Thursday, November 14, 2013

Meritocracy - or could try harder

My school photo 1979 - I often wonder where they all are now

Earlier this week I mentioned the word 'meritocracy' in a meeting at work. A junior colleague asked what I meant, another asked how to spell it.

I was somewhat taken aback - not because I expect the company of philosophers - but because meritocracy, together with with democracy, the rule of law and capitalism, is a defining characteristics of our society.  Everyone should understand what meritocracy is, and why it matters.

In a nutshell, meritocracy is the idea that progress and rewards should follow a person's skills and abilities. In other words, the better and greater your contribution, the more you should expect to prosper. Perhaps that idea is now so ingrained in our concept of fairness that it's not surprising some don't give it much thought.

Had they lived in medieval times, I suspect they might. Under the feudal system you were born into a social class and that's where you stayed - regardless! We left this behind with the coming of the industrial revolution and the expansion of democracy.

There are other models. Some indigenous societies don't recognise merit's relation to fairness in the way we do - in order to survive they put the 'collective need' at the top of the list. Whoever made the kill is not relevant to how the meat is shared. But these are very particular situations, which in societal terms, predate even feudalism.

In theory there are egalitarian societies, where everything is shared equally, though in practice they rarely operate to the strict principle. A few sects or monasteries might qualify - but in the wider world, the failure of Communism has put paid to any idea that communal equality can operate at scale.

In truth, we don't operate meritocracy to a strict principle either. Our idea of fairness is underpinned with a foundation of first meeting 'basic needs' - and only thereafter does merit kicks in. That's because we are compassionate, and recognise some need help regardless of whether or not they 'deserve' it or can afford to pay. In a world of unequal rewards, there's a safety net for us all.

At a more sophisticated level we also recognise that inequality affects people's ability to progress. There is no merit in been born rich, but the reality is that wealth confers advantages which help you fulfil your potential - being born poor has largely the opposite effect. This is why some - myself included - favour 'positive discrimination' to help those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds make a breakthrough; to give them a truly 'fair' chance.

Schools are a key battleground for this idea - for if we are born unequal, then education is a vital tool in levelling the playing field. My deeply felt objection to private education is that it is counter to the meritocratic principle. Regardless of all the benefits which public schools confer on individuals and society (and there are indeed many) - the fundamental issue is that the majority of places are open only to those to can afford to pay. That cannot be meritocratic, and deep down I believe those who chose this route for their children, even with their very best interests at heart, are uncomfortable that it's so.

But perhaps we should not be surprised that meritocracy is misunderstood or conveniently set aside. Consider institutions such as the Royal Family, inherited peerage (still 92 in the Lords) or simply the 'old boys network'. Meritocracy then is still a goal to aspire to, rather than a state we've achieved - though thankfully, the days of buying an Officer's Commission are long gone!

As a vaguely related aside it was reported today that the Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested the criteria of 'faith' should be disregarded when assessing applications to church schools. In this case it was me who was confused - do they still do that? Because when you think about it, faith (or rather the faith of a child's parents) is somewhat objectionable criteria for selecting pupils at the age of five.

If I were to mention the equivalent of that idea at work it would be illegal!


  1. In Northern Ireland attention has to be (or used to be) paid to religion when selecting staff as they had to show there are equal opportunities for both Catholics and Protestants...

  2. But who determines what we consider to be 'of merit'?
    And who defines 'prosper'? i.e. what do you mean when you say 'someone is prospering'? Are the rich? Or healthy? Or intelligent? Or have many children? A large house?
    'Success' is culturally relative.
    And even if we agree on the definition of 'success' - it is still the case that in this 21st Century UK it is easier to 'succeed' (enter the higher professions; get into a 'good' university; be healthy; afford a roof over our head and etc) if we are born to wealthier and more powerful families who have access to powerful social networks and institutions.
    Meritocracy is a word that sounds quite nice. But I've never believed it was anything other than an idea - held out as some kind of promise to keep the powerless in a state of paralytic hope.
    Meritocracy suggests 'we get back what we put in'. That with sufficient effort and 'ability' we can prosper. That's just so much nonsense. I can work exceptionally hard - but through no fault of my own be struck down by a debilitating illness. I can be the smartest kid in class - but debarred from higher education because my wages are required by my family.
    Stimulating article Mark. Thanks.

  3. I think that's right, and hence it's a goal we should work - and work much harder - towards. It would be an arcadia, but that's not to say we shouldn't try.