Meritocracy is a system in which skills, ability, talent, and knowledge are thought to be the best basis for promoting people to positions of power and social standing. Advancement in a meritocratic system is based on performance, typically as measured through examination, or otherwise demonstrated achievement. Meritocracies can be found as far back as 6th century BC China, where an administrative meritocracy was based on civil service examinations, rather than inherited offices. In contemporary England, there is a Meritocratic political party which believes, among other things, that there should be a 100% inheritance tax, so that the super-rich can’t pass on their wealth to a select few (their privileged children) and that every child should get an equal chance to succeed in life. Needless to say, a fully realized meritocracy could go a long way to ending elite dynasties and hereditary monarchy.
Ironically, the term ‘meritocracy’ was coined as a satirical slur in a dystopic novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033, published in 1958, by the British sociologist and Labor party politician Michael Young. The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class and inherited position has been replaced by a system that promotes those to the top those who have advanced educationally as evidenced via rigid testing and objective standards. The book, however, argues that meritocracy doesn’t eliminate ruling elites, but simply ends up recreating a new class system by means of education and testing. As the conservative commentator, Toby Young, (the son of the author of Rise of the Meritocracy) recently observed “(there is) the tendency within meritocracies for the cognitive elite to become a self-perpetuating oligarchy.”
For many years, the US has been thought to be predominately a meritocracy–one in which the social power of inheritance and privilege had been superseded by a system in which leaders and socially prominent persons are those who possess superior knowledge and talent. A spate of recent articles, some of which were precipitated by the recent college-admissions scandal (See, for example. “A History of College Admissions Schemes, From Encoded Pencils to Paid Stand-Ins,” Adeel Hassan, March 15, 2019, New York Times) calls into question many of the assumptions about the benefits of meritocracy, and suggests that meritocracy has not yet been realized.
There are, of course, a number of criticisms of meritocracy and the concept of “merit” on which it is based. Among these:
- What counts as meritorious and who decides which qualities, skills, and knowledge are worthy of merit?
- In educational systems, do standardized tests and other measures of merit accurately and thoroughly indicate merit/worth?
- Is meritocracy a kind of “social Darwinism,” in which the survival (and promotion) of the physically “fittest,” is replaced by the survival of the cognitively “smartest” (i.e. the best test takers)?
- Does wealth and inheritance affect individuals’ ability to obtain the educational credentials by which meritocracy is demonstrated? (For example, does the level of education required for a person to become competitive in a meritocracy discriminate against those who are unable to afford the often expensive and time-consuming “markers” that an education affords?)
- Does meritocracy, despite its original anti-elitist intentions, merely recreate another kind of permanent elite?
The ultimate question is whether a meritocracy is the best we can do? While meritocracy is problematic, is there a fairer system to replace it? (See for example Richard Dawkins brief discussion, “Democracy or Meritocracy: Which is the Government of Reason?”)
“A History of College Admissions Schemes, From Encoded Pencils to Paid Stand-Ins,” Adeel Hassan, March 15, 2019, New York Times
“A ‘Meritocracy’ Is Not What People Think It Is.” Ben Zimmer, The Atlantic March 14, 2019
“The Scandals of Meritocracy,” Ross Douthat, New York Times, March 16, 2019
The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (October 1, 1999)
“Meritocracy” at Wikipedia
“What’s (still) wrong with meritocracy” Toby Young, The Spectator
“College Admission Scandal,” various authors, New York Times