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Meritocracy (merit, from Latin mereō "I earn" and -cracy, from Ancient Greek κράτος kratos "strength, power") is a political philosophy which holds that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively according to merit. Advancement in such a system is based on performance measured through examination and/or demonstrated achievement in the field where it is implemented.
- 1 Definitions
- 2 Etymology
- 3 History
- 4 Social Darwinism
- 5 Historical examples
- 6 Modern meritocracy in practice
- 7 Modern meritocratic movements
- 8 Computing
- 9 Criticism
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
The "most common definition of meritocracy conceptualizes merit in terms of tested competency and ability, and most likely, as measured by IQ or standardized achievement tests." In government or other administration systems, meritocracy, in an administrative sense, is a system of government or other administration (such as business administration) wherein appointments and responsibilities are assigned to individuals based upon their "merits", namely intelligence, credentials, and education, determined through evaluations or examinations.
In a more general sense, meritocracy can refer to any form of government based on achievement. Like "utilitarian" and "pragmatic", the word "meritocratic" has also developed a broader definition, and may be used to refer to any government run by "a ruling or influential class of educated or able people."
This is in contrast to the original, condemnatory use of the term by Michael Young in 1958, who defined it as a system where "merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications."
Meritocracy in its wider sense, may be any general act of judgment upon the basis of various demonstrated merits; such acts frequently are described in sociology and psychology. Supporters of meritocracies do not necessarily agree on the nature of "merit"; however, they do tend to agree that "merit" itself should be a primary consideration during evaluation. Thus, the merits may extend beyond intelligence and education to any mental or physical talent or to work ethic.
In rhetoric, the demonstration of one's merit regarding mastery of a particular subject is an essential task most directly related to the Aristotelian term Ethos. The equivalent Aristotelian conception of meritocracy is based upon aristocratic or oligarchical structures, rather than in the context of the modern state.
More recent definitions
Although meritocracy as a term is a relatively recently coined word (1958), the concept of a government based on standardized examinations originates from the works of Confucius, along with other Legalist and Confucian philosophers. The first meritocracy was implemented in the second century BC, by the Han Dynasty, which introduced the world's first civil service exams evaluating the "merit" of officials. Meritocracy as a concept spread from China to British India during the seventeenth century, and then into continental Europe and the United States.
With the translation of Confucian texts during the Enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional ancient regime of Europe. In the United States, the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 prompted the replacement of the American Spoils System with a meritocracy. In 1883, The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed, stipulating government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit through competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation.
The most common form of meritocratic screening found today is the college degree. Higher education is an imperfect meritocratic screening system for various reasons, such as lack of uniform standards worldwide, lack of scope (not all occupations and processes are included), and lack of access (some talented people never have an opportunity to participate because of the expense, most especially in developing countries). Nonetheless, academic degrees serve some amount of meritocratic screening purpose in the absence of a more refined methodology. Education alone, however, does not constitute a complete system, as meritocracy must automatically confer power and authority, which a degree does not accomplish independently.
Although the concept has existed for centuries, the term "meritocracy" was first coined in the 1950s. It was used by British politician and sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 satirical essay The Rise of the Meritocracy, which pictured the United Kingdom under the rule of a government favouring intelligence and aptitude (merit) above all else, being the combination of the root of Latin origin "merit" (from "mereō") and the Ancient Greek suffix "-cracy" (meaning "power", "rule"). In this book the term had distinctly negative connotations as Young questioned both the legitimacy of the selection process used to become a member of this elite and the outcomes of being ruled by such a narrowly defined group. The essay, written in the first-person by a fictional historical narrator in 2034, interweaves history from the politics of pre- and post-war Britain with those of fictional future events in the short (1960 onward) and long term (2020 onward).
The essay was based upon the tendency of the then-current governments, in their striving toward intelligence, to ignore shortcomings and upon the failure of education systems to utilize correctly the gifted and talented members within their societies.
