriptive and other attributes as well as credentials of ‘the best’ institutions, especially universities and professional guilds, which effectively remain exclusive and elitist.

As ‘meritocrats’ captured growing shares of the education pies, the purported value of ‘schooling’ increased, legitimized by the bogus notion of ‘human capital’. While meritocracy transformed elites over time, it has also increasingly inhibited, not promoted social mobility.

A Different Elite

Thus, although meritocrats like to see themselves as the antithesis of the old ‘aristocratic’ elite, rather than ‘democratize’ society through greater inclusion, meritocracy may even increase inequality and further polarize society, albeit differently.

While the old ‘aristocratic’ elite was often unable to ensure their own children were well educated, competent and excellent, meritocrats – who have often achieved their status and privileges with education and related credentials – have often increased their significance.

Hence, a meritocratic system – seemingly open to inclusion, ostensibly based on ability – has become the new means for exclusion, which Chicago University Professor Raghuram Rajan attributes to the digital revolution.

Meritocrats have increased the significance of schooling, with credential attainment legitimizing growing pay inequality, as they secure even better education for thus own children, thus recreating and perpetuating inequalities.

Recent public doubts about, and opposition to rising executive remuneration, MBA education, professional guild cartels and labour remuneration disparities reflect the growing delegitimization of ostensibly meritocratic hierarchies and inequalities.

High Moral Ground

To add insult to injury, meritocratic ideology suggests that those excluded are undeserving, if not contemptible. With progressive options lacking middle class and elite support, those marginalized have increasingly turned to ‘ethno-populism’ and other ‘communal’ appeals in this age of identity politics.

Unsurprisingly, their opposition to educational and economic inequalities and marginalization is typically pitted against the ethnic ‘Other’ – real, imagined or ‘constructed’ – typically seen as ‘foreign’, even if domestic, as the ‘alien within’.

Markovits argues that meritocracy undermines not only itself, but also democratic and egalitarian ideals. He insists that meritocracy also hurts the new ‘meritocratic’ and ‘technocratic’ elite, hoping to recruit them to the anti-meritocracy cause, perhaps reflecting his appreciation of the need to build broad inclusive coalitions to bring about social transformation.

“Progressives inflame middle-class resentment, and trigger elite resistance while demagogues and charlatans monopolize and exploit meritocracy’s discontents. Meritocratic inequality therefore induces not only deep discontent but also widespread pessimism, verging on despair.”

Reducing Inequality Possible

In the US and elsewhere, tax policy, other incentives and even Covid-19 will encourage replacing mid-skilled workers with automation and highly skilled professionals, e.g., facilitated by the growing use of artificial intelligence applications.

One alternative is to reform labour market as well as tax policies and regulations to promote more skilled, ‘middle-class’ employment. Those introducing new technologies would then be motivated to enable more productive, higher income, middle-class employment.

A more open, inclusive and broader educational system would also provide the workforce needed for such technologies. Thus, the transitions from school to work, which have tended to increase inequality, can be transformed to reduce inequality.

Rather than de-skill workers to be paid less in order to become more profitable, ‘up-skilling’ workers to be more productive can also be profitable. For example, an Indian cardio-thoracic hospital has trained nurses for many routine medical procedures, allowing specialist doctors to focus on tasks really requiring their expertise.

At relatively lower cost, using workers who are not fully trained doctors, but are paid and treated better, can cost-effectively deliver important healthcare services at lower cost at scale. Such innovations would strengthen the middle class, rather than undermine and erode it.

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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    New Labour talked about a meritocracy.
    A classless society where anyone could get to the top through their own hard work, drive and ambition.
    In a meritocracy those at the top do get their on their own merit and deserve their rewards.
    In a meritocracy those at the bottom are there through their own lack of effort and others shouldn’t feel responsible for them.

    But what happened?
    We adopted meritocratic ideas, but never created a meritocracy.

    What does a meritocracy look like?
    1) In a meritocracy everyone succeeds on their own merit.
    This is obvious, but to succeed on your own merit, we need to do away the traditional mechanisms that socially stratify society due to wealth flowing down the generations. Anything that comes from your parents has nothing to do with your own effort.
    2) There is no un-earned wealth or power, e.g inheritance, trust funds, hereditary titles
    In a meritocracy we need equal opportunity for all. We can’t have the current two tier education system with its fast track of private schools for people with wealthy parents.
    3) There is a uniform schools system for everyone with no private schools.

    New Labour’s meritocratic vision won a landslide victory in 1997, they just never followed through to actually create that meritocratic society where everyone has equal opportunity.
    All we got were the meritocratic ideas.
    Those at the top got there on a playing field tilted in their favour, but they swan around thinking they got to the top in a meritocracy.
    The poor suffer the legacy of New Labour’s meritocratic ideas with people thinking we live in a meritocracy and the poor are poor through their own lack of effort.

