Let’s Talk About Meritocracy

Our present social atmosphere dictates that if you’re born poor, you’re almost certainly going to stay poor. Conversely, if you’re born in an affluent family, you’ll likely be well-off throughout your life. Social mobility is almost unseen today, and it’s all thanks to the gnawing gap stretching between the two extreme social classes. Sure, it’s easy to go down one level — all you have to do is mess up big time — but climbing the ladder is where it all gets tricky. Juans almost never become Johnnys.

The formula we see here is quite simple: The more money you have, the more opportunities you get; the more opportunities you get, the more money you’ll have. This trend starts early in life, too. Bright kids who grow up poor eventually get outstripped by their less bright but more fortunate peers. It doesn’t matter who deserves more opportunities; brains and talents can only get someone so far. It’s the kids with wealthy parents that get the best things in life. They go to the best schools, eat the best food, and grab the best opportunities. They are granted access to high culture, deservedly or not, because their parents’ wealth has automatically designated them a spot in heaven that their less fortunate peers can only dream of.

Okay, before you judge me of trying to be political, let me stress that my goal here is to provide a philosophical approach to this argument. I feel like I need to make that absolutely clear so that you political junkies out there can hold your water and give my thoughts a chance.

Now that you’ve been sufficiently advised, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

Unsplash - Mikael Kristenson
Photo by Mikael Kristenson from Unsplash

Meritocracy: A Satire in Motion

If meritocracy is a new concept to you, don’t worry. Unlike Pynchon on Gravity’s Rainbow, I won’t punish you for the knowledge you lack. Or will I? Anyway, meritocracy is a concept that’s easy to understand — it’s essentially a state where people are judged based on merit, and where merit = ability + effort.

The concept was idealized by Tony Blair, who repeated the same mantra of “meritocracy is good” on different occasions. He was quoted saying, “We are light years from being a true meritocracy” in 1995; “I want a society based on meritocracy” in 1997; and “the meritocratic society is the only one that can exploit its economic potential to the full for all its people” in 2000. Clearly, the man thinks meritocracy is the archetype of all good governments.

Here’s what’s funny, though. Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy,” originally meant it to be disparaging. The word first appeared in his 1958 book, “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” a satire presenting a future where social classes are determined based on merit. He intended to expose the absurdity of a meritocratic world, which may look like a fair and just society from a distance but is actually harsh and unforgiving upon closer inspection.

Young’s tone of ridicule and derision was almost hard to miss, yet many still managed to turn his book into a bible for a utopian world. Tony Blair wasn’t alone in his advocacy. Theresa May, another notable politician who believes in the soundness of meritocracy, said in her September 2016 speech that she wanted Britain to be “the world’s great meritocracy.” Another defender of this controversial concept is Daniel Bell — although in all fairness to him, he said he wanted a “well-tempered meritocracy,” in which the privileged looked after the less fortunate.

Michael Young, as most writers are wont to do, made his book with a goal in mind. For him, that was to warn us of the folly that we’re headed to. Although Young’s predictions missed the mark because meritocracy in its purest form never fully materialized, it would be a mistake to dismiss them entirely. We’re living in a world that is close to what he envisioned. Think of a half-baked clone — some of the characteristics of the original are there, but you can’t really say you have an exact replica.

As in his book, IQ tests are popping up left and right today. We especially see them in the academic sector, where students are segregated based on their level of intelligence. Because of these kinds of tests, students are pressured to devise ways to obtain good marks and earn merit instead of focusing on actually learning something. This competitive environment fosters an academic culture where failure is condemned and, thus, feared. It challenges students to seek elsewhere the sense of validation they can’t get from school — unless they’re at the top of their class, that is.

We also see merit being glorified over experience and tenacity in the workplace. The old model of incremental promotion has gradually declined to be replaced by a newer, more “just” model, where employees are promoted not based on how long they’ve been with a company but on what more they can contribute to it. While it’s true that some rank-and-file employees can still rise to the top after decades of hard work, it’s getting common for employers to hire people directly from universities and assign them higher posts. Traditional workplaces still encourage the ascent from the lowest rung of the ladder to the top, but modern settings are increasingly adopting the meritocratic model. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate.

