What's wrong with meritocracy?

Particularly, because I perceive that meritocracy can have a bad reputation, possibly, because it may be associated with "historical", "old" politics, which often were coercive (e.g. so called feudalism).

However, after I've come to think about meritocracy and oppose it to contemporary "arbitrary value" political rules, I've come to think that meritocracy is actually "more right" than for example inheriting power and e.g. wealth. It's also more correct than acquiring wealth through "less meritable" means.

Few problems I can think of are that meritocracies would not be very "fair" for those that are less well off. Like ugly people, stupid people, lazy people, sick people. But in terms of "accuracy" that kind of situation is more natural than "place-bo rights". That is, weaker people have naturally reduced rights, but modern political beliefs give them more rights than would exist in "natural state". It's however difficult to argue, which one is more right. A society of only "better people" is not necessarily a very balanced one. But a society based on inherited power and wealth is not a very fair either.

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    Outcomes don't reflect potential. So outright meritocracy eliminates people who could be highly effective if the environment were different. When it is obvious that the environment is malleable, people who succeed in spite of an adverse environment often work to counter that, observing peers who failed, but could have done even better than themselves. So an absolute outcomes-based meritocracy slowly undermines itself and meritocracies tend to eventually become corrupt, even with the best intentions.
    – user9166
    Mar 1, 2018 at 19:31
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    One way to fight that corruption is with a balancing perspective that tries to cultivate people equally. For the most part, we still live in a meritocracy despite having an underlying doctrine of equality. Your criticism of modern liberal culture is excessive.
    – user9166
    Mar 1, 2018 at 19:31
  • I suspect that whatever scheme you put in place, it will tend to become a de facto meritocracy, where 'merit' is defined as optimizing whatever the rules of the scheme are. Mar 1, 2018 at 19:45
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    I'm puzzled. How is meritocracy associated with feudalism? Mar 1, 2018 at 19:52
  • " I perceive that meritocracy can have a bad reputation, possibly, because it may be associated with "historical", "old" politics, which often were coercive (e.g. so called feudalism)." What? Feudalism was all about 'breeding', bloodline above competence.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 1, 2018 at 19:56

7 Answers 7


Meritocracy is almost universally rejected by political philosophers. Their reasons for rejecting it vary wildly, however.

Libertarians like Robert Nozick say that meritocracy violates rights. If you own a firm, you are allegedly at liberty to hire whomever you like. This may be the most meritorious applicant; or it may be a friend, or a member of your preferred race, or whatever.

Utilitarians point out that a merit-based society may not be a maximally happy one. (Perhaps it omits potential transfers from the rich to the poor that increase the general welfare.)

Egalitarians interested in "diversity" will often (e.g.) endorse gender-based discrimination so that a profession has the same male/female gender ratio as society at-large. The meritocrat, in contrast, rejects all discrimination on grounds irrelevant from the point-of-view of merit.

John Rawls explicitly rejects meritocracy, and on several grounds. (E.g.: One does not deserve one's natural traits, and so therefore one does not deserve anything that one obtains by way of them.)

In fact, there is only one contemporary political philosopher who defends robust meritocracy--me. I explain why meritocracy is uniquely just, and why these other theories are wrong, in my recent book, Justice and the Meritocratic State.

  • I dislike that libertarian argument, because that's basing on "arbitrary rights", which meritocracy would get rid off. Like benefiting your friends, even when in societal comparison they don't deserve it. Similarly libertarians are in favor of inheritance, because they can give wealth to their kids, even when they don't deserve it and it leads to inegalitarian, unearned privileges. A human society is not meant to be always happy, there being possibility for happiness depends on the circumstances. That egalitarian viewpoint is unnatural, because merit would not depend on gender, race etc.
    – mavavilj
    Mar 2, 2018 at 4:38
  • In general I see that these kinds of philosophies are somewhat misusing the state by thinking that just because there's free speech and democracy, one can suggest anything one wishes. It's like ideologue fetishism, wanting the state to do whatever one likes. But then they forget what an animal society is about. It's fundamentally about survival.
    – mavavilj
    Mar 2, 2018 at 4:39

The British Navy during the 18th and 19th centuries was a meritocracy insofar as it rewarded those who distinguished themselves in service with advancement. This was different to the British Army at the time, where rank was more or less bought and where title made a significant difference to one's prospects.

