It’s time to ditch the idea of meritocracy. That’s the message of James Bloodworth’s excellent little book, The Myth of Meritocracy. 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.
You don’t need academic research – what Michael Gove would no doubt call Nazism – to see this. The collapse of the banks in 2008 and the piss-poor level of political debate and journalism all show that the rich and successful don’t have much merit.
What’s more, says James, genuine meritocracy is impossible:
No government could equalize the quality of a child’s parenting even if it wanted to. Equality of opportunity is thus a utopian fantasy.
He might have added that meritocracy is, as Hayek pointed out, incompatible with a free market economy. A strictly meritocratic society would have to ban employers from hiring whom they wanted and ban activities such as reality TV shows or clickbait journalism in which unmeritorious people can succeed.
James is also right to question whether the fantasy of a meritocratic society would be just: “should those who inherit low ability be condemned to a bleak and wretched life based on what is, in essence, the mere lottery of genetics?” The principle of luck egalitarianism gives us an unequivocal answer: no.
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?
Obviously not, because nobody, however meritorious, has sufficient skill to control and plan something as complex as bread production. The job of commissar of bread supply simply shouldn’t exist.
I suspect the same is true in our economy. The economic case for meritocracy is that the most demanding jobs must be done by the best people, those most able to do them. But what if these jobs are so demanding that nobody can reliably do them – that the span of control is so wide as to exceed anybody’s cognitive skills? In such cases, the solution isn’t meritocracy, but to deconstruct “top jobs” to make them less demanding. Diversity trumps ability. Ways of doing this might include: decentralizing management to make firms less dependent upon “leaders”; using rules or automatic feedback processes rather than “judgment”; simplifying organizations for example by breaking up banks; introducing proper institutions of deliberative democracy rather than relying upon politicians’ initiatives; and so on.
A less radical variant might be to recognize that when the occupant of a “top job” does well it is often due less to his own brilliance than to the quality of the match between his ability and the needs of the organization. Such a perspective would at least undermine the over-entitled claims of the successful that their “talents” be lavishly rewarded.
In saying all this, however, I am merely reinforcing James’ conclusion – that what matters is not the pursuit of an unattainable and repellent meritocracy but rather a more egalitarian society in which everyone can live well. Such a society requires not just the redistribution of income, but of power and respect too.