Unsplash - Søren Astrup Jørgensen
Photo by Søren Astrup Jørgensen from Unsplash

What a Meritocratic World Looks Like

Let’s say we do manage to create a true meritocratic world. We’re almost halfway there, anyway, so it should be easy to imagine what it would be like in its purest form.

You know how today when you’re a lawyer, you will always be a lawyer unless you do something to get you debarred? Well, in a meritocratic world, social status will be determined exclusively by a rigorous system of merit that allows no room for failure. This type of merit rating will be the new standard in every platform and industry — seniority won’t mean anything anymore, and mental work and effort will be valued more than anything else. This means that job security will be impossible to attain. Elders will stand to be demoted from their posts as doctors, professors, and bishops because their decade-long experience will now be deemed worthless compared to the fresh insights and sharp abilities of their younger, albeit less experienced, peers. In a meritocratic world, everyone will be responsible for their place in the social pyramid.

“But this scenario is freaking awesome!” you might say. “People get what they deserve. It’s the best model of a fair and just society that I’ve ever seen!” Well, okay, easy there. Sure, in a meritocratic world, success is scientifically apportioned so that those in power deserve everything they have, and those at the bottom can only blame themselves for their misfortune. In other words, in a meritocratic society, success is deserved. But so is failure.

Just think about this. The new system puts its seal of approval on a minority, leaving the majority to their own deserved misery. Before you widen that smirk forming on your lips, think for a second if you really belong to the A-Team, the cream of the crop, the Einsteins, the Mozarts, the Picassos, and Twains of the world. Because if you don’t, then you just belong with the rest of us mediocre bunch who don’t deserve to be rich, famous, or popular.

Just for fun’s sake, let’s delve deeper into this world we created and take a look at two different perspectives: the winner’s and the loser’s.

Unsplash - Marie-Sophie Tékian
Photo by Marie-Sophie Tékian from Unsplash

From the Winner’s Perspective

We’ve already established that a meritocratic society favors talent and skill over inherited privilege — which means that people who start with an advantage are stripped down to their barest to facilitate a fair play. In the educational sector, this means that private schools for the rich will have to be abolished. Same goes for private hospitals and other infrastructure.

Once the groundwork for a meritocratic society has been laid, a merit-based social selection takes place, where the most intellectually worthy and most hardworking rise to the top. A new group of powerful intellectuals will rise, and they will be more vainglorious than any of their predecessors.

This meritocratic elite, gaining a sense of entitlement for earning what they have, will become unbearably smug about the power they hold in their hands. Ultimately, two inevitable things will happen: first, a portion of the new meritocratic elite will be possessed with greed (a trend that seems to plague every elite group in history); and second, they will stop caring about the unfortunates — because why should they?

Unsplash - Cristian Newman
Photo by Cristian Newman from Unsplash

From the Loser’s Perspective

Imagine you’re poor. Who do you blame for your wretched state? The government, of course. The corrupt, incompetent, good-for-nothing government that is responsible for everything wrong with your life. Sure, there’s also circumstance to blame, but it’s nothing compared to the mound of rubbish that the government is. So much for a philosophical, non-political discourse. Oh well.

Now, imagine you’re poor in a meritocratic society. Who do you blame for your wretched state? Yourself. Because you’re not smart enough, skilled enough, and hardworking enough to have a taste of the good life. Every day when you wake up, you feel the weight of moral failure dragging you deeper into your pit of misery. And there’s nothing anyone can do to save you. Until you decide to improve your IQ or hone your skills, or — dammit!— try harder to get a better life, you will always be poor, and you will always deserve it.

Don’t believe me? Then you should at least believe Michael Young’s son, British journalist Toby Young, who said, “In a wholly meritocratic society, where status is entirely dictated by a combination of IQ and effort, the people who aren’t successful don’t have an excuse for being unsuccessful, and since the vast majority of people will be unsuccessful in a meritocratic society, the vast majority of people will be unhappy and feel worthless.”

