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The duel: Should we give up on meritocracy?

A rigged system or driver of social progress? Our contributors battle it out

Yes—Daniel Markovits

One of meritocracy’s great attractions is that it beats the familiar alternatives. Surely it is better for people to get ahead based on their accomplishments than, say, race or social class. Another attraction is that “merit” itself remains pleasantly vague. Accomplishments are not easy to measure.

Eventually, an actual meritocracy must fill in the picture. We measure merit first by exam and then market competition. In each case we worship superiority. We rank students and workers, asking not who has done well but who is best. This reality undermines the abstract appeal.

First, marks and wages untether merit from anything truly worthwhile. Testing does not track intellectual excellence, originality nor wisdom. The most important exams are also the most meaningless: testing for places at the top private schools in the UK is famously anti-intellectual. Market wages do not measure excellence either, failing even to track contributions to collective wealth. Hospital cleaners and other “unskilled” workers produce over £10 of social product for every £1 of wages they earn; the highest-paid professionals—including in law and finance—are paid wages greater than their social product. Even “economically accurate” wages would only loosely track what is worth doing: the arts, care and community carry immense moral value yet our meritocracy, with its fetish for the market, obscures them all.

Meritocracy suffers a second defect: it generates massive inequality. As soon as you accomplish slightly more than I have, competition devalues me as second-rate and you, the winner, take all. In the middle of the 20th century, a US CEO earned 20 times as much as a production worker, and a bank president 50 times as much as a teller. Today, the elite meritocrats make nearly 300 and 1,000 times as much as their respective co-workers.

Identifying these defects lights the way to a better alternative (thereby depriving meritocracy of its greatest appeal). Don’t worship superiority; decide what things are worth doing, and then elevate those who can do them well enough.

No—Adrian Wooldridge

Meritocracy has always attracted criticism: the book that gave the phenomenon its name, Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, depicted a dystopian world in which the rulers were intolerably smug and the masses utterly miserable. But the criticism is particularly intense at the moment. Left wingers present meritocracy as an excuse for widening inequality. Right-wing populists castigate it as the ideology of a smug Brahmin class. Even academics like yourself, who work in the engine room of the meritocratic machine, have had enough.

But the meritocratic idea is one of the great building blocks of the modern world, along with liberalism and democracy. The idea was forged in the revolt against the old world of “priority, degree and place,” in which positions were inherited or bought and sold like furniture. It has since been co-opted by one excluded group after another: the history of feminism is a history of women asking to be judged by the same standards as men.

The current revolt against meritocracy comes at a worrying time. Donald Trump debauched the US presidency by giving jobs to relatives and hangers-on. Do we want to make life easier for a future Trump? The Chinese are building a highly competitive education system and promoting officials on the basis of measured performance. Do we want to weaken the west as we confront our most powerful challenger to date?

“Meritocracy is one of the great building blocks of the modern world”

One of meritocracy’s many virtues is that it is self-correcting: whenever the system has looked like degenerating into a justification of the status quo, reformers have created more ingenious methods to discover talent. No doubt we need reform today. But let’s not give up on an idea that has proved so constructive in the past.

Yes—I agree that meritocracy broke an unjust and stagnant hierarchy. But an initially benevolent innovation can become harmful and even ruinous.

Our meritocracy looks to markets to measure merit. Prices—including, crucially, wages—establish what things are worth. Greg Mankiw, who chaired George Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, captures the ideal in his “principle of just deserts.” Meritocracy holds that “a person who contributes more to society deserves a higher income that reflects those greater contributions.” Moreover, meritocracy measures each person’s contribution as the market value that she adds “to society’s production of goods and services.”

But in reality, meritocratic hierarchies now distort market valuations, especially wages. Elites remake work in their own image, to privilege education and skills that only they can afford to acquire. Finance illustrates the pattern. In the mid 20th century, when the Economist called banking “the world’s most respectable dying industry,” those in the field were neither better educated nor better paid than others. Since then, super-educated elites have developed technologies—financial instruments, digital tools and legal regimes—that dramatically favour their own skills. Today, no sector is more closely associated with high wages. But the innovation is not a true advance, and the new style of finance does not make a greater social contribution than the old. The transaction costs of financial intermediation have not declined, and overall financial risk is neither reduced nor better shared.