    This is the worst of both worlds, meritocratic ideas without a meritocracy.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      In a proper meritocracy you wouldn’t be able to use your money to ensure your children succeeded.
      (Even someone like Boris can become Prime Minister, if you can afford the 30k a year fees for Eton.
      Look at Trump, inherited wealth personified.)
      When you can’t guarantee your own children’s success, you are going to be a lot more concerned with the well being of those lower down the scale as that is where your own children might end up.

      1. Mike

        are you allowed to teach your children right from wrong? or otherwise pass down values to them? or is that unfair too? I know it is taking that thought to the extreme. Are we supposed to just give our children to the state so they are all evenly treated at all times?

    2. eg

      Welcome to cosmetic meritocracy to go along with your cosmetic democracy.

      And in America, you can have as much of either you can afford to buy …

      1. Adam Eran

        +1000! Exactly. My favorite example (from NC?) is schools. By de-funding education (55% reduction in funding for higher education since 1972), public policy has made even public universities dependent on tuition (gosh! I wonder why it’s been rising) or student loans (double gosh!) for an ever-growing portion of their budgets. Professors can’t flunk the incompetent with impunity, then, since it might impair the financial viability of the institution that employs them.

        A sensible society understands enhancing its human capital has merit in and of itself, so directs resources to it beyond what tuition students can pay.

        Meanwhile, no study validates merit pay for teachers, charter schools, and testing as ways to improve educational outcomes. What does correlate with those outcomes? Answer: childhood poverty rates.

  2. GM

    This is a lot of BS when examined outside the unquestionable assumptions of the US situation.

    In the US you have locally funded and geographically segregated schools, which in a rational world should be an absolute scandal that is a topic of constant discussion until the situation gets fixed. Instead people are taking it for granted as they only way things could be.

    Well, if you are only allowed to go to the school in your neighborhood, which in turn is funded by whatever the tax base is the immediate vicinity, then of course a system based on educational achievement will very quickly cement existing inequalities into inherited class differences.

    A problem with a very simple solution — fund public schools at the federal level and fund them equally, and also ban all private schools.

    That is what the USSR did back in the days, and it did in fact achieve very high level of social equality and mobility. It works.

    All that is needed is to properly identify the problem and work toward addressing it.

    Going after the idea that those who are best educated should be the ones doing the decision making in society is not going to solve the problem and will in fact hurt society in the long run.

    Then there is the problem of wealth inequality, which is in fact a separate one from that of status. There is no reason why social status has to be so tightly correlated with wealth. It has not been at many times and in many places throughout history.

    And we are once again fighting the wrong battle if we go after “meritocracy” instead of the more concrete mechanismS that create wealth inequality.

    Again, in the USSR there was no wealth inequality because the system redistributed very effectively and prevented accumulation of excess wealth by individuals. And before someone screams “but that was communism”, we only have to go back to the situation in the 1950s in the US when you had a 90% top income tax rate and the various loopholes that exist now for hiding wealth derived from the wonders of financialization did not exist.

    1. vlade

      “That is what the USSR did back in the days, and it did in fact achieve very high level of social equality and mobility. It works. ”

      Except that there still were better and worse schools (for various reasons), and party memebers were better able to place their kids. Not to mention, that being a party member meant a better post-school placement of your kids int he first place, and goign to the uni w/o party membership in family as pretty hard.

      And re the wealth distribution – hahahahah. Again, if you were a high-placed party official (which was not based on meritocracy, but on massive political infighting), you did not have to worry about “official” wealth. Because a lot of “state” assets were yours to use as you wished (depending on where in the hierarchy you were).

      So you had your 90% of non-communist party members (in mid 80s, party membership was about 10% of populatin), then your 10% of party members, of which you had your 1% and 0.01% respectively.


      1. Franklin

        How does affirmative action affect meritocracy?

        For every kid from the ghetto placed in a technical school, after lowering admission requirements, one fewer high testing child is placed.

        U.C. Berkeley is no longer requiring SATs because they are “racist”.

        The affect of this is to elevate the status of the very privileged even higher and to create strife and infighting among the middle class and lower middle class.

        1. flora

          I think several high cost colleges like U.C.Berkeley are replacing the SAT and ACT tests with the important Bank Balance test. (joke!)

        2. Left in Wisconsin

          It’s not at all clear that affirmative action is at odds with merit, though it is clearly at odds with the credentialing (grade point averages, and all the resume padding) that one sees on the resumes of the PMG progeny. My neck of the academic woods is full of PMC grinders who don’t really have much to offer and could use way more people with real life experience.

          Which gets to the real problem with meritocracy: it is only concerned with ranking/allocation of of jobs, not the overall structure of the job market. If good jobs were less rare, there would be less infighting about who got to fill them, more social mixing, and we would all have an easier time dispatching the “meritocrats” who don’t contribute.

