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Meritocracy and Its Discontents

Meritocracy and Its Discontents

Meritocratic reformers claimed that they wanted equality. But instead they sought to replace the aristocracy of birth with an aristocracy of ability.

· 12 min read

A Review of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by Adrian Wooldridge, 496 pages, Penguin Press (May 2023) and The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? By Michael J. Sandel, 488 pages, Penguin Macmillan (September 2020).   

The distinguishing feature of the Western political order is the presupposition that the individual is sacrosanct and that individual rights should take precedence over group rights. Over the last several hundred years, this has evolved into a belief in meritocracy, or the idea that success should reflect individual talents and efforts. Western nations have committed to this ideal by prohibiting various forms of discrimination and improving access to education. But in recent years, powerful criticisms of meritocracy have been made across the political spectrum, especially in the United States.

Progressives argue that supposedly objective measures of merit are ruses that protect privilege, while conservatives contend that our major institutions—especially universities and media companies—have been captured by hubristic, self-serving elites, who make up their own rules as they go along. Thus, while the Left is suspicious of how access to elite institutions is granted, they regard the institutions as legitimate. By contrast, the Right increasingly regards elite institutions with contempt, but believes that the traditional access-granting processes are largely fair.

Two other criticisms of meritocracy are commonly leveled. The first is that a just society can’t be based on merit alone because natural talents are not distributed fairly. The second is that the demand for specific talents is historically contingent, meaning that the relative values of different skills shift as technology and preferences change. In both views, societal rewards rely on chance as much as on hard work and talent.

In response to these critiques, two recent books offer competing assessments of the value of meritocracy. In The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, journalist and historian Adrian Wooldridge set out to show that meritocracy is an improvement upon traditional systems, by contrasting our modern egalitarian world with the aristocratic world of “priority, degree, and place.”

As Wooldridge shows, aristocratic societies disdained work, valued roots, questioned smarts and innovativeness, and feared change. They believed that people were entitled to privileges. At the basis of this belief system was a hierarchy of fixed social classes that determined what each person was entitled to receive. Aristocrats had the most favorable privileges, but members of other classes could gain access to bundles of privileges by becoming members of associations like guilds and churches.

There were other ways people received benefits in premodern societies. Families were major sources of power. Nepotism, corruption, and venality were widespread. Kings and other leaders of patronage networks distributed favors to a constant stream of petitioners. These methods of distributing things created a cumbersome, confusing, and infuriating landscape of sinecures and inherited privileges. Inefficiency and waste were rampant.

The Enlightenment was the beginning of the end of this system. Thinkers like Voltaire argued that a natural aristocracy of ability is both more efficient and more compatible with reason and human nature than hereditary aristocracy. These ideas influenced the Founders of the United States, which Wooldridge describes as a nation that was born meritocratic. In support of that, he cites John Adams’ first publication, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765), which denounces such laws as forms of tyranny. In it, Adams inveighs against

all that dark ribaldry of heredity, indefeasible right—the Lord’s anointed—the divine, miraculous original of Government, with which the priesthood has enveloped the feudal monarch in clouds and mysteries, from which they have deduced the most mischievous of all doctrines, that of passive obedience and non-resistance.

Adams believed that liberty required citizens to maintain a certain level of education and equality. In such a system, merit would need to take the place of entitlements and hereditary rights. For his part, Thomas Jefferson wanted to scour the country to find genius from all social classes. Both Adams and Jefferson believed in a natural aristocracy of ability. They championed efforts to abolish hereditary privilege—not so that all men could become equal, but so that they could put the natural aristocrats in charge.

The first meritocratic reformers focused on ending feudal claims, abolishing the hereditary principle, and opening careers to competition based on talent. During the French Revolution, the National Assembly ended the ancien régime’s feudal system of noble rights and church privileges and established equality before the law for men. Napoleon spread these reforms abroad. His defeat of Prussia at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt convinced the Prussians of the virtues of promotion by talent. Prussia’s October Edict of 1807 abolished the legal privileges of the aristocracy, outlawed serfdom, opened civil service posts to commoners, and established the principle of meritocratic promotion in the army.

The UK enacted similar meritocratic reforms. The 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report concluded that the British Civil Service needed to select and promote candidates based on merit. The Royal Commissions on Oxford and Cambridge recommended opening university fellowships to open competition, and religious restrictions were dropped by the Oxford and Cambridge Universities Acts (1854 and 1856) and the Universities Tests Act of 1871. The UK also abolished the practice of purchasing army commissions in 1871.

