Politicians from all walks of life nowadays agree on one thing: we need to build more meritocratic societies. That is, societies where everyone, no matter what their background is, has the chance to succeed on their own merits. This is a beautiful idea responsible for some great things like free education for all, positive discrimination, and a real effort to end nepotism in business and government. We’ve largely done away with the old world of feudalism where lords couldn’t manage their estates, commanders couldn’t understand the principles of battle, and peasants were brighter than their masters. No longer is background an impossible obstacle to advancement. An element of justice has finally entered into the distribution of rewards. It’s been going on for about two hundred and fifty years, ever since Napoleon declared that the ranks of the French army and civil service would henceforth be open to all on merit rather than family background. It’s been a brilliant development but there is, importantly, a darker side to the idea of meritocracy. Because if we truly believe that we’ve created or could one day create a world where the successful truly merited all their success, it necessarily follows that we’d have to argue that the failures were exclusively responsible for their failure. In a meritocratic age an element of justice enters into the distribution of wealth and status, of course, but also of poverty. Low status comes to seem not just regrettable, but also deserved. Succeeding financially, without inheritance or contacts in an economic meritocracy, gives individuals an element of personal validation that the nobleman of old, who’d been given his money and his castle by his father, had never been able to feel. But at the same time, financial failure has become associated with a sense of shame that the peasant of old, denied all chances in life, had also thankfully been spared. The question of why, if one’s in any way good, clever, or able, one is still poor becomes infinitely more acute and painful for the unsuccessful to have to answer, to themselves and other people, in a new meritocratic age. This turned out to be no shortage of people willing to answer the question on behalf of the poor. For a certain constituency it’s clear, and perhaps even scientifically provable, that the poor owe their position to their own stupidity and degeneracy. With the rise of an economic meritocracy in certain quarters, the poor have moved from being described as unfortunate, the target of the charity and guilt of the paternally minded rich, to being described as failures, fair targets of contempt in the eyes of robust, self-made individuals who are disinclined to feel ashamed about their mansions or shed crocodile tears for those whose company they’ve escaped. In the harsher climate of opinion that can gestate in the fertile corners of meritocratic societies, it’s become possible to argue that the social hierarchy rigorously reflects the qualities of the members on every rung of the ladder and so that conditions already in place for good people to succeed and the dummies to flounder, attenuating the need for charity, welfare, redistributive measures, or simple compassion. It’s a symptom of our great faith in meritocracy that it’s largely become impossible to explain away our failures as the result of bad luck. While it’s granted that luck maintains a theoretical role in shaping the course of our careers, the evaluation of people precedes in practical terms as if they could all fairly be held responsible for what happens to them. It would seem duly and even suspiciously modest to ascribe a victory to good luck and more importantly, it would be pitiable to blame defeat just on bad luck. Winners make their own luck. That’s what modern society tells us. It’s tough living in a world so in love with the idea that we’re all responsible for everything that it’s largely dismissed bad luck as a credible explanation for defeat. But, of course, there can never be a truly meritocratic system because the merit of an individual is far too complex and subtle a thing to be determined by what job you end up having
and how much money you end up earning. Those who have faith in meritocracy are essentially subscribing to an insane and certainly arrogant assumption that ordinary humans — employers or customers — can handily take over the solemn responsibilities that past ages more wisely left in the hands of a god who, helped along by the angels, was due to weigh the souls of each person on the day of judgement. No one in this world ever gets exactly what they deserve in terms both of the good things and the bad things. Life, is to a large extent we don’t quite admit to, random in a way that the meritocratic philosophy denies. To free ourselves from some of the more punishing side effects of a meritocratic world view it would be wise to cease investing something as haphazardly distributed as jobs and money with moral connotations and we should retain a little of the old-fashioned, modest belief in a distinction between what some earns and what they’re like as humans.