One of the ways in which many people would recognise that we do not live in a fair society is that not everyone is given the same opportunities to succeed, even if they put in hard work. People are angry not because they have less than others, but rather because they want fair opportunities. They want a system in which people are neither left to fend for themselves nor guaranteed equality of outcome, but instead are given the tools they needed to achieve their dreams if they work hard. The concept enjoys mainstream support across the political spectrum, but the devil is in the detail, and this vague ideal is often used to hide the fact that governments are often unable or unwilling to take substantive action to provide for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
The term meritocracy was coined by Michael Young in the 1950s in a dystopian satire, before it was reinvented as an aspirational concept. It seeks to remove any unfair advantages, such as inherited wealth or discrimination, and to reward people purely on the basis of their ‘merit’ (intelligence and hard work). Tom Paine argued in The Rights of Man that inequality is only fair when it is based on people’s abilities and achievements, rather than on the status that they might inherit from their parents. In theory, and certainly by comparison with other systems such as aristocracy, meritocracy is efficient, because it ensures that jobs are done by those who will do them best, and it is also just, because it ensures that jobs (and income) go to those who are, at least superficially, most deserving of them.
Meritocracy depends on the existence of genuine equality of opportunity, since if people are not on a level playing field when competing for jobs, then those jobs may go to people with less merit. There are two distinct ‘types’ of meritocracy, which go to different lengths when trying to remove the disadvantages that reduce equality of opportunity and thereby undermine the inner logic of meritocracy. One, ‘weak’ meritocracy, aims for ‘formal’ equality of opportunity by removing discrimination against particular groups when competing for education or job opportunities on grounds unrelated to their ‘merit’ (such as their race, gender or disability). The other, ‘strong’ meritocracy, aims for a more ambitious ‘fair’ equality of opportunity, which takes account of the varying circumstances into which people are born and the resources that they have at their disposal and aims to correct for the unequal life chances that result from them. It aims to tackle disadvantage and inequality in terms of inherited wealth, education and the family environment in which someone grows up, for example by taxing inherited wealth more so as to provide better equality education for all and to provide more intensive support to disadvantaged parents.
We are some way from achieving even ‘weak’ meritocracy in Britain, since many forms of discrimination persist today. But even if we could bring it about, ‘weak’ meritocracy alone is not up to the task of building a fair society. ‘Formal’ equality of opportunity, based on the removal of the most obvious obstacles to success, will never be enough to create a level playing field, given that people have such different starting points in life. It tackles the tip of the iceberg but leaves the rest of it undisturbed. It is insufficient even when augmented with various ‘positive action’ schemes such as quotas or outreach programmes to help disadvantaged applicants for career or educational opportunities, since these can never compensate for the lack of genuine equality of opportunity, and they are often opposed and therefore watered down or abandoned based on the argument that they undermine the principle of equal treatment.
‘Weak’ meritocracy depends for its legitimacy on promoting the idea of social mobility, by which the brightest and hardest working people are able to 'escape poverty', as some kind of proof that the system works and is just. But achieving social mobility is unachievable without reducing inequality. The ‘Great Gatsby curve’ demonstrates the strong correlation between economic equality and social mobility (more specifically, intergenerational income mobility). Public attitudes surveys suggest that many people are prepared to tolerate higher levels of inequality as long as there is sufficient social mobility. But the remorseless logic of the Great Gatsby curve is that countries like the UK, which have higher levels of economic inequality, have lower levels of social mobility as a result.
It is not hard to understand why this is the case. Unequal outcomes in one generation lead to unequal opportunities in the next. Wealthier parents can afford a better education for their children. Even those children from disadvantaged backgrounds who receive a high-quality education find it harder to achieve the same results as their wealthier peers, for reasons linked to the environment in which they grow up. And the still-smaller subset of children from disadvantaged backgrounds who manage to get the best exam results still find that these do not translate into the same job prospects as their wealthier peers, because they have less access to career opportunities, lower levels of cultural capital, an insufficient financial cushion to enable them to take risks or accept poorly paid internships, and so on.
