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How We Came to Misunderstand Meritocracy

Much to the chagrin of the man who coined the term half a century ago, we’re missing the point.

Jun 6 2013, 3:15pm

Much to the chagrin of the man who coined the term half a century ago, we’re missing the point, according to an old op-ed that has been circulating on Twitter this week.

“I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,” Michael Young, a leftist British politician and sociologist, wrote in 2001 of his book that introduced the word “meritocracy” into our modern lexicon.

Young had meant for his seminal tome to be “satire meant to be a warning” in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World, a dystopian future where the art of IQ testing has been perfected. Rather than fostering social harmony, the rise of the talent elite causes the masses to revolt. As it turns out, a society built on merit naturally lends itself to inequality, an argument that Young claimed to be “non-controversial historical analysis of what had been happening to society for more than a century before 1958, and most emphatically since the 1870s, when schooling was made compulsory and competitive entry to the civil service became the rule.”

It’s not hard to see why. We’re not very good at measuring merit in the first place, relying on standardized testing and overvaluing credentials while ignoring human intangibles. Even if we theoretically could, certain goods and services shouldn’t be distributed based on merit, like healthcare and education. Is the distribution of wealth and power according to inherited genetics really fair? Perhaps worst of all, such a system hardens social classes rather than supporting upward mobility as it might imply as the “new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.” Elite people have the easiest access to elite schools.

Instead, the idea of a true meritocracy has become synonymous with fairness and justice, cemented by the fallacy of the American Dream: if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. By putting the idea of a meritocracy on a pedestal, those on the upper rungs of society have a means to justify their success while the disenfranchised rest are led to believe that their suffering is exactly what they deserve. According to a recent study, rising inequality is “permanent.”

It is, of course, one of the Republican party’s central arguments against a progressive tax system. Ironically, the resistance against meritocracy started on the right, with 20th century poet T. S. Eliot arguing that such a system would “disorganise society and debase education.”

Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke underlined the issue over the weekend during his commencement speech at Princeton.

The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate -- these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.

As Wonkblog noted, this is radical stuff, especially coming from a guy who has to choose his words carefully because they have the power to inspire or rattle world markets. Is Bernanke, one of the most powerful people in the world, giving his implicit support for a progressive tax system, as the Atlantic suggests? Maybe not. At the very least, he acknowledges our meritocratic world to be far from fair and that the lucky ones have an obligation to "share their luck with others." The rest of Bernanke's refreshingly excellent speech is worth watching.


Top image via Princeton
American dream
progressive tax system