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

David Brooks wrote a column today on “the dictatorship of talent” in China, which reminds me of a big problem with all discussion of “meritocracy,” which is that it’s actually a self-contradiction. I learned this several years ago from 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. Maarten says:

    The normative issue is non-trivial. The term was originally invented in Lord Young's 1958 book "The Rise of the Meritocracy" to describe a anti-utiopia, while now it is often used to describe a utiopia.

  2. john says:

    Interesting, since I always thought an -ocracy was a description of a form of government. Evidently, as noted above, "meritocracy" was coined to describe a dystopia, where we "we placed gaining formal educational qualifications over all other considerations."

    Regardless, the arguments don't seem compelling to me. We don't need materialist-elitist beliefs for the best candidate to be chosen as Head Ditch-Digger. And choosing the lead ditch digger irrespective of merit isn't necessary for the best candidate to be chosen as Head Ditch-Digger. Both (a) premises fail, IMO.

    Pre-industrial cities were not meritocracies: the elite worked to hold power, and positions were given out according to the calculus of keeping one's family in the top strata of society. Nowadays, your city engineer isn't the cousin of the mayor regardless of competence; roads have to work, and candidates are judged on criteria like that.

  3. Ayn Rand says:

    That is why we need a highly progressive estate tax. So that you can excel as much as possible in your life, but not pass it on to your children.

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