July 5, 2019 Reading Time: 7 minutes

In every time, while there is disagreement about many things, there are some principles that almost everyone agrees with and supports. These ideas are not controversial in themselves; such debate as there is centers around competition to see who is more truly supportive of them. The actual ideas are not questioned. 

Today, one such idea is that of meritocracy. Everyone seems to favor it and believe in it. This is true across the political spectrum. Even self-defined socialists often claim to support meritocracy, which is remarkable when you consider that equality is meant to be the central value of that particular philosophy. (A meritocratic society is not equal. It may have very unequal rewards and status. The critical point is that these unequal rewards are assigned on the basis of “merit.”) There is a great deal of argument about meritocracy, particularly recently, but most of this concerns the failure to live up to meritocratic ideals in practice, rather than an all-out criticism of the principle itself. 

This would have dismayed but not surprised the man who invented the term and concept (if not the actual practice), the late Michael Young. Young, a distinguished British social scientist and radical activist, coined the term in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book was a dystopian satire that described the appearance of a new kind of social hierarchy, one based on something called merit. This was defined as “talent plus effort” with the degree to which one had it measured by success in formal assessments. Young believed that Britain had been moving in this direction for several decades by the time he wrote the book. 

The work itself described a future world run on these lines and the damaging social effects of the underlying principle, as well as a final revolt against it in 2033. It was intended as a warning, and the term “meritocracy,” which Young coined, was meant to be a critical and pejorative one. To his dismay, the institutions of meritocracy continued to develop, and the word and idea itself were taken up enthusiastically as a positive good, exactly the opposite of what he had intended. 

As Young pointed out, both the idea and practice were novel. Historically, social position was almost always ascribed: it came from birth and the traditional ranking of occupations and ways of living, with some defined as noble or elevated and others as base and common. 

Gradually though, modern societies were moving, Young argued, toward a situation where position and rank and status were assigned not by birth, but by success according to some kind of measurement process, with higher levels of attainment indicating greater merit and leading to higher status. The crucial element was that the hierarchical ranking of occupations and positions was retained; what changed was the way people got those positions.

The ideal was a marked departure from all three of the political traditions of modern societies. One of the central elements of traditional conservatism was a robust defense of traditional hierarchy as both inevitable and socially beneficial. The radical egalitarian tradition also rejected meritocracy because it conflicted with the core belief of equality of income and condition. Despite what many now think, it was also in conflict with the social philosophy of the third tradition, classical liberalism. 

The idea of meritocracy was thus a departure from the social ideals of all of the main political traditions of the modern world. Despite this, the practice became widespread, and after Young’s book the idea very quickly achieved the unchallenged position it now holds. Related ideas, such as that of equality of opportunity (held to be a precondition for real meritocracy), also achieved a hegemonic position in contemporary debate.

This hegemonic status does not mean that there has been no debate around the idea — far from it. What we have seen however is vehement criticism of practices and institutions that are supposed to be barriers to true meritocracy, such as private education and inherited wealth. 

More recently there has been a great deal of vehement criticism of the actual way that the idea works out in the real world. The thrust of these is that meritocracy as now practiced is a fraud. The institutions of meritocracy, it is said, actually work to preserve and even strengthen hereditary privilege. Institutions that are meant to measure merit (defined, remember, as talent plus effort or application) seem to always work to the benefit of the children of the better off. 

In all areas, such as politics, law, the media, and even popular culture, success seems to go to those who start with advantages, and in all of these areas the degree of heredity, of people being successful on the back of their parents’ or relatives’ success and connections, is remarkable. It is still a huge disadvantage to start life as poor, from a working-class background, or from an ethnic or religious minority (with some notable exceptions).

However, this is criticism of the practice of the idea, rather than of the idea itself. The conclusion of most such critiques is not that we should rethink the idea of meritocracy itself but that we need to make it work better and to remove the advantages that come from being born to wealthy, connected, and supportive parents.

Much of the criticism employs an idea that is connected to and derived from that of meritocracy: the idea of social mobility. 

The concept of social mobility itself is fairly straightforward. Upward social mobility means achieving a higher social status than the one you were born into, downward social mobility the opposite. Status here is measured in a number of different ways. 

One of course is income, but the categorizations used in almost every country also use other criteria in addition to that. Social status is one (so, in the UK, professions, such as teaching or being in the clergy, have a higher social status than being a skilled tradesman, even though the income level may be lower). Another is the degree to which you are in control of your working hours and conditions rather than simply doing what you are told — again this does not match up perfectly with income. 

