Monday, March 23, 2009

Is "Meritocracy" a Dirty Word?

I have a bold confession - one that is most certain to be "politically incorrect." No...I am not a racist, sexist, or homophobe. No... I am not a nazi or a fascist. But it will be hard to convince some people that I am not any of these things because of what I AM: a meritocrat. I believe very firmly in the idea of meritocracy - that deserts should be doled out by merit before any other criteria - and because of this, some will think that I must be racist, sexist, an a fascist.

Why do I make this bizarre and, to some, grizzly confession? Because I have recently been noticing the word "meritorcracy," floating around, and when I see it, it is always used pejoratively. When looking through education books on, for instance, I see books like "The Big Test: The Secret History of American Meritocracy," which professes to show that "The current crises in American education have deep roots," in the elitist and racist idea of meritocracy.

Another pejorative referral to meritocracy can be seen here, in an online summary of an article by political scientist James Flynn,, who refers to meritocracy as a "materialist-elitist value," and whose article title juxtaposes meritocracy with "true justice."

Most surface level discussions of meritocracy do exactly what Flynn does: suggest that a meritocrat is an elitist. Of course, when the term "meritocracy" is defined, meritocrats, like myself, turn out to be quite different from elitists. Here are their definitions:

elitism: practice of or belief in rule by an elite.

meritocracy: leadership by able and talented persons.

When one confuses belief in meritocracy for belief in elitism - as often happens - one makes a categorical mistake. Belief in meritocracy could be seen as a kind of elitism, but there are many kinds of elitism that are not meritocracy. Meritocrats do not, for instannce, believe in the value of elites by birth order, financial privilege or any other criteria that is not directly related to ability at the relevant task(s). The connotation of elitism is that "elites" should be praised BECAUSE OF their "elite" status (by whatever criteria that is). For the meritocrat, the only relevant factor in one's praiseworthiness is one's ability - one's merit in performing the task being measured.

Why do I oppose forms of ranking not based on merit? Why not support that more egalitarian/equalitarian ideal of the day that desert be meted out based on need rather than ability or meted out equally to all regardless of ability?

There are several reasons I oppose this idea. First, I believe strongly in the idea that ranking by merit provides incentive to people to achieve more than they might if they were guaranteed a certain level of "reward" regardless of merit. On the flipside, nations/schools/business strucutres that do not work on the merit system (who promote based on time served rather than achievement) tend to emcourage employees to focus less on output and more on "putting in your time." (To see this in action, look at the relative lethargy of public school employees versus private school employees).

The second reason I oppose non-merit-based programs, like affirmative action and social promotion in schools, is that its attempts at fairness are not fair at all, for two reasons. First, when reward is not meted out by merit, but by other factors, then we are inadvertently saying that ability to do x is relevant to the reward one should recieve for x (that one's ability to get into law school is not related to one's ability to demonstrate legal ability). The second reason non-merit-based approaches are not fair is that they inadvertently tend to put people "in over their heads," by putting the non-law-school-ready applicant into law school without demanding a certain level of attainment (leaving them unequipped). Those who are "helped" in the short term often end up harmed in the long term by thrusting them into a situation requiring x level of mastery without being equipped with x level mastery.

The last reason I oppose non-merit-based ranking is purely pragmatic: even if there are defects in merit-based systems (there are), I cannot think of a more fair alternative. If one has to mete out deserts somehow, it seems best that they are meted out in proportion to ability and effort. As the old dictum says, "you get out what you put in." The alternative - the "null hypothesis," if you'd like - is: "what you put in is irrelvent to what you get out." To me, that is unnaceptable.

To illustrate, let's look non-merit-based hiring like affirmative action. It is often argued that purely merit based hiring ignores such factors as socio-economic and racial differences. It is probably true that those coming from middle- or upper-class backgrounds are more "hirable" to many than those from lower-class backgrounds, as they have been afforded more opportunity in education and life. Those who are in the lower-class probably had not the educational opportunities of those "above" them in socio-economic station. Thus, meritocracy isn't fair because it "stacks the deck" against those who are less well off.