Young's fictional narrator explains that, on the one hand, the greatest contributor to society is not the "stolid mass" or majority, but the "creative minority" or members of the "restless elite". On the other hand, he claims that there are casualties of progress whose influence is underestimated and that, from such stolid adherence to natural science and intelligence, arises arrogance and complacency. This problem is encapsulated in the phrase "Every selection of one is a rejection of many".
Ancient times: China
According to scholarly consensus, the earliest example of an administrative meritocracy, based on civil service examinations, dates back to Ancient China.a[›] The concept originates, at least by the sixth century BC, when it was advocated by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who "invented the notion that those who govern should do so because of merit, not of inherited status. This sets in motion the creation of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies open only to those who passed tests."
As the Qin and Han dynasties developed a meritocratic system in order to maintain power over a large, sprawling empire, it became necessary for the government to maintain a complex network of officials. Prospective officials could come from a rural background and government positions were not restricted to the nobility. Rank was determined by merit, through the civil service examinations, and education became the key for social mobility. After the fall of the Han Dynasty, the nine-rank system was established during the Three Kingdoms period.
One of the oldest examples of a merit-based civil service system existed in the imperial bureaucracy of China. Tracing back to 200 B.C., the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as the basis of its political philosophy and structure, which included the revolutionary idea of replacing nobility of blood with one of virtue and honesty, and thereby calling for administrative appointments to be based solely on merit. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position that would bring wealth and honor to the whole family. In part due to Chinese influence, the first European civil service did not originate in Europe, but rather in India by the British-run East India Company... company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism.
Both Plato and Aristotle advocated meritocracy, Plato in his The Republic, arguing that the most wise should rule, and hence the rulers should be philosopher kings. See Estlund (2003) for a summary and discussion.
17th century: spread to Europe
The concept of meritocracy spread from China to British India during the seventeenth century, and then into continental Europe and the United States. With the translation of Confucian texts during the Enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional ancient regime of Europe. Voltaire and François Quesnay wrote favourably of the idea, with Voltaire claiming that the Chinese had "perfected moral science" and Quesnay advocating an economic and political system modeled after that of the Chinese.
The first European power to implement a successful meritocratic civil service was the British Empire, in their administration of India: "company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism." British colonial administrators advocated the spread of the system to the rest of the commonwealth, the most "persistent" of which was Thomas Taylor Meadows, Britain's consul in Guangzhou, China. Meadows successfully argued in his Desultory Notes on the Government and People of China, published in 1847, that "the long duration of the Chinese empire is solely and altogether owing to the good government which consists in the advancement of men of talent and merit only," and that the British must reform their civil service by making the institution meritocratic. "This practice later was adopted in the late nineteenth century by the British mainland, inspired by "Chinese mandarin system."
The British philosopher and polymath John Stuart Mill advocated meritocracy in his book, Considerations on Representative Government. His model was to give more votes to the more educated voter. His views are explained in Estlund (2003:57-8):
- Mill's proposal of plural voting has two motives. One is to prevent one group or class of people from being able to control the political process even without having to give reasons in order to gain sufficient support. He calls this the problem of class legislation. Since the most numerous class is also at a lower level of education and social rank, this could be partly remedied by giving those at the higher ranks plural votes. A second, and equally prominent motive for plural voting is to avoid giving equal influence to each person without regard to their merit, intelligence, etc. He thinks that it is fundamentally important that political institutions embody, in their spirit, the recognition that some opinions are worth more than others. He does not say that this is a route to producing better political decisions, but it is hard to understand his argument, based on this second motive, in any other way.
- So, if Aristotle is right that the deliberation is best if participants are numerous (and assuming for simplicity that the voters are the deliberators) then this is a reason for giving all or many citizens a vote, but this does not yet show that the wiser subset should not have, say, two or three; in that way something would be given both to the value of the diverse perspectives, and to the value of the greater wisdom of the few. This combination of the Platonic and Aristotelian points is part of what I think is so formidable about Mill's proposal of plural voting. It is also an advantage of his view that he proposes to privilege not the wise, but the educated. Even if we agreed that the wise should rule, there is a serious problem about how to identify them. This becomes especially important if a successful political justification must be generally acceptable to the ruled. In that case, privileging the wise would require not only their being so wise as to be better rulers, but also, and more demandingly, that their wisdom be something that can be agreed to by all reasonable citizens. I turn to this conception of justification below.