What else is there to say? While the A-Team wallow in their wealth and power, the F-Team are left to be miserable. They can’t complain to anyone about their plight because they’ll only be looked down on. No one will represent them in the new government because they won’t be deemed worthy enough. And if they attempt to represent themselves, they won’t be taken seriously because they just won’t be seen as reliable enough. Nothing they do will ever be enough!

Well, guess what. One day, these people will say with a unified voice, “We’ve had enough!” When this happens, human discontent will ripple among the lower social classes all over the world, and the seeds of revolution will be planted in the minds of the justly oppressed. One day, these poor souls, who have been brainwashed all their lives to think of themselves as nothing but scalawags, will find mighty ways to destroy everything they cannot have. And, there, right in the middle of the civil strife and discord that they’ll spawn, they will find the sense of validation their starved egos have always been pining for.

All this may sound far-fetched, but all governments must come to an end. This is the end I foresee in a meritocratic society.

Unsplash - Alex Hockett
Photo by Alex Hockett from Unsplash

Is Absolute Meritocracy Possible?

That is the true question. And I’m sorry to have led you this far into the discussion only to tell you that everything I made you imagine will always remain nothing but a figment of our collective imagination. You see, there was something Toby Young said that I conveniently withheld from you. His statement went: “I don’t think there is any chance the meritocratic society my father envisaged will ever emerge.” Oops.

He also explained why. He said, “The only way to make a truly meritocratic society work would be to separate children from their parents at birth because of the impact parental socio-economic status has. Philosophically, the main shortcoming of meritocracy is that a society in which your status is determined by your natural talent is no fairer, given that natural abilities are distributed at birth in a way which is random from a moral point of view, than a society in which your status is determined by inherited wealth, which is equally random from a moral point of view.”

In other words, equal opportunity cannot exist because someone will always have some leverage. So, there. I worried (or excited?) you all for nothing. It’s fine, keep them tomatoes and boos coming.

Unsplash - Vadim Fomenok
Photo by Vadim Fomenok from Unsplash

My Two Cents

Do I want a meritocratic society? I’m not going to lie — I grow salty when encountering self-entitled, filthy rich kids who have the world handed to them on a silver platter. Sometimes, I think of how unfair it all is. How come those privileged brats get to taste the best of life without earning it? How come they get to do what they want without breaking a sweat? I know some people who deserve half of what those rich kids have but only get a meager slice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “If every one of these lucky sons of bastards were to be assessed for their abilities and hard work, half of them will be dining with their poor neighbors right now. If it weren’t for their hardworking ancestors, they wouldn’t even be anywhere near the top of the social ladder!”

So, yes, I did welcome the idea of a meritocratic society once. Can you blame me?

However, upon mulling it over, I realized that I don’t really want that kind of harsh society. I don’t want to live in a world where those who can skillfully interpret spreadsheets are deemed to be of a higher class than those who can just as skillfully till the land. I don’t want to bear witness to the rise of a new social class that will exclude and oppress those that don’t belong to their circle. I don’t want to live in a world where the winners are all big-time champs and the losers are all pathetic underdogs.

Writing this article made me realize that I like this world better. Because, in this world, anyone can be a millionaire or a pop star or a one-hit wonder. In this world, you can have false hope (and real hope, sure) — you can have something to look forward to. At least this world still has some magic in it that a carefully defined meritocratic society will be sure to lack.

Burrito Wraps

Although we’ve gone to great lengths to imagine a meritocratic world, we can’t really know for sure what living in it would be like. Meritocracy is impossible to create — what we can have is only the ghost of it. However, although many are still torn between liking or scorning the concept, I’m personally banking on the belief that it’s a dystopia masquerading as a world of equality and fairness.

So, if I’m to leave you with a final thought, it’s this:

No matter how much or how little you get, it will always be a little more or a little less than you paid for. There’s a reason we say, “Life is unfair.” Because whether you believe in luck or not, it exists. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, how much blood and tears you sweat, you won’t get what you want. And, sometimes, no matter how hard you fuck up, you will always find a way out of a mess. That’s just the way it is. You win some, you lose some. But that doesn’t mean you always get what you deserve.

Or do you? Share your thoughts below. It’s not a debate if there’s only one person arguing.


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