Note: This article is, essentially, a set of expanded notes from a class I taught about debating meritocracy.
In 1958, Michael Young — now better known as the father of the execrable Toby Young — published The Rise of the Meritocracy. Misunderstood in its own time, the book is a dystopian critique of a meritocratic society. It is set in the future. The year 2034 to be precise (still the future as I write). It is a retrospective history, told from that future, of how meritocracy took root in the UK and how it became a new class system, replacing the old one based on accident of birth. The gist of the critique seems to be that we might think meritocracy is justified and better than the old system (and in many ways it is) but there is a danger that it will end up creating a new, unequal social order.
I’ll be honest. I’ve never read Michael Young’s book. I only know of its contents second-hand. But I recently came across it, again, when reading Adrian Wooldridge’s book The Aristocracy of Talent. Wooldridge’s book is a full-throated defence of meritocracy. It is primarily a historical overview of how meritocratic systems came into popularity, but it also deals with contemporary critiques of meritocracy — particularly those from left-leaning authors like Michael Sandel — and concludes with an extended argument in favour of it.
As with all good books, Wooldridge’s provokes reflection. I don’t know where I stand on meritocracy. I can see its advantages, certainly when compared with historical practices of nepotism and patrimony (though, to be clear, neither of these practices is entirely ‘historical’). But I can also see some of its dangers, including the one highlighted by Young’s dystopia.
In the remainder of this article, I want to review some of the arguments for and against meritocracy. My goal is not to provide a definitive evaluation of those arguments. It is, rather, to clarify the terms of the debate. This should be of interest to anyone who wants to know what the typical arguments are. The analysis is inspired by my reading of Wooldridge, but I do not intend to offer an extended critique or commentary on Wooldridge’s book.
I start, as ever, by clarifying some of the concepts at stake in the debate.
1. Meritocracy and a Toy Model of Society
One of the easiest ways to think about equality and social justice is to create a toy model of society. The diagram below provides one such toy model. I’ve used it on previous occasions.
At the bottom, you have the members of society. They are people defined by a range of characteristics. These could include their talents and abilities (raw intelligence, virtues, physical prowess, emotional intelligence etc) as well as other social and biological traits (race, ethnicity, religious beliefs and so on). It is probably impossible to list the full set of defining characteristics. You can slice and dice people into lots of different categories, but you get the basic idea.
At the top of the diagram there are social outcomes. These are loosely defined to include jobs, educational status, income level, well-being, health and so on. Basically, any outcome variable in which you happen to be interested can be classified as a social outcome. Like personal characteristics, outcomes are not neat and discrete. Many outcomes overlap and intersect. Similarly, outcomes vary across a person’s lifetime. If you look at my income bracket right now, it’s a lot different from what it was like when I was in my twenties.
In the middle of the diagram there are gatekeepers. These are people or social institutions that control or influence the access to social outcomes. They could include educational institutions, doctors, judges, job interviewers and so on.
In an ideal social order, the system for allocating people to different social outcomes would be fully moral justified and non-arbitrary. Everyone would have equal opportunity to pursue their preferred social outcomes and they would not be denied access to those social outcomes for irrelevant reasons. The problem, of course, is that people disagree as to what is a morally justified system of social allocation. For example, many people believed, historically, that it was entirely appropriate to allocate on the basis of race and gender. Nowadays, we think this is inappropriate. Some people think that in order to correct for historically biased forms of social allocation we need to engage in reverse discrimination or affirmative action. This, somewhat paradoxically, means that we should pay attention to characteristics such as gender and race, at least temporarily, in order to achieve a more just system.
I am not going to be able to do justice to the complexity of these debates in this article. Suffice to say, there are many desiderata to balance when figuring out the ideal system of social allocation. It’s quite likely that it is impossible to balance them all to everyone’s satisfaction.
What I will say, for the purposes of evaluating meritocracy, is that we can distinguish between three general systems of allocation. As follows:
Meritocracy: Allocating people to social outcomes on the basis of merit (how good or well-attuned they are to succeed in that outcome). Markers of merit could include intelligence, creativity, physical prowess and so on.
Nepotism/Patrimony: Allocating people to social outcomes on the basis of family, connections or accidents of birth. Think of Donald Trump and how he gave his family members and friends cushy positions in his companies and in his presidential administration.