    2. Alex

      The education system in the USSR was definitely meritocratic. There were ‘special’ schools with advanced curriculum (I studied in one) and you needed to pass exams to get into one. Likewise the admission to universities was also based on examinations and the alumni of these elite schools and universities were overrepresented in the Soviet and then Russian elite

      1. GM

        Yes, and it was based entirely on examinations. None of the “we ask for SAT but mostly decide based on subjective crtiria” BS that results in 75% of the undergraduate slots at the likes of Harvard going to children of alumni and the wealthy (which is mostly the same thing) BS, but a clear cutoff based on exam scores alone. I myself have passed through that exact same system too, so I know very well its virtues (and deficiencies too).

        Perhaps even more importantly, kindergartens and primary schools provided as equal educational opportunities as possible. There were no private schools so when the time to pass those exams came, everyone was on as equal footing as possible, they had gone through the same classes together. Unfortunately, there was an exception — the offspring of high party officials could bypass these barriers, which was deeply unfair and caused quite a bit of resentment, but other than that it was a true meritocracy.

        Yes, it was still not a system in which where you were born played no role. The children of university professors will on average be academically far ahead of the children of agricultural workers, just by virtue of the environment they grew up in. There is no way around that other than taking kids away from their parents and raising them communally.

        But it is important that everyone has the opportunity to rise through the ranks and that starts from the bottom of the educational pyramid.

        We are stubbornly avoiding having that discussion though, instead we talk about how we should be giving preferential treatment to women and minorities when they are in their 20s and applying for jobs and positions. It is almost as if the latter serves the purposes of preventing us from talking about the former…

        1. vlade

          That’s not true. Party members had access to special schools for their own kids. Often these schools weren’t “officially” special, but very often in a district there was a school that got more funding, first pick of teachers etc. and party members had preferential acceptance to those. As I say, it often might not have been an official party line (although I believe there were some schoold reserved for party member kids), but was a common local party office practice.

          I say this as somoene who went through the system and actually had the advantage (which I did not understand until I was much older) as a grandson of an important party functionary and anti-nazi hero. It even managed to beat the fact that my uncle (from the other side of the family) emigrated to the US, which was often a fatal hit to anyone’s college/uni dreams in the rest of the family.

          1. Kouros

            School maybe, but then admission to University was absolutely done on merit. at least where I grew up, in Romania, the admissions were based on multiple written exams, were completely anonymized, and there were two independent markers. If the grading of the two markers diverged by more than one point, another one was brought to check.

            I know children of really big party wigs that couldn’t get into university under these circumstances…

      2. vlade

        Or you needed to be a kid of a high-enough placed party hack, although in most cases, they didn’t bother to put their kids there, as they could get them a job they wanted w/o the school. I _know_ (because I have seen it first hand numerous times) that who the parents were and who they knew played an important role.

        That all said, the school system was way less about credentials than the US one. And also, because hard-science schools were not seen as a way to a (guaranteed large) career advancement, the people who went there were most people who really wanted to do it, not taking it as a soft option.

        The career advancement path were the various “economic” schools, as that with a right set of connections would more or less guarantee a very cushy top job.

        1. Kurtismayfield

          This country doesn’t value home grown STEM graduates.. if it did it wouldn’t be undercutting them with H1-B’s. So you would have to start there and show kids that getting into STEM is seen as equally valuable as getting an MBA.

            1. Enemy of the State

              Given the appalling state of the US Education System if you do away with borders (as your comment implies you wish to do) then the USA would be run by Indians (from India) and Chinese Asians (Singapore Taiwan PRC etc.) as they outperform the US on many if not most levels.
              I would like a Meritocratic Government where those elected to Office had to establish their credentials and limit the amount of money they spend on campaigns. The brutal truth is that the world is run on, by, and for money interests and that money buys both position and privilege; whether deserved or not. If money is used to fund programmes which are used to “balance” the workforce to make it more statistically ‘equal’ then it will benefit vested interests thereby producing the very opposite results of those which would benefit all. The simple answer is that given the same ability, the education of the home grown workers was paid for by “us” and the benefits of their success will be returned to “us” in the way of taxes and progress therefore it is better RoI. Judging by the comments this is an highly emotive topic which leaves meritocracy at the door of the conversation chamber and brings in prejudice, optics, political correctness and globalism – just like that.

    3. Heraclitus

      I think you’re misinformed about how things worked with the 90% tax rates in the ’50s. I’ve read that only about eight people in the whole country actually paid taxes at those rates. Also, I think some of the loopholes that existed before 1976 were better than those that exist now.

      Effective income tax rates were only about five percent higher at the federal level in the ’50s than now, and that was probably made up for by lower state income taxes and lower local and sales taxes.

      1. GM

        You have it backwards.

        The 90% tax rate existed precisely in order to make it so that there are almost no people in that category. And it did indeed have that effect.

