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June 22, 2016


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Meritocracy sounds fair to many I think, because people try to apply a certain widespread private morality to the public square.
People should get what they deserve,according to their inborn qualities.
Even Martin Luther King said as much in some of his speeches, didn't he?


Isn't meritocracy a sliding scale? So Denmark, for example, is more meritocratic than the UK. And the UK in the 1960s was more meritocratic than it is now. So shouldn't our aim to be "more meritocratic" rather than to dismiss meritocracy as a Utopian dream.

Luis Enrique

I don't think meritocracy means conforming with your notion of merit: it means the best writer of clickbait journalism gets to write clickbait journalism as opposed to the nephew of the editor.

this all smacks of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good to me. Sure, if you take meritocracy literally it might not make much sense but sames goes for taking egalitarianism literally. As a direction to move towards - improving the status-quo in the direction of meritocracy is hard to argue against. Plus the differences between that and other conceptions of the good seem exaggerated to me - becoming more meritocratic would require becoming more egalitarian, so why position the two as opposing idea?

Second time as farce

Of course, the term "meritocracy" was coined by Michael Young to describe a dystopian society (based on meritocracy) - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rise_of_the_Meritocracy

An Alien Visitor

"He shows that Britain is far from being a meritocracy: the privately educated do far better than the state-educated; even within the state sector the best schools are in the most expensive areas; and in most professions nepotism, expensive qualifications and the need to do unpaid internships exclude bright people from poor backgrounds."

He hasn't shown anything, in that we already knew these things as they have been repeated ad nauseam.

The main reason we should be against a meritocracy is because under capitalism it automatically includes bias toward professional people. E.g. an accountant who helps the rich evade tax is considered of higher merit than a nurse who helps patients recover.

So meritocracy is tied to the system and its power structures. A meritocracy under capitalism will look different to one under socialism or whatever system.


The main reason we should be against a meritocracy is because under capitalism it automatically includes bias toward professional people. E.g. an accountant who helps the rich evade tax is considered of higher merit than a nurse who helps patients recover

Not so: the reason an accountant who helps the rich avoid (not evade, or they would be in gaol) earns more, under capitalism, than a nurse is not because of any 'bias', or even of any notion of 'merit', but simply because of supply and demand.

Just about anybody can do the jobs expected of a nurse; far fewer have the knowledge of the tax code, and the ability to spot the loopholes in it, which are needed to advise the rich on their tax affairs.

The true comparison to the accountant would be with a Doctor of senior consultant level, who would have a similar amount of knowledge about the working of the human body and the ways in which it can go wrong, together with the ability to spot what is happening in any particular case.

Those skills are just as rare and, indeed, we find that senior consultants an top accountants have similar levels of pay.

So, basically, nothing to do with bias or merit; simply a result of supply and demand. If anybody can do a job, it will be low-paid, as those who do it can easily be replaced; if those who can do it are few in number, so hard to replace, it will be well compensated, perhaps very well if the number who can do it is low enough (for example, a top-level professional footballer).


"Just about anybody can do the jobs expected of a nurse; far fewer have the knowledge of the tax code, and the ability to spot the loopholes in it, which are needed to advise the rich on their tax affairs. "

Just wow, how you assumed "merit" and "difficulty" on these two occupations, based on the remuneration. As far as I know, the educational requirements for both occupations are about the same.


A lottery with astronomical odds is equality of opportunity. That's not exactly what most would want when it comes to their own life outcomes.

ken melvin

What constitutes merit? There are highly educated people who are incapable of making good decisions, who can not function in tense situations, ...

How long before we see suits brought because someone was denied a position they merited by way of educational degree?


gettin jobs on merit is a good idea

the problem is , that merit is not properly defined

a person from a poor background where he is excluded from many opportunities

who can almost match a person from a rich background who has every support and opportunity

even using the rich persons ground rules,

to me has far more merit


just because what they call a meritocracy, is not a meritocracy, doesn't mean we should stop aiming for one

Kate Jackson

I'm not sure meritocracy - in abstract - is inconsistent with a free market.

"Merit" is an instrumental concept - a person who possesses this attribute possesses or exhibits some capacity to fulfill a valued end or purpose. It is impossible to determine whether someone has this capacity unless and until we identify that valuable end. So what's valuable? That's a question for political and ethical philosophy.

I imagine most economists would apply a utilitarian analysis in conjunction with the price-setting mechanism to argue that (1) we value the things that are found in the market according to their prices; and (2) our relative merit is identified by the price our labor brings in the market for producing those things we find in the market. But that's just one conception of value, and valid only under stringent assumptions.