- Mill's position has great plausibility: good education promotes the ability of citizens to rule more wisely. So, how can we deny that the educated subset would rule more wisely than others. But then why shouldn't they have more votes?
Estlund goes on to criticize Mill's education-based meritocracy on various grounds.
19th century: United States
In the United States, the federal bureaucracy used the Spoils System from 1828 until the assassination of United States President James A. Garfield by a disappointed office seeker in 1881 proved its dangers. Two years later in 1883, the system of appointments to the United States Federal Bureaucracy was revamped by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, partially based on the British meritocratic civil service that had been established years earlier. The act stipulated that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit, through competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation. It also made it illegal to fire or demote government employees for political reasons.
To enforce the merit system and the judicial system, the law also created the United States Civil Service Commission. In the modern American meritocracy, the president may hand out only a certain number of jobs, which must be approved by the Senate.
Australia began establishing public universities in the 1850s with the goal of promoting meritocracy by providing advanced training and credentials. The educational system was set up to service urban males of middle-class background, but of diverse social and religious origins. It was increasingly extended to all graduates of the public school system, those of rural and regional background, and then to women and finally to ethnic minorities. Both the middle classes and the working classes have promoted the ideal of meritocracy within a strong commitment to "mateship" and political equality.
Social Darwinism is a social theory which holds that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is a model, not only for the development of biological traits in a population, but also as an application for human social institutions — the existing social institutions being implicitly declared as normative. Social Darwinism shares its roots with early progressivism, and was most popular from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II. Proponents of Social Darwinism argue that the theory justifies social inequality as being meritocratic. Darwin only ventured to propound his theories in a biological sense, and it is other thinkers and theorists who have applied Darwin's model to unequal endowments of human ambitions. In his book Meritocratic Education and Social Worthlessness (Palgrave, 2012), the philosopher Khen Lampert, argued that educational-meritocracy is nothing but a post-modern version of Social-Darwinism.
In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes. (Analects XV, 39)
The main basis of his teachings was to seek knowledge, study, and become a better person.
Although Confucius claimed that he never invented anything, but was only transmitting ancient knowledge (see Analects VII, 1), he did produce a number of new ideas. Many European and American admirers such as Voltaire and H. G. Creel point to the revolutionary idea of replacing nobility of blood with nobility of virtue. Jūnzǐ (君子, lit. "lord's child"), which originally signified the younger, non-inheriting, offspring of a noble, became, in the works of Confucius, an epithet having much the same meaning and evolution as the English term, "gentleman". A virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities may be a "gentleman", while a shameless son of the king is only a "small man". That he admitted students of different classes as disciples is a clear demonstration that Confucius fought against the feudal structures that defined pre-imperial Chinese society.
The new idea of the meritocracy led to the introduction of the Imperial examination system in China. The system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honour to the whole family. The Chinese Imperial examination system seemed to start in 165 BC, when certain candidates for public office were called to the Chinese capital for examination of their moral excellence by the emperor. Over the following centuries the system grew until, finally, almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations.
In addition to Confucius, another ancient Chinese philosopher of the same period (that of the Warring States) advocated a meritocratic system of government and society. This was Han Feizi who was famous as the foremost proponent of the School of Law, otherwise known as the philosophy of Legalism. This had, as its central tenet, the absolute rule of law, but also contained numerous meritocratic elements. Another Legalist, Shang Yang implemented Legalist and meritocratic reforms in the state of Qin by abolishing the aristocracy and promoting individuals based on their skill, intelligence, and initiative.