  3. Jesper

    IP-laws are the source of some/much of current inequality, those IP-laws are most definitely a political choice and they most definitely are not automatically benefitting the meritocratic. Sometimes they do, often they don’t.

    But as always this is seen as the ‘cure’:

    Rather than de-skill workers to be paid less in order to become more profitable, ‘up-skilling’ workers to be more productive can also be profitable.

    More training, more education…..
    The de-skilling is done to jobs which might, but does not have to, lead to de-skilling of workers. The stage is set to reduce the work-load and share the work, the de-skilled work is designed to make workers easily replaceable so the ‘skill-shortage’ stopping a reduction of the hours worked is not as valid of an excuse as it was 40 years ago.

    The author does acknowledge the role that governments and legislation has but for some reason reducing the hours worked by an individual and sharing the work is not seen as a valid option. But then again this kind of futurists believe that in the future then there will not be enough resources to house and feed the retired.
    Another view might be that in the future there will be enough resources to house and feed the retired but those resources might, due to political choices, be spent on luxury for the few leaving homelessness and starvation for the rest.

    1. The Rev Kev

      McDonalds was a pioneer at the movement for de-skilling workers. When they first opened up you actually had people at the back peeling bag after bag of potatoes. Eventually they were able to replace the potatoes with bags of frozen fries which took no skill at all to use. They actually spent a huge amount of effort at de-skilling work there so that workers could be easily replaced and had no skills that they could bargain higher wages for.

  4. stefan

    I would argue that a real education is one that liberates the student to become a free citizen, to become someone who can think for herself or himself. This is what used to be called a liberal arts education. Vocational training may certainly be important, but ought not be confused with education. Vocational training is perhaps best left to the institutions that actually will employ the individual. An education in liberal arts prepares the student to learn how to learn. But we are not the employees of society. We are citizens.

    1. juliania

      Indeed, stefan, that is entirely the point, and ought to be the goal. Society is only as good as the quality of education given to all its members, not just the elite. This country has forgotten how important education is to the stability of the state, education from the first steps in public schools, so that when time comes to go on with that education at more sophisticated levels, all minds (all minds!) whatever the parents’ station in life, have the ability to go where their talents take them. We know how to do this; it’s not rocket science!!

      I say we know how to do this. But it is clear – this country is not doing it. And it is not doing it on purpose.

      That is something to be out on the streets protesting against. One of the many, many things.

      1. Ian Ollmann

        Maybe, but if you could tell in advance which kids are going to need it, it would be a lot cheaper and waste less of people’s time to do advanced degrees for only the best and brightest. For most people, hitting the workforce at the tender young age of 31, for example, has a certain reproductive cost, not to mention lost income. It isn’t for everyone.

        Also, in my experience, education just gets your foot in the door. Once you get there, it is quite likely you are the worst guy on the factory floor (for some definition of factory) — the greenhorn — and whether or not you do well will eventually boil down to quality of work or maybe management potential. In this regard, some will shine and other will not, and at the end of the day, in a meritocracy those are the ones that will do well. In this environment, at least in most fields, the advance degree is quickly forgotten in the absence of law enforcing strict hierarchy (e.g. medicine).

        This is as it should be.

  5. anon50

    Ancient Israel had a meritocracy in that those (including women, e.g. Deborah) who had exceptional ability were looked to as Judges.

    Yet, every Hebrew family owned a roughly-equal-in-value plot of land they could not permanently lose regardless of their merit (Leviticus 25).

    So, per the Bible, meritocracy definitely has its limits and does NOT legitimize, for example, inequality in land ownership.

    1. Adam Eran

      I’ll add that orthodox Christianity does not endorse “salvation by works” (i.e. meritocracy). The orthodox position is “salvation by grace [i.e. gift]”… A wise man once told me “Christianity is just Judaism for gentiles”…

  6. Amfortas the hippie

    I discovered the idea/Ideal of a Liberal Education around fifth grade. That’s what I wanted, due to the influence of Jefferson, Emerson, Whitman and Nietzsche(yes, i was rather strange as a child).
    But as the Schooling continued, I was continually frustrated by the all but hidden fact that this was not what American Education was for,lol.
    This frustration extended all the way into the college experience…I got accepted(with a GED, no less) to Oberlin, Brown, etc…but was told we didn’t have the money…so a state school it was…which turned out to be a High School with ashtrays..and an indelible focus on “Getting a Job”.
    Registrar actually laughed when I said i wanted to major in Philosophy…””what good is that?”
    35 or so years later, and I got my Liberal Education, on my own….and it’s had zero(if not a negative) effect on my work-life.
    we’ve raised up a generation or 3 of technicians and micromanagers and ladder-climbers who don’t have the smash to Think, except in very narrow terms. A favorite trope-like example: “Biology”= “specialisation”, not just in Beetles…or even a specific Family of Beetles…but on a specific Species of Beetle…with little regard for the world that Beetle is embedded in.(I knew a guy like this. knew all about June Bugs)
    While i understand the utility of specialisation, this laser focus has negated the ability for so many to “Think Outside the Box”…or to obtain a broader perspective of our complex world.
    State College, for me, was all about “Networking” and learning how to kiss ass and say “Yes Sir”….not about becoming a Citizen…let alone a Better Human
    I hated it,lol.
    It took a long time to be able to articulate it…and that articulation is still wanting.
    But the critique of “actually existing Meritocracy” is a good place to begin.
    It’s not really “Meritocratic”, at all.
    Just another justification for privilege and inequality and the status quo(world without end).

