How "meritocracy" went from a joke to a dogma, and destroyed the lives of everyone it touched

Originally published at:


I played around with “meritocracy”, but I never got the hang of it. Just wasn’t my thing…


“Boo hoo for the Riches?” It’ going to take some time for me to get to that point.


There seems to be something of a contradiction here. It is of course dangerous to disregard the role of fickle fate in one’s life and that various flavors of cronyism and outright cheating cannot be regarded as inherently good if they happen to get one ahead. But shouldn’t a job that demands an enormous mental strain and long hours provide corresponding levels of compensation?

I suppose the argument is that a job that demands an enormous mental strain should not be regarded as inherently good either, and that it would be better to divide such responsibilties even if the result is multiple positions that appear to have diminished prestige. But then, I would think such divisions are not applicable to all such positions.


So rag-pickers, miners, fishers, and janitors should be among the most compensated in society, is what you are saying?

I’m down!


The rich are miserable? They hide it well. It must be that excellent breeding.

If only there was a solution that would make everyone happy. Ah well.


Going along with what @Lexicat said, I think there are very few jobs that don’t actually require a great deal of skill and effort. The ones that I can think of which really do require little work (mine included) are paid absurdly well.

I think meritocracy is propaganda that retcons why inequality exists by reframing capitalist incentive to maximize exploitation and minimize wages as “rewarding” “hard workers”. The American Dream never existed statistically except for rich white men.

ETA: Whoops, meant to reply to @Jorpho


I guess I never knew the origin or meaning of meritocracy. Not a big deal since I can’t recall using is it much.

The few times I may have used it were to describe team organization and decision making. Better ideas tend to win out over bad ideas and people with more experience or knowledge on a subject are the ones we look to for analysis and decisions. What word should I be using for this sort of situation? “Good engineering” seems a bit trite.


Such jobs are constructs of false scarcity of labor. @Lexicat makes good points! But I’d like to point out in addition that the kinds of jobs I think you’re referring to (doctors, lawyers, etc>) are destructive to the people who perform them under the guise of unnecessary shortage of credentialed workers, when it would be less destructive to just train more and spread out the effort to more normal levels.


Delegation seems to work just fine for me. We thrive by delegating to experts, and we withdraw that delegation when we see their incentives misalign with everyone else.


@Jorpho @jproffitt71 @Lot_49

Also worthwhile throwing in Graeber’s point about the classing of remuneration: the most remunerated positions in society are the ones wreaking the most collective harm (arms dealer, mercenary, bankster, etc.), and the least remunerated are the most caring ones (teacher, nurse, home worker, etc.)… a distinction which is also raced, gendered, and nationalitied.


It’s almost like the people in power are unqualified to have that power but have built a violent system around keeping them in power. We may need to even get rid of that system root and stem to save ourselves, by force if necessary.


I didn’t know the original meaning either. For “the best ideas win out” distinction, I use technical meritocracy.

The OED says:

Meritocracy ( Oxford English Dictionary ) :

government (or holding of power) by people chosen on the basis of merit (as opposed to wealth, social class, etc.);

a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power; a ruling, powerful, or influential class of educated or able people. Also in extended use.

Originally spec. with reference to ‘merit’ as assessed by a competitive educational system.

[potential contrasts: nepotism, cronyism]


Power tends to concentrate over time. “The rich get richer,” is merely the capitalist special case. In monarchies, power is largely about access to the king and his ability to command others to do as you would want. And capitalism itself is, at least to some degree, a reaction to a society structured around inherited titles and people born into serfdom and slavery. A world where you might be bound to the land no matter how hard your worked, and no matter how rich you were, you couldn’t buy your way into the elite.

1 Like

I just read about an experiment that was done recently. They had people play a game, where the outcome of the game was largely determined by one of the two players being given an extra card, I believe. The outcome was pretty clearly arbitrary, yet the winner was likely to ascribe the outcome to skill rather than luck. Interestingly, the more unfair they made the game, the more fair the winner thought it to be.

If, even on the level of a simple game, where the mechanisms are pretty obvious, this is the case, just imagine how bad it is in US society…


Monarchy or democracy, it makes no difference. Money talks…merit walks.–Mister Leroy in Sharpe’s Eagle


Not “dying of tuberculosis in a gutter” miserable but I sure can think of some rich pricks who look like they aren’t getting much joy out of life. The documentary The Queen of Versailles doesn’t exactly paint a happy portrait of the Siegel family.

For that matter, look at almost any picture of Melania Trump.

She got the brass ring. Yaaay.

I don’t think the author’s point is that the poor people who bear the worst effects of “meritocracy” thinking are supposed to feel sorry for rich people, but rather that even the people who accumulate wealth under this system don’t get the joy or sense of accomplishment it’s supposed to bring.


‘…destroyed the lives of everyone it touched’ is Trumpian in it’s hyperbole.

Well, be fair… look who she shares a (theoretical) bed with. In my mind, no amount of money is worth that. She has the look of someone who has seen things. Like… his tax returns.

Right, he says that:

And I wasn’t saying they deserve our pity or explicitly pointing out that I don’t have any for them. Although, yeah. I don’t.

I’m just saying they put up a good front for such glum chums. Excluding Melania, but she’s in a special hell. But even that hell has a light at the end of the tunnel, one way or another. As for the people ground beneath the chic heels of the unhappy rich, it feels like it’s pretty much all tunnel.

ETA and I’m not “ignoring how oppressive meritocracy is for the rich” (the author’s words; not yours). In fact I’m pleased to hear it. I don’t feel as though it has been the poor popularizing the idea of meritocracy all these years. It’s the petard of the rich. I’m content for now seeing them hoisted upon it.


Everyone can be miserable, but it’s the existential difference between “I’m disappointed that I didn’t get enough food today,” and “I’m disappointed that my sandwich isn’t a different sandwich, five minutes earlier.”

Both people can be equally unhappy, but one has more essential nutrients.

Also, the richer person can buy a billboard complaining that five-minute-late sandwiches are the main problem facing society today.