What does meritocracy actually mean? It depends…

It seems that we all want meritocracy, but do we actually know what it means? There are many interpretations, with radically different consequences. We should be careful what we wish for.

Meritocracy is a commonly used term and it is usually assumed to be a self-evidently good thing. Broadly speaking, it refers to a system in which advancement is based on ability, rather than background and connections. It is associated with ideas of competence, fairness, efficiency and social justice. However, different commentators rarely spell out exactly what they believe it means and there are multiple, quite different interpretations.

This article explores these meanings, showing how contradictory they can be, and how a discussion framed around meritocracy can have the effect of obscuring bias, rather than eliminating it. Far from being a positive ideal, it can be a distracting and divisive concept.

By the end of this article, I hope to persuade you never to use the word again, and to question its real meaning whenever it occurs in discussion and in print.

Definitions

1. The Meritocracy — A ruling class of educated or able people.

2. Meritocratic government and civil service — Government, or power, held by people selected according to ability.

Where politics and the civil service has historically been the preserve of a ruling class based on privilege, meritocracy proposes that leadership should be based on ability. Civil service examinations and a focus on academic qualifications as a requirement for entry ensure that high office is open to people from any background and that only the most capable individuals make the cut.

3. Meritocratic business — Companies in which hiring and advancement is based solely on ability.

Academic excellence has also become a requirement for entry into all but the lowest ranks of business. This means that entry is open to anyone who can demonstrate academic aptitude, but also means that the days of CEOs working their way up from the shop floor are largely gone. In a meritocratic business, advancement also takes place on the basis of merit. The aim being to promote those with the greatest capabilities, enhancing the efficiency and success of the organisation.

4. Meritocratic society — A society in which an individual’s progress is determined by their merit.

This is a much broader application of the concept and is much more complex as a result. The idea of a meritocratic society is at the core of most people’s understanding of the term, and is crucial to its associations with fairness and social justice. However, there are several quite different forms that a meritocratic society might take:

4.1 An ideal meritocratic society — A society in which individual success is closely tied to individual merit.

In its most extreme form, meritocracy proposes that inequality can be made fair so long as it is closely tied to individual merit. The challenge is how to create a fair test of merit. Some versions have proposed the use of intelligence testing to assign everyone to their station in life.

In others, life itself is seen as a test of merit, with progress an indicator of quality. Since a privileged birth would create an advantage, strong interventions are needed to counteract its influence. For example, banning private education, gifts and inheritance. Perhaps even taking children away from their parents, so they could be brought up in an equal environment.

Far from being desirable, an ‘ideal’ meritocratic society is the stuff of dystopian nightmare, with an all-powerful state interfering in the lives of all. No society has ever approached such an ‘ideal’ and few writers would ever intend it, except as a straw man to criticise.

4.2 Society based upon a meritocratic compromise — A society which values merit, but in which a compromise is struck between intervention and personal freedom.

In this version, society wants individual merit to count, but recognises that addressing the inequalities of birth requires intervention into people’s lives, in the form of taxation and legislation, impacting personal freedom. The solution is to balance the promotion of merit, with the defence of personal freedom, to create a society in which birth does not dominate life outcomes. This is the mid-Twentieth Century society of universal education, the welfare state and redistributive taxation.

4.3 Meritocratic society based on free markets — A society in which individuals are free to succeed as much as possible without interference from the state.

In recent decades, another subtly different meaning of the word ‘meritocracy’ has emerged which focuses on individual success. It refers to a society in which people are free to succeed as much as they are able, unencumbered by their background, or by undue interference from the state. Success in this formulation is largely conceived of in business terms, in particular, making money. This is essentially a neoliberal view of the world.

5 Meritocracy as an antonym — Any society not governed by money and privilege.

Assuming that we are opposed to class and privilege, then this meaning is easy to agree with — we can be united in our distaste for the alternative, whilst having no agreement at all on what is proposed to replace it.

Analysis

This quick survey reveals at least seven distinct meanings for the word, from a group of people, to a dystopian vision of a totalitarian society. Purely at the level of clear communication, using the term ‘meritocracy’ creates a challenge. There is a lot of opportunity for uncertainty, but also a lot of room in which to hide, for those who do not wish to be fully understood.

Setting aside the problem of clarity, there are also challenges embedded in these concepts that make them far less positive than they might appear.

