Theresa May said yesterday:
I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.
Of course, we lefties don’t like this: we believe a greater equality of outcome is more feasible and desirable than meritocracy. What’s insufficiently appreciated, however, is that Ms May’s vision should also disquiet the free-market right, because meritocracy is incompatible with freedom.
Just think what a true meritocracy would look like.
For one thing, it would require the abolition of private education as we know it, because to a meritocrat it is unjust to allocate school places on the basis of parental income rather than merit. As Ms May complained: “Where is the meritocracy in a system that advantages the privileged few over the many?” Of course, there might be a case for abolishing private education. But doing so would be a great reduction in freedom.
Also, meritocracy would require the abolition of family companies, because management jobs in these should go to the best people rather than to family members. And the latter are very often not the best; as Bloom and Van Reenen has pointed out, family-run firms are often especially badly (pdf) run.
For the same reason, meritocracy would mean that friends could no longer do many favours for each other; they couldn’t offer internships or jobs to their friends’ children, for example.
In fact, meritocracy and free markets are incompatible. A free market rewards those who give customers what they what, even if what they want is mediocre or worse: it rewards mindless and clickbait more than quality journalism; X Factor wannabees more than good singers; reality TV stars more than people with ability.
Of course, some of you might try to avoid this dilemma by defining merit as whatever is popular and sells – that Katie Hopkins or Joey Essex are more meritorious than doctors or teachers. But this would be simply a moronic misuse of language in an attempt to sidestep a genuine philosophical problem.
And it’s certainly not a ruse that intelligent free-marketeers would use. Hayek was well aware of the fact that meritocracy was inconsistent with free markets:
[The function of the price system] is not so much to reward people for what they have done as to tell them what in their own as well as in general interest they ought to do. …To hold out a sufficient incentive for those movements which are required to maintain a market order, it will often be necessary that the return to people’s efforts do not correspond to recognizable merit…In a spontaneous order the question of whether or not someone has done the ‘right’ thing cannot always be a matter of merit. (Law, Legislation and Liberty vol II, p71-72 in my copy)
In this sense, Ms May’s words represent a sharp break with free market ideology. In fact, this isn’t just true in this sense; free marketeers are also unhappy with her rediscovery of activist industrial policy. If they valued intellectual consistency more than tribalism, I’d expect classical liberals and free market thinktanks to be strong opponents of this government.
This raises the question, though: what is Ms May thinking?
One possibility is that, like people of all parties who claim to be meritocrats, she isn’t thinking much at all and doesn’t realize what meritocracy entails.
But there’s another possibility. Ms May senses that inequalities are undermining the legitimacy of actually-existing capitalism (which is of course very different from a free market economy) and she regards meritocracy – or rather a weak pseudo-meritocracy – as a means of restoring that legitimacy.