An Argument Against Meritocracy

Photo by Mareko Tamaleaa on Unsplash

Meritocracy seems great. Who could be against the idea of people getting economic benefits, societal benefits, and even government positions based on merit? Plato believed it was the most just political order possible. Who am I to argue against Plato? Well, I’m a nobody and probably have no place arguing against Plato, but I’m going to anyway.

I’m certainly not the first person to take a position against meritocracy. Some say that it makes society too competitive. Others say that the measures of merit are biased. And still others say that we can’t accurately measure merit. All of these arguments fall into a “What if we figured out a way?” trap. What if we could accurately measure merit. What if this accuracy led to unbiased results? What if these accurate and unbiased results led to understanding instead of competitiveness? Would meritocracy be good then? The answer is still no, but I will take a different path to get there.

My problem with meritocracy is that any system supposedly based on merit is actually mostly arbitrary. Now, I don’t dislike arbitrariness, in fact I really like lotteries for choices, but arbitrariness is the opposite of what meritocracy is going for. In other words, meritocracy cancels itself out.

There are roughly 8 billion people on the planet. What if we had a way to rank them according to merit. Would it fall neatly on a line from 1 having the most merit and 8 billion having the least? That’s unlikely. Instead, there would be clumps. Groups of people would be indistinguishable from each other in terms of merit. They would have the same educational achievements, the same IQ, the same debt to income ratio, and so on. Whatever the criteria, they would be the same. When that happens, there is no way to pick based on merit. You might as well pull a name out of a hat.

To make it more realistic, imagine high school kids applying to colleges. A particular excellent small college has 300 spaces available for freshmen. They have selected 299 based on merit, one spot left. There are two applicants for that spot, but they came from same-sized high schools, they had the same GPA, got the same SAT scores. They both volunteered at convalescent homes and had the same number of extracurriculars. There is simply no way to pick between them. The choice is completely arbitrary.

It becomes even more arbitrary in situations where the requirements, the level of merit needed, is lower. It would be unfair to only hire PhDs for positions that don’t even require a BA. That means that there are dozens or hundreds or even thousands of qualified applicants for any given job. When there are hundreds of people who merit the job, how to pick between them?

What’s really sad, for people who want meritocracy, is that arbitrary is the best-case scenario for these situations. If it’s not arbitrary and random, there will be some non-merit-based decider. That leads to nepotism, racism, favoritism, and all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly things.

I do think the standard arguments against meritocracy have merit (See what I did there?) But arbitrariness is the deciding factor for me. Even perfect meritocracy need not, and probably won’t, change the status quo in any way.

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