Redefining ‘Merit’

December 30, 2021 Updated: December 31, 2021


Social engineering movements appear to have increased in number and intensity during 2021.

It is useful, for intellectual and strategic purposes, to ascertain whether there is a common theme that links these movements and explains the growing anxiety about their impact on a person’s expectation to be rewarded on the ground of his or her “merit.”

An overriding theme that interconnects these movements concerns the reasons why some intelligent, diligent, imaginative, and entrepreneurial people fail to achieve promotion and may be overlooked in favour of applicants whose achievements are questionable or even non-existent.

Ideally, people should be promoted on “merit.” The usual arguments in favour of this are that “merit” enhances efficiency, increases productivity, and contributes to overall fairness. Yet, putting forth such arguments nowadays can also be like waving a red flag in front of an aggressive bull in the matador’s ring.

Of course, “merit” is an undefined, ambiguous concept. There are various versions of it, which their proponents may ardently promote, but are mutually exclusive.

For example, it could simply refer to a person’s ability to perform a job. This version focuses on the “essential” requirements which must be met to complete allocated tasks. But an extended version of the concept allows an assessment of “desirable” characteristics, including a person’s ability to make decisions, assume responsibility, generate wealth, resolve conflicts, and disclose entrepreneurial flair.

Alternatively, it could be regarded as a concept that produces desirable social outcomes or results, for example, the representation of people in positions of influence and power in proportion to their numerical strength in society.

Under this version, a person’s suitability for a job would need a consideration of the characteristics over which an individual has limited or no control, including gender, race, family background, or education.

Specifically, proponents of this second version argue that an applicant should be compensated for any perceived or actual disadvantages. Compensation often requires the discounting of another person’s assumed privileges.

Epoch Times Photo
People walk down 16th street after volunteers painted “Black Lives Matter” on the street near the White House in Washington on June 5, 2020. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

According to this argument, a white privileged male who may have attended an expensive private high school and studied at a sandstone university possessing greater benefits compared to an applicant who attended an understaffed and oversubscribed public school, and may have come from a broken family background, or even suffered the impact of bad life decisions.

So, in assessing a person’s qualifications not only should individual characteristics be considered, but also the social landscape, widely defined, which moulds the opportunities of people.

On this line of argument, a disadvantaged person may be regarded as a “victim” of a discriminatory social environment, or unlucky circumstances, which effectively deprive them of social mobility and opportunity.

Privileged people are often blamed for this lack of opportunity, especially if less-privileged people regard themselves as victims of endemic or institutionalised discrimination.

This second version of “merit” explains, to a considerable extent, the traction of current social engineering movements.

For example, it illuminates the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, critical race theory (CRT)—now overwhelming in university curriculums—the political correctness pandemic and its associated cancel culture movement, and the diversity and inclusiveness and affirmative action programs.

By way of example, the BLM movement—which exposes discrimination against black people and police brutality—and CRT are based on the proposition that white privilege is a result of systemic and endemic discrimination against black people on the grounds of their race—a characteristic over which they have no control.

These movements are neo-Marxists in nature because they often involve the substitution of “class” with “race” to attack assumed white privilege and to bring about an egalitarian dreamland.

This second version of “merit” facilitates the inexorable march to utopian socialism where inequality-enhancing characteristics must be eliminated. Additionally, the pursuit of excellence, which involves the implementation of the first version of “merit” is suspended to embed utopian equality in a refashioned society.

A vandal wraps chains around the neck of the statue of former President Andrew Jackson during an attempt by protestors to pull the statue down in the middle of Lafayette Park in front of the White House during racial inequality protests in Washington, D.C. on June 22, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

In the end, the reform process denies that there are open-ended degrees of excellence.

It is not unusual for governments to facilitate this reform process by developing intricate social welfare systems that try to eliminate the perceived advantages of the privileged class and provide compensation for the non-privileged class.

While such a system may be necessary as a safety net for the disadvantaged, needy, incapacitated, or disabled, it becomes problematic if it deprives people of privileges obtained through good work ethic.

Hence, the implementation of the second version of “merit” is a worrying development because the view that all opportunity is simply the consequence of undeserved privilege is neither compelling nor commendable.

Nevertheless, this argument still persists and is promoted with alacrity.

Liberal democracies now boast bureaucracies to ensure that the disadvantaged can compete with the privileged. They may do this by giving the “disadvantaged” a head start when they apply for promotion, thereby handicapping the “privileged.”

These bureaucratic quangos, in assessing people’s qualifications may embrace a form of comparable worth—making decisions on whose disadvantage deserves compensation.

It activates a complex administrative system aimed at eradicating disadvantage and creating a level playing field, but it is easy to see how such a system can be manipulated to achieve desired outcomes compatible with the aspirations of the social engineering brigade.

American economist Milton Friedman, in an iconic statement, once said, “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

The veracity of this aphorism beautifully captures the dilemma that policy makers and trendsetters must consider when making decisions based on “merit.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).