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Meritocracy has become a leading social ideal. Politicians across the ideological spectrum continually return to the theme that the rewards of life — money, power, jobs, university admission — should be distributed according to skill and effort.
The most common metaphor is the ‘even playing field’ upon which players can rise to the position that fits their merit. Conceptually and morally, meritocracy is presented as the opposite of systems such as hereditary aristocracy, in which one’s social position is determined by the lottery of birth. Under meritocracy, wealth and advantage are merit’s rightful compensation, not the fortuitous windfall of external events.
Meritocracy is a false and not a very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order. It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.
Meritocracy offers flattery. Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth. Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. Its ideological alchemy transmutes property into praise, material inequality into personal superiority. It licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses. While this effect is most spectacular among the elite, nearly any accomplishment can be viewed through meritocratic eyes. Graduating from high school, artistic success or simply having money can all be seen as evidence of talent and effort. By the same token, worldly failures become signs of personal defects, providing a reason why those at the bottom of the social hierarchy deserve to remain there.
This is why debates over the extent to which particular individuals are ‘self-made’ and over the effects of various forms of ‘privilege’ can get so hot-tempered. These arguments are not just about who gets to have what; it’s about how much ‘credit’ people can take for what they have, about what their successes allow them to believe about their inner qualities. That is why, under the assumption of meritocracy, the very notion that personal success is the result of ‘luck’ can be insulting. To acknowledge the influence of external factors seems to downplay or deny the existence of individual merit.
Despite the moral assurance and personal flattery that meritocracy offers to the successful, it ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal. It’s false, and believing in it encourages selfishness, discrimination, and indifference to the plight of the unfortunate.