Meritocracy Is Good But We Don't Have It

Why the US college entry fraud scandal is only the tip of the iceberg

The most surprising thing about the news that wealthy parents are bribing their children’s way into elite colleges was the outrage that it produced. After all, revelations of public corruption and depravity are now regular occurrences, and college admissions have rarely been considered a model of fairness.  Why so much upset over so little (relative) wrongdoing?

The answer, I think, is that these events implicate the meritocratic ideal upon which the United States was founded, and which people still endorse.  Already we are being told, variously, that it all goes to show that meritocracy is an “illusion” or a

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Alina Habba24 21 May 2024

In his new book, Michael Sandel argues that the illusion of meritocracy is not just self-delusional, but it also feeds our division.

Stephen Holden 8 April 2019

I'm not sure that this argument really holds together, mostly because "merit" is by itself a scarce resource and is not distributed equally !!!!
Principle #1 is: "when it comes to scarce goods — things like jobs and income — justice demands that they be distributed strictly on the basis of merit"
Principle #2 is: "equal opportunity"
Principle #2 is undone by the fact that "merit" (along with much else) is not distributed equally. To create equal opportunity is therefore to oppose Principle #1!
There are other issues
-- how do we measure "merit"? e.g., are social connections earned a part of "merit"?
-- how does "justice demand" anything? i.e., morally, I/we might be inclined to help the less fortunate, but where is the external force that impels, demands any distribution whether according to merit (Principle #1) or of equal opportunity (Principle #2) or of both (which seems to create a conundrum)?

CK Dexter 24 March 2019

Meritocracy depends on the concept of moral desert, a bankrupt notion that two thousand years of ethically philosophy has failed to substantiate and the last few decades of philosophical work on moral luck have given us strong prima facie reasons to doubt.

So no, it is not good to organize societies around philosophically bankrupt moral concepts.

And even if merit were not a bankrupt concept, meritocracy would still be bad, because It produces the very scarcity of goods that meritocratic use to justify distribution by merit:

“meritocracy is a society structured around two principles. The first principle holds that when it comes to scarce goods — things like jobs and income — justice demands that they be distributed strictly on the basis of merit.”

Stop making goods scarce and creating artificial conditions of competition for them, and the already shaky ground for meritocracy collapses.