Of course, some capacities will be amenable to a broader set of ends (hard work, diligence, etc.), but often they are not the only, and sometimes not the most important, capacity towards achieving that end. So it's problematic to simply apply these "catch-all" capacities when practicing meritocracy.

I think it is this shoe-horning of catch-all capacities, or otherwise selecting some capacity that isn't useful to achieve all valued ends (e.g., good memory, "IQ"), that leads to the problems with meritocracy that are identified above.

The deeper problem, though, is that we don't think very hard about what is valuable. I would have liked the piece to address this part.

Ron Waller

This reminds me of the capitalism argument: good or bad? It all depends on what you mean by 'capitalism'. A better way to look at that argument is to break economics up into a spectrum: the left pole is full government control over the economy; the right pole is no government involvement in the economy. So, is the centrist Keynesian mixed-market system capitalism or socialism or both or neither? How about left-leaning democratic socialism of Scandinavia?

With meritocracy, people can get distracted on how it's said to be achieved. People said Soviet communism was a meritocracy. It descended into a corrupt, inefficient bureaucracy. People said American free-market capitalism was a meritocracy. It descended into entitled sociopaths looting and liquidating private and public institutions of trillions of dollars causing economic collapse.

I think meritocracy is inevitably a desirous goal given its opposite. Meritocracy only becomes a stupid concept on the basis that everyone has to sing for their supper (and when incomes are marked to market.) It's barbarous to suggest that people have to be merited enough to receive the necessities of life. Public benefits like health care are rights, not extras. And that's where meritocracy comes in. People who make extraordinary contributions to society are given extraordinary financial rewards.

In short, merited contributions to society produce growth in GDP and living standards as long as the innovators and performers are contributing more to society than receiving in financial rewards — and the people have a guaranteed income and benefits which grow as the economy grows. (There are limits on real median income and wealth held privately, but not publicly in benefits, public works and sovereign wealth funds.)

The opposite of meritocracy is really the problem: bureaucracy. The Iron Law of Oligarchy is really the Iron Law of Genetic Bureaucracy. That is, hierarchal humans live in a dominance hierarchy predicated on leadership ability, all of which is a function of sexual selection; so any meritocracy founded on non-leadership talents will erode to bureaucracy as it's captured by the alphas. Leaders can insert themselves in the highest positions of power in a society — political, corporate, legal — by establishing a hierarchal network of cliques (that acts like a genetic filter.) But they can't become the talent. They can only capture the talent.

So genetic bureaucracy is like gravity or entropy. It's a force that must always be fought against to develop a meritocracy that benefits all members of society. The goal of meritocracy is to use competition and regulation to ensure the talent is getting paid, not the rent-seeking alphas extracting, what they believe to be, their genetic, pecking-order entitlement. These people must earn their extraordinary wealth. (As an egalitarian, I don't find income and wealth inequality a problem; the problem is high or extreme levels of inequality. Inequality can be managed with progressive taxation on incomes, wealth and estates.)

Churm Rincewind

"...in most professions nepotism, expensive qualifications and the need to do unpaid internships exclude bright people from poor backgrounds..."

No, in most professions the lack of an Oxbridge degree is the main excluding factor, a situation with which CD is entirely comfortable on the grounds that Oxbridge alumni are a diverse bunch.

But given that Oxbridge stoutly maintains that its undergraduates are selected on merit alone, there does seem to be an inconsistency in CD's views on the matter - i.e. that meritocracy is bad unless mediated by the privileges of an Oxbridge education.


All meritocracies degrade into self-important crony cabals, because the meritorious come to define merit in terms of their personal aspirations and enforce distance between them and those they presume to manage, and likewise their interests. (See also Oxbridge) Senility follows in only a few organizational generations.

Time to put away childish things, like vested authority, bourgeois society, imaginary friends and permanent hierarchy.


Your take on this issue is ridiculous. "Imagine will lived in a centrally planned economy which was, thanks to its lack of freedom, a pure meritocracy. The job of commissar of bread supply therefore goes to the best person for the job. Is this efficient?" You assume there would be a centrally planned economy and job of commissar of the brad board! It is a comedy reel. You all measure merit in strange ways. What about honesty, selflessness, sacrifice? Intelligence is undoubtedly a factor but your chosen measures make me sad. Your brash assumptions make this discussion moot. Good day.

Erik Lonnroth

Have you read Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux? It talks about how to disaggregate power at the top and disperse it using things like self-organising networks. There's a great YouTube video on it too (search for Laloux).

Looking forward to your TED talk ;)

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