    1. Paul Kleinman

      I don’t think specialization = narrow mindedness. A long time ago at the university I made the progression from philosophy to anthropology to genetics/cell biology and of course my graduate thesis answered a very specific question (about the extracellular effects on collagen synthesis.) It is a fact that that rapidly growing knowledge requires people to specialize in deeply understanding parts of that knowlege. But I have never stopped reading philosophy (existential), Dostoevsky’s novels, along with political reading. Specialization is not the reason for people’s horizons to be so narrow. It’s the societal shift toward disregarding anything that cannot be immediately monetized. It’s also the disregard for teaching all students the tools for critical thinking.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        I stated that specialisation is necessary…it just feels like(30 years on, mind you) that there was a narrowness that was encouraged. The opposite of a “Liberal Education”, where one expands and learns to Think.
        I’m also biased, because i went to two community colleges, and a state school that was famous for Criminal Justice, and for being neighbors to a bunch of prisons,lol.
        I’m certainly glad, for instance, that there are people who specialise in Grasshoppers, cancer meds and soil biota.
        But we long ago stopped encouraging big picture broadness….and i think that lack is rather acute, at the moment.
        My Da Vincian Renaissance tendencies were quite actively discouraged, over my entire primary and secondary school experience…to the point that i hated school… from 3rd grade on(a remarkable achievement, in retrospect). I had, therefore, high hopes for college…which were similarly dashed, due to the sort of ineffable culture of the place.
        again, i admit that all this may be merely a function of place and time….as well as of my own anomalousness and expectations.
        I might feel differently if i had been allowed to go to some of the real colleges i managed to get accepted to(but, Amor Fati, and all,lol…would i be me without all that BS?)

  7. jake

    Forget sham meritocracy. What’s the value of *actual* meritocracy, when the underlying activity — say, investment banking — is worthless or injurious?

    Are prisons repositories of merit, because they hold the most active and determined of criminals?

  8. CH

    Running through an endless gauntlet of test-taking in order to have something approaching a stable, non-precarious life does not sound like a very pleasant society either, even if it is sufficiently “meritocratic.” Neither does constantly chasing credentials. You get all these wasteful arms races. This was the type of society that the Hunger Games depicted: a never-ending, unremitting competition, with the stakes being just the ability to ensure one’s basic survival. It sounds awful, even for the “winners”.

    1. MT_Bill

      Life on this planet is a never-ending, unremitting competition, with the stakes being just the ability to ensure one’s genes survival.

      This is true across a spectrum of geographic and temporal scales. The plants in the yard? And endless evolutionary game of attracting pollinators at the expense of others while simultaneously engaging in chemical warfare with their neighbors.

      The trap is the thought that we should be able to do better. I think the Romans probably showed the limit of what was possible, everything else has just been a remake with different stage props.

      We’ve spent 2000 years or so basically knocking around the limits of what humanity is capable of achieving in terms of societal structure. Lots of technological advances made and to be discovered, but the parallel attempts on the societal side seem to end up being inherently unstable.

      1. m sam

        I can’t see how the plants in your backyard are a good model for any society. We do not need to savagely compete by starving our neighbors, for instance, to get food or shelter. Any scarcity of the basic necessities of life are pretty much induced.

        Competition is instead over quality of life, social status, and most importantly, who gets to decide. It is here where so-called meritocracy is supposed to be an “objective” measure (but really, that there can be an objective measure of merit is where the idea fails, and proves itself to be a Utopian value that really only the successful “meritocrats” can embrace).

        I think the real trap is in thinking we can’t do any better (and your thought that we haven’t progressed farther than the Romans is telling). And in in the age of falling life expectancy, incomes (for the bottom 90%), and social mobility, I would go so far as to say such an idea forecloses on the reality that shared progress has actually happened.

        1. MT_Bill

          My perspective is that if the petunias, free from id and ego, are locked in an evolutionary war they neither can control or escape, then we, the latest of 50,000 years of shit-throwing monkeys are essentially fucked.

          1. JBird4049

            50,000 years of poo flinging monkeys?

            Actually, around over three million years if you use tool and probably use of fire; since the earliest created tools were probably wood and the simplest of hearths indistinguishable from a small wild fire who can tell exactly when?

