November 20, 2018

Does the Meritocracy Have Merit?

“When people today hear the term “meritocracy,” they tend to think of something like selective university admissions or civil service promotions, where an institutionalized sorting mechanism identifies and rewards the best and the brightest. Or they think of the socio-economic arrangements of Silicon Valley, where a performance and data-driven approach to reward and advancement has displaced the elitism and backward-looking traditions of the East Coast establishment. In both cases meritocracy means that privilege is determined by some objective measure of individual achievement or talent—test scores or productivity—as opposed to either accidents of birth or subjective factors. Meritocracy is the antithesis of the ancien régime, where family legacies and ephemeral virtues such as wit and honor determined one’s social position, and of the patronage systems of ethnic favoritism and ward-boss city politics. Meritocracy has come to underlie our civil rights laws, which effectively define unlawful discrimination in terms of a departure from meritocratic norms. It promises to be rational, objective, and evenhanded.

There’s so much to like here that until very recently it has been rare to hear anyone speak against meritocracy. Of course there are well-worn criticisms of class bias in university admissions and of sexism in Silicon Valley, but here the complaint is of an incomplete meritocracy, not a complaint about meritocracy itself. Accordingly, the demand is always for more and better meritocracy.

But recently critiques of meritocracy have proliferated. Many come from ideological conservatives who attack the snobbishness of the urban bi-coastal cultural elite, or the exclusivity of university admissions policies. While often valid as far as they go, these arguments are often transparently self-serving: They lambaste bastions of liberalism and propose solutions designed to promote their own ideological predilections, which on occasion even lurch into inanities such as “diversity should include the most underrepresented minority group of all: conservative white Christians!”

But broader and less opportunistic critiques of meritocracy are emerging from across the ideological spectrum. Or, more precisely, the critique is re-emerging, for the neologism was first used as in the context of a trenchant social criticism.”

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