Meritocracy and Its Problems

Meritocracy is often referred to as a system that creates a just society. Personal achievements are made on the basis of individual efforts and abilities.
Meritocracy and Its Problems

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 18 October, 2023

Meritocracy is a reward system based on individual merit. Therefore, it represents a way of ranking people according to their talents, abilities, efforts, and dedication.

Today, this system is widespread in both public and private institutions. For example, it’s evident when an administration hires people through competitive examinations. These encourage the recognition of individual competencies and efforts.

In this sense, meritocracy is often labeled as a way to create a fair society. Personal achievements are obtained on the basis of individual efforts and capabilities, but not by wealth, sex, religion, etc. However, this model hides a serious problem that’s important to take into account.

The origin of the term “meritocracy”

The term meritocracy comes from the Latin merĭtum, meaning “due reward”; and from the Greek suffix krátos, meaning “power or strength”. It therefore implies that hierarchies or positions of power are determined on the basis of individual merit.

Although this notion has been used since antiquity (as can be seen in Plato’s The Ideal Republic ), its modern version is due to sociologist and social activist Michael Young, who coined the term in his book The Rise of Meritocracy (1958). It’s a work of fiction in which the author criticizes the elitist tendencies of formal education in Europe.

In this dystopian and futuristic novel, merit is the conjunction of intelligence plus effort and represents the central cause of social inequality. It allowed for the creation of an elitist government made up of an intelligent and capable minority to the detriment of an ignorant and incompetent majority.

Under this dystopian scenario, individuals earned a place among the elite through their effort and dedication, while those who made the least effort were condemned to poverty.

Ciudad de Londres.
The politics of countries and large cities seem to support meritocracy as a unique and current system of administration.

Meritocracy as an ideal of a just society

Although the term had a pejorative connotation in its beginnings and was created with a critical purpose, the neoliberal discourse appropriated this notion and endowed it with a more positive meaning. It advocates the fact that meritocracy would allow the creation of a just society.

Thus, we see how the neoliberal notion was radically opposed to the approach formulated by Michael Young in his dystopian text. With respect to this turn, in 2001 the author expressed his disappointment due to the fate of the concept he himself had coined.

My book was intended as a satire and a warning. It’s a sign of good judgment to choose individuals on their merits. But judging their social status by their merits leaves no room for others.

-Michael Young

The problems with meritocracy

Although meritocracy is often considered attractive for dispelling injustice and inequality, this notion hides a major problem. Michael Sandel, a political philosopher, and professor at Harvard University, argues that the system hides two key problems. These are the following:

1. There’s inequality when it comes to opportunities

Sandel says that, in reality, society does not live up to the meritocratic ideals it professes. The basic opportunities are not the same for all individuals.

After all, wealthy families are able to pass on privileges to their children, giving them educational and cultural advantages for admission to the best universities. According to Sandel, in the most prestigious universities in the USA, there are significantly more students belonging to the 1% of the highest-income families in the country than the 60% with the lowest income.

Therefore, the effort made by the higher social classes is not the same as that made by the poorest social groups. In this case, the more affluent have greater opportunities to obtain a quality education.

On the other hand, the poorest of society have to invest a major effort to access quality education. In fact, they often have to devote much of their time to generating income to survive, which in turn increases school dropout rates.

2. It leads to an arrogant attitude toward success

The second problem Sandel identifies is the attitude that encourages meritocracy in those who achieve success. That is, some successful people believe that what they have achieved is purely due to their own merits. Therefore, they feel they deserve the rewards that market societies bestow on winners.

Likewise, the “winners” tend to think that those who have fallen behind are responsible for being so. Therefore, this attitudinal problem generates even greater social inequality. In other words, meritocracy creates arrogance among the winners and humiliation and prejudice toward those it leaves behind.

Can we solve the problems of meritocracy?

Although meritocracy has its fundamental flaws, it’s important to also highlight its positive aspects on society. People define hierarchical positions by inheritance, class, family, and factors that don’t depend on the individual since ancient times.

However, with the rise of meritocracy, the opportunities to choose and the recognition of effort opened several doors to prevent determinism from defining the future. Moreover, today, merit is an important criterion for the proper functioning of various processes and for the distribution of resources.

Although meritocracy is far from ideal, there are observable positive results. This is mainly seen in private organizations with well-defined systems. Meanwhile, we can solve the problems of meritocracy by guaranteeing equal opportunities for all.

Mujer con éxito.
How can we define success? After all, it’s not always personal merit that determines what one understands as success.

A system that needs some tweaking

We can conclude that meritocracy is not a bad proposal per se. In fact, nowadays, it’s a very useful model for business and labor.

However, if we want this proposal to be effective and really benefit society, we must be aware of the flaws it presupposes and avoid them. Otherwise, we will only be aggravating the problems we’re supposedly trying to overcome: social injustice and inequality.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.