            The early hominids living in was the ancestral location were small groups of small people living in a constantly changing environment shifting from jungle, forest, savanna, swamps, stream, rivers, and lakes fairly rapidly. Think California’s climate over the past several hundred thousand years only more extreme.

            Then add the many extra large predators including vultures who thought of 3’ adults as a nice meal. Or also the many large plant eaters, occasionally violent too.

            The only way that our ancestors survived was to be very adaptable, very co-operative tool users.

    2. Off The Street

      Crab-in-a-bucket scenario: other crabs prevent that venturesome one from escaping.

      Meritocracy, current version scenario: escaped arthropods act as guards to let in only their own preferred candidates.

      The latter has been in use at any number of companies, where the wrong kind of applicant just isn’t acknowledged. No need to write down any rules, as those unspoken ones will do just fine. That can lead to a type of in-breeding with associated dysfunctions, and relies heavily upon the upstream provider filtering mechanisms, such as they are. Game those mechanisms in various ways and see the results populate, or pollute, the downstream pools.

  9. rob

    in the US… our “meritocracy” is akin to the old saying;
    “those who win in a rigged game too long ,get stupid”

    We are stuck as a society because so many of the positions of authority are filled by people , who may be “smart” in some sense…. but are really just stupid.
    Whatever the dynamic that enables a certain type of mindset and worldview, to rise within the power structures , as they are… is utterly insane and a serious flaw in the system.
    the evidence of this is look who will be “running the free world”…. today, and after the next election… all choices point to zero.
    Look at our form of capitalism…. we allow banks to create our money out of nothing…. then they can fund wall street speculation and corporate behemoths who dictate the playing field(through control of the political class) all business must play on. and so the lives and fortunes of the people and the planet and all of its life forms must endure.
    the question of how stupid are we….. pretty damn stupid.

    1. km

      We can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism all day long – but we don’t have capitalism – we have crony capitalism.

      We can discuss whether or not meritocracy is a good thing – but our “meritocracy” is in fact massively rigged.

      That said, a society has got to have some way to select leaders. If it doesn’t select based on some kind of merit, what’s the alternative? Accident of birth? Random lottery? Footraces?

      1. CuriosityConcern

        Actually, I think random lottery of a group of citizens would be much better than a president. Make the group big enough that a citizen has a good chance of assuming office at least once in their average lifespan. Renumeration should be median of income. A democratic executive body.
        This would probably make the US more agreement capable.

      2. Nick99

        “We can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism all day long – but we don’t have capitalism – we have crony capitalism”.

        Not quite – what we have is crony capitalism combined with corporate welfare creating the situation whereby the control of wealth ends up in fewer hands no matter what form any Meritocracy may take.

  10. Polar Socialist

    Having worked in academia for 25+ years (and counting), I really can’t agree with equating the capability and/or competence with level of education. Just doesn’t happen.

    We have a rule of thumb: the more PhDs are involved in a project the more confused and messier it’ll be for us to sort out and make to work. If professors are involved, even we can’t sort it out.

    Of course there are exceptions: some people can retain their common sense and competence regardless of higher education. They just don’t tend to climb very high in the academic meritocracy.

    1. Arizona Slim

      My father, who had a PhD, was fond of saying that a PhD was no substitute for common sense.

  11. shinola

    With the emphasis on “elite” education, I think the article is describing credentialism which is not exactly the same as actual meritocracy.

    Meritocratic hierarchies have their own built-in problems – those of us of a certain age may recall “The Peter Principle.”

    1. anon in so cal

      Anyone familiar with the notorious Kingsley Davis and Wilbur Moore stratification theory? The theory attempted to legitimize economic and political stratification (i.e. inequality) in modern societies by using quasi-Parsonian notions of meritocracy. There are standard rebuttals to the Davis-Moore theory and this article sounds as though it has attempted to regurgitate some of those rebuttals.

    2. Carolinian

      Yes but for purposes of this discussion they are the same thing since TPTP have decided that in our complicated society with so many millions of citizens credentials are a the way to separate “the wheat from the chaff.” There was a time when you had a lot more self made men (and they were men) but our ossified economic system now makes that less likely. A country where individualism was once the hallmark has been turned–elite division–into a homogenized, fearful “safe space.”

      For the rest of us there is at least the internet where individualism can still thrive. They are trying to stamp that out.

    1. Bufeng

      We have similar problems with meritocracy as the rest of the world. “Ownership” of public housing is 80+% of citizen households, but the figure in our top school is nearer 50% (the other 50% live in private housing – they are not homeless!):

      There are many legacy “socialist era” policies (free basic education, subsidised basic healthcare, high ownership of public housing, well-functioning utilities and public transport and public services that in spite of being ostensibly privatized are actually owned by a state-owned enterprise – Temasek Holdings) that still keep things from becoming too nasty. But we’ve been heading the same direction as you all.

