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 “No doubt we should do all we can in society to reform rigid hierarchies and outdated social norms,” argues Freya India.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.