This is an example of just how effective a meritocracy could be; by comparison (at the time), the senior naval officers were far more adept than many of their army counterparts, but were relatively less well known in aristocratic circles. With the exception of the Duke of Wellington, I can't think of a single army flag officer that carried the reputation of competence that Lord Nelson did (the son of a reverend).

That said; there's a reason that a meritocracy worked in that environment. Ship's crews HAD to work as a tightly knit team in order to function, let alone prevail. That meant that the officers who had the respect of their crews were the ones that fared better. Despite this, attrition was horrific during war, hence the need to press competent sailors into service (a little understood foray into conscription by the British at the time). This meant plenty of room for advancement in the ranks for competent officers. Finally, the goals were quite clear and a ship operated as a microcosm of a community with a common goal.

This last point is perhaps the most important. When everyone in your community shares a goal, then 'merit' is easy to assess. What makes one meritorious is known by consensus and everyone can agree on the decision, more or less.

In a more general community, the concept of 'merit' will mean different things to almost everyone. One of the reasons that democracies struggle with reform is that what is in the interest of the individual is almost never in the interest of the group, in this case the state. Therefore, to get to power you have to promise action on what the largest number of individuals want, not what is best for the state. This in turn makes it difficult to enact what you went into politics to do, because you first have to convince the population that it's necessary.

Ultimately, this becomes a fatal flaw in a society even slightly more fragmented than an old naval tall ship. How do you define merit? Many have tried. Read the Republic by Plato and you see a community where merit and advancement are assessed on one's willingness and ability to defend the state with one's life. George Orwell (in 1984) described the Inner Party as the true fanatics; those with an obsession about the rightness of their methods and the willingness to crush all opposition, both foreign and domestic.

In both cases, little is made of academic excellence, a solid understanding of economics or social policy, legal or scientific training, or even the ability to reason. This last one in particular is actually discouraged if it gets in the way of preservation of the state in its current form. Despite this, these are all attributes that I personally would consider integral to 'merit'.

In short, this is a question of who gets to define merit. One of the reasons that democracy is so popular as a political model is that we don't trust each other to see the world as we do, and share our priorities. As such, the popular vote seems like the only 'fair' way to assess the merit of a potential ruler, despite its limitations in that regard.

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    This question was earlier in Politics.SE, where I stipulated that materialistic usefulness could be a measure of merit. That is, those who produce most and/or most useful material benefits, deserve more in return. Currently inheriting wealth for example invalidates "earning one's share", because some earn without contributing. Those that contribute most aren't on top of the material ladder. Contributions in supply and demand economics are valued too abstractly, because all buyers and sellers aren't acting rationally. A physicist can be poorer than a media mogul.
    – mavavilj
    Mar 1, 2018 at 11:01
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    Additionally voters are prone to favor politics that favors their stances. That is, they may want more money, regardless of what they do, because that makes them live better. That makes little appeal to merits, because it doesn't identify what people are doing. Rather our economic stances for example are based on fairly arbitrary valuations. It's possible to make a living or live without contributing much.
    – mavavilj
    Mar 1, 2018 at 11:03
  • @mavavilj - These are both good points, +1 on both as they add a lot of value in context.
    – Tim B II
    Mar 1, 2018 at 22:23

Meritocracy is linked to the idea of distributive justice, specifically as far as concerns the allocation of jobs. It involves at least three ideas :

1 Jobs are allocated on the basis of merit.

2 The allocation operates in a context of equality of opportunity (otherwise we both might be of equal merit but I get the job because I know the boss).

3 Rewards are specified on the basis of merit.

One might have two worries or cautions about this. To begin, if meritocracy is about justice, it says nothing about freedom. More than that, it says nothing about how one job merits more pay than another (if it does) or in what proportion. The problem is magnified when we compare different kinds of job.