Representationalism: Allocating people to social outcomes on the basis that we need to achieve proportional representations of certain social groups in those outcome classes (e.g. x% women; y% ethnic minorities and so on)
I do not claim that these three systems are exhaustive of the possibilities. You could allocate to social outcomes in other ways, e.g. random allocation (lottos). I also would not claim that these systems are mutually exclusive. Oftentimes particular social institutions will blend elements of each. For example, admissions to elite US universities often involve a mix of nepotism/partimony (legacy admissions), meritocracy and representationalism.
Nepotism is probably the historically most common system of social allocation and it remains a feature of most societies to this day. Even in societies that openly embrace or claim commitment to meritocracy, one can find pockets of nepotism. Representationalism is an odd one. I am not sure that anyone else uses the term or openly embraces it, nevertheless, I think many people nowadays advocate for a form of representationalism. Debates about quotas for female politicians or affirmative action policies in higher education, for example, often seem to presume or favour representationalism.
In any event, in what follows, I will be considering arguments for and against meritocracy that work, in part, by comparing it to these other two systems of social allocation.
2. Arguments for Meritocracy
There are four main arguments in favour of meritocracy. Most of these arguments are consequentialist in nature, i.e. they defend meritocracy on the basis that it produces or incentivises better outcomes for individuals and societies as a whole. It is, however, possible to defend meritocracy on intrinsic grounds and I will consider one such possibility below.
The first argument in favour of meritocracy is the ‘better societies’ argument:
A1 - Better Societies - More meritocratic societies score better on measures of economic growth, innovation and social well-being; less meritocratic societies tend to be more stagnant and have higher rates of emigration.
In other words, given certain measures of societal success — GDP, GNP, Human Development Index and so on — societies that are more meritocratic score better than less meritocratic ones. If we grant that these measures are, indeed, positive and something we would like to increase, we have reason to favour meritocracy. For what it is worth, Wooldridge, in his defence of meritocracy, makes much of this argument:
…a glance around the world suggests that meritocracy is the golden ticket to prosperity. Singapore, perhaps the world’s poster child of meritocracy, has transformed from an underdeveloped swamp into one of the world’s most prosperous countries…Scandinavian countries retain their positions at the top of the international league tables…in large part because they are committed to education, good government and…competition. …countries that have resisted meritocracy have either stagnated or hit their growth limits. Greece, a byword for nepotism and ‘clientelism’…has struggled for decades. Italy, the homeland of nepotismo…has been stagnating since the mid-1990s. The handful of countries that have succeeded in combining anti-meritocratic cultures with high standards of living are petro-states that are dependent on an accident of geography…
There is some merit (!) to this argument. If you look up countries such as Singapore or Sweden and see how they do on these measures of societal success, you will find that they do better than countries like Italy and Greece (check out the comparative charts from Our World in Data for more on this). That said, we have to be a little bit cautious when it comes to identifying ‘more’ and ‘less’ meritocratic societies. As the use of language here suggests, it is rare, certainly among European and developed nations, to find a society that is completely committed to nepotism and has no meritocratic elements. Most developed countries have educational systems with standardised merit-based exams and while not all have competitive entry to university, many do and have more or less elite universities that allocate places based on merit. It’s really a question of the balance between meritocratic and other forms of allocation. Furthermore, even in countries that claim to be committed to meritocratic social allocation — and Singapore probably is the best example of this — it is impossible to sustain the commitment across all social outcomes. Singapore, for instance, is primarily meritocratic in its education system and in its allocation of civil service jobs. While private industry may choose to adopt merit-based allocation (and, perhaps, companies that do this do better than those that don’t) it’s probably not feasible to cut out all forms of nepotism or representationalism in those sectors of society.
If you wanted to criticise this argument you might say that the measures of success identified by its supporters are misleading or misguided. For example, a lot of people would criticise the use of GDP as a measure of social success (Ireland’s GDP per capita is very high but that doesn’t reflect the wealth of the people in Ireland; it’s largely because US companies report earnings in Ireland as a way to avoid paying tax). The only problem with this argument, from my perspective, is that the positive comparison for ‘more’ meritocratic societies tends to hold up no matter which measure of success you use, e.g. human development index. Also, while these measures of societal success might overlook or ignore some important things, it is hard to argue that a society that does much worse on those measures is a better place to live. Nowhere is ideal, but these measures do tell us something about relative well-being across societies.
