The term meritocracy isn’t very popular these days.
Firstly, it’s a myth. But to the extent meritocracy exists, it’s bad. A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you. Meritocracy makes everyone miserable. Meritocracy harms everyone — even the winners. These are all article headlines in the last few years written by people at elite publications and universities.
Meritocracy attracts universal skepticism. The left thinks meritocracy is a disguise for plutocracy — a justification of inequalities whose origins lie not in ability, but in power and privilege. The right says meritocracy is an excuse for the smug, credentialed, overclass to look down on everybody else. Others say meritocracy has fueled an individualist culture that has given up on notions of the common good.
In this piece, we’ll outline some of the critiques to meritocracy and issue some responses. But first, some context on the term meritocracy, courtesy of Adrian Woodridge’s book “The Aristocracy of Talent”.
What is a Meritocracy?
the holding of power by people selected on the basis of their ability.
"progress towards meritocracy was slow"
A meritocracy (in theory) is where we judge people on the basis of their individual abilities rather than their position in the social hierarchy or their family connections.
For most of human history, we have not lived in anything resembling a meritocracy. Until recently, the most important institution in society was the family. You inherited your position and defined your identity as a member of a family.
As a result, society was much more static than it is now. Social mobility was low, and all that mattered was who you knew. You didn’t get jobs on merit – they were regarded as things that people owned and could pass down to their children.
What meritocracy did was create a new kind of aristocracy. The only alternative to the aristocracy of land and inheritance was to replace it with an aristocracy of virtue and talent.
Perhaps the first person to draw up a blueprint for something resembling meritocracy in the West was Plato. In The Republic, he tells us that the philosophers should be king, and that we should choose these philosophers on the basis of their ability, not inheritance. For Plato, one of the key functions of statecraft is to constantly sift through society, find the best people wherever they appear, and promote them to leadership roles – a radical departure from the fundamentally aristocratic society he lived in.
The term ‘meritocracy’ was added to common lexicon after Micheal Young used it in his book, Rise of Meritocracy, to describe a future dystopian society. Unfortunately for Young, the term took off without any of its negative baggage.
As Byrne Hobart once remarked: “The word “meritocracy” is like the game Monopoly: invented by socialists to critique capitalism, but slightly tweaked and far better marketed by capitalists. It’s hard to outrun the profit motive when you can’t control your IP.”
Critiques Against Meritocracy
The best people don’t rule
The strongest criticism of meritocracy is not that there's something bad about the idea of putting the best people in charge. The critique is that the best people are not in charge.
Classically, George Bush was “born at third base and thought he hit a triple.” Bush was born to a rich Connecticut family, educated at Yale as a legacy admit (although did poorly as a student, earning a C- GPA at graduation). However, he went on to inherit the family tradition and became president.
Many see this as a microcosm of what has happened to society. The ruling elite aren’t actually the best, they just got lucky or won thanks to kleptocracy.
It makes the winners think they somehow deserve it
If you live in an aristocratic society with limited opportunities, you can always blame the lack of opportunity on the aristocrats. But if you say that anyone who can make it as long as they have the right talent and effort, that means people won’t have anyone to blame when they don’t make it.
As a result, the logic goes, meritocracy produces a more unhappy society in which people blame themselves for their lack of ability or agency.
Meritocracy is quite appealing to the winners of these zero-sum tournaments because unlike in an aristocracy, the elites feel justified. They can comfortably think that not only are they at the top, but they deserve to be at the top.
A meritocracy is unfair.
A meritocratic process implies a fair process – but it's fundamentally unfair since people are born with different genes, parents, and environments, all of which they had no say in. You can’t choose your IQ, how well your parents raise you, or how wealthy the town you grow up in. If you think of meritocracy as a race, how is it fair when people have different starting lines?
Responses to Critiques
These are valid critiques.
In many places, we don’t have actual meritocracy, we have nepotism under the guise as meritocracy. To this critique I say, sure, let’s change nepotistic environments to meritocratic ones.
Meritocracy does make the winners think they deserve it, and the relative losers feel like they don’t. To this critique I say, sure, but that’s a necessary downside to any society with social mobility. The alternative, though, is nepotism (i.e.. no social mobility), so it’s still a massive upgrade over what came before it. We need to make the “relative losers” feel better by making them significantly better off, even if not as well-off as the richest.
Meritocracy claims to have equal starting lines, but of course it doesn’t. To this critique I say, sure, but that’s a misunderstanding of why meritocracy works. And it’s a good thing there aren’t equal starting lines, because implementing equal starting lines would be dystopian.
In some sense, meritocracy is the wrong word, because it implies not only does the best person get the job, but also that there was a fair process. The term “fair” is obfuscating. Is this "fairly" as outcomes correctly corresponding to differential input? Or is that "fairly" as equal outcomes or equal opportunities - ie everyone having the same starting line?
Most recently, it’s become the latter. "Meritocracy" changed from "How do we ensure the most talented and hardest working people rise up?" to "How do we ensure people get an equal chance to prove they’re the best? Who decides who's best? What does “best” even mean? What are we optimizing for?
To be sure, it was always tricky to discern talent and effort from parents and social class and environment. To unbundle what's in your control (merit) from what isn't (circumstance). Which leads to irresolvable conflict over who's the "best" & who "earns" it.
In one sense it’s a fair process in that, in a successful meritocracy, whoever’s the best, should get it. But in another sense it’s unfair in that people didn’t get the same chance. Because of biological or cultural factors, or just sheer luck, not everyone had the same starting line.
