The concept of meritocracy is frequently misinterpreted to mean that everyone gets what they deserve. “Do you think Donald Trump deserved to be president?” a friend once asked me, after I defended meritocratic principles. He missed the point that meritocratic societies—for all their flaws—are unmatched in their capacity to promote human flourishing and progress.
Since most people react to incentives, a society that rewards innovation and achievement, utilizing market mechanisms, will produce large numbers of innovative and achievement-driven individuals, willing to make sacrifices, improve their competence and take substantial risks in pursuit of their self-interest. Ultimately, however, their success depends on their ability to supply goods and services that meet the needs and desires of others. In short, they must provide value for society.
The resulting hierarchies are not immune to corruption—but they are by no means arbitrary. In fact, they have proven highly efficient in harnessing human capital—not to be confused with human worth—to benefit society as a whole. Moreover, meritocratic hierarchies offer a sense of direction, an up and a down, and create meaning for people as well as being integral to social mobility.
To condemn such hierarchies as inherently oppressive just because they do not conform to egalitarian fantasies is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “No doubt we should do all we can in society to reform rigid hierarchies and outdated social norms,” argues Freya India. “But, discouraging self-improvement and framing any measure of competence as oppressive is not the answer.”
In today’s society, equity is increasingly replacing non-discrimination as a measure of fairness. However, if people are free to pursue their individual talents, ambitions and preferences, we have no reason to expect anything close to equal results. As Thomas Sowell has argued, “If you cannot achieve equality of performance among people born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, how realistic is it to expect to achieve it across broader and deeper social divisions?” Indeed, the only way to achieve equality of outcome—a goal implicit in the widespread assumption that social disparities are invariably social injustices—is by actively inhibiting meritocratic processes.
Meritocracy is not a source of inequality, but a reflection of the fact that human beings differ along multiple dimensions. We know, for instance, that general intelligence (g), as measured by standardized IQ tests, and certain personality traits, such as resilience and conscientiousness, are positively correlated with professional advancement and success in life, largely because they make us more useful to others.
We also know that these characteristics are unequally distributed in society and partly heritable. In his 2020 book, Human Diversity, Charles Murray “deliberately avoid[s] the word meritocracy to describe a society in which able people rise to the top, because the most important single ingredient, g, is a matter of luck”:
I’m willing to believe that people have some control over their industriousness, perseverance, resilience, and other personal qualities that have brought them success, even though those qualities are partly heritable. g is different. People can make a little or a lot of what they were given; maybe they can even tweak their IQs by a couple of points; but no one gets an IQ score of 130 by trying hard. Merit had nothing to do with it.
Even if we ignore genetic differences, success in large part depends on the luck of the draw. This does not mean, however, that people cannot or should not be judged on merit: on qualities and abilities valued by others.
Nor should society lower its standards or deemphasize merit out of egalitarian concerns. Not only would such an approach entail a decline in quality, making society as a whole worse off; it would also deprive a talented and ambitious individual born into unfortunate circumstances of the chance to rise above her social milieu and improve her lot in life. Any movement that demands that educational and professional standards be lowered—or even abolished—in the name of social justice does a tremendous disservice to the people it purports to help.
“Rather than empowering others by encouraging self-improvement and rewarding excellence, many radical social justice movements are intent on dismantling social hierarchies and measures of competence,” reports India. “Across the West, quota systems are now being favored over standardized testing and the concept of rewarding merit is now considered problematic.”
What explains this assault on meritocracy? While there is some value in critiques like that of Daniel Markovits, who argues that meritocratic pressures create negative externalities affecting both winners and losers, the most vitriolic attacks on meritocratic hierarchies undoubtedly come from the woke left, which contains elements of what Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as slave morality.
For Nietzsche, Judeo-Christian morality was a slave morality because it made a virtue of victimhood, concealing a deep-seated resentment of the rich, the strong and the powerful. As he puts it in The Genealogy of Morals:
“Only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good; the suffering, the deprived, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people, the only ones saved, salvation is for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble and powerful, you are eternally wicked, cruel, lustful, insatiate, godless, you will also be eternally wretched, cursed and damned!”
Despite its ostensible disdain for power and privilege, Christianity became the dominant religio-cultural force in the world, giving a new meaning to Jesus’ pronouncement that the meek shall inherit the earth. Similarly, the woke morally fetishize oppression, while striving for cultural dominance.
Hierarchies of competence, meritocratic structures and norms are antithetical to woke progressivism, which is why they are being attacked with such fervour. For example, western standards of professionalism have come under assault for allegedly perpetuating white supremacy culture.
It is hardly a coincidence that those who push equity policies today tend to also seek to abolish the methods and standards by which to measure the success of such policies. This serves to conceal the fact that their approach is counterproductive and helps no one. The only way to achieve equity, after all, is by preventing the excellent from realizing their potential, thus making us all poorer. Conversely, if people are encouraged to excel, we can all share in their excellence.
Meritocracy doesn’t assure anything for anyone, but it gives them a chance. I know of nothing better.
It’s a good thing that there are still some unions with teeth in order to lend some security to those workers that are viewed as disposable and easily replaceable by corporate.
Excellent article, well posited. I particularly like references to Thomas Sowell who so often is misunderstood and maligned. Keep up the great writing.
I heard a defense of East Germany from a marxist on some blog: while the standard of living was much lower than west germany, the people were more equal. That was considered good by this person. Most businesses these days depend on high performance and high accuracy. The errors allowed in a new car are miniscule. Deliveries are within a day or two. Medical treatments are more sophisticated (such as lasik). You cannot have this level of performance without standards and intense training. If you lower standards or eliminate them, our high tech society will go off the rails. If you really want the poor to succeed, eliminate barriers to their success. The same woke people who want no standards support lots of rules (for safety!!). For example, Chicago has waged war on street vendors for decades and does not like food trucks. You can’t do nails or braid hair… Read more »
Interesting that meritocracy is entangled with market forces here. I had the impression that meritocracy can also be structured along bureaucratic lines, with systems of protocols and examinations determining advancement. Either way, it is useful and, as the author suggests, unavoidable, partly because of the ‘randomness’ of what we are born with.
That randomness goes further, however, to cover all those ‘sliding door’ moments of right-place-right-time that occur throughout life. I would hope, however, that a meritocracy not be a rat race, that there is sufficient quality of life from which all may strive beyond, and also some room to sidestep the whole process. After all, we care about freedom here, and if a person wants to say they’re satisfied with enough, or they value things differently from others, then we should let them.
Meritocracy unfairly advantages the competant, skilled and useful. This oppresses useless incompetent fools.
One could suppose that many of those ardent social equity advocates favoring lower standards for entering and completing medical school to accomodate doctors who would never have made it before would in any case also be critical of orthodox medicine as merely a bourgeois Western patriarchal colonialist way of knowing and healing, and strongly in support of supplementing or replacing it with African, Asian, Native American, or other indigenous non-Western healing arts–bring in the shamans, kahunas, acupuncturists, and Ayurvedists! Maybe even the leeches and the four humors!
Yes, luck, or what is the same thing, the largely unpredictable consequences of causes stretching back to the big bang, make expectations of equity bound to disappoint. Lowering standards as a way of achieving equity is foolhardy. Let’s lower the standards for entering and completing medical school, and let the advocates of these lower standards be served by the doctors who would not have made it before.