Can Meritocracy Ever Be Fair?


Meritocracy was meant to be an antidote to unfairness. In the past, a person’s position in life was often determined by what kind of family they were born into. Entire systems of government, such as monarchies, were based on the idea that some people deserved to rule just because of who their parents were. Meritocracy can be considered a reaction to this unjust situation. In a perfectly meritocratic state, each role would be filled by the person most qualified to fill it regardless of factors such as social background, gender, or race. On the surface, this system seems ideal. However, there has been some backlash to the idea of evaluating people based on talent or accomplishments in recent years.

The first criticism is that merit-based evaluation often doesn’t take into account pre-existing inequality. On the surface of it, most modern developed countries claim to be meritocracies. The US in particular is known for promoting the belief that anyone can succeed in life and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”. These views represent popular sentiment to a significant degree. Only 39% of Americans surveyed thought that hard work didn’t guarantee success, while 42% viewed different life choices as one of the main causes of economic inequality. This clearly shows that Americans believe they live in a meritocracy where people’s success is determined largely by their own effort and choices. The reality is very different. In fact, the biggest predictor of success is social class. The most gifted children from low-income families graduated from university at lower rates than the least gifted children from high-income families, leading to some claiming that the US is actually a plutocracy. 

I would argue that the US and other developed countries are actually just incomplete meritocracies. To explain this, we need to understand meritocracy in two ways. Firstly, meritocracy mandates a judgement made on achievement or qualifications. Let’s imagine a university chooses students solely based on high school GPA. On the surface, this is meritocratic. However, it doesn’t guarantee an even playing field. A person who received a low-quality education would struggle to get the same results as someone lucky enough to receive a high-quality education. As a result, people aren’t actually being evaluated on their true merit or potential, and the system is not only unfair but also can’t be considered a complete meritocracy. 

There are two tools we can use to rectify this problem. Firstly, we can acknowledge that some people had more difficult circumstances than others and take that into account when evaluating them. An example of this is how Scottish universities have two sets of entry requirements: standard and minimum. The minimum requirements, which are lower, apply to “widening access” students. This includes people who lived in areas with certain scores on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, grew up in care, attended underperforming schools, or are refugees. At the same time, we can also attempt to eliminate the relevance of factors such as income and education quality, for example by investing more in public education and providing more income-based scholarships. 

However, this isn’t the only problem with meritocracy. Some question the fairness not only of its implementation but also of organising society based on merit. At first glance, it sounds absurd to say that choosing somebody on the basis of their talent or qualifications could ever be unfair. However, we can get a different perspective by analysing why we oppose plutocracy and discrimination, whether this is based on race, gender, religion, or another factor. Most of us believe it’s unfair to penalise people for what social group they were born into, as this isn’t their fault. Similarly, we think it’s unfair to give people advantages solely on the basis of what social group they were born into because they’ve done nothing to earn those advantages. The same value lies behind both judgements. We want people to earn what they have, and to get what they’ve earned.

Can you really say a genius earned their intelligence, any more than the child of an oil tycoon earned their parents’ wealth? Both were born with an advantage. Neither of them did anything to deserve it. Some might argue that this isn’t a fair comparison. A genius-level intellect isn’t very useful if the person doesn’t put in the effort of cultivating it, and it would be unfair to argue that a genius achieved their qualifications based solely on their natural ability and not on their hard work. However, the same could be said about wealth and family connections. Just because a person got their first job because of family connections doesn’t mean that person won’t also have worked hard. Even a person’s ability to work hard might be inherited. The personality trait of conscientiousness, which encompasses drive, focus, self-discipline, and ability to complete tasks is around 50% inherited. Of course, the other 50% is due to environmental factors such as the way you were raised and the values you’ve tried to cultivate. 

Given this, we could argue that meritocracy is inherently unfair because it rewards people for things they haven’t earned. Luckily, some adjustments to the concept could make it more just. Earlier in this article, we established that it isn’t enough for a meritocracy to make an evaluation on the basis of accomplishment. It must also either ensure an even playing field or take into account the effect of pre-existing inequality. If talent is just as unearned as inherited wealth, perhaps we should treat it similarly. Students predisposed to struggling with classes such as English, Maths, and Science (where academic success is 62% inherited) could receive more personalised help and tutoring. Similarly, if a student was predisposed to struggling with completing tasks, they could receive help making schedules and get regular accountability checks. 

In conclusion, meritocracy cannot be fair unless achievement is based as much as possible on freely made individual choices. This means two things. Firstly, an even playing field must be guaranteed in terms of environmental and social factors. Rather than merely assessing people from different income groups and demographics in the same way, we must also make sure everyone has an equal chance at success regardless of a social group. Alternatively, we could take inequality into account when assessing people, such as lowering requirements for disadvantaged groups. Secondly, we must guarantee an even playing field in terms of inherent/genetic factors. People with differing levels of natural talent must be given the same chance to attain success, for example by focusing resources on struggling students. Alternatively, we could take into account differences in talent by adjusting requirements for people of different ability levels. Only once we’ve managed to account for all unearned differences between individuals can we make a truly fair meritocratic system. 

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Sabina Narvaez
Sabina Narvaez
Originally from Mexico, but mostly grew up abroad and has Spanish nationality. Studies Philosophy, Politics, Law and Economics and mostly writes about these topics. Also interested in sustainability.

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