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Meritocracy won’t happen: the problem’s with the “ocracy”

I was reading something the other day that referred in an offhand way to “meritocracy”, which reminded me of a wide-ranging and interesting article by James Flynn (the discoverer of the “Flynn effect”, the steady increase in average IQ scores over the past sixty years or so). Flynn’s article talks about how we can understand variation in IQ within populations, between populations, and changes over time.

At the end of his article, Flynn gives a convincing argument that a meritocracatic future is not going to happen and in fact is not really possible.

He first summarizes some data showing that America has not been getting more meritocratic over time. He then presents the killer theoretical argument:

The case against meritocracy can be put psychologically:
(a) The abolition of materialist-elitist values is a
prerequisite for the abolition of inequality and privilege; (b)
the persistence of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite
for class stratification based on wealth and status; (c) therefore,
a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.

Basically, “meritocracy” means that individuals with more merit get the goodies. From the American Heritage dictionary: “A system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.” As Flynn points out, this leads to a contradiction: to the extent that people with merit get higher status, one would expect they would use that status to help their friends, children, etc, giving them a leg up beyond what would be expected based on their merit alone.

Flynn also points out that the promotion and celebration of the concept of “meritocracy” is also, by the way, a promotion and celebration of wealth and status–these are the goodies that the people with more merit get. That is, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s an “ocracy”. As Flynn puts it:

People must care about that hierarchy for it to be socially significant or even for it to exist. . . .

The case against meritocracy can also be put sociologically:
(a) Allocating rewards irrespective of merit is a
prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise environments cannot
be equalized; (b) allocating rewards according to merit
is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise people cannot
be stratified by wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified
meritocracy is impossible.

He also has some normative arguments which you could take or leave, but the social-science analysis is convincing to me.


  1. Ned says:

    It would seem to me that the question of whether US society has been getting more meritocratic or not has been largely settled empirically in the last ten years or so. Take a look, for example, at Harvard class of 2006 vs one of 1936. Or statistics on where the income of the top 0.1% earners comes from (mostly return on human capital, not on physical one). I think that the fallacy in Flynn’s argument is of the type: “Perfect markets are not possible in the real world, therefore markets cannot work in the real world.” – i.e. although US society will never be perfectly meritocratic, is can become and has became *more* meritocratic.

  2. Andrew says:


    Hey, counting is a real ability!


    Point taken. Perhaps, though, the meritocracy is hard to sustain, since the "ocracy" part of "meritocracy" is that these meritocrats get prime spaces in life for their kids, who don't need to have the merit to get there.