By Daniel Dorman, April 11, 2023
If meritocracy is “the foundation of modern liberal democracies” (as Karamveer Lalh described it in his recent essay for the Hub), it is not because meritocracy is a “noble lie” – a convenient ideology that whitewashes the realities of a broken society. Rather, the word “meritocracy” has come to articulate something that we recognize as morally and politically necessary.
Merit-based decision-making is simply the other side of the coin from discrimination. Either you make decisions about individuals, for example the decision to hire one individual over another, by considering their character, their capacities, and their fitness to a particular role or situation (i.e., their merit), or you make that decision based on some extraneous aspect of their identity (e.g., race, gender, etc.). If you choose the latter, you are guilty of (likely criminal) discrimination. In this sense meritocracy is the only option, both morally and legally.
And meritocracy isn’t politically optional either. A society that attempts to organize itself around something other than individual merit will pay massive opportunity costs; it will neglect its best resources and substantially reduce its potential. In hiring decisions, for example, “merit” often simply means something like, “the person who has the most of the relevant qualities needed to productively fill a position.” Merit isn’t a monolithic concept but is diverse and contextual; hiring based on merit involves a complex matching process between institutions and individuals (a matching process that has room for everyone with skills that others might find valuable).
Especially in the context of labour shortages, such as we have, aggressive pursuit of merit in the marketplace ensures we make the best use of scarce resources (like the unique knowledge and abilities each person has). Merit-based decisions are not arbitrary, but are constantly tested; hiring choices are subject to the rigorous test of market pressures.
If an employer misjudges what is needed for a person to succeed in a given role, customers are lost, profits decline and organizations suffer in total. Conversely, new understandings of merit that pan out spread because others copy the innovation in search of the same success. Some politically popular ideas that dismiss meritocracy, like the equal representation of arbitrary groups, are tried out but they always prove inferior to a genuine, merit-based approach. Such an approach relies upon the million experiments carried out simultaneously in the marketplace about what creates value in various circumstances; meritocracy makes use of the vast knowledge of competitive markets and that vast knowledge will always outperform narrow-minded ideological assumptions.
When the rubber meets the road in the irreducible complexity of real-world situations involving real people and real jobs and real responsibilities, either we make merit-based decisions or we devolve into tribalism, nepotism, and tokenism – all while becoming drastically less productive as a society.
Dismissing meritocracy is not a merely theoretical issue without real world consequences. Indeed, one could argue that the shift from consensus around the need for merit-based decision-making to hiring based in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives is a factor in Canada’s slowing economic growth and our stagnant real GDP per capita over the past decade (not to mention the less tangible damage to the social fabric caused by the tokenization and discriminatory treatment of individuals).
In his article for The Hub, Karamveer Lalh suggests that meritocracy is the ideal of “a purely neutral system where anyone can be everything… a utopian vision of society sold to children to encourage them to study harder or to keep practicing their chosen sport” and that, therefore, we cling to meritocracy to our detriment. But Lalh’s version of meritocratic society is a strawman; proponents of meritocracy aren’t so naive.
Lahl, and other critics, misunderstand meritocracy’s function by massively overstating its scope. Because meritocracy doesn’t make everything perfectly fair, and doesn’t overcome every barrier to equal opportunity, it’s deemed by some to be part of the problem rather than the closest thing to a solution.
Proponents of meritocracy (at least those that I know) aren’t unaware of the apparent and tragic barriers many people face that prevent them from reaching their potential. Proponents of meritocracy understand that all societies, and particularly societies of free peoples, are radically unpredictable and will always be so. There will always be tragedy, unforeseen circumstances and resulting inequities.
As Philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre puts it: “We can by improvements in our knowledge limit the sovereignty of Fortuna, bitch-goddess of unpredictability; we cannot dethrone her.”
Meritocracy is one piece of knowledge, one tool in the tool-chest of modern liberal-democratic societies, which has allowed us to make an inevitably unfair and unpredictable world a little fairer and a little more predictable. Meritocracy promotes equality of opportunity and social mobility but no one claimed it made the world perfect overnight. A meritocratic society simply says, “we won’t discriminate against individuals or place arbitrary barriers in any person’s way; we’ll allow each person’s position in society to be defined, as much as possible, by their choices.”
There are no silver bullets. No system will entirely undo the unfairness we face in the world (and any system that tries would inevitably undermine individual freedoms and fall prey to a totalitarian impulse). But valuing people for their choices, their merits, is a vastly superior ideal to valuing people for any arbitrary characteristic. As a society, when we promote individuals for their merit we dignify them. If we promote individuals for anything else, we tokenize and discredit them.
(It’s also worth noting that there is nothing contradictory in the idea that a society can hold closely to meritocracy while recognizing the importance of institutions that build up capable individuals, like family and community. Meritocracy as an ideal doesn’t supplant compassion for those who face extraordinary troubles or even necessarily prevent society from creating a strong safety net for those whose circumstances place them in harm’s way.)
Meritocracy isn’t a rigid, top-down organizing principle for society; it is merely one way of pushing back against the arbitrary, cruel nature of an often unfair world that necessarily remains outside of our control.
Meritocracy doesn’t create a utopian dreamland, but its alternatives are a discriminatory nightmare.
Daniel Dorman is the Communications Manager at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.