On Meritocracy: Is merit or good fortune the driver of success?

Merit is the idea that the most just distribution of social and economic goods falls to those who work hard for them and demonstrate required skills at an appropriately high level. The correlate of that is that the process by which individuals advance in society and are rewarded should be by them demonstrating the required attributes of ability and competence in the area in which they are working, which is what we refer to as a meritocracy.

The idea of a meritocracy lies at the base of many of the processes by which our society operates today, from school and university entrance exams to job interviews and has resulted in the ubiquitous requirement of certificates in almost all forms of employment above the most menial. Meritocracy is a very old idea, at least as old as the institution of professional armies. In Qing dynasty China through the influence of Confucius (551-479), exams were introduced for recruitment to the civil service, to weed out those who were gaining preferment on the basis of family connections. Every culture has had a history of the incompetent and corrupt gaining power, which they have used to enrich themselves and their relatives and contributed little or nothing to the public good, or even much to its detriment, and this continues in many countries today. It was to address this problem that the idea of meritocracy developed and selective processes were deliberately introduced.

Meritocracy in the developed world has a strong relationship with the idea of equality of opportunity. Recognising that merit and hard work may be insufficient – may not even gain a purchase – if social and economic conditions excessively hamper some people, such societies have sought to put in place systems that attempt to create a ‘level playing field’ on which individuals compete, through universal education, healthcare and welfare, for example. The idea of the level playing field, nevertheless, remains largely theoretical and in practical terms must be always a moving target as demography, social conditions and societal expectations move. This – although political ideology is a more proximate cause – has caused some theorists to demand that the idea of equality of opportunity be abandoned and replaced by the notion of equity. I consider this to be a dangerous and divisive move, which I have criticised in detail in a previous essay.

Recently the notion of meritocracy has itself come under attack. In The Tyranny of Merit, which Colin Turfus has reviewed on the Societal Values website, the American philosopher Michael Sandel argues that meritocracy as it has come to be practiced, as a form of credentialism in education and work, is driving division and resentment. While flawed, Sandel does at least offer an argument of some nuance and sophistication. Leaning on some elements of Sandel’s argument, Clifton Mark develops his critique in an essay entitled “Meritocracy is not just false, it is bad for you”. He points to evidence from social and psychological experiments that shows that belief in meritocracy reinforces senses of both superiority in the successful and inferiority in those who do not meet its stringent requirements. That in itself, of course, would not be a commanding argument that meritocracy was ineffective (false), merely ethically undesirable. Fatal to his argument, he links these two – the pragmatic and ethical (clearly not having imbibed Hume’s admonition against such) – through an argument that success depends not primarily on achievement, but predominantly on luck.

This is a bad argument from several perspectives. Along with Sandel, he assumes first of all that meritocracy is a universally applicable measure of success, whereas it largely applies in particular circumscribed circumstances, for example those competing for high status and well-paid jobs, jobs carrying a lot of responsibility and jobs requiring specific highly developed skills. These tend to be, moreover, jobs to be found in well-established systems premised on hierarchies of competence, in which there is a necessity to fit into an existing culture. The founders of organisations, institutions and businesses are not typically subject to meritocratic standards; they are pioneers who succeed or not depending on a range of skills, not a narrow set that results in a specific certification. They are more likely to set the standards that others have to imbue. The same could be said of many artisans and the successfully self-employed.

To move to the main issue in Mark’s argument, we cannot deny the part which luck plays in every successful person’s achievement. This is something that most people believe; however, most would be hard-pressed to say what ‘luck’ actually is, failing which it does not constitute a very strong argument against meritocracy. And certainly the author does not venture a definition, nor, significantly, distinguish between luck and the sense of being lucky. If we think of luck as the random turn of events which fortuitously favours some people and other not, Mark and others in agreement with him would then presumably argue that this bakes advantage or disadvantage into the playing field on which we are supposedly equal players. However, even to be subject to the whims of fate we have to subject ourselves to the play, like Luke Reinhart’s antihero in The Dice Man. After all, the odds of me winning the lottery are miniscule, but if I don’t play, they fall to zero with certainty.

This suggests another way to read luck, which is as opportunity. In the abstract, opportunities are almost endless, although we know in reality they are delimited by social conditions, by our desires and, most importantly I think, our attentiveness to the opportunities on offer. The first of these explains both why good governments are committed to equality of opportunity – because it expands the talent pool upon which society and economy depend – and why people migrate, legally or illegally, when they consider the existing conditions to be poor in their own country. The second point is obvious and not worth belabouring. I want to focus on the third, the issue of attention to opportunity.