This led to the armies of the Qin gaining a critical edge over the other nations that adhered to old aristocratic systems of government. Legalism, along with its pro-meritocratic ideals, remained a key part of Chinese philosophy and politics for another two millennia, although after the Qin Dynasty it was heavily diluted. Meritocratic governance within the bureaucracy, however, remains a nominal keystone of Chinese government all the way to the present. This may be seen most clearly in the use of standardized "imperial examinations" to determine entry into the official class, which began in the Sui Dynasty.
Napoleonic (Revolutionary) France is considered to have been meritocratic. After the revolution of 1789 most members of the former elite had been removed. When Napoleon rose to power in 1799, there was no ancient base from which to draw his staff and he had to choose the people he thought best for the job. This included officers from his army, revolutionaries who had been in the National Assembly, and even some former aristocrats such as prime minister Talleyrand. This policy was summed up in Napoleon Bonaparte's often-quoted phrase "La carrière ouverte aux talents", careers open to the talented, or as more freely translated by Thomas Carlyle, "the tools to him that can handle them". A clear example is the order of the Légion d'honneur, the first order of merit, admitting men of any class. They were judged not by ancestry or wealth but by military, scientific, or artistic prowess.
Modern meritocracy in practice
There is criticism that, under this system, Singaporean society is being increasingly stratified and that an elite class is being created from a narrow segment of the population. Singapore has one of the highest levels of home tutoring in the world for children, and top tutors are often paid better than school teachers. Defendants recall the ancient Chinese proverb "Wealth does not pass three generations", suggesting that the nepotism or cronyism of elitists eventually will be, and often are, replaced by those lower down the hierarchy.
Singaporean academics are continuously re-examining the application of meritocracy as an ideological tool and how it's stretched to encompass the ruling party's objectives. Professor Kenneth Paul Tan at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy asserts that "Meritocracy, in trying to 'isolate' merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination."
Meritocracy in the Singapore context relates to the application of pragmatism as an ideological device which combines strict adherence to market principles without any aversion to social engineering and little propensity for classical social welfarism, is further illustrated by Kenneth Paul Tan in subsequent articles:
"There is a strong ideological quality in Singapore's pragmatism, and a strongly pragmatic quality in ideological negotiations within the dynamics of hegemony. In this complex relationship, the combination of ideological and pragmatic maneuvering over the decades has resulted in the historical dominance of government by the PAP in partnership with global capital whose interests have been advanced without much reservation."
Modern meritocratic movements
According to Osho, only persons with appropriate qualifications should be allowed to vote. Moreover, all politicians should have appropriate college or university degrees. Only the geniuses of the world should govern. Osho suggested that, first the various nations should become meritocracies, after which they could all be joined to form a global meritocracy.
The Meritocracy Party
In 2007 an anonymous British group called The Meritocracy Party published its first manifesto, to which they have now added more than two million words on the subject (discussing Hegel, Rousseau, Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, and various other philosophers, scientists, reformers, and revolutionaries). In summary, The Meritocracy Party wants to achieve the following:
1. A world in which every child gets an equal chance to succeed in life.
2. The abolishment of party politics.
3. Only those with a relevant education and work experience should be allowed to vote, rather than just anyone who has reached the age of 18 or 21.
4. The introduction of 100% Inheritance Tax, so that the super-rich elite can no longer pass on their wealth to a select few (their privileged children) rather than the Commonwealth this inheritance tax would mean the end of the elite dynasties, and abolish hereditary monarchy.
5. A radically reformed educational system, based on the MBTI personality types, and insights from radical innovators such as Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori.
6. To replace free market capitalism with social capitalism and to replace democracy with a fully transparent meritocratic republic, under a meritocratic constitution.
7. The end of nepotism, cronyism, discrimination, privilege and unequal chances.
On their website the Meritocracy Party lists five meritocratic principles and thirteen primary aims. The Meritocracy International is the host of all meritocratic political parties in the world and the place where these may be found by country of origin.
Due to the nature of online interaction, where identity and anonymity are more readily managed than in direct interaction, the effects of offline social inequity often may be discounted in online communities. Intelligence, effort, education, and personality may be readily conveyed in an online interaction, but a person's gender, race, religion, and social standing can be obfuscated easily, or left entirely unaddressed.
