Meritocracy and its problems

Meritocracy is often referred to as a system that creates a just society. Personal achievements are achieved based on individual efforts and abilities.

Meritocracy and its problems

Latest update: May 18, 2023

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

Nowadays it is this system widespread in both public and private institutions. For example, it is clear when a government hires people through competitive examinations. These encourage recognition of individual abilities 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 effort and ability, but not on the basis of wealth, gender, religion, etc. behind this model goes though a serious problem that must be taken into account.

The origin of the term “meritocracy”

The term meritocracy comes from Latin meritum, which means “appropriate remuneration”; and from the Greek suffix kratos, which means “power or strength”. It thus implies that hierarchies or positions of power are determined on the basis of individual merit.

Although this notion has been used since ancient times (as can be seen in Plato’s The Ideal Republic ), it is the modern version of it thanks to sociologist and social activist Michael Young, who coined the term in his book The rise of meritocracy (1958 – English link). It is 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 combination of intelligence plus effort and is the central cause of social inequality. It enabled the creation of an elitist government composed of an intelligent and capable minority at the expense of an ignorant and inept majority.

In 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.

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The politics of countries and major cities seem to support meritocracy as a unique and current system of governance.

Meritocracy as the ideal of a just society

While the term initially had pejorative connotations and was created with critical purpose, neoliberal discourse has appropriated this notion and given it a more positive meaning. It argues that meritocracy would enable the creation of a just society.

Thus we see how the neoliberal concept was radically opposed to the approach that Michael Young formulated in his dystopian text. With regard to this turn, in 2001 the author expressed his disappointment with the fate of the concept that he himself had come up with.

“My book was intended as satire and warning. It is a sign of common sense to choose individuals on their merits. But judging their social status on 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, says so the system hides two major problems. These are the following.

1. There is inequality when it comes to opportunities

Sandel says that in reality society does not live up to the meritocratic ideals it professes. The basic odds are not equal 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, at the most prestigious universities in the US, there are significantly more students who belong to the 1% of the highest income families in the country than the 60% with the lowest incomes.

Therefore, the effort of the higher social classes is not the same as that of the poorest social groups. In this case have the more affluent more opportunities to receive quality education.

On the other hand, the poorest in society have to make a major effort to gain access to quality education. In fact, they often have to spend much of their time generating income to survive, increasing school dropout rates.

2. It leads to an arrogant attitude towards 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 solely due to their own merits. Therefore, they feel they deserve the rewards that the market society bestows on winners.

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

Can we solve the problems of meritocracy?

While meritocracy has its fundamental flaws, it is It is important to also emphasize its positive aspects for society. Since ancient times, people determine hierarchical positions by inheritance, class, family, and factors that do not depend on the individual.

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

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

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Smiling woman

How can we define success? After all it is not always personal merit that determines what is understood by success.

A system that needs some adjustment

We can conclude that meritocracy in itself not a bad suggestion. In fact, it is a very useful model for business and labor today.

But if we want this proposal to be effective and really benefit society, we must be aware of the flaws it presupposes and avoid. Otherwise, we will only exacerbate the problems we are supposedly trying to overcome: social injustice and inequality. Perhaps also interesting for you

All cited sources have been thoroughly checked by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, timeliness and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and scientifically accurate.

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