Meritocracy tends to whitewash injustice, promote inequality, and make victims appear as undeserving and, therefore, guilty of their wretched situation.
by Michael Grech
What is the relation between meritocracy and the distribution of goods and resources within a society? The contemporary logic of social fairness suggests that the distribution of goods and resources ought to be carried out according to the meritocratic principle, meaning that different individuals must get a particular share of goods or resources according to what they ‘merit’ or ‘deserve’. Those perceived to be more talented or skillful are deemed as being more deserving of advantages—prestigious jobs, higher salaries, more societal respect—whereas less capable individuals are considered as undeserving.
To many, the concept of meritocracy exemplifies the benchmark of social justice. This multitude also includes a good number of left-leaning individuals in politics, the media and academia who consider the equation between meritocracy and social justice as self-evident, perhaps due to their willingness to justify their own comfortable position as thoroughly deserved. In a context where a ‘self-made person’—the one who manages to ‘make it big’ in life supposedly through sheer talent and hard work—becomes a paradigmatic individual (Steve Jobs comes to mind). Meritocratic society is praised and considered as fundamentally just because it allows such individuals to prosper.
In a context where a ‘self-made person’—the one who manages to ‘make it big’ in life supposedly through sheer talent and hard work—becomes a paradigmatic individual.
Rather than discussing meritocracy in employment, especially in positions of influence within state institutions, we should have a critical look at the very concept of meritocracy per se.
The Pitfalls of Meritocracy
Pope Francis and Jeremy Corbyn were two influential public figures in Europe who dared to challenge meritocracy as an adequate and just means to determine the distribution of goods in recent years. For them, meritocracy is a deeply flawed metric when it comes to the distribution of goods and resources. They have rightly argued that meritocracy tends to whitewash injustice, promote inequality, and to anaesthetize sensitivity towards those who are losing in our dog-eat-dog economy by making victims appear as undeserving and, therefore, guilty of their wretched situation.
If the distribution of goods is to be based on meritocracy and a society is deemed to be meritocratic: ‘poverty [is perceived as] the fault of the poor [and] the rich are exonerated from doing anything.’
In the words of the current Pontiff, ‘the new capitalism’ gets a ‘moral cloak’ to hide its misdemeanors. If the distribution of goods is to be based on meritocracy and a society is deemed to be meritocratic: ‘poverty [is perceived as] the fault of the poor [and] the rich are exonerated from doing anything.’ The ever-growing gap between the haves and have-nots is thus justified and cemented. As Corbyn noted, “for decades we’ve been told that inequality doesn’t matter because the education system will allow talented and hard-working people to succeed whatever their background. But the greater inequality has become, the more entrenched it has become.”
The Incoherence of Meritocracy
Apart from these negative social effects, distributing goods and resources on grounds of meritocracy is inherently contradictory. In practical terms, meritocracy implies that John ought to receive a higher pay than Jane because he is more deserving: he has greater skill, talent and ability to achieve things compared to Jane.
Thus, the right to gain more advantages is something he has earned on the basis of merit. This would be the case even if both John and Jane put the same effort, or indeed if John invests less but achieves more.
Yet, John’s skill, talent and ability to accomplish goals—which, given the dominant narrative, make him deserving of more advantages are not something he earned through skill, talent or ability. These could be the outcome of existing privilege: superior education affordable only to a select few and awareness of the dominant cultural norms. But even if one assumes that John is simply born more talented than Jane, his talent is not something he earned. John’s skills and talents would be fundamentally undeserved.
Skills could be the outcome of existing privilege: superior education affordable only to a select few and awareness of the dominant cultural norms.
Certainly, this does not imply that every individual in a society ought to gain equal outcomes. To begin with, not all people have the same needs. Moreover, for the good of society, it might make sense to reward John more than Jane in relation to the outcomes he can produce. Yet, the ultimate justification for this would be the good of society, not the presumption that talent and abilities make him more deserving.
Indeed, following the philosopher John Rawls’ discussion of what justifies differences in wealth in his book A Theory of Justice, I believe that this could be the only justification for John earning more. His greater share would be justified by communitarian not individualistic concerns.