More fundamentally, social mobility is often used as a smokescreen to highlight the stories of a small number of immensely talented and hardworking people who escape from their disadvantaged backgrounds, so as to justify a state of affairs that is manifestly unfair. Used in this way, it glosses over – perhaps even deliberately obscures – the fact that equality of opportunity does not exist, because very large numbers of disadvantaged people would have succeeded had they been born into different circumstances, but do not quite have the unusually high levels of talent and drive that would be needed to overcome all of the formidable obstacles that lie in their way. Meanwhile, plenty of people with less talent and drive, but who are born into more privileged environments, do better than them. It is also often forgotten that, in the absence of a rapidly expanding economy and job market, higher relative social mobility implies a zero-sum game in which those who go up are balanced by others going down. Recent proposals on rethinking social mobility for the levelling up era by focusing on ‘social mobility for the many’ offer hope that this agenda might become better aligned with the idea of ‘fair’ equality of opportunity.
‘Strong’ meritocracy is a much more ambitious agenda that seeks to understand and correct for the deep-rooted issues that undermine ‘fair’ equality of opportunity. It understands, for example, that wealthier parents can buy a better education for their children, and that unless this is corrected for, the formula that “IQ + effort = merit” breaks down, and meritocracy simply reinforces inequality.
However, just as with social mobility, it is very difficult to achieve ‘fair’ equality of opportunity if there is a high level of economic inequality. Unequal outcomes in one generation will always give rise to some degree of unequal opportunities in the next, no matter how many interventions are put in place to level the playing field (or rather, to compensate for the lack of a level playing field). There is a fundamental incoherence here, since ‘strong’ meritocracy seems to require some level of equal outcomes to enable equal opportunities, while encouraging unequal outcomes so that those with the most merit can be adequately rewarded compared to their peers.
It is clear that we are a long way from realising both the ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ forms of meritocracy. This leads to another problem. Because we tell ourselves that we live in a meritocracy, we believe that the wealthy have achieved success due to their moral superiority and their merit, while the poor deserve their fate because of their stupidity and laziness. A belief in a meritocratic ideal that does not exist has the effect of dividing society into two groups – the haves and the have-nots – in which everyone accepts that they have what they deserve. This Victorian attitude excuses inequality and condemns those at the bottom of society to a life of material discomfort and moral stigma, branded as failures.
Even if meritocracy did work as intended, the risk remains that it would create a new class-based hierarchy with winners and losers. An overly narrow conception of meritocracy defines ‘opportunity’ as the chance to get rich and beat everyone else, and ranks everyone by their innate worth. But the COVID pandemic has showed us that we need to value key workers as much as bankers. Unequal outcomes are inevitable, but those who do not end up at the top shouldn't be denied their dignity or the ability to live a happy and fulfilling life, with decent education, healthcare, living standards and working conditions, and some control over their destiny. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to develop up to their potential, rather than to maximise wealth or status, and to take their allotment of talents and pursue a distinctive set of achievements and the self-respect that they bring.
Meritocracy sometimes values cognitive intelligence above other forms of talent, and talent above effort. David Goodhart argues that “the ‘brightest and the best’… trump the ‘decent and hardworking’… qualities such as character, integrity, experience, common sense, courage and willingness to toil are by no means irrelevant, but they command relatively less respect… and it becomes harder to feel satisfaction and self-respect living an ordinary, decent life, especially in the bottom part of the income spectrum”. The COVID pandemic has shown us that the people who contribute the most to society are often those whose work is undervalued because it relies more on the hand (e.g. delivery drivers) or the heart (e.g. carers) than on the head. And high levels of economic inequality tend to exacerbate this loss of respect for others.
Goodhart also makes an important distinction between meritocratic selection systems for highly skilled jobs, which are broadly desirable, and a meritocratic society, in which everyone is ranked according to their ‘merit’, creating a zero-sum society divided into winners and losers based on an unnecessary and harmful inequality of esteem. He highlights the risk of a ‘hereditary meritocracy’ that over-emphasises the value of cognitive intelligence, and in which both natural (cognitive) talents and the education and financial and social capital needed to capitalise on them are concentrated at the top of society, in a self-reinforcing cycle of inequality spanning nature and nurture that makes it impossible to achieve a fair meritocracy.