The next stage in the meritocratic revolution was to improve ways of measuring merit. Examinations were instituted to identify the most qualified. For example, in 1945, French President Charles de Gaulle created the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) to produce elite civil servants. Following exhausting examinations, 40–80 candidates a year were selected for the program. After two years of intense academic competition, the graduates were ranked academically. The ENA churned out French Cabinet officials, private sector leaders, presidents, and prime ministers. It is a sign of the times that Emmanuel Macron shuttered the ENA in January 2022, in response to allegations that graduates of the institution had hardened into an elite caste.

The Aristocracy of Talent tells a story of progress in which meritocracy arose to correct the flaws of aristocracy. Wooldridge acknowledges the problems in meritocracies, such as rising inequality due to assortative mating (successful people tend to marry each other). To remedy such problems, he recommends doubling down on meritocracy. This won’t convince critics. Most critics do not need to be convinced that meritocracy is better than aristocracy; they want a system that is neither. To be persuaded, they need to be shown that meritocracy is a better system than all feasible alternatives. One way to do this would be to demonstrate that such alternatives would lead to a society that resembles an aristocracy. Wooldridge does not make this case.

Humanism and Its Discontents
Humanism aspires to ethical universalism but in practice it is defined by what it opposes and excludes.

Philosopher Michael J. Sandel’s book The Tyranny of Merit has a different project. The book’s core argument is that populist discontent is a response to what he sees as the technocratic way of selecting winners and losers that became the elite consensus in the West following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Sandel, technocracy substitutes market mechanisms and the decisions of experts for debates over values that should be decided by democratic means.

Sandel is concerned that our modern notion of merit does not include moral and civic virtue, which were regarded as critical by such historical proponents of the rule of the meritorious as Plato, Confucius, and the American Founders. Today, he argues, merit does not include the ability to discern right from wrong or consideration of the common good. Another fatal flaw of the meritocratic ethic—i.e., the idea that we get what we deserve—is that it encourages hubris on the part of winners and suggests that the losers have nobody to blame but themselves. This causes conflict between hubristic elites and the resentful rest, many of whom lack college degrees. Sandel writes:

The notion that your fate is in your hands … congratulates the winners but denigrates the losers, even in their own eyes. For those who can’t find work or make ends meet, it is hard to escape the demoralizing thought that their failure is their own doing, that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed … This feature of the politics of humiliation makes it more combustible than other political sentiments.

Sandel reasons that humiliation and resentment lead those who are left behind in meritocratic societies to lash out against the projects and values of credentialed experts.

He argues that the meritocratic ethic is misguided and that over-reliance on meritocracy can lead to socially suboptimal outcomes. To make his case, he must distinguish social value from market value. He begins by contrasting free-market liberalism (represented by Friedrich Hayek) with welfare state liberalism (represented by John Rawls). Hayek, he writes, distinguishes between merit and value. In The Constitution of Liberty, for example, Hayek argues that earnings merely reflect value provided to consumers. That kind of value is separate from moral value. Thus, Sandel says that Hayek “rejects the very idea that the money people make should reflect what they deserve.” Rawls also acknowledges a distinction between merit and value. Some people are simply born with more talent than others: this is a matter of luck, not desert. To deal with this perennial problem, Rawls proposes treating natural talents like a common asset. He argues that increases in inequality are justified if the gains of the fortunate also benefit the least well-off.

Problems with Mill’s Masterpiece
The condition of human life is such that we must of necessity be restrained and compelled by circumstances in nearly every action of our lives. Why, then, is liberty, defined as Mr. Mill defines it, to be regarded as so precious? ~James Fitzjames Stephen Of all the works written in

Sandel points out that Rawls and Hayek agree that people in pluralistic societies will never fully agree as to what is morally good. They also agree that defining the good for everybody would impose unacceptable limits on freedom. A liberal society requires that people mostly be left alone to pursue their own vision of the good.

So, both Rawls and Hayek believe that liberal societies should separate moral evaluations from economic rewards. But, Sandel argues, it is hard to separate what people earn from judgments about how much their contributions are intrinsically worth. In capitalist societies, most people attach implicit moral judgments to financial rewards: a person’s net worth is thought to reflect their market value, which is a reasonable indicator of their contribution to society. Therefore, what they receive is thought to be just.

For Sandel, the problem is not just that earnings are confused with justice in this way, but that meritocracy may actually promote morally bad ends, not just morally neutral ones. He cites philosopher Frank Knight, who argued that market value is not a good indicator of social utility. This difference is illustrated by the contrast in earnings between a teacher and a successful drug dealer. The dealer is better paid, but harms society. And the same is true if we compare a good teacher’s salary with the salary of a financial speculator, whose activities might ultimately harm society.