      1. Red

        That’s because despite being semi authoritarian Singapore couldn’t resist marketisation. Doesn’t make any sense to include market value of land in the price of public houses if the government owns that land and you essentially rent it from them. Or the recent electricity market privatisation. Just gets to show you that democratic or authoritarian, governments are out of ideas.

  12. David

    OK, but then the alternative is …. not very obvious.
    I think in fact that the problems people have with meritocracy are more to do with the “cracy” than the “merit” part of the term. After all, there are only three possible ways of choosing people to fill positions and run organisations. The first is patronage, favouritism, family and wealth, which has been the rule for most of human history, and was the only way to make career in Europe until relatively recently. You might accidentally get a person of ability appointed to an important job, but you obviously couldn’t guarantee it. The second is selection by lot, which worked OK in Athens for certain jobs, but is hard to generalise. The only other option is competitive selection by merit, depending on the qualities needed for the job, and for promotion. All modern states have ultimately gone for the third option.

    When people say that they don’t approve of meritocracy, then, they don’t usually mean that they want a return to the days when government positions were in the personal gift of Ministers. They mean one of two things. First, that selection by merit doesn’t always work well or fairly, because the selection criteria can in practice favour candidates from wealthier or more educated backgrounds, second that meritocracies can themselves become hereditary, selecting people like themselves, just as patronage systems used to do. It’s also true that success in one field can generate a sense of individual and collective arrogance and a belief that you are qualified to do anything. All of these are very valid criticisms (and all can be addressed to some extent) but none of them is an argument against the principle of merit-based selection. It’s also important to remember that “merit” here really means just “most suited”; It’s not a value judgement or the equivalent of the keys to a selective club.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Yes, this is the key problem. But I would suggest two other possibilities that also exist: A) wide acceptance to entry-level positions, lots of training/assessment and promotions from within, and promotion by seniority (above a threshold of competence) – a scheme which has ups and downs and is probably not a good fit anymore for a world in which long term employment with one employer is not the norm; and B) democratic control with promotion determined from below (by those to be managed) rather than above. All the evidence suggests that good management is a function of getting the best out of your subordinates (true leadership), not all the fact BS around star performers.

      The big problem with merit is that many jobs have no suitable pre-employment or even current employment merit indicators (think of K-12 teaching, where test scores are used to judge reading and math teachers but there are no comparable measures for teachers of any other discipline), and the ones that are used can be gamed, and so merit becomes conflated with credentials or test scores, which have limited real-world applicability. Another example: in the old days, you could become a lawyer through “apprenticeship,” which allowed lots of talented people to become lawyers without the gatekeeping of law schools. It is impossible to argue that the profession is now better with than it was in those days.

  13. anon in so cal

    Anyone familiar with the notorious Kingsley Davis and Wilbur Moore stratification theory? The theory attempted to legitimize economic and political stratification (i.e. inequality) in modern societies by using quasi-Parsonian notions of meritocracy. There are standard rebuttals to the Davis-Moore theory and this article sounds as though it has attempted to regurgitate some of those rebuttals.

  14. anon50

    Also, however much merit one has, that should not allow her/him to steal from the lessor-so via the use of what is, due to government privilege, the PUBLIC’S credit but for private gain.

    In other words, those with merit should not have to steal from the poor, should they? Kinda of diminishes their triumph, doesn’t it? Knowing their success is built on oppression?

  15. Dave in Austin

    NFL wide receivers; NBA centers; MIT physics PHDs; University of Texas Petroleum Engineering grads.

    “Meritocracy legitimizes, deepens inequality”

    “Meritocracy” based on gatekeeping (lawyers, civil service rules that say “must have a a BA”; 7 years to become a physical therapist) … these are, in my opinion , bad. I want to measure outputs not inputs. And that means those hardworking, always dependable high school girls who always turn in perfect homework (an input unconnected to knowledge) may have a high class rank but I’ll take the kid with the bad attitude, bad clothing and lousy social skills who gets in the 98% percentile in the SAT Math exam (an output) every time (unless I’m hiring people to be TV weathermen and weather girls- I like cute too).

    What would happen in the NFL if we demanded a masters degree in wide receiver studies from a state accredited university? Fewer blacks; fewer drug bust and girl friends beaten up… and fewer amazing catches.

  16. Ian Ollmann

    Some of this rings with class warfare hogwash. I am very far from a conservative, but even I must resort to that old saw in this case. Anyone who has worked in the same field or company for 20 years will eventually come to realize that in time at the workplace the academic degree is like so much kindling used to start a bonfire, and what really matters in the long run is the contribution you make in your chosen field over that time. This can hardly be lost on a bunch of academics nurturing their own career over decades so I must only conclude that such an edgy interpretation is intended to make waves. Degrees don’t matter for sh__ once leadership figures out you don’t know what you are doing. The best shine no matter how much muck you throw on them.