Some people say we create our own luck. What I think they mean is that being prepared for opportunity increases the probability both seeing the opportunity when it arises and of being able to take advantage of it. “Fortune favours the prepared mind” as the saying goes, which I think says it well. That preparation has at least two dimensions, though. There is the development of the necessary intellectual or practical skills in line with personal desire and ambition. Then, there is the social dimension. This includes the ability to be articulate in socially important or career-defining situations, such as an interview, and the development of an enhanced network of contacts, which increases the likelihood of opportunities through interpersonal knowledge. These two things increase considerably the chance of seeing an opportunity when it arrives. There is one more: to take the risk and say yes to an opportunity when it arrives. It is surprising the number of people who have settled for a comfortable life rather than expose themselves to a greater challenge.

So, I think the argument from luck as a criticism of meritocracy is a non-starter. Rather, the idea of luck, not as a passive recipient but as an active agent, underlines the necessity of promoting and strengthening equality of opportunity. Although Mark does not propose an alternative, many are now prepared to demand an equitable solution, whereby groups who are considered disadvantaged are given preference in education and status job opportunities. In principle, all other things being equal in terms of skills, there is nothing wrong with this, when this is a decision made on an individual basis. Clearly, though, as the disadvantaged are by definition minorities, this cannot be universalised. When, as is the present case, equity becomes an ideological fixation, this is exactly what happens: identity trumps individual merit, but only for the disadvantaged sacred to the particular political ideology.

Two arguments are being confused here: one is whether a meritocratic system is more effective than an alternative in achieving the maximum utility of economic and governmental systems by promoting (ideally) the best possible candidates, which neither Mark nor Sandel offer any plausible evidence against; the other is whether a belief that success achieved through hard work being the result of inherent superiority, is morally wrong, which I think we would agree it is. Returning to the title of Mark’s argument, which parallels that of Sandel, he claims that meritocracy is morally pernicious, turning its believers into entitled, self-centred and uncaring individuals. Yet he undermines this with the other evidence he puts forward that believing in luck is more likely to make one grateful. There is nothing inherently incompatible between success through hard work and gratitude for that success, for we all “stand on the shoulders of giants” and all have received helping hands on the way. If there is a dearth of gratitude the fault lies in the social elites, parents and teachers in failing to instil that value. (As an aside, I find the greatest lack of gratitude and blindness to their own privilege among those who consistently denigrate the freedoms and benefits of their own society in the faux outrage on behalf of carefully curated victims of oppression.)

Nevertheless, there are, I believe, arguments against a meritocratic system, though they are hypothetical and may yet be resolved. They are what I term the issues of the globalisation of merit and the social concentration of status.

In an increasingly interconnected world, but one in which communication between individuals is now routinely carried out remotely, the local expert is becoming an endangered species. Companies and organisations now have access to a global pool of talent. This works to their advantage as they can optimise the search for the prime candidate globally, based on digitised credentials an interview online and maybe even the offer to work remotely from their own city or country. In near proximity to the hirer there may be 100 slightly less qualified candidates who will not get the job, each of whom in the past would have stood a greater chance of being employed locally. If, which is likely, this trend continues, and when combined with the offshoring of jobs that has happened notably in the UK and America, leading to large swathes of both countries that are in the economic doldrums with large numbers of economically inactive people, it will only further augment the erosion of the very idea of community upon which society is built.

The other problem is less well known and somewhat controversial. Children, we now believe, inherit their intelligence largely from their mothers. In the past, when most women were uneducated and married primarily for economic security, inherited intelligence was more widely distributed across the social classes. With the advent of universal education, and particularly with state sponsored selective education, this resulted in a degree of social churn, allowing even those from humble backgrounds to rise to the top of society. It was the case even two generations ago that a significant number of politicians, magnates and scientists came from poor families. With record numbers of women entering university and going on to professional careers, if they become mothers they will have children with men of a similar educational and professional level, so status – measured by education and income – will tend to become concentrated in such families and their children have the double advantage of a likelihood of higher inherited intelligence and the wealth associated with increased opportunities for good education and enriching life experiences. The converse is true: poor and undereducated men only get to have children with similar women, exacerbating the generational disadvantage.

This latter hypothesis is controversial for reasons other than its political implications. We do not know the degree to which intelligence is inherited and the degree to which it is nurtured by the environment. Also the demographics of countries such as the UK and America are changing. Middle class couples are having fewer children, many are having none and population replacement is increasingly falling to migrant families, who have more children and many view education as the source of upward mobility. Regarding the globalisation of merit, this could be a transient phenomenon in historical terms. We could see the re-emergence of an economic and social localism that coexists with a globalised high-order economy. Whatever the case, meritocracy is here to stay – at least if we intend to stay competitive in the world – though the necessity for equality of opportunity to be linked to changing social needs and expectations is paramount. Context is needed, clearly. Not every aspect of life can be decided on meritocratic grounds – I have argued that its scope for implementation is rather narrow. Furthermore, just as the operation of the market does not inherently generate greed unless we teach that it does or neglect to teach the virtues of moderation and generosity, a meritocratic system is perfectly compatible with empathy and gratitude if we want it to be.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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