Belief in meritocracy not only false: it’s bad for you

A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you | Aeon Ideasby Clifton Mark Mar 2019

Meritocracy has become a leading social ideal. Politicians across the ideological spectrum continually return to the theme that the rewards of life – money, power, jobs, university admission – should be distributed according to skill and effort.

Under meritocracy, wealth and advantage are merit’s rightful compensation, not the fortuitous windfall of external events.

People who believe this are also likely to believe that other people’s misfortunes, like poverty and illness, are just as “deserved” as their own wealth and privilege. Those of us with chronic health conditions know better. 

When I was younger, I “believed in” meritocracy because superficially, it makes sense: people should be rewarded for their productive efforts and if people aren’t willing to push themselves, they won’t do as well.

But when my life was falling apart due to my inability to continue working, no amount of “merit” or effort could repair my body. It was simply “bad luck” that I inherited a permanently painful condition.

Unable to earn a living, I saw the ugly underbelly of our capitalistic meritocracy, where the secret to success is to fall into the circumstances that allow it, and this usually involves having lots of money and knowing many others that have lots of money.

Conceptually and morally, meritocracy is presented as the opposite of systems such as hereditary aristocracy, in which one’s social position is determined by the lottery of birth.

Most people don’t just think the world should be run meritocratically, they think it is meritocratic.

Although widely held, the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false.

This is not least because merit itself is, in large part, the result of luck. Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing.

This is to say nothing of the fortuitous circumstances that figure into every success story.

Luck intervenes by granting people merit, and again by furnishing circumstances in which merit can translate into success.

There are certainly programmers nearly as skilful as Gates who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth. In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.

In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways.

Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.

…research on gratitude indicates that remembering the role of luck increases generosity.

Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour.

…in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

This is surprising because impartiality is the core of meritocracy’s moral appeal.

ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate.

They suggest that this ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.

Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo,explainingwhy people belong where they happen to be in the social order.

It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.

Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth.

Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles.

Its ideological alchemy transmutes property into praise, material inequality into personal superiority.

It licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses.

under the assumption of meritocracy, the very notion that personal success is the result of ‘luck’ can be insulting. To acknowledge the influence of external factors seems to downplay or deny the existence of individual merit.

Despite the moral assurance and personal flattery that meritocracy offers to the successful, it ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal.

It’s false, and believing in it encourages selfishness, discrimination and indifference to the plight of the unfortunate.

Clifton Mark writes about political theory, psychology, and other lifestyle-related topics. He lives in Toronto, Ontario

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