The dystopian roots of the concept of "Meritocracy"

I’ve long thought of “meritocracy” as pretty close to Social Darwinism.


Meritocracy… a revamping of a concept to fit today’s labor market. In other words, it’s just the same conundrum that has faced corporate structures since the beginning of time. Let’s peer in to enjoy what the rich guys are thinking about their personal perception of shrinking portfolios and how to make a correction to the ‘problem’. After all, they’re rich for a reason.
" How do we get the wage slaves to do a days work so we can underpay them enough to skim off some more for us?.. it’s not like we don’t already face monstrous payments for our estates, boats, wine cellars, concubines, fine motor cars, jet fleets plus the costs of our battalions of lawyers and tax accountants! … it’s just getting more onerous everyday to be rich, as you know, and alarmingly so! … So the question remains, how do we get the slaves to put down the crack pipes and do their simple tasks? I propose going back to using that old meritorious trope that worked so well in the past… pitting them against each other. It’s time tested and certainly worked well in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome… Bring back blood sports, I say! Let them eat their dead! Meritocracy now, meritocracy forever and we’ll get governments to pay for it by reducing our taxes !! "
Sounds fascistly familiar.


The problem with “meritocracy” is 2-fold:

  1. How the hell can you measure “merit”? In our society, “merit” almost always means “wealthy”, which is entirely unrelated to being qualified to be a responsible leader of the general public. There are 3 types of wealthy people. a) people who inherited their wealth. b) people who grift and scam their way into wealth. c) people who had lots of opportunity (opportunity being a combination of education and being in the right place at the right time, and having, or being able to acquire the finances to take advantage of some emerging business opportunity), and lots of sheer dumb luck.

  2. Most people do not inherit vast amounts of wealth, are too moral to scam people, lack the money to get a degree from a prestigious university, and are not related to, and/or don’t know wealthy people who can give them high-paying, high-power jobs. That only leaves a small handful of people who manged to luck into some business opportunity which ends up making them rich.

And aside from that, our conflating of “merit” with “wealth” in the first place is severely flawed. The predatory skills and sociopathic traits that make someone excel in the dog-eat-dog every-man-for-himself Darwinian business world are not really the traits that we should want in our civic leaders, since all that does is result in leaders that grift and self-deal and reward their cronies, and generally work towards enriching themselves at our expense, instead of having leaders that work towards the good of society as a whole.


I think working people (and not just working-class ones) are encouraged to think of merit as a combination of talent and willingness to work harder than others – possess both of those and surely you’ll get ahead. And of course, that’s a great recipe for disciplined workers, who see no interest in fighting back collectively against their own exploitation.


of course GIF


But the Britain seem more willing to acknowledge the existence of an impenetrable class structure than us Americans are, with our rugged individualism.

That just shows the success of the American ownership classes (both human and legal-entity) in co-opting idealistic concepts to serve their own ends. A “classless society” is a lovely dream, but TPTB in America have always known it was only that.

Thus we have a situation now where a reasonable chance of making it on merit and hard work (per the ideal) is becoming a privilege afforded to an increasingly smaller percentage of the population based on accident of birth.

Which ties directly into this topic:


And quit agrandizing the wealthy. All of the “job creator” bullshit of tying one’s wealth to their percieved value to society needs to be resolutely fought against in addition to fighting wealth inequality. It’s cultural as much as financial


Careful, you may have just identified yourself as one of those troublemakers who don’t appreciate being trickled down upon.


The problem is that “merit” has nothing to do with what people “deserve”, because it is really being used as a synonym for competence, and competence costs more. But competencetocracy doesn’t sound as good.

This other thread had me thinking about meritocracy.


He doesn’t mention “meritocracy” in this quote, but it pretty well sums up the inherently selfish nature of it:

If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses—you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.
-Gene Debs, June 16, 1918

or if you prefer images:


I have found that, in Asia (specifically Japan, South Korea and China*), the idea of meritocracy is taken very seriously and has quite different connotations than in the West, even if the outcome is often the same.
*This may also be the case in other countries, but my knowledge is mostly limited to these three countries.

In Asia, there is a very difficult test for every step in getting ahead in life. I’m talking about entrance exams not just for college, but also for high school and (if you want to go to certain elite schools) junior high school and even elementary school. The Chinese 高考 (Gaokao) is perhaps the most infamous example. If you want to have some fun, Google “Insanely Difficult Gaokao Questions.”

