How often have you heard someone lamenting or even condemning inequality in society, concluding with an appeal to meritocracy? We like to think that if only the deserving, the smart ones, those we deem competent or capable — often meaning the ones who are more like us — were in charge, things would be better, or just fine.

Since the 1960s, many institutions the world over have embraced the notion of meritocracy. With post-Cold War neoliberal ideologies enabling growing wealth concentration, the rich, the privileged and their apologists invoke variants of meritocracy to legitimise economic inequality.

Instead, corporations and other social institutions, which used to be run by hereditary elites, increasingly recruit and promote on the basis of qualifications, ability, competence and performance. Meritocracy is thus supposed to democratise and level society.

Ironically, British sociologist Michael Young pejoratively coined the term meritocracy in his 1958 dystopian satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy. With his intended criticism rejected as no longer relevant, the term is now used in the English language without the negative connotations.

It has been uncritically embraced by supporters of a social philosophy of meritocracy in which influence is supposedly distributed according to the intellectual ability and achievement of individuals.

Many appreciate meritocracy’s two core virtues. First, the meritocratic elite is presumed to be more capable and effective as their status, income and wealth are due to their ability, rather than their family connections.

Second, “opening up” the elite supposedly on the basis of individual capacities and capabilities is believed to be consistent with and complementary to fair competition. They may claim the moral high ground by invoking equality of opportunity, but are usually careful to stress that equality of outcome is to be eschewed at all cost.

As Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits argues in The Meritocracy Trap, unlike the hereditary elites preceding them, meritocratic elites must often work long and hard, for example in medicine, finance or consulting, to enhance their own privileges and to pass them on to their children, siblings and other close relatives, friends and allies.

Gaming meritocracy

Meritocracy is supposed to function best when an insecure middle class constantly strives to secure, preserve and augment their income, status and other privileges by maximising returns to their exclusive education. But access to elite education — which enables a few of modest circumstances to climb the social ladder — waxes and wanes.

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