    Where education matters is getting your foot in the door in the first place. If you can’t manage that, then you may be a really great auto mechanic, rising to the top of your field, but failing to really make the same splash as you might have from being a mechanical engineer or chemist. Nonetheless, in almost any industry there is a need for smart competent people to help make sure the endeavor doesn’t go off the rails and those will do well. Maybe they can afford to send their kids, who may be smart too probably, on to a better school.

    It isn’t about justifying inequality. It is about getting the best people in the right places to produce he best outcomes. Consult your Napoleon. When good outcomes are needed, and we aren’t just writing papers, good people are essential.

    1. Henry

      It depends what those meritocrats are doing. MBA s are a good example. Plus nothing original and creative comes out of a culture that prioritises corporate career building over other aspects of human beings. That’s why you see the children of these meritocrats are so shallow and boring.

      1. Ian Ollmann

        I’m unconcerned about boring children. They would be much improved by boring. It would mean less screaming, crying, yelling, fighting, hollering at the dinner table, less grazing at the plate without silverware, less trying to steal snacks or evade bedtime, less pouting and pettiness…. and that is just my own children.

        I’m not sure what gets you out of bed in the morning. I’m usually what gets the kids out of bed in the morning. But, what gets me out of bed in the morning is not career ladder climbing. I’m there at work, or at home these days, because I want to make something great. The annual performance review is a huge dismotivator for me. They try to push all the wrong buttons. It is anathema to anyone who just takes pride in quality of work, or just making something nice for someone.

    2. A.M.

      “Anyone who has worked in the same field or company for 20 years will eventually come to realize that in time at the workplace the academic degree is like so much kindling used to start a bonfire”

      That’s true for most of us. For those who went to the prestigious schools, those degrees bought a position in the company. Try to get to an executive position without an MBA, which is a complete b.s. degree that’s only useful for networking.

      “Degrees don’t matter for sh__ once leadership figures out you don’t know what you are doing”

      So you haven’t worked 20 years in a company, you just figure that’s how it works. No, see? People who look like they are doing a good job will be promoted faster, and often at the expense of the people who actually do the work. Looking like you are doing a good job takes more work than doing any real work at all, and it’s completely detached from the output of your work; after a while, you end up meeting quite a lot of people who spend their days cultivating the image of good work instead of doing any work. I’ve only been working for the last 15 years, but it took me months to realise this and only about 5 years to admit it to myself (and switch my strategy and start to get promotions and bonuses; I’d say I spend 20% of my time doing work and 80% of my time making sure everyone knows who game changing my work is). Truth is, useless people are more likely to be kicked up than kicked out. Performance evaluation is b******t, the people who get the best evaluation are those who can dress whatever they did (or did not do) best, regardless of any real accomplishments. It’s more important being liked by your chain of command than doing any work at all. Liked, or feared, I’ve seen “difficult” people being promoted out of a group to avoid confrontations, or huge bonus granted to avoid tantrums.

      Because the reality is that, once you join a company, the work you will have to do will require barely any specialised skill. That is, if you don’t have a complete b******t job, in which case it literally doesn’t matter what you can do because you’ll spend your days very much not doing it.

      Of course, I only have my 15 years of experience as a highly qualified, highly skilled, worker in 4 different companies. Maybe the 5th one or the next 5 years will change my mind and I will realise what a great work is everyone around me doing, and how it doesn’t matter who you are or who you know in order to thrive.

  17. witters

    “Degrees don’t matter for sh__ once leadership figures out you don’t know what you are doing.”
    Ah, Leadership…

  18. Coldhearted Liberal

    This phenomenon of meritocracy turning into elitism has been documented pretty clearly in Korean history. The civil service exam was instituted initially to allow anyone to get into government if they passed the exam, and early governments even promoted learning, libraries, and studying to promote access. It was a great success and, in fact, Korea arguably invented the printed press before Guttenburg. However, the early winners worked hard to ensure only their children could take the exams–particularly by making it so only they could afford to pay for the child’s eduction. They also made it hard to gain access to the books, including, e.g., destroying all the printing presses.

  19. A.M.

    One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about the wealthy conservatives is how they consider the Government subsidising poor people a “handout”, but when they buy their kids a high position in society (which is a lot more money) that is something completely normal that doesn’t go at all against conservative principles of excellence.

    Every time I hear them complain about social programs (including public education, which is nothing other than a social program), all I hear is “I don’t want my kids to lose the advantage I’m buying for them”. Money has power because we give it power, social programs remove power from money, the wealthy don’t want to lose that power. Meritocracy… sure… what a load of bollocks.

  20. Just a plumber

    People are not born with equal intelligence. Or with equal ability to learn. Skills and talents may lay elsewhere.
    So, even with all things equal, school results will still differ between students.
    This makes meritocracy, if the level of eduction is the only benchmark, just as dishonest as aristocracy.

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