Social Justice & Individualism

It might seem that meritocracy is associated with social justice, and it’s true that some of the meanings are concerned with addressing the inequality of opportunity that arises between different members of society based on their background. However, most of the meanings take a strictly individual view. They are concerned with enabling individual success, or with the outcomes of individual decisions like hiring and promotion.

This doesn’t necessarily make them bad ideas — meritocratic hiring policies promote opportunity and improve outcomes by ensuring that qualified people succeed. However, they do not lead to a transformation in overall outcomes: individual progress is, by definition, individual, and does nothing to address wider social issues. If we are interested in social justice, then such meritocracy does little or nothing to help.

Obscuring Privilege

At the heart of meritocracy is the idea that power and success should be linked to merit, rather than privilege. But how is merit assessed? In some cases, there is a reliance on formal testing — often academic achievement and formal examinations. In the other cases merit is emergent: merit is demonstrated through success at work, or by succeeding in a competitive market.

With a test-based approach, the meaning of merit is made clear and explicit: the ability to secure a qualification, or score the highest marks in an exam. There may be a challenge in terms of whether the skills needed to do well in the assessment are actually a good predictor of the capability to perform well in a given role — is knowledge of Ancient Greek, or advanced mathematics more important for civil servants?

However, the bigger problem is that focusing on the fairness of the test tends to obscure discussion of the factors behind individuals preparation for it. Studying is expensive, in both time and tuition fees. Those who succeed may well be the best qualified, but this is a problem if only those from a privileged background can afford to become the best qualified. As a result, formal testing can lead to an entrenchment of privilege, rather than its dissolution.

The Meaning of Merit

In contrast, an emergent approach leaves merit undefined. This obscures the intention of meritocracy in these cases, since one person’s version of merit might not make sense to all.

The result of an emergent approach can be to reward behaviours that are undesirable. Did Simpkins get promoted because he was the best for the job, or because he is was the best political operator — skilfully taking the credit and shifting the blame? Espousing meritocracy can actually lead to increaseddiscrimination in the workplace: it allows for differential treatment, on the basis that this is a reward for effectiveness, but an emergent definition frees people from rigorously analysing and justifying their decisions.

The same challenges apply to a markets-based society: does meritocracy reward industry and intelligence, or Machiavellian qualities, selfishness and greed? In any case, this model contains an even greater flaw: since it defines merit in terms of success in the market, it is circular: those who succeed are those with merit, and we can be sure they have merit because they have succeeded.

Inequality

Independent of the confusion and false hope that discussion of meritocracy causes, there is another, deeper problem. Meritocracy proposes that inequality can be made just, provided that it is based on the merits of the individual.

This might be true if distribution was accurately based on merit. However, we should be realistic in expecting success to be based as much on luck and background, as on the qualities possessed by individuals. Working hard will tend to lead to higher level of success and good people will sometimes make it to the top, regardless of background, but so will some who are less deserving. And many good people will not make it as far as we might expect.

If there is only a very poor correlation between merit and the distribution of rewards, then meritocracy cannot be used as a justification for inequality.

This might not matter if the level of inequality was small, but often it is very large and getting larger, with those at the top earning thousands of times what those at the bottom do.

Conclusion

It is right that we should ask for hiring and advancement to be based on ability, rather than background and connections. This is fairer and more effective for society and business. However, it is vital that what constitutes merit is clearly defined and that it maps well to the task at hand. Transparency is key, because relying on personal judgments of merit can easily become a licence for discrimination.

The bigger challenge for meritocracy is that background has a huge influence on the opportunities available to an individual. If this is not recognised, then meritocracy can serve to obscure and entrench the impact of privilege, rather than contributing to its elimination.

These challenges are magnified when we consider meritocracy at the level of society. It is not clear what constitutes merit at this level, or how it could be measured, and the effect of differences in background is ever present. A meritocratic compromise comes closest to delivering a fairer society, but this is a worldview that has been in retreat in most Western countries since the 1980s.

Ultimately, the promise of a meritocratic society is a distraction from the inherently unjust nature of extreme inequality. Rather than trying to create fairness through meritocracy, we should consider how we can improve fairness by challenging the level of inequality.

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If you want to know more, see the long version.

Thanks for reading! 

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