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Stop Talking About Meritocracy

In an old piece making the rounds on Twitter, the British sociologist Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy”, urges its removal from the public lexicon. Although a lifelong man of the Left, Young sounds remarkably like Charles Murray:

Underpinning my argument [in The Rise of the Meritocracy] was a non-controversial historical analysis of what had been happening to society for more than a century before 1958, and most emphatically since the 1870s, when schooling was made compulsory and competitive entry to the civil service became the rule.

Until that time status was generally ascribed by birth. But irrespective of people’s birth, status has gradually become more achievable.

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.

Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.

A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education’s narrow band of values.

With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before.

The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.

Young’s diagnosis of pretensions of the modern elite seems unimpeachable to me. As I and others have argued on this site, the current system of educational credentialing has the function of preserving and transmitting privilege, even though it was designed for much the opposite end. The conceptual hinge of this transformation is the ambiguity of the term “merit”. If we’re not careful to specify what we mean by merit, the (strong) instrumental argument for distributing tasks and responsibilities to those best able to fulfill them tend to slips into the (weak) moral argument that the most capable few deserve greater power and wealth.

What’s more, the close association of merit with educational achievement tends to depreciate abilities and dispositions that may be more suited to many positions. Consider what happened when bankers learned to consider themselves the smartest guys in the room.

It’s too late to get rid of meritocracy: both the word and the ideal it represents have been too deeply ingrained in our ethical culture. What we can do is insist that its ambiguities and disadvantages be acknowledged, particularly by those who claim to act in the public interest. As Young’s example indicates, this is a task in which many socialists, libertarians, and traditionalist conservatives can cooperate. As much as we disagree on other matters, we know that meritocracy is a dangerous illusion.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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