When people today hear the term “meritocracy,” they tend to think of something like selective university admissions or civil service promotions, where an institutionalized sorting mechanism identifies and rewards the best and the brightest. Or they think of the socio-economic arrangements of Silicon Valley, where a performance and data-driven approach to reward and advancement has displaced the elitism and backward-looking traditions of the East Coast establishment. In both cases meritocracy means that privilege is determined by some objective measure of individual achievement or talent—test scores or productivity—as opposed to either accidents of birth or subjective factors. Meritocracy is the antithesis of the ancien régime, where family legacies and ephemeral virtues such as wit and honor determined one’s social position, and of the patronage systems of ethnic favoritism and ward-boss city politics. Meritocracy has come to underlie our civil rights laws, which effectively define unlawful discrimination in terms of a departure from meritocratic norms. It promises to be rational, objective, and evenhanded.
There’s so much to like here that until very recently it has been rare to hear anyone speak against meritocracy. Of course there are well-worn criticisms of class bias in university admissions and of sexism in Silicon Valley, but here the complaint is of an incomplete meritocracy, not a complaint about meritocracy itself. Accordingly, the demand is always for more and better meritocracy.
But recently critiques of meritocracy have proliferated. Many come from ideological conservatives who attack the snobbishness of the urban bi-coastal cultural elite, or the exclusivity of university admissions policies. While often valid as far as they go, these arguments are often transparently self-serving: They lambaste bastions of liberalism and propose solutions designed to promote their own ideological predilections, which on occasion even lurch into inanities such as “diversity should include the most underrepresented minority group of all: conservative white Christians!”
But broader and less opportunistic critiques of meritocracy are emerging from across the ideological spectrum. Or, more precisely, the critique is re-emerging, for the neologism was first used as in the context of a trenchant social criticism.
When Michael Young wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy in 1958, he anticipated a world in which democracy would give way to rule by the clever. He even anticipated helicopter parenting, referring to the “sanctioned psychosis” of the successful parents of less well-endowed offspring who “imagine merit where none existed.” As Jonathan B. Imber put it in these pages back in 2012, “Young’s satire proceeds from a depiction of progress to one of warning, the meritocracy created by the new educational system turned from its traditional measures to testing and, eventually, to genetic selection. The future of 2034 was a world increasingly divided not only by intelligence but by the difference in opportunity and income that followed from that division—in other words, growing meritocratic rather than aristocratic inequality.”
Ever since Young coined the term as a species of social criticism, classical conservatives—in the mode of English statesman Edmund Burke as opposed to Austrian economist Fredrick Hayek—have pointed out that meritocracy disturbs customary social roles that once offered people of various social classes a sense of esteem and security. The institutions of meritocracy undermine security while the ideology of meritocracy sends the insulting message that those who are not on top deserve both their subordinate social status and the contempt of those who have outperformed them. Even the aristocrats of old Europe, to say nothing of the blue bloods of New England, felt a sense civic duty that included moral obligation to the less fortunate; meritocracy, by contrast, while it pretends to offer equal opportunities, it is in fact the cruelest and most vicious form of hierarchy, dominated by a de facto nobility lacking even the condescending charitable inclination of noblesse oblige.
Some observers have even tied the particular American form of meritocracy to systemic societal failure. Asking “how has so much amazing talent produced such poor result?” David Brooks noted five “ruinous” beliefs that have flowed from meritocracy unfettered or unleavened by any other sense of social virtue: an exaggerated faith in intelligence; a misplaced faith in autonomy; a misplaced, morally desiccated notion of the self; an inability to think institutionally; and a misplaced idolization of diversity that, when torn away from any sense of common purpose, “is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation.”
Meanwhile, critics of hyper-modernity such as Christopher Lasch and, much more recently, Charles Murray, have argued out that meritocracy, when successful, promotes an impoverishing brain drain in less privileged communities; potential future leaders of these communities are lured to elite universities and indoctrinated into a culture that defines success in terms of a career in a handful of cosmopolitan cities. As a consequence, they leave their hometown neighborhoods and neighbors behind.