The second argument for meritocracy is the ‘better incentives’ argument:
A2 - Better Incentives - Meritocratic societies provide rewards to people for developing and honing their talents. This leads to better social outcomes because talents produce social goods (e.g. new companies, new jobs, new insights, new creative culture)
This is obviously closely related to the first argument. The idea is that meritocratic societies send a signal to their members: if you work hard at honing certain talents and abilities (intelligence, knowledge, physical skill etc), you will be rewarded (better jobs, more money etc). This, in turn, produces better outcomes for societies. I think this argument makes sense, at least in its abstract form, but the devil is in the detail. Is it possible to hone talents in the way that meritocrats presume, or are we just rewarding those that got lucky in the genetic lottery (or through some other means)? What talents are we incentivising and do they really produce social goods? I’ll consider a potential criticism of this second argument in the next section when I look at the ‘wrong measure’ counterargument.
The third argument for meritocracy is the ‘respecting dignity’ argument:
A3 - Respecting Dignity - Meritocracies allow people to develop and hone their talents in the manner that they desire, and to reward them for doing so. This allows them to develop into full human beings. They are not treated as victims of circumstance or representatives of abstract social classes.
Unlike the first two arguments, this one is not consequentialist in nature. It is based on the idea that meritocratic systems are intrinsically better, irrespective of their broader social outcomes, because they treat people as individuals and respect them in their full humanity. People are not prisoners of the past or of circumstance. They have the opportunity to develop their full powers of agency. You can think of this as a quasi-Kantian argument: meritocratic societies respect people as ends in themselves, not for some other reason (though, of course, this would need to be balanced against the consequentialist arguments that do not do this). Again, this is an argument that Wooldridge emphasises in his defence of meritocracy:
By encouraging people to discover and develop their talents, [meritocracy] encourages them to discover and develop what makes them human. By rewarding people on the basis of those talents, it treats them with the respect they deserve, as self-governing individuals who are capable of dreaming their dreams and willing their fates while also enriching society as a whole.
This is an interesting argument. I think there is a core of good sense to it. Certainly, nepotistic or representationalist societies are in tension with ideals of individualism and autonomy. They do not treat people as masters of their own fate. In such societies, people are not valued for who they are. People are, instead, valued because of where they came from or who they represent. That said, I think it would be a mistake to presume that meritocratic societies are more respectful of individuals. Meritocratic societies can be very unpleasant places to live, given the high anxiety and competitiveness often associated with them. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a moment.
The fourth argument in favour of meritocracy is the ‘best alternative’ argument.
A4 - Best Alternative - Meritocratic social allocation is better than any historic or proposed alternative system of social allocation. Nepotism is often corrupt and stagnant; representationalism would increase the power of the state and perpetuate identitarian thinking; neither system treats people with dignity or respects their individuality
This argument has been implicit in much of what has been said already, but it is worth making it explicit. The idea is that, whatever its flaws may be (and we will consider some below), meritocracy is better than alternative systems. Think of this as the Churchillian defence of meritocracy (after Churchill’s alleged defence of democracy against other systems of government). To me, this might be the most persuasive argument, at least when it comes to certain forms of social allocation (i.e. something like healthcare should not be allocated on merit but I don’t think any defender of meritocracy believes that, at least not openly and directly). I have thought about it a lot when it comes to allocating positions to students at university. The country in which I live — Ireland — has a competitive, points-based system for allocating students to university degree programmes. To get into the more competitive (and presumably attractive) universities and degree programmes (like medicine) students have to score highly on a national second-level exam (the Leaving Cert). The system is often criticised, for reasons similar to the ones that I will discuss below, but it’s never been obvious to me what a better alternative would be. Each proposed alternative tends to make the system more complex and opaque, and to insert more potential forms of bias into it. Perhaps a ‘mixed’ system of allocation is best — some positions on merit; some in line with representationalist/reverse discrimination concerns — but I’m not sure what the balance should be or whether introducing some element of the latter just adds confusion, potential for longer-term abuse/misuse, and does not serve students particularly well. I don’t have a fully worked out view to offer here, but, as I say, this Churchillian defence gives me some pause.
3. Arguments Against Meritocracy
What about arguments against meritocracy? I will consider three here. Each of these has been developed from conversations/debates with students in my classes about the topic. I’m sure it is possible to identify other criticisms, and I would be happy to hear about them from readers, but these are the ones that keep coming up in my classes.
The first objection is something I will call the ‘wrong measures’ objection:
CA1 - Wrong Measures: Classic meritocratic tests (e.g. IQ or other standardised aptitude tests) do not measure the full set of relevant talents or merits, relevant to all the forms of social allocation in which we are interested. They may also be inaccurate and generate false negatives/false positives.