In other words, and for example, the principle of meritocracy has no objective metric by which to decide whether person A in job X should earn the same as person B in job Y. Or if they merit different earnings, what the proportionate difference between their earnings should be. Does A merit 50% more than B, or 10% more, or 1000% more or 15% less. Any answers are likely to be arbitrary rather than objectively meritocratic.

  • But would it still be fairer than the current capitalist valuation with inheritance and all?
    – mavavilj
    Mar 5, 2018 at 3:54
  • Nice question. I talked about merit in the allocation of jobs and the difficulty of deciding merit in the reward - the pay - for jobs. Unless you can fix criteria for merit in pay, I don't see how meritocracy is a realistic option. But if it is, then you could extend merit to inheritance. On that basis there should be (as part 2 of the meritocratic package) equality of opportunity in receiving money that people have left. This would effectively wipe out the current law and practice of inheritance. There would be fairness in that.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 5, 2018 at 8:46

I think you're right first of all to think of the problem not in terms of whether a meritocracy is intrinsically or essentially right, but whether it may have an advantage over other systems. Your question seems to be couched mainly in terms of 'fairness' so I will try to do the same.

For me there are two major potential drawbacks to distributing power according to 'merit'. The first is that the term itself may cover a number (some might say any number...) of different meanings. Is merit a matter of intellectual ability? Is it prowess in combat? Is it the ability to dispense patronage, or a measure of your commitment to god? Is it a combination of some, or all of these 'qualities'? I anticipate that anybody wishing to make a serious proposal towards meritocracy would first have to answer the question of what characteristics are meritorious, in much the same way that utilitarians who advocate 'the greatest good' must first offer some clear definition of that good. Furthermore, I would argue that your perception of such a system's 'fairness' would largely be a factor of how far your definition of 'merit' accords with society's as a whole.

Secondarily, I think you could make something like a public choice critique of 'meritocracy'. For instance, if we as a society were to decide that 'merit' (insofar as your suitability to a position of power) was principally a matter of your ability to make rational, empirically grounded decisions, then we would still have develop reliable institutions for assessing and delivering suitable candidates to positions of power. But such institutions would then themselves become obvious targets for abuses of power, both at the level of design and implementation. Hence, many of the historical examples of ostensibly meritocratic systems, which you allude to yourself, are notable above all for the way that genuine merit was subverted or even suppressed.

I think one of the more instructive illustrations of a meritocracy in action is afforded by the civil service examination system that operated in China until the early 20th century. Here you had a definition of merit that largely revolved around an individual's knowledge of the Chinese classics, which, while arguably a more suitable vector of aptitude for the civil service than ancestry or private wealth, was nevertheless highly fallible, and not necessarily any fairer per se. Moreover, those that did pass the examinations then became invested in the continuation of the system, even at the expense of its own suitability for the purpose intended.

Regarding comparative advantage, the crucial point for me is that while a meritocratic system may be nominally fairer than a dynastic or plutocratic one, it still suffers from the same democratic deficit. That is to say, you allow a small group of people to make decisions in a society, including the decision about who should be making the decisions. Unless you have absolute trust that your societal metric for merit is correct and complete, I feel that this is inherently risky. I would also observe that many governments or societies exhibit meritocratic features in conjunction with hereditary and/or plutocratic ones. Indeed, part of the leftist critique of centre-right ideology is that it confuses wealth for merit (such and such a businessman is wealthy because he was smart, not because he was lucky, or because he exploited an unfair system).

You might be interested to read something like Cathy O'Neil's 'Weapons of Math Destruction', about how algorithms designed to reward meritorious behaviour frequently reproduce the (decidedly unmeritorious) biases of their creators, leading eventually to the entrenchment of societal inequalities. Or you could read about the concerns surrounding the contemporary Chinese government's plan to introduce a 'Social Credit System' by 2020, by which a citizen may find herself rewarded for good behaviour (keeping her appointments, paying taxes on time), or else punished for 'anti-social' activities. Already, as a result of the pilot scheme, several million Chinese have been restricted from taking international flights due to their low merit.


The general pattern that makes effective meritocracies difficult is in the difficulty of assigning a comparable merit value to each individual. It's trivial to argue that the best form of rule is the one that puts every person in the best place. It much harder to go one step deeper and actually identify the merit/ability of each individual.