I concede the point of meritocracy's critics that a pure meritocracy does not often exist. Decisions are often made based on decisions unrelated to merit (personal biases, family connections, etc.) But this DOES NOT mean that I concede the conclusion that meritocracy is, therefore, unethical or wrong. Meritocracy - even if it exists only imperfectly - may still be more moral than its alternatives.

And this is what I hold to be the case. Notions like affirmative action to access certain things by lower standards than others who must reach higher standards. Thus, black students can attend universities with a 3.0 GPA where other students might need a 3.25 or 3.5. And if we wanted to go further, we could simply apply a fully egalitarian impulse to college admittance, admitting students regardless of GPA or any other acadmic standard.

Are thes more fair than meritocracy simply becuase some admissions boards may make some decisions based on family attendance to the school ("You're father went to Yale, therefore...") or race (which I highly doubt in this day and age)? Not unless you assume that merit is irrelevant or a minor, rather than major, criteria for deciding how to mete out rewards. If merit is irrelevant - or not as relevant as some other standard - than what standard should we use in its place? Race (as the affirmative action supporters say.) Family lineage (as the elitists suggest)?

To me, it all comes down to the maxim quoted before: you get out what you put in. Instead of getting out what your skin color dictates, what your sex dictates, what you need (regardless of whether you put anything in), or what befits your family heritage, I propose a meritocracy. We get out what we put in. Nothing else makes much sense.


  1. The trouble is convincing a majority to vote for meritocratic policies. It's like asking prisoners if they think prison sentences should be harsher.

    It seems like we'll have to win the cultural battle before we have a chance on the political front. If we could, for example, demonstrate to employers and employees alike that emphasizing results produced over time spent is better for everyone, then they should support more accountability. As it stands, employees think "but who has the energy to work harder?" and employers think "but less time spent never means higher productivity".

    I've been thinking a lot about how individuals can promote merit & accountability, and I've decided that seeking out opportunities to trade merit for merit may be the best way. If we ever split cleanly into meritocrat and non-meritocrat factions, it's pretty obvious who would have the advantage.

  2. David,

    I am not sure that many employers disbelieve in meritocracy. Programs like racial quotas, after all, have to be forced onto them many times. (By the way, I saw a statistic somewhere that reported that many companies hire more black people on their own than affirmative action demands - because they have MERIT.)

    Really, I think the war is politics first, culture after. AFter all, anti-meritocracy laws tend to come from the government and are forced onto the private sector.

    I do agree that part of the reasons many middle- and lower-class folks are agaisnt maritorcarcy is because, as you say, they may not be secure with their own abilities and merits. But I still lthink that politics is where to focus first.

    Can you explain more of your third paragraph? I am not sure I understand what you mean by "trading merit for merit."

  3. Really, I think the war is politics first, culture after. After all, anti-meritocracy laws tend to come from the government and are forced onto the private sector.
    That's true, but laws are supposed to come from a form of majority rule. Politicians vote for anti-meritocracy bills because they believe they'll get more votes in the future that way. If there weren't some form of support in the private sector, I don't see why any politician would vote for anything except more money for himself.

    I am not sure that many employers disbelieve in meritocracy.
    Not in the political arena, but lots of employers unintentionally create a workplace climate where anti-meritocracy thrives, i.e. where office politics take the place of creative productivity. Merit shows up in your day job if anywhere, so if it's choked in the workplace then what's left? Everyone knows that no kind of merit will get them an advantage, so they're all looking for non-merit-based ways to keep from getting fired and squeeze more money.

    What I meant by "trading merit for merit" could be something like looking for more than just a paycheck. Job security is a form of anti-meritocracy. If you feel like your boss is out to screw you but you need the paycheck, pretty soon you won't be able to achieve anything for all the resentment, and all that's left is faking merit.