Free / open source software projects
The GNOME Foundation, Apache Software Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, and The Document Foundation are examples of (open source) organizations that officially claim to be meritocracies.
The term "meritocracy" was originally intended as a negative concept. The primary concern with meritocracy is the unclear definition of "merit". Different people often have their own standards of merit, thus raising the question of which "merit" is the highest — or, in other words, which standard is the "best" standard.
Another concern is the reliability of people who supposedly measure others' merit. Academic grades, for example, are assigned by people with their own opinions, and can therefore be biased or inefficient. If the system of evaluation is corrupt, opinionated, or non-transparent, decisions regarding who has the highest merit can be highly fallible.
The level of education required in order to become competitive in a meritocracy may also be costly, effectively limiting candidacy for a position of power to those with the means necessary to become educated. An example of this was Chinese student come self-declared messiah, Hong Xiuquan, who despite ranking first in a preliminary, nationwide imperial examination, was unable to afford further education. As such, although he did try to study in private, Hong was ultimately noncompetitive in later examinations and unable to become a bureaucrat. This economic aspect of meritocracies has been said to continue nowadays in countries without free educations, with the Supreme Court of the United States, for example, consisting only of justices who attended Harvard or Yale and generally only considering clerkship candidates who attended a top-five university, while in the 1950s the two universities only accounted for around one fifth of the justices.
Another concern regards the principle of incompetence, or the "Peter Principle". As people rise in a meritocratic society through the corporate ladder, they reach, and become stuck, at the first level of what they are unable to do.
Other concerns for the validity of a merit-based system have arisen from studies in psychology, sociology, and neuroscience. Given the proposition that a person's life prospects should not be decided by factors outside of one's control or, for which a person cannot claim personal credit (i.e., social status, inherited wealth, race, and other accidents of birth) a meritocracy proposes a system where people are rewarded based on their efforts, and if everyone can start on equal footing with the same opportunity to advance, then the results are just. However, some studies have shown that even our motivation, work ethic, and conscientious drive is, in fact, outside of our control and can be affected by such arbitrary factors as birth order. Children who are first in birth order tend to aim at goals that reference their own past level of mastery, while secondborns tend to aim at goals based on other-referenced expectations and competence standards. Therefore, a system which rewards effort in this way is not completely just, because effort and hard work is not something we can claim complete credit for.
Khen Lampert has argued that the principle of meritocracy stems from neo-capitalist ideas of aggression and competition.
Chris Hayes, a writer on the left, has attributed what he calls the "Fail Decade"—which includes 9/11, the Enron scandal, the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the subprime crisis, and the Great Recession—to the deterioration of America's meritocratic system into one of plutocracy.
- Differential Education Achievement
- Equality of opportunity vs Equality of outcome
- Meritocracy in China
- Merit (Buddhism)
- Ownership society
- Social mobility
^ a: This is the history of the meritocracy in the technical sense. The vaguer definition of a meritocracy as a "rule by intelligence" has been applied to many ancient Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Jewish thinkers and statesmen. For example, the Sanhedrin, the legislature of Ancient Israel and Kingdom of Judah, is sometimes called as an "intellectual meritocracy", in the sense that its members were drawn from religious scribes and not the aristocracy. Appointment was self-perpetuating, however, and new members were chosen personally by existing members. These are not meritocracies in the administrative sense, in which merit is determined objectively as a "tested competency or ability."
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- The Meritocracy Party: Equal Opportunity for Every Child, organizes volunteers to bootstrap meritocracies in communities across the world.
- Meritocracy and the Erosion of Self-Respect, lecture by Sjalling Swierstra and Evelien H. Tonkens (with a German introduction)
- World Wide Words — Michael Quinion writes about the changing use of the term, as does Progress Online[dead link]
- The Meritocracy Party, the manifesto of the international Meritocracy Movement
- Round Table Meritocracy, English article on meritocracy. Also available in German, Spanish and Dutch.