The big challenge, of course, is that humans are not atomic individuals. We work together in a giant fabric of society. We support each other. Consider two politicians, Alice and Bob. Both appear to have equal ability, but there's a catch. Alice has reached her ability with little support. If she were to be put into a position of power which has support, she may grow in ability due to that support. Bob, on the other hand, has reached his ability with great support from his fellow citizens, but can't really leverage much more support than that effectively. If he were to be put into a position of power with more support, his ability may not grow as greatly as Alice.

Both Alice and Bob clearly demonstrate the same ability/merit, but we can agree that having Alice lead would be better (because I constructed the fictitious scenario to come to that conclusion).

But if you look at what we have to do to come to that conclusion, we see that we must base merit/ability not on what a person can do now, but what a person could do after we elevate them. Now we're talking about balancing hypothetical futures. And now we can see the real challenge in a meritocracy. To make a meritocracy work, the decision makers must have an almost clairvoyant ability to identify what potential futures could look like.


Meritocracy reflects the "competence hierarchy" found throughout the animal kingdom. Naturally, rewarding competent individuals allows those individuals to manage their greater resources, often benefiting those at the lower end of the competence distribution (think of the world's billionaire philanthropists.)

Because of inequality, and the role that inequality plays in societal turmoil, meritocracy can have an unpleasant odor, and is often mis-characterized by political movements:

Leftists often like to deny innateness and view human beings as a blank slate, which defies everything we've learned in the last century about the role of intelligence and conscientiousness and the influence of these factors on success. More money for education, more training, less prejudice, more therapeutic measures.

In a similarly myopic fashion, conservatives assert that if everyone just "got off their lazy asses" and went to work, things would improve. This ignores the fact that ten percent of the population are not even capable of doing the lowest-level work in the U.S. Armed Forces (the threshold being an IQ < 83) and struggle at performing very simple tasks. Moreover, automation is taking away many of these low-level tasks out the job market.

So as long as people can be limited by their innate characteristics, and as long as The Matthew Principle and Pareto Distribution hold true, some portion of the population will be addicted, bad with money, unskilled, or unmotivated, and incapable of succeeding in a meritocracy.

Potential solutions may include increasing the intelligence of a population using genetic technology, continuing to spread free market capitalism to the developing world (which has drastically reduced poverty at an unprecedented rate), or moving into some kind of technology-assisted/automated post-scarcity world.

However, history has shown that leaders proposing a state-Utopia often end up with large-scale devastation and death. Despite its flaws, it is too innate to be dispensed with until some truly remarkable alternative is tested and implemented.

Please let me know if you'd like any references for the above.


"What's wrong with meritocracy?"

Who is saying there is anything wrong with it?

Those with racial and authoritarian views, often tend to say they are born out by what race, and type of person suceeds under certain circumstances. This is in-group bias.

But socialist systems like the UK at it's most left wing, with very high i heritence taxes and free university, are clearly more actually meritocratic.

Meritocracy is a matter of degree, along with the level-ness of the 'playing field'. What suits one won't suit another. Merit in one generation may no longer be merit in the changed society of another. I would argue it is generally a fantasy, as even in the 'fairest' societies like Scandinavian countries, outcomes are overwhelmingly determined by family wealth, even factoring in possible genetic factors. Meritocracy is a useful fantasy for engaging a larger majority into investing energy into social goods, not for instance fomenting rebellion - this is described in Rousseau's Social Contract, a definingly post-feudal idea. The Chinese imperial civil service exams gave a sufficient patina of meritocracy for people to be far more accepting of inequality, and a safety-valve against promotion of incompetence that would increase it.

The dynamic of lying about meritocracy is exemplified by the state of inheritence taxes. If we really wanted meritocracy, we would end inheritence. But that is actually very unpopular. Almost every succesful business person started out with more than average capital. We wish to unfairly benefit our offspring, and that is such a powerful motivator and enhancer of social order, that we completely compromise the semblence of meritocracy because of it. Communist systems can be argued to at least aim for greater meritocracy, but in practice have always propagated non-financial means of advantage in a way that works out to be very similar.

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