What’s Wrong With Meritocracy

October 24, 2019 Updated: November 5, 2019


Meritocracy is a system in which people accumulate wealth and power on the basis of their abilities as measured by examinations, rather than through birth, inheritance, or corruption.

The term was coined in England in a 1958 dystopian novel, “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” by socialist Michael Young. He meant it as a warning, not an endorsement.

Such a system, despite its apparent fairness, would be damaging for individuals and destructive for society.

Young cautioned readers against separating children from an early age into those destined for success in life and those already marked as failures. That was what the new standardized examinations in Britain were doing at the time, he warned. It would lead not to fairness and equality, but to new kinds of class rigidity and social division. Eventually, by 2033, the novel predicts, the result would be social revolution.

The Appeal of Meritocracy

While the English term “meritocracy” may have been coined in the 1950s, the concept of selecting a centralized civil service on the basis of merit as assessed by examinations is attributed to the influence of Confucius in China.

The private British East India Co. adopted a similar examination-based meritocratic approach to its rule of India in the 19th century. The idea of civil service examinations to select bureaucratic administrators spread to the British civil service itself and to most developed countries. It was meant to replace corruption and connections, but often coexisted with them.

The advantages of such a system have always been more obvious than the disadvantages. It offers a consistent and seemingly fair alternative to corruption, personal and political influence, inherited advantage, and connections. In the United States, an appointment to many administrative positions via civil service exams became the preferred alternative to the spoils systems, nepotism, bribery, and other forms of corruption.

It’s not surprising, then, that meritocracy became the preferred way of distributing rewards in society. It made sense, not least to those who were good at taking examinations. It favored efficiency and expertise in public administration, and distrusted other avenues to power and influence. It sought to replace the aristocratic old-boys’ networks that helped those favored by birth or connections climb the ladder of success, as well as those who emerged from below with very little formal education to lead working-class unions and parties.

In the UK, both the leader of what was called “New Labour,” Tony Blair, who was prime minister from 1997 to 2007, and Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May (from 2016 to 2019) sang the praises of meritocracy, as opposed to the class divisions that they saw as separating society into haves and have-nots.

In May’s telling, meritocracy gave a fair chance to “ordinary people” to excel and advance to positions of leadership, instead of the privileged. It was her vision for using the education system for social engineering, to advance to a “truly meritocratic Britain.” She wanted Britain, she said, to be the “great meritocracy of the world.”

What could possibly go wrong with such a vision? Plenty, as it turns out.

The Case Against Meritocracy

The drawbacks, practical and theoretical, to such a scheme are in part a matter of fairness and in part a matter of its social effects.

Looking at meritocracy as a method of treating everyone equally so that no unfair advantage goes to those who are born into privilege, some say it doesn’t go far enough.

Not only are you giving your children an unfair advantage by sending them to elite private schools or paying for tutoring to help them do well on standardized tests, according to one professor in England, you should at least feel bad about reading your children bedtime stories, since this confers an unfair advantage on them.

One could argue, on that basis, for abolishing the family as well as private schools, all in the name of social justice.

Others who favor justice and equality, in some sense, regard the quest to achieve it by using the education and examination system to override natural advantages stemming from birth and upbringing as impossible and wrongheaded. Corruption and connections will never be expunged, and any examination system is going to, by its nature, favor some qualities and achievements over others.

For example, IQ may be given priority over emotional intelligence, curiosity, kindness, initiative, or creativity. These seem no less important to the flourishing of human societies and the organizations that run them. But the meritocratic system is self-perpetuating. Those who control education and testing are those already determined to have the qualities they teach and assess.

Then there are the demoralizing and divisive effects of dividing society into winners (the deserving elites) and losers (the undeserving majority). The winners see their success as fully merited by their intellectual capacity and personal effort, while the latter have no one to blame but themselves.

The new class of experts created by this education and examination system largely controls it, Young argues in his critique of meritocracy, a system by means of which this class reproduces itself. It achieves wealth, power, and influence by merit alone, it believes. But this new class uses them to control the economy and society, to rule in its own interest, and to perpetuate its own domination.

Strip Mining

The social effects are devastating. They increase inequality and social division, and destroy civil society—family and community structures that develop organically and don’t depend on success in examinations—while concentrating power in the state and educated elite.

Elite universities in the United States create such effects, author Patrick Deneen argues in his book “Why Liberalism Failed,” comparing the result to strip mining:

“They engage in the educational equivalent of strip mining: identifying economically viable raw materials in every city, town, and hamlet, they strip off that valuable commodity, process it in a distant location, and render the products economically useful for productivity elsewhere. The places that supplied the raw materials are left much like depressed coal towns whose mineral wealth has been long since mined and exported. Such students embrace ‘identity’ politics and ‘diversity’ to serve their economic interests, perpetual ‘potentiality,’ and permanent placelessness. The identities and diversity thus secured are globally homogeneous, the precondition for a fungible global elite who readily identify other members capable of living in a cultureless and placeless world defined above all by … globalized indifference toward shared fates of actual neighbors and communities.”

We see this process at work politically in the stripping of other classes and strata of their natural leaders and parties. The British Labour Party, for example, has transformed itself into the party of the educated and cultural elites, dominating the mainstream media, law, and education.

The same process is at work in the United States, as the Democrats spurn their working-class base—deplorables, the scum of society, clinging to their guns and religion, as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama, respectively, put it.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

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

Paul Adams
Paul Adams
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of "Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is," and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.