And this is the fatal flaw of the term meritocracy — it is about who wins the race but, in its quest to be fair, implies there’s an equal starting line.
So maybe we should just use the term “aristocracy of talent” (or virtue), in contrast to the previous aristocracy of family. An aristocracy of talent has serious downsides, as mentioned above — people think they deserve it, it focuses too much on achievement — but it beats nepotism. Nepotistic countries become stagnant economies, since they neither fully utilize the talents of their citizens, nor inspire them to work harder to develop their talents and rise up. That’s what technocracy is supposed to mean: the best suited people running the most important functions.
Technocracy and Nepotism are your two options. You could say there’s a third option, let’s do an aristocracy of talent but give everyone the same starting line, but that feels like the most dystopian of them all. Equality of opportunity sounds great in theory, but it breaks when you think about it for a few minutes. Imagine what it would mean to actually equalize opportunity. You’d have to eliminate disparities of income, parenting, and genetics, otherwise opportunity is unequal. And even if you could, the real challenge would be assortative mating, where the people who do better will marry each other, perpetuating inequality. So you’d also have to tell people who to have kids with, in order to implement equal opportunity. So equality of opportunity is actually just a nicer way of saying equality of outcome. Investing our energy into trying to reduce the starting line hurts the very people it’s trying to help; in striving to give everyone an equal starting line, we limit how far they can go in the race.
And if we don’t literally mean *equality* of opportunity, let’s just say “sufficient opportunity for all”, meaning we focus on constantly expanding absolute opportunity, without focusing on relative opportunity. Indeed, we should focus on expanding opportunity for all, we should focus on equal treatment under the law for all, but we should retire our desire for equal opportunities or equal outcomes.
Here’s an argument an unnamed friend gave me that emphasizes the point:
"Everything you love is a result of inequality. When you seek a mate, do you want someone who is exactly average, just like everyone else, or do you want someone who is special? When you have kids, do you want them to have the same life outcomes as every other kid in the world, or do you want them to do better than that? When you have a job, do you aspire to turn in absolutely average performance, to be careful not to ever exceed the performance of your peers? Or do you aspire to do the best you can, even if that means you do better than your peers? Is it moral to want the best surgeon, the best teachers, or the best spouse to raise a family with?
"What kind of society would you have to have where everyone gets the same quality spouse, same outcome with kids, delivers the same level of performance at work and no more?"
The stakes are high
This debate isn’t merely theoretical: it’s at the core of whether schools should have gifted programs or whether colleges should use standardized tests.
Lowell High School in San Francisco, one of the best high schools in the country, which has always been an avenue for poor immigrant communities to succeed, is now replacing academic tests for admission with a lottery. Universities right across the country are downgrading SATs and introducing much more gameable systems which which people claim solve for inequalities, though are in practice more socially biased.
Arguing against a meritocracy based on talent is arguing we shouldn’t be most fully utilizing the talents of our brightest people, which is perverse. Societies that have run as meritocracies (or aristocracies of talent) have done phenomenally well; we just need to make sure they are actually meritocratic. We should have academically selective schools searching the population relentlessly for academic talents, more use of objective tests (and other measures) to find that talents and more use of universities, huge endowments to make sure that they're recruiting people from the whole of society by looking as intently for the hidden Einsteins as they do for great athletes.
Belief in an aristocracy of talent is self-fulfilling. If people believe the best people can rise up, and that effort impacts outcomes, they’ll work for it. Which is why threading this needle matters: The best people should be in charge, via a transparent process where anyone can prove they’re the best, but also accepting that people had different opportunities to begin with. In other words, we’re all running the same race, but at different starting lines. And that’s OK. Let’s try to move up everyone’s starting lines, without trying to hold anyone back, and more importantly, let’s try to maximize how far everyone can go.
Thanks to Will, Talal, Gonz, & Molly for feedback.
strong read. i recently read that 90%+ of our evolutionary history was in hunter-gatherer tribes, and these tribes of 25-40 are egalitarian — ostensibly leaderless, and the most skilled hunters are not allocated more food. if you take this deep egalitarian assumption as true, how might we evolve meritocracy to fit into our human software?
Very much enjoyed this post (and others). Appreciate all your links out to further readings.
Something I rarely see addressed in the meritocracy debates is: On what terms should we judge the "merit" of an aspiring meritocrat?
The always implied measure is, I think, that a meritocracy is morally superior to an "aristocracy of land and inheritance" because and only because it (presumably!) does a superior job nurturing the health and well-being of its sponsoring society.
Are our modern American meritocrats (Ivy League strivers, Silicon Valley disruptors, hedge fund billionaires, Fortune 500 CEOs, etc) actually delivering more genuine human flourishing than the alternative regimes? Maybe they are! But, again, I rarely see meritocrats acknowledge that, ultimately, enriching one's state rather than enriching oneself is the entire rationale behind the purported superiority of meritocracy. Instead, the discussion of "merit" usually devolves to discussion of ancillary things like SAT scores, credentials, and of course money -- which conveniently substitutes the supposed correlates of a desired outcome for the outcome itself. Yes, Zuckerberg crushed the SATs, went to Harvard, and founded a Silicon Valley juggernaut on his way to becoming one of the fifty most wealthy people in the U.S. The modern American meritocracy has been very, very good for Mark and his peers. Has that specific meritocracy been commensurately good for America? Are there alternative regimes with different incentive structures where America does marginally better and Zuckerberg does marginally worse than the one we have? Wouldn't such a regime be more meritocratic than this one?
On what terms should we judge the "merit" of an aspiring meritocrat?