In this article we try to clarify the notion of meritocracy and show that it is indeed a valid concept which can be used to assess any proposed system of government or management.
Meritocracy is defined as the promotion of individuals on basis of talent, achievement or intellectual ability. It is a concept that to many would appear self evident, yet it is in competition with other methods of selection, such as wealth (plutocracy) or popularity (democracy), which frequently result in an inferior outcome. The origins of the term are said to be negative, but a gentle redefinition from the original sarcastic usage can make the idea very powerful and beneficial for society.
The argument is that, if individuals are promoted on the basis of merit to positions of leadership, then those organizations will run more effectively, since decisions made will likely be more logical and mistakes avoided. Society benefits as less harm is done and more good is achieved. The Meritocracy Party (UK) espouses these principles, more or less.
The strongest argument against a meritocratic system (of government, or anything else) is that the meritorious will quickly convert the system to an oligarchy run by a self appointed elite. It is clear that, from generation to generation, wild fluctuations in intellectual capacity of progeny occur, which serve to show how problematic an oligarchy can be. The Bush Family and the British Royal Family come to mind as examples. The Iraq war, the stagnation of British democracy and the current world economic crisis could all be attributed to a failure of social systems to establish or maintain a meritocratic process.
Meritocracy is not a system in itself, but an attribute of a system. This is a particularly important distinction. Once a system, as good as it may be, ceases to successfully promote individuals on basis of merit, it ceases to be meritocratic, no matter how much it is advertised to the contrary. The system becomes corrupt. Frequently, people will argue over what constitutes merit. Those in positions of power will seek to change and redefine merit to promote themselves. It is therefore important to define merit in an indisputable way and to establish mechanisms which protect and defend the idea of merit.
What is merit?
Defining merit depends on context. Merit consists of attributes which predict that an individual will be successful at a given task. A person who scores well in a mathematics exam at a graduation exam is likely to make a good mathematician, for example. In the field of academia, meritocracy is rightly an overriding principle for promoting and maintaining excellence.
The scientific process can be used to validate many meritorious attributes, by the use of objective measures and statistical analysis. Attributes can be weighted, and the probability of success estimated for each applicant for a given position or role. Some attributes, such as honesty or compassion, cannot be measured reliably, but can, nonetheless, be measured. Moral principles and moral integrity should feature in any system of promotion, either by looking for positive signs of these, or the absence of negative signs, as these traits are important in the perpetuation of the meritocratic ideal.
Some systems naturally lend themselves to meritocratic principles, such as sporting events, where performance is easily quantified. Yet within a sporting team, for example, determining who should be given a leadership position is less clear. There are, of course, systems which are used to guide the selection of leaders among a group, many of which are more or less scientifically validated, but the process is frequently not transparent and is easily corrupted. Thus, meritocracy is a thing which exists only when it lives in the minds of those who have the power to deliver it.
Social Aspects of Meritocracy
There are those who question the justice of a merit based system in terms of wealth distribution and so forth. This can only be because of a distorted view of who might merit the privilege of having wealth. The distribution of wealth needs to be divided into needs and wants. All individuals, families and groups ought to be given what they need to survive, without discrimination. This is a basic duty of any society. The concept of wealth should be considered in a narrower sense. If wealth is defined as things, over and above basic needs, that can be had for the greater enjoyment of life, it would be safe to state that merit based wealth distribution can be nothing other than fair.
There are those who would say that democracy is not a form of meritocracy, yet anything other than democracy is a lesser form of government. This kind of thinking misses the point of meritocracy, which, like the love of truth, or the rule of law, is an underlying principle to guide higher order actions. A democracy is a meritocracy if the candidates are meritorious and the populace recognizes merit and votes accordingly. Western democracies today are far from being meritocratic, because they have become overly populist and have not been scaled appropriately with growing populations. For example, it is too easy for privately owned mass media outlets to influence the outcomes of elections, and the presence of political parties places an excessive bias on the selection of candidates.
There are those who say that meritocracy denies equal opportunity. Yet the ideal of free participation in society at any level regardless of immutable traits (which in many cases define one’s abilities and therefore merits) is impractical and false. Furthermore, equal opportunity is generally not applied in such absurd ways. A dumb person cannot be an orator, for example, so a dumb person should not be employed as an orator. Of course, the immutable trait of having no voice can potentially be overcome by technology, at which point the trait is no longer immutable. Meritocracy therefore has no adverse effect in terms of fairness, in reality.
There are many other arguments against meritocracy which can be discovered on the Internet. By and large, these arguments are defeated simply by defining meritocracy appropriately. In other cases, comparisons with meritocracy serve to show up the alternatives as lacking in fairness, integrity and merit.
Promoting and Maintaining Meritocracy
To reiterate, meritocracy should itself be seen as an attribute of a system and not the definition of a system. There can really be no use for a term such as “meritocrat“, as this is a truism, even a Socratic Virtue. The question is not about whether there should be merit, but what constitutes merit. Thus, meritocracy can well be promoted as a universal concept, a universal truth.
The concept of meritocracy needs to be introduced and engendered in culture for it to flourish. If people feel that they have a right to experience meritocracy, and the duty to practice it, they will notice its absence and hopefully do something to change their situation. Without the culture of merit, there can only be corruption.
Once someone is promoted on the basis of merit, there should be periodic assessment to determine whether the selection of the individual was a correct one. Audits and a process of ‘dethronement’ should be inherent to any meritocratic system. This needn’t be done in a threatening manner, since it should always be assumed that, provided proper process was followed, a promotion was appropriate, but nonetheless this is something which is frequently lacking in many organizations.
Enemies of Merit
Certain forms of government and systems of management systematically prevent meritocratic principles from being followed. Despotism is an extreme example, where unchecked power is let loose, frequently with catastrophic results.
All power needs accountability. Even a Pope can (and occasionally should) be toppled, owing to heresy, provided that the faithful are astute enough to recognize that he has abrogated his authority.
All power is, ultimately, accountable. Despite how complete a grip on power some may appear to have, it is never absolute, and provided that the culture of merit is able to permeate a population, no despot, no oligarchy and no elite group should be considered to be above the will of the populace. Indeed, any system can be reformed to permit the promotion of individuals on the basis of merit alone.
See also – Distributionism and the Crisis