Similar patterns pervade the wider economy. Elites remake work to favour their peculiar skills and then use the enormous incomes that ensue to buy educations for their children that the rest cannot match. Far from correcting itself, meritocratic inequality triggers a feedback loop that undermines meritocracy’s core claims. Merit is an ideology built to launder offensive hierarchies.

No—I agree that today’s “super-educated elites” are adept at rigging the system to help themselves. But I do not believe meritocracy’s ability to break unjust hierarchies was a one-off event. Nor do I think today’s distribution of rewards and opportunities so repugnant that we need to junk the idea of merit.

The meritocratic idea was forged in the revolt against the old society that fixed people’s position at birth, most notably in the French and American Revolutions of the 18th century and the English liberal revolution of the 19th. But things didn’t stop there. Hardie and Bevin, Du Bois and Luther King, the Pankhursts and Bader Ginsburg: all rested their arguments on the idea that people should be judged on the basis of their own abilities.

I would agree with a reworded version of Mankiw’s principle: someone who contributes more to prosperity deserves a higher income that reflects their greater contribution. I’d rather have a world in which Bill Gates makes billions than one in which I have to write on a typewriter.

There is more to meritocracy than money-making. From Plato on, the case for merit has been bound up with the idea that talented people should renounce private advantage for public service: look at the way the Victorians used the idea of open competition to clean the Augean stables of aristocrats who plundered the state to line their own pockets.

You are right that the plutocracy has hijacked merit to reinforce its power. The proper response is to rescue meritocracy from its captors, not to abandon it.

Yes—Meritocracy has, over more than 50 years now, tended to produce unequal outcomes, and meritocrats have deployed their advantages to privilege their children, undermining equality of opportunity. One may believe that the fault is accidental rather than necessary, or that equality of opportunity can survive gross inequality of outcome. I doubt both possibilities, though reasonable minds can disagree.

But your preferred conception of just deserts requires that a person’s contribution is independent of the income inequality to which she contributes. It doesn’t work that way. When elites skew markets to favour their own skills, it undermines the notions on which meritocracy depends.

“Meritocrats remade work to favour their own peculiar skills”

This point is difficult, so worth pausing over. Insofar as meritocrats are super-productive in the economy, that is because they remade work to favour their own aptitudes. Those who dominate the one per cent would not be nearly so productive in a society of hunter-gatherers, in an agrarian society, or even the middle-class society of the post-Second World War years.

Moreover, these workers are productive specifically on account of the inequality that we suffer. Top executives are essential to running firms only because other workers have been stripped of managerial discretion. The highest-paid lawyers serve the super-rich. The “greater contributions” of these and other elite workers are themselves artefacts of meritocratic inequality, and so cannot justify that inequality without circular reasoning.

This is the core defect of meritocracy: its notion of desert is a case of moral self-dealing. I stand by my claim: merit is a sham.

No—The standard criticism of meritocracy is that it’s disappointing in practice. You go further and argue that the problem is with the theory: over time the logic of meritocracy inevitably leads to disappointment. Let me conclude this exchange by defending the idea itself.

The meritocratic idea tries to address two of the great problems at the heart of modernity: how do we reconcile the moral equality of individuals with social differentiation? And how do we secure the economic growth that pays for the things we have come to expect, such as social welfare?

Meritocracy answers the first question by providing a combination of equality of opportunity and competition. Universal education gives everybody a basic shot at succeeding. Competition allows people to discover their unique talents. I can hear the objections as I write. Isn’t equality of opportunity a sham? Doesn’t competition discourage the losers? But meritocrats have a long history of trying to measure educational promise rather than achievement. And if competition has downsides, they are nothing compared with the risks of allowing talents to go undiscovered.

The evidence that meritocracy promotes economic efficiency is overwhelming: meritocratic countries such as Singapore grow more robustly than non-meritocratic ones such as Greece; public companies that recruit people on merit are more successful than family companies that rely on nepotism; the easiest way to ruin your public sector is to allow hiring to be distorted by favouritism. The solution to the inequalities produced by meritocracy’s success is to tax the winners rather than to bind Prometheus.

The meritocratic idea is unique, combining idealism about social justice with realism about human abilities and motivation; vision about the importance of desert with creativity about how we measure and reward it. We should cherish meritocracy.