Is meritocracy fair?

The term meritocracy was conceived in 1958 to describe a negative dystopia, but its perception has shifted towards a more positive connotation over time. However, today things have become a little bit blurred. 60 years later, are we actually living in a dystopia?

There are two different schools of thought about the origin of the word ‘meritocracy’. In Western society, the concept is believed to have appeared for the first time in 1958[1]. In his book, “The Rise of Meritocracy”, the British sociologist Michael Young conceived a dystopian world where an elite would thrive on merit. Nevertheless, many scholars such as Bell, Poocharoen and Brillantes or Babcock and Freivogel describe meritocracy as originated in Asia, while Hobson even attributes the development of the concept of merit to China and its disclosure to Confucian texts brought to the West[2].

In this article, meritocracy will be analysed within the context of the Western society. In fact, Young’s point of view was a condemnation and satire of the ruling class at the time. His work was more oriented towards a negative connotation of meritocracy per se and, subsequently, towards a negative deterioration of this new elite, where its foundations on formal education qualification would have in fact created a very exclusive “meritocracy oligarchy”: meritocrats would spend time with other meritocrats who, in the end, would have the same economic and social background; and this would have led to the reiteration of an elite based on ancestry, denying access to those with a different background. The idea of Young was a tyranny of intellectuals that would have ruled the world one century after his book came out. Being a socialist, he disapproved of equality of opportunity, portraying it as apparently fair yet based on massive inequalities created by capitalism.[3] The intent, just like with 1984 by George Orwell, was to imagine an unlikely scenario. Nonetheless, more than 60 years later, we are living something not so far from that. Today, such oligarchy has actually been spreading, but has the imagination of Young overcome reality? Let us start from the basics: what is meritocracy?

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The Cambridge English Dictionary defines meritocracy as ‘a social system, society, or organization in which people get success or power because of their abilities, not because of their money or social position’[4]. Thus, it is a contemporary concept which describes a process of selection of people in a certain environment. Meritocracy is based on merit, which according to today’s society is usually based on the achievements and capacities proved and evaluated by points, tests, IQ, exams, admission requirements, etcetera. If power and influence were once passed down by blood – and, therefore, arbitrarily – during the past 60 years, meritocracy has progressively opened a door and showed the way to a more inclusive, participative and manoeuvrable succession. Or at least that was the idea of fairness that developed as time passed by. This contemporary dynamic introduced by Young seemed to be eventually shifting towards a more inclusive and reachable idea of success and power, but can we really say that things have become fairer? As a matter of fact, meritocracy appears to ‘have made a U turn’ and to have led to a type of leadership that excludes anyone who cannot not jump through the educational hoop, creating a new form of discrimination[5]. So maybe Young was right, after all. But how did this happen?

Just like with other types of elites, the key to this one is reproduction. If we have a closer look, we can notice how members of this elite no longer pass down their ‘title’ to their kids like it used to be, rather they pass down their benefits, their connections, their reputation and, last but not least, their money. For instance, just as Young pictured, people who attend private universities meet other people who attend private universities, fall in love, and have kids that go to private universities, only to meet – you guessed it – other people who attend private universities and with whom continuing the line of a meritocracy oligarchy. In Young’s words: ‘The elite is on the way to becoming hereditary; the principles of heredity and merit are coming together.’ Such pattern has led to the creation of a network of entitlement, and today, in a very precarious job market – especially due to the pandemic – the name of the university a candidate attended sometimes seems to matter much more than their actual achievements, skills and experience – which, paradoxically, was what meritocracy had evolved to be about. As stated by Richard J. Herrstein and Charles Murray[6], access to higher education has become more competitive and the economy has become more knowledge-based: What society would need is an education reform able to fill in the gap between rich and poor children.

Image by Sabrina Eickhoff from Pixabay

Just to give you an example: According to Daniel Markovits – law professor at Yale – today in the United States the gap between rich and poor students in academia is wider than the gap that existed in 1954 between white and black students[7]. Considering the fact that in that year segregation in schools was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, economic inequality today produces greater educational inequality than American apartheid once did[8]. This should be seen as an alarm bell: Meritocracy seems to have lost its way. How can this be solved? Probably, as Young’s son states[9], the solution would be more meritocracy: reforming education to reallocate wealth in society on the one hand and not to give equal opportunities to every child, rather to shape opportunities based on children’s abilities on the other hand, in order for those children to become adults that are conscious about having truly earned their success on their own merit, and not simply being born with it.

Many of the members of this oligarchy own their education and entitlement with pride and brag, when the truth is that – not always, but most of the time – in reality they just have “inherited” them. The main idea that developed along meritocracy was the concept of change: the fact of being born in a certain context but the opportunity to move and to grow up in another one by working hard and achieving results. This has been the case for many families with a difficult background, where grandparents and parents sacrificed everything for their children to have the future, the ambitions and the possibilities they could not even imagine. Nevertheless, this happens less often than we might expect. Meritocracy as it currently exists is not fair. It is paramount to break the pattern of exclusion and indirect discrimination by acknowledging up to what extent achievements are about talent and to what extent they are actually about a – privileged – background. At the end of the day, the real problem is how to define merit; how NOT to see it as something to be handed over rather than something to be earned and evaluated, regardless of the circumstances and living surroundings you are raised in; and how to measure it. Be that as it may, is it possible to adopt an objective unit of measurement? This leads us back, once again, to the education system and to how this society has been evaluating students’ results in school. Are points, tests, IQ, exams, admission requirements – and so on – really the ideal way to define a person as worthy or not? Maybe we should not ask ourselves what happened to meritocracy or whether it is fair or not, rather what have we transformed it into? How was Young able to predict all of this? Maybe the root problem is the education system overall and the fact that grades are not the best way to allow people to learn. Only once we overcome such method, schools and universities will be able to shape results, achievements and merit properly, and meritocracy will truly become fair.

Paula Panettieri







[6] “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” (1994)




Image by <a href=”;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=995042″>Gillian Callison</a> from <a href=”;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=995042″>Pixabay</a>


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