There’s clearly nothing inherently conservative about these ideas; Lasch, for instance, came at meritocracy from a neo-Marxian framework, and the fact that many conservatives fell in love with him after his death would probably have appalled him. And Murray’s recent analysis echoes a staple of radical black nationalism already over half a century old. Black nationalists of the 1960s saw the inner city as akin to a colonized nation and condemned integration because it lured the best and brightest African Americans away to benefit white society—a form of resource extraction. (There is perhaps some irony in the intellectual debt, given Murray’s infamous writings on race and intelligence.)
Indeed, although anti-meritocratic thought is now most common among conservatives, the Left is still perhaps its most natural home. A Marxian argument now gaining popularity on college campuses, sees the meritocracy of higher education as an ideology of capitalist exploitation. The argument goes something like this: Meritocracy conscripts parents to prime their children for alienation and exploitation, sacrificing the innocence of childhood for the rigors of work in preparation for competitive service in the market economy. Higher education, once largely dedicated to the humanistic pursuits and intellectual enrichment, is now almost exclusively career driven. Scalable numerical indicia of merit serve to rank students as commodities and help determine whether they are worth “investing” in, and at what level. Selective schools claim to look at each student as a whole individual, but in fact they reduce students to scalable numerical criteria with dubious objective relationship to practical talent.
The main function of such ranking, the argument goes on, is to make them easily comparable—one might say fungible—for potential employers, and to create a permanent sense of unease and insecurity among them so as to facilitate their exploitation by businesses and encourage the self-exploitation that results when individuals willingly sacrifice a full life and even personal health in order to succeed in the careers that have become their only source of self esteem. Students engaged in such competitive pre-career training effectively work for free—indeed they pay for the privilege and find themselves in debt at the end of the process, desperate and hence more readily exploitable. Higher education—the great engine of meritocracy—facilitates a 21st century form of indentured servitude. Little wonder that a mental illness epidemic currently plagues both high school and higher education—a consequence of the relentless pressure of today’s exploitative academic competition and the spiritual emptiness of a life defined by it.
The conviction that unifies these disparate perspectives is that meritocratic evaluation and social ordering is not only dishonest but also ethically and spiritually empty. The argument is not that individual merit should be irrelevant. But to be meaningful, any measure of merit must serve social, intellectual and moral purposes that can’t be reduced to numbers and rankings. Meritocracy lacks any account of human virtue or social justice; at best, it is an imperfect means to some meaningful end. Yet somehow it seems to have acquired the status of a moral imperative in and of itself. Hence in the recent lawsuit against Harvard, each and every departure from an exclusive focus on numerical criteria—most unrelated to any plausible claim of racial bias—was treated as an embarrassment. From the meritocratic perspective, Harvard’s attempts to consider its applicants as complete human beings is a scandal. From a perspective that values human flourishing and dignity, it’s the only redeeming aspect of the whole sad and degrading process of sorting and ranking people like livestock at a county fair.
Meritocracy in its narrowest form reigns supreme because most people don’t trust Harvard—or anyone else for that matter—not to revert to ancient motivations of prejudices and patronage when not tethered to something seemingly objective. So we insist on sticking to the numbers, even though most of what really matters can’t be quantified. Meritocracy’s value and appeal lies in what it is not: It seems to be the only viable alternative to a hierarchy based on the accidents of birth, blood or race, or the corruption of patronage.
Yet even in this meritocracy increasingly fails, because the indicia of merit are now for sale: for instance, costly educational and testing preparation tutors guarantee significant improvement in scores; predictably, test scores reflect family wealth, so with each passing generation, meritocracy more and more closely replicates the hereditary hierarchies it is defined in opposition to. Louis XVI thought God ordained his social position; today’s meritocratic elites believe that their God-given talents ordain theirs.
My energetic, thoughtful, idealistic and extremely bright students are, with few exceptions passionate in their opposition to every social inequality—except that of the academic meritocracy that determines their status and, for too many, defines much of their sense of identity. We owe our young people better ideals and values than what a ranking of grades, scores and starting salaries suggests. More to the point, we owe them a better world than one governed by such empty benchmarks.