In other words, the kinds of testing paradigm commonly deployed in aid of meritocracy are too narrow and only consider a limited range of talents. They do not ensure sufficient cognitive or talent-based diversity in social institutions, which is bad because, if you follow the arguments of Scott Page and others, cognitive diversity is a good thing, particularly if we want our institutions to be more successful in solving problems. As a result, it could be the case that the tests reward people we would rather exclude and exclude people we would rather reward.
I think there is some value to this criticism because I am reasonably convinced that some degree of cognitive diversity is important. But this doesn’t mean that meritocracy is the problem, rather, our means of its implementation. Changing the tests so that we have a broader view of the talents that count could patch up the system, at least to some extent. We would still be focused on merits, and not slipping into some other form of social allocation, but we would have a more pluralistic conception of merit. Defenders of IQ tests and other standardised tests may come back on this and argue that their preferred tests are exceptionally well-evidenced and validated and that there is some general factor of intelligence that seems to correlate with a large number of positive social outcomes. I am not going to get embroiled in the IQ wars here, but from the limited materials I have read and listened to on the topic, I am inclined to agree that there is some there there. That said, it is pretty clear IQ is not the only thing that matters. We can have high IQ psychopaths but I am pretty sure we don’t want psychopaths in some decision-making roles. Also, even if such tests are accurate and well-validated, the problem I tend to have is that most competitive examinations systems that I am familiar with are nothing like IQ or similar tests. They tend to be the more typical academic, educational tests (based on a standard set of problem questions, comprehension questions, essay questions and so on). On previous occasions, I have explained why the grading associated with at least some of these forms of testing can be quite arbitrary and unfair. Whatever the results mean, they are probably not always a good signal of underlying raw intelligence. Also, these kinds of tests, and the grades associated with them are much more susceptible to gaming and bias. Which brings me to the next objection.
The second objection is what I will call the ‘biased measures’ objection:
CA2 - Biased Measures: Classic meritocratic tests are biased in favour of existing social elites either because (a) they can pay for coaching or training to excel on the test and/or (b) the tests are designed to suit their cognitive style (e.g. abstraction over concreteness).
This objection is importantly distinct from the preceding objection. It is not that the measures are wrong or not indicative of the kinds of talents we wish to reward, it is that even if they are broad-minded and accurate, they are the kinds of measures that wealthy elites can do better on, either because they can invest more money in their children’s education, paying for private tuition and test preparation, and/or because the tests suit their cognitive style.
I mention the latter possibility because I am reminded of Alexandria Luria’s famous experiments suggesting that rural peasants in Russia did less well on certain kinds of test because they were less adept at abstract thinking and that the more industrialised and modernised community found abstract thinking more facile (see Luria Cognitive Development: Its Social and Cultural Foundations) I am not claiming that Luria’s specific studies are relevant to contemporary debates about meritocratic testing. I am mentioning them simply because they illustrate — quite vividly — a key point: that cognitive styles and abilities can be subtly shaped and influenced by one’s developmental niche and unless a testing paradigm is very carefully designed to eliminate this form of bias, it may tend to perpetuate the success of those drawn from a particular niche (e.g. the tests may presume certain ‘shared’ knowledge that is not really shared at all).
That said, I think the other point, about parental investment in education, and the perpetuation of a new wealthy elite, is the more critical one. This is the issue that weighs most heavily on the minds of my students when I discuss meritocracy with them. It is also the objection that has cropped up in most recent criticisms of Singapore’s experience with meritocracy. Findings there suggest that those that initially did well in the meritocratic system can afford to pay more for their children’s schooling and thereby run the risk of entrenching a new wealth and merit-based elite. This experience is similar to that observed around the world. Simon Kuper’s book Chums — which is about how wealthy public school boys came to run modern Britain — comments on this too. Kuper notes that while at one point in time aristocrats and upper-middle class children could succeed based purely on connections and historical wealth, by the 1980s (when he attended Oxford along with Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Michael Gove et al), even the wealthy had to do well in academic tests. And they did. Their elite schools invested heavily in prepping them for success on those tests.