The reality, which the criticisms of meritocracy dwell on, is that in many countries social mobility has not increased since the 1970s and by many measures has actually declined. The chance that your position in society will be different from that of your parents is less now in the U.S. and UK than it was in the 1960s, for example.

According to the idea of meritocracy, if the system works properly, then assuming that innate talent is only heritable to a slight degree (i.e., no more than 40 percent) and distributed among the population then you should expect to see much more social mobility, in both directions. This however is not what we see. The practice of meritocracy does tend to entrench hereditary advantage rather than diminishing it, and in contemporary societies (particularly the Anglo-Saxon ones) social mobility as commonly defined is indeed in decline or at best stagnant. 

One criticism, found on the right, is that this is because of bad policy (particularly in education) and social dysfunction among the poor, with bad habits and outlook meaning that people with innate talent do not do as well as they might. On the left, the argument is that the current practice is a fraud because of structural barriers to the realization of merit by certain groups. These include such things as racism, both conscious and structural, the effects of networking, and the way existing institutions such as educational ones systematically work to the benefit of “insiders” — that is, the already advantaged. All of these criticisms are true and well-founded to some degree. 

However, they all miss the point that Michael Young was trying to make back in 1958. It is not a matter of trying to make meritocracy work better or as it should in an ideal world. The point is that even if it could be made to work properly, it would be a really bad idea. There is something deeply wrong with the idea of meritocracy itself, and also with the related idea of social mobility. The point made earlier about its being distinct from the main political traditions means that conservatives, egalitarians, and liberals should all reject it, although for different reasons.

In the first place, the idea of meritocracy requires a totalitarian state if you are going to take it seriously. For a truly meritocratic system to exist, there would have to be genuine equality of opportunity in the sense that all people would have to start on an equal footing at birth and in very early childhood. This is particularly important because of the overwhelming evidence that differences between family conditions mean that there are disparities between children by as early as the age of two to four and that these then persist and even increase throughout life. 

What would this mean? It would require a confiscatory inheritance tax so that nobody gained from inherited wealth. More seriously however it would necessitate the abolition of the family because of the enormous differential benefits that come from being born into particular households and families. These, and other measures that would be needed, could only be realized by a totalitarian state.

Secondly, as Michael Young pointed out, a meritocratic social system is going to produce all kinds of bad consequences through its being put into practice. In particular it will have disastrous results for social cohesion and on the outlook of all parts of the population. It will produce a smug and self-satisfied elite and a self-hating and resentful underclass. 

Neither of these things is desirable, to put it mildly. The institutional practices of a meritocratic society will have devastating results for education, scholarship, and culture. The point is that these are not avoidable consequences produced by ham-fisted or faulty application of the ideal. They are inherent features of the ideal itself and so unavoidable.

The real problem however is that the basic assumption behind the ideal of meritocracy is wrong. Here the common understanding of the term needs to be corrected. The common belief is that meritocracy simply means getting the right person for the job, rather than, for example, making an incompetent idiot the manager because he is the boss’s son. 

The idea does mean that, but it has another essential and more important element, which was alluded to earlier. This is the idea that some jobs and ways of making a living are better than others. That is, they are more dignified, more virtuous, more respectable, and more socially significant. 

Consequently, they have a higher status, as well as (often) higher emoluments. This means that, by extension, some people are better than others by virtue of the kind of work they do and position that they have. The thing is to ensure that these virtue-giving positions are filled by people who satisfy a neutral gauge of merit. There is therefore a hierarchy of status and esteem, but where you are in it is the result of merit.

From a classical liberal point of view this is profoundly wrong. Classical liberals and individualists, contrary to what many now think, did not advocate social mobility or the kind of merit-based hierarchy of status and esteem described just now. The liberal social ideal was that of the equal status and respect due to all people and occupations regardless of what they did or involved in terms of work. (This did not imply equal reward, but, crucially, esteem and status were separated from income.) 

This was a quite different kind of social ideal from the meritocratic one that has become dominant, as well as being different from both the traditional conservative belief in hierarchy or degree, and the radical egalitarian support for substantive equality. If you are an individualist you should reject meritocracy and rediscover another social ideal.

Stephen Davies


Dr Steve Davies, a Senior Fellow at AIER,  is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).

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