Sandel thinks it would be preferable for more public policies to be placed directly in the hands of voters, rather than leaving such decisions up to experts and markets. For example, since he thinks certain forms of financial speculation are unproductive, he advocates raising taxes on it. In general, he wants the focus to shift from a consumer society to a production-based society that values every skill set. These policy prescriptions stem from the belief that meritocracy’s ideal of merit does not always work for the common good.

Is Hayek’s Moral Vision Compatible with Democracy?
As a young man the great economist was influenced by positivist circles in his native Austria. He expressed no faith or belief in God, and adopted a scientific materialism.

Sandel also calls for humility, arguing that meritocratic hubris leads us to underestimate the extent to which success is the result of community support and luck, rather than individual effort. Not everything happens for a reason. And he reminds readers that we don’t always get what we deserve, citing Ecclesiastes: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

There is one key problem with meritocracy that neither Wooldridge nor Sandel adequately discuss: it is in tension with equality. As Wooldridge’s history demonstrates, meritocratic reformers proclaimed that they wanted equality, but they did not simply level the playing field. Instead, they sought to replace the aristocracy of birth with a natural aristocracy of ability. They did so partly because of the demands created by the Industrial Revolution: modern states needed a useful elite that could do more than just fight in battles and manage landholdings. Hence there is a conflict between the Enlightenment’s commitment to equality and its commitment to utility, efficiency, and freedom.

The issue is complicated by the fact that the term “equality” has many possible meanings. The two most popular competing visions of equality are equality before the law and equality of outcome. Article 1 of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen states that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.” The 1776 American Declaration of Independence, by contrast, proclaims that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Each document promotes the ideal of equality, but the French Revolutionary conception assumes that, since everybody is born equal, the only legitimate basis of social distinctions is what best serves the general good. In addition, the revolutionaries believed that all rational people, if they reason long and hard enough, will ultimately come to the same conclusions about how to organize political life. Thus, we don’t need hierarchies, traditions, or the privileges afforded by membership in specific groups and societies. We can dispense with all intermediate institutions between the state, which will be used to advance the agenda of equality, and the individual. This position is at odds with a meritocratic ethic that accepts that people who are given the same opportunities often end up with very different life outcomes. 

That second way to think about equality, rooted in British and American thought and tradition, is as equal treatment before the law within a specific polity. The latter part of that definition is important. Liberal theorists have argued that rights can be deduced through the exercise of pure reason. But this tradition holds that rights are inherited, practiced, and passed to future generations by political bodies hewing to particular traditions. Edmund Burke, for example, argued that rights come from tradition, not reason, and that they are inextricably tied to history and cultural practices. People who think about equality this way often prefer a legal system produced by tinkering, precedent, and custom rather than by reason alone.

The Anglo-American tradition also prioritizes freedom from governmental interference in the exercise of certain clearly defined individual rights. In a meritocracy, this means that individuals have the liberty to pursue success without encountering arbitrary barriers. Since individual interests, characters, and abilities differ, such a system recognizes many social outcomes as potentially legitimate.

This implies a belief that people have equal moral worth, but they don’t have equal abilities. When individuals are treated fairly, their differences will result in different outcomes. Hierarchy, in this view, is a natural and healthy aspect of human societies, not just because it produces order but also because the world works better for everyone when the contributions of the skilled are recognized, rewarded, and used to benefit others. Individuals who hold these beliefs are likely to be comfortable with a meritocratic society.

From the inception of the American republic, there has been a tension between these two interpretations of equality. Was the guarantee of equality to be universal (i.e., would Americans try to expand the empire of liberty abroad) and to imply equal outcomes? Or was it just a guarantee of equality before the law, and only for Americans? The French revolutionaries proclaimed that the French Revolution had discovered universal political principles. In the US, each international conflict ignites a debate between those who believe that America’s political principles should apply globally, and those who simply want them to apply at home.

Both Wooldridge and Sandel avoid these two popular notions of equality, though Sandel comes closest to exposing the inherent tension between meritocracy and ideals of equality. He notes that although we are not equally lucky or talented, we are all equally subject to chance. In addition, he argues that everybody is equally capable of making valuable contributions to the world; he calls this concept “contributive justice.” Distributive justice asks what we are due and assumes that some people are incapable of contributing. Contributive justice says that we all can and should make contributions. By aiming to provide opportunities for everybody to develop their innate abilities, contributive justice seeks dignity, social esteem, and a broad equality of condition for all. (The details of how this would work in practice remain fuzzy.)

Neither Sandel nor Wooldridge offer a satisfying explanation for the origins of our anti-meritocratic moment. Their accounts fall short because they neglect the deeper debates underlying the idea of meritocracy. That’s because disagreements about merit are fundamentally about philosophy: differing ideas of what constitutes justice, equality, and the good. We’ll never be able to create a fairer society if we don’t look more deeply into what we really mean when we say that something is merited.

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