The myths about ‘meritocracy’

The recent scandal about how rich people were bribing and cheating on tests to get their children into the colleges of their choice has created a discussion about meritocracy. On the radio program On The Media, host Bob Garfield had an interesting interview about the origins of the word and that there are two myths about meritocracy.

The word was actually coined as satire in 1958 by the British sociologist Michael Young, who was criticizing the role that the UK’s elite education system had in shaping the hierarchy of British society. This week, Bob speaks with John Patrick Leary about the satirical origins of the word and what it has come to mean in the US. He says there are actually two myths: “the myth that there is such a thing, and the myth that the United States is committed to that imaginary thing.”

In the interview, Leary explains what the word was originally taken to mean.

The satirical point there is that merit is determined not by an accident of one’s birth as in an aristocratic title, but instead merit is determined by one’s access to an educational institution, which one is able to attend because of an accident of one’s birth. And so meritocracy is a combination of merit and aristocracy and the point that Young was trying to make originally was that the meritocracy was a new form of aristocracy that hid the old class privileges behind a veneer of educational equality.

[W]hen you think about what merit means and how we measure it and how we assess it, we think about what college did you go to? How do you present yourself? What kind of voice do you use in public settings? What do you look like? What gender are you? What race are you? There are all these kinds of measures of merit that have nothing to do with one’s talents or with one’s skills. And even one’s talents and skills are themselves, of course, determined by your access to places that you learn talents and skills. And so there’s no way of defining merit that doesn’t involve some kind of social inequality.

In other words, meritocracy is aristocracy in disguise. In that sense the US is undoubtedly a meritocracy.

The interview is enjoyable to listen to.

Cory Doctorow writes the believing in the mythical form of meritocracy is what preserves a society that actually works against merit and also makes people behave badly.

Today, the belief in “meritocracy” has become a hallmark of violent, right-wing harassment and terror movements, whose doctrinal conviction that they live in a meritocracy is also a convenient reason to deny calls for inclusiveness (“If women are so smart, how come they’re paid less than men?!”).

The meritocratic delusion finally seems to be in decline. Behavior economists are producing reams of research showing that people who believe in meritocracy make decisions that harm them, while management scholars are producing research that shows that “meritocratic” evaluation criteria causes managers to downrank women who fare as well as men when the idea of meritocracy is taken off the table.

Of course, meritocracy is a delusion with an extremelyi profitable business model. A widespread belief in meritocracy saves the super-rich untold sums in guard-labor to prevent mobs from building guillotines in their circular driveways. So long as the oligarch class continues to promote the circular logic of meritocracy — “The best people find their way to the top, and I should know, I’m the best person I know and I’m on top. How do I know I’m the best? Well, I’m on top, aren’t I?” — its final days will be forestalled.

I don’t know if the original satirical meaning of the word can be resurrected. Probably not. So instead we will have to show that its later meaning does not apply to the US although the original form does.

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