Aeon has re-circulated an essay from last March which claims that belief in meritocracy is harmful without even identifying exactly what “meritocracy” is. In order not to be accused of the same omission I will identify a meritocracy as a social context in which power, wealth and/or other rewards are determined primarily by some kind of objectively measurable and universally recognized “merit”. There are of course many potential measures of both merit and power/reward, and so there are also many different kinds of meritocracy. The Aeon article appears to be concerned mainly with rewards of material wealth, and with merit as some vaguely defined combination of innate talent and hard work but it doesn’t explicitly say so and does not acknowledge any alternatives (such as those which apply in the academic world for example).

Another major problem with that article is that, despite claiming to make the distinction between reality and aspiration, it ends up nonetheless using arguments that conflate “belief in meritocracy” as a goal and as an opinion about the existing state of affairs. It starts by proclaiming the distinction and discussing the latter, but its main goal is to denounce the former and its arguments in that direction are where the conflation occurs.

Those who believe that we actually live in a meritocracy may indeed be unsympathetic to those who are less well off (and I am not unaware of the problem that if we actually did live in a meritocracy that might lead to an undesirable level of unconcern); but in fact we obviously do NOT live in a true meritocracy (where wealth and power are determined primarily by some kind of objectively measurable and universally recognized “merit”), and so the opinion of anyone who thinks we do is, to say the least, suspect (and I hope not representative of what would actually be the response of most people if we actually did live in such a meritocracy).

But the article then goes on to assert that having meritocracy as a goal also leads to hardening of unfair discriminatory attitudes. Some of the referenced research does seem to correlate a hardening of attitudes with a belief in the goal of meritocracy, but even in that research, not enough effort seems to have been made to clarify the distinction between what is desired and what is believed to be real – nor to discount the effect on one’s attitudes of thinking about an ideal alternate world without focusing on it’s difference from our own. In particular, for example, in the study by Castilla and Benard which “found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate” the “companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value” may have followed the usual corporate practice of asserting that one embodies a value and expecting everyone to agree rather than admitting that one does not actually embody that value and working to identify and correct deficiencies.

I actually suspect that a fairly subtle change of wording in some of the questions in those surveys might have had a dramatic effect on the responses and “conclusions”. (And most of what passes as social science “research” these days is similarly worthless because of the ease with which minor changes in protocol can be used to manipulate whatever outcome one desires to “prove”.)

What in my opinion is harmful about belief in a certain kind of meritocratic ideal is the lack of concern for the hardships of those we judge to be less deserving. But the belief that only those with some level of merit deserve a reasonable life is only a particular kind of meritocracy and there is no indication that holding to a kinder form leads one towards the more cruel. Leaving aside the tedious debates about whether the real Bill Gates fortune is due primarily more to talent or to luck, there is no need for a meritocracy which permits such wealth to deny the provision of a respectable floor below which no person’s wealth is allowed to fall.

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