Even after schooling, if you want to get a job at a certain company, you can bet that there will be an actual paper test as part of the hiring process. Want a promotion? Another paper test. Want a qualification to do just about anything? Paper test. Want to be a lawyer? Up until recently, the bar exam in Japan had a pass rate of less than 1% (recent reforms have not yet succeeded in bringing the pass rate up to the goal of 1/3 to 1/2).

There is no getting around these tests. No amount of parental wealth will get you into an elite university if you cannot get a good score on these tests, and schools don’t really care about your grades or extracurricular activities; admissions really boils down to your test score.

This idea of passing tests to get ahead has a long and storied history in Asia and is rooted in Confucianism. The reason why I say that the outcome is the same? Wealthy parents can afford tutors who are experts in what these tests are testing for. Also, although you need a photo ID to take a test, proxy test taking is also an issue.


I thought this was a ReBoing but actually the earlier review was of another book on the same subject


In Democracy’s Discontent [1998], Sandel introduced the phrase “egalitarian liberalism,” which he also refers to as “welfare state liberalism.” Egalitarian liberalism was a revision of classical liberalism developed during the Progressive era. Classical liberalism presented a set of individual rights that came to be called “negative rights,” because they involved prohibitions against interference in a person’s freedom of action and thought.

The problem is that the term “classical liberalism” seems to be a retconn, probably from the Reagan era, but mainly 2nd half 20th century. It’s always a warning flag to slow down and check who said what when carefully.


This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers, every single mediocre, insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me could not possibly have earned such an honor, and that when they win it’s ‘meritocracy,’ but when we win it’s ‘identity politics.

– NT Jamison, accepting her third Hugo.


I got the feeling that capital is more or less “merit” in a sense, grown out of a way to measure how many favours are owed. Capitalism is a rejection of other measurements of merit, especially those inferred merely by birth (aristocracy) or by what only the priests say the divine will is (theocracy). “Meritocracy” merely replaces the currency involved with “merit”.

Sure, “meritocracy” is really used as shorthand for “X is the chosen leader because X earned it in my eyes”, a way to hand-wave personal prejudice with supposed merit. I merely argue that the term is the outer circle on a Venn diagram, and used because the speaker/writer isn’t sure or willing to nail down which measurement of “merit” is in play.


Yep, this is the concept of a meritocracy as opposed to an aristocracy, though here the hoped-for measure of merit is competency. Or the proven qualified. Something different than the mere merit of being the biological heir, or chosen by shamans who claim to hear God’s voice.

Sure, as you note, the end result is only slightly different as those born into privilege have much, much better chances of claiming “competence”, so that actual social mobility is limited. But it isn’t automatic (at least in theory, as any test system can be gamed or even cheated).


More than anything else, it has made test prep into an enormous industry. There are cram schools on every street corner here in Japan. Many of these places are not terribly expensive (though it certainly varies), so it does mean that social mobility is possible, but it makes me wonder if it is really worth it. These kids are sacrificing a year of their lives (in ninth grade) to get into a good high school and then another year to get into a good university (in twelfth grade). On the plus side, raw intelligence without discipline and hard work is not enough to cut it, which sends a good message. But then, on the other hand, having your whole life decided by a single test just doesn’t feel right…and then there’s the stress.


No system is perfect, that is all too true. It isn’t enough to be a step up from having your whole life decided for you by which family you were born into, it lacks fallbacks, corrections to catch mistakes, and so on. The brittleness and the way it can be gamed is a problem that needs to be fixed.

What all of these “-acy” systems do not describe is how flexible a system is. How does each system compensate or try to avoid becoming what all systems decay into, the kakistocracy? That is the real question to be answered here.


It seems to have come as a response to social liberalism, which itself came in the first half of the 20th century as a response to socialism from people like Winston Churchill (he didn’t become a Conservative again until far later). Before that you have things like Gladstonian liberalism and Manchester liberalism, which are far closer to modern libertarian-capitalism than to social liberalism.

Libertarian is also a retcon, as the original libertarians were far left. Some of them still are (libertarian socialists, libertarian Marxists, etc.), and they have no ideological connection with libertarian capitalism.

ETA: Karl Marx used the term Classical Economy and Classical Political Economy to describe what is now called classical liberalism.