Meritocracy is one of those things that sounds innocuous enough on the surface (hard work pays off! everyone gets rewarded proportionately according to their abilities!), but quickly starts to crumble once you look more closely (how are we measuring these efforts? what about opportunity? unconscious bias? isn't that ableist?).
But, thanks to this great short book review from New Republic, I've learned that those uglier aspects of meritocracy aren't just a debatable side effect to some egalitarian ideal—the inequality is central to the coinage of the phrase. British sociologist Michael Young wrote The Rise of Meritocracy in 1958; though the concept certainly existed before then, his book is largely credited with popularizing it. But, as Win McCormack explains in New Republic, Young was deliberately using the phrase in a pejorative sense:
He imagined a society in which the old class system of Britain had been swept aside; instead of inherited wealth or family connections, it was exceptional ability that propelled individuals into the elite. This new system, designed to reward the most talented, was just as rigidly hierarchical as the old one, in Young's depiction. And in important ways, it was worse: In the past, at least, those born into a high rank could not reasonably convince themselves that they had earned their position in the social hierarchy; likewise, people in the lower classes would be aware that they were not inferior in ability to many of those who ranked above them. By contrast, in this new system of meritocracy, individuals who reached the top positions would feel superior to those who fell short, while those at the bottom would inevitably be classified as failures.
It's a strange shift on the perspective of "meritocracy" as we've been raised to understand it. Yes, it's a threat to the previously existing establishment of hereditary power. But at least everyone knew that bloodlines were bullshit, and that workers could never really pull ahead. Monarchies may not have as much power today, but the system is largely the same—except now, there's an illusion that yes, you can get ahead, and that those at the top have earned their place by hard work instead of birthright.*
Some 40 years later, Young wrote in The Guardian that he had clearly intended "meritocracy" to be a satire. "I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been," he wrote. "If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later unemployment. They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves."
Young then goes on to call for higher taxes on the wealthy, whom, because of this misunderstanding of "meritocracy," have come to think of themselves as "deserving" of their rewards.
In the article, this is all a precursor to a book review of Michael J. Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? I haven't read it myself yet, but New Republic's account of certainly sounds fascinating, as Sandel explores the inherent tensions of "classic liberalism" and meritocracy, and how they've been weaponized to stunt progress:
Surveying the American scene again today, Sandel finds not only that procedural liberalism has failed to a disastrous extent—bringing the country almost to the verge of chaos and collapse—but that this failure was engineered by liberal politicians themselves, acting on the wildly erroneous assumption that by pursuing the goal of meritocracy, they were engaged in bringing about a more egalitarian economic order.
This, McCormack explains via Sandel, is as much the fault of Reagan and Thatcher as it is Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who replicated that same rhetoric of hard work paying off while reinforcing a system in which that plainly wasn't true.
It's a short article, but it raises a lot of points, and makes me want to read more of these books.
Meritocracy on Trial [Win McCormack / New Republic]
The Rise of Meritocracy [Michael Young]
The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? [Michael J. Sandel]
Image: Public Domain via NeedPix
*I have an unrefined theory about the way this manifests in the US vs the UK. In America, 99.9% of successful 20-somethings already come from money. But that little detail gets glossed over in the public narrative, replaced by "hard work" and meritocracy. The same is true in Britain, but—anecdotally, from across the ocean—there appears to be a greater social acceptance of acknowledging that so-and-so is the child of so-and-so, who is wealthy and important. None of this changes the facts of who gets ahead in the world; the meritocratic monarchs still believe they pulled themselves up their own bootstraps. But the Britain seem more willing to acknowledge the existence of an impenetrable class structure than us Americans are, with our rugged individualism.