This entrenchment of a new elite was, of course, Michael Young’s big concern about meritocracy in his 1958 book. The counter-response to it could be that, again, we just need to change the form of test and rely on tests that cannot be prepped or gamed. Some aptitude tests bill themselves as such. For instance, Irish medical schools use a HPAT (Health Professions Admission Test) in addition to the traditional end-of-school Leaving Certificate to allocate places at university. The test is based on an Australian proprietary platform which is, allegedly, ungameable because you cannot study or prep for it. Nevertheless, you can find preparatory materials for it and there are plenty of people willing to sell training and/or tuition to help you prepare for it. It seems unlikely that the test is ungameable. Similar experiences with the LSAT and MCAT in the US suggests the opposite. This is not surprising. All tests tend to rely on common styles of question and those that are motivated to do so can pay for some, at least minimal advantage, in taking tests with those common formats of question. Those minimal advantages can accumulate over time.
It’s not clear what the solution to this problem is or ought to be. On the one hand, a defender of meritocracy could tough it out and say that as long as the tests provide the right measures (i.e. identify the relevant range of talents and abilities) who cares if they are gameable or biased towards elites. As long as we are rewarding merit directly that’s all that matters. And, who knows, perhaps some people from less privileged backgrounds may still be able to break through the system. Investment in education might gain some advantage but not enough to completely swamp other factors (raw intelligence, hard work/ambition, luck). Contrariwise, a defender of meritocracy could advocate for constantly tweaking or changing the test format to eliminate the potential for unfair advantage linked to wealth. This strategy might face diminishing returns, however. Whatever tweaks you make would still need to be consistent with the aims of the test (to identify the relevant talents) and a constant arms race between testers and takers may run up many additional costs for little gain.
It could be, however, that this objection gets to one of the tragedies of human social life. That new systems for allocating social goods based on merit can be disruptive when they are initially introduced, shaking up the old social order and threatening established norms, but after a generation or two things settle down into a familiar pattern. If you read Wooldridge’s book you cannot help but come away with the impression that meritocracy really was a disruptive social innovation. But perhaps now its capacity for continued disruption has been largely eroded, at least in countries where it is well-established.
The third, and final, objection is the ‘competitiveness and cruelty’ objection:
CA3 - Competitiveness: Meritocratic societies create perpetual competition for credentials. You have to run faster and faster to say in the same place. This can lead to a very unpleasant and anxious existence with harsh results for those that cannot or do not keep pace.
This is an objection that concerns me a lot these days. Like most academics of my age, I am often struck by the scale of mental health problems I see among my students. I’m sure there are many causal factors behind this, and perhaps the problem is exaggerated, or my perception of it is distorted (I only tend to hear from students in distress). Nevertheless, it has struck me as odd and out of line with what I used to experience when I was a student (older colleagues also agree that the scale of the problem has gotten worse). What is of particular interest to me is how many students I encounter expressing anxiety around their exams and degree results. Many feel their lives will be over and their career aspirations ruined if they do not get a 2:1/B average in their degree. Many also feel pressure to pursue additional qualifications to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Doing an undergraduate degree is no longer enough. You have to do at least one postgraduate degree and consider other forms of microcredential or short-course qualifications. I’m not sure that this constant credential seeking is positive or conducive to human flourishing.
But perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of any meritocratic system. The whole purpose of the system is to encourage people to develop their talents. Very few gatekeepers are going to conduct an exhaustive inquiry into people’s actual merits. They are going to rely on credentials to tell them who is worth considering for the opportunity. But if everyone pursues the same credentials, and if social opportunities are scarce in some way, the competitive advantage of those credentials is reduced and people have to pursue other credentials to stand out from the crowd. An arms race mentality kicks in. While some pressure and anxiety might help us to achieve great things, constant pressure and anxiety is debilitating. There is a danger that, over time, this is the kind of social culture embedded by meritocracy. Everybody is racing to standstill and nobody is particularly happy about it.
I would also repeat the obvious point, made above, that relying on meritocracy to resolve all forms of social allocation would be cruel and inhuman. For instance, allocating spaces to healthcare treatment on the basis on educational attainment would be cruel. I would also argue that any biasing or weighting of votes based on merit (as was once proposed by John Stuart Mill) would be cruel and undignified. We might be able to live with the benefits and costs of meritocracy in some areas, but not in all.
As I said, my goal was not to provide a definitive evaluation of meritocracy here. Rather, my goal was to clarify the concept and outline a framework for debating its benefits and costs. I hope I have provided that in the preceding. I am happy to hear from people as to how the framework could be modified or developed. Are there other arguments for and against that should be added to the mix?