Meritocracy is a term that was coined for the first time 60 years or so ago, which means that the highest and most well regarded spots in famed and reputed institutions should be reserved for those who deserve it the most, which is determined on the basis of their achievements. In essence, it means that society should reserve the best of what it has to offer for the best of people so that they can make the best of use of the resources associated with what it offers, so that the best can be utilized of it.
This principle sounds fundamentally and conceptually sound. It simply states that the best of talent receives the best of what is being offered, and thus does not discriminate on the basis of any sorts or combination of factors which include (and are not limited to) race, gender, sexuality, wealth and income.
This concept provides an array of hope to those who are less fortunate, may it be in terms of race, caste, income and wealth, or just luck. For example: Whenever an individual belonging to the lower strata of society makes something of themselves, newspaper and media outlets herald them as geniuses, and highlight their journey which is riddled with struggles and hardships, and how they overcame it eventually and got to where they currently are.
This representation of meritocracy is what prompts the people of the middle class, lower middle class and the less fortunate in terms of income and opportunities to believe that they have a fighting chance on the basis of merit, talent and hard-work over those who are much more fortunate in terms of income, wealth, opportunities and their respective networks. The belief that a middle class family’s spawn can defeat the spawn of the high class family is what makes middle class families to invest heavily in their offspring’s education, which further pushes them into debt.
Looking at the concept of Meritocracy, it seems as it has a larger capacity to do harm than to do good. If we take a look at the population divide on the basis of income and wealth, the population across the world varies significantly. The top 20 or so richest people in the world hold more wealth than the other 99% of the world’s population, but the question is, how much of that wealth is used to strong arm institutions, rules, regulations and guidelines which privilege them more than they do others? Meritocracy thus, is one such concept
The drawbacks of Meritocracy are fatal. Let us take the example of the College Admissions Scandal that rocked the USA a while back, in 2018-19, when reports emerged that various rich and wealthy individuals and families, most of them extremely well known, had leveraged their wealth in order to provide their children a spot in some of the most highly heralded, and pristine education institutes within the country. This example is the very Achilles Heel of Meritocracy, since it only provides the less fortunate an Illusion of competing against the rich and privileged.
Such examples clearly represent that Meritocracy isn’t in itself meritocratic enough, and that it posits a problem that our current structural system fails to live up to the very ideal. This further goes onto state that the ideal of Meritocracy can only exist in a utopia, wherein there is a just and fair society, without the existence of concepts like aristocracy, oligarchy and corruption.
So, can Meritocracy can really be achieved in the society which we find ourselves to exist in? to be honest, not so much. Why the negative optimism? For that we will have to take a look at the population which first introduced the idea of meritocracy, and has thus defiled it very so often. It is the 1%, the top earners of the country.
To provide a contrast, I would like to quote Daniel Markovits, the author of a book on the very same concept, The Meritocracy Trap. He goes onto say that the economic condition of people over fifty, sixty and seventy years ago could be determined by how hard they worked. But this relationship has now reversed, since the elites, the top 1%, now work harder than they used to as a community. They work harder in terms of honest effort, brute force and grunt work as compared to the middle class on average, and thus obtain the majority of their income by working.
This critique of Markovits does indeed hold a high degree of repute across sociologists and economists. This critique essentially bring an end to one of Jane Austen’s quotes, “A gentleman does not work, he receives income from his lands.”
Now that the 1% is working harder than the middle class, is working better than the middle class, is earning more in percentage points by leveraging their wealth better than the middle class, and also has an expansive network of connections at its disposal than the middle class, the idea of Meritocracy seems simply like a bait to the middle class, to allow it to have an illusion of a fighting chance.
However, this concept does not end here, for it possesses another fatal flaw, but this time it has been reserved for the top 1%.
Over the course of this article, we have talked about the meritocratic inequality that prevails in society. This inequality typically means that elite workers occupy positions of super skilled work, which essentially negates the requirement of the middle class for providing the essential inputs for economic growth and prosperity. The skilled people then amass high levels of wealth, which they leverage to provide their children with the similar type of jobs which are in high demand, thus using the money that they worked so hard to earn, to make them work more.
Thus, if the responsibility of the entire economic production and growth rests with the 1%, the middle class is forced to take up supporting jobs or menial tasks to earn a basic level of income, which is essentially forcing them to sit and twiddle their thumbs.
This process guts the middle class, since they are forced to remain idle, allowing for wages to stagnate and for debts to rise substantially, allowing for the middle class to abstain from attaining socioeconomic prosperity.
So, what can be done in order for Meritocracy to reach its fullest potential? Given the current scenario, not much. If the concentration of power shall always remain in a few and limited number of hands, those hands shall always use the power to feed themselves and those whom they hold dear, for such is the basest instinct of human nature. Only in a utopia can meritocracy attain its highest potential, and given the prevalence of aristocracy, behind-the-curtain plutocracy and the widespread system of corruption and bribery, it only provides an illusion of hope to the middle class, and alludes them to chase a dream that shall benefit the very ones whom the middle class had vouched within its mind to defeat.