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 “myth”; or maybe that meritocracy is functioning well; or that it is an “historically awful idea”; and more.  Alas, none of these authors take the time to say what they mean by “meritocracy”, making the claims hard to evaluate.  So I’d like to take a moment to explain precisely what a meritocracy is before drawing what I regard as the important moral lessons from the scandal.

A 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.  This means, for example, that a firm cannot justly use applicants’ race as a consideration when deciding whom to hire.  The firm’s motivation is irrelevant: neither racial animus, nor a desire for a diverse workforce, nor profit maximization can justify race-based hiring.  The same goes for gender, sexual tastes, physical appearance, religion, and so on.  Justice requires that the best-qualified applicant be hired, and that is all there is to it.

The second meritocratic principle is equal opportunity.  The first principle tells us that the fastest runner ought to get the medal.  But that is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one, for a fair race.  We must also ensure that every citizen begins from the same starting line.  If some begin their adult lives with undeserved advantage (e.g. wealth, family connections) and others are born in disadvantaged communities, then those features — rather than merit — shape what they may become.  In a meritocracy, all children are brought to the same starting line through measures like estate taxes and public education.


"To begin with, we should not focus on the parents’ wrongdoing."


I have argued that meritocracy is the right ideal around which to structure a society and an economy.  And this view is widely shared in the public, across lines of gender, race, political party, and culture.  But it is, I must note, a minority view when it comes to my fellow political philosophers, nearly all of whom endorse egalitarianism or libertarianism in one form or another.  

In any case, let us suppose for the sake of argument that the meritocratic ideal is the right one. What can be said about the scandal from the meritocratic point-of-view? 

To begin with, we should not focus on the parents’ wrongdoing.  They behaved badly, to be sure, but their motivations were understandable: they wanted to secure the very best future for their children.  And they judged, correctly, that a college education—and specifically, an education at an elite institution—was an important step toward that goal.Take note of the schools they targeted: Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, and other “name brand” colleges.

Make no mistake: It is the name, not the education that these schools provide, that is the real benefit.  Going to Yale makes you smarter, to be sure, but more importantly it provides access to well-connected faculty members, an influential alumni network, and established pipelines in competitive fields, like investment banking.


"Make no mistake: It is the name, not the education that these schools provide, that is the real benefit."


This violates the first meritocratic principle. In a meritocracy, the name of one’s college — just like one’s race and one’s gender — plays no role in the distribution of goods. The applicant from Yale gets the job over the applicant from state school if, and only if, the Yale graduate is the more meritorious one.  

Of course, it may turn out that on average Yale graduates are more meritorious than state school graduates (either because more meritorious students attend Yale or Yale increases students’ human capital more than a state school does).  But this is merely a statistical correlation; it does not provide reason to prefer a student from Yale or any other “name brand” college.  It only means that, in retrospect, firms should expect to have hired more Yale graduates than state school graduates. 

By way of example, suppose that we are judging a bodybuilding contest.  We all agree that Serge is aesthetically superior to Lou.  We then learn that Serge trained at Elite Gym and Lou trained at SuperElite Gym.  And we know that, on average, bodybuilders from SuperElite Gym are aesthetically superior to bodybuilders at Elite Gym.  This would not give us reason to award the trophy to Lou rather than Serge. No: Serge is more meritorious, so he deserves the trophy.  Facts about a class to which he happens to belong (in this case, his gym) are irrelevant. 

Hannah Arendt SUGGESTED READING Hannah Arendt On Why You Must Break Your Bubble By Siobhan Kattago The same goes for an economy.  There are cheaper and more accurate ways to judge merit than by relying on weak proxies like the name of one’s college.  Therefore, justice requires that this be ignored in matters of hiring and compensation. 

We may look at things from the economic perspective.  Firms in a perfectly competitive and efficient economy judge applicants on the basis of their productivity (or expected productivity) and pay them accordingly.  The source of that productivity is irrelevant.  In our actual economy, however, a diploma from an elite college provides a person with a wage premium on top of his productivity.  In economics jargon, he extracts an economic rent, receiving income without commensurate contribution.  These rents are not only unjust, but inefficient as well. 

The admissions scandal also touches on meritocracy’s equal opportunity principle.  While competition between adults is not only inevitable owing to scarcity but in many ways admirable, the sight of children forced to compete against each other is repugnant.  But that is precisely what is happening because of our failure to judge people on their merits: elite jobs require attending elite colleges, which in turn requires elite preparation in high school.  As the US critic William Deresiewicz describes, “wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (‘enrichment’ programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools.” 

That is, there is no equal opportunity.  Even if it were true that elite colleges provided genuine benefit, access to those colleges turns largely on family circumstances like wealth and connections.  Sometimes this wealth and these connections are used in a corrupt way, as this scandal shows.  More often, though, they give the children of the rich a perfectly legal head start in the race for prosperity.

How might we move our society closer to the meritocratic ideal?  I make two suggestions.

First, we need a greater cultural focus on merit.  Racial and gender animus exist, are impediments to a just and efficient economy, and ought to be eliminated.  We must also ensure that physical appearance, religion, sexual tastes, and all other features irrelevant from the point-of-view of merit play no role in our distributive decisions.  At the same time, we must resist the drives for “diverse” or “representative” workforces—both of which involve discrimination on the basis of race, gender, etc. 

Greater focus on merit includes assessing people on their merits, rather than the merits of the classes to which they belong. Again, meritocrats do not object to a Yale graduate getting an elite job or a high salary—if that graduate is suitably meritorious.  What we object to is the use of poor proxies for merit when assessing a person.  Her merits, not those of the groups to which she belongs, are what count. 

Second, we must redouble our efforts to establish equal opportunity for all citizens.  Always imperfect, social mobility in the United States has deteriorated badly since the early 1980s, a result of regressive tax policies and a failure to invest in public education and other forms of support for poor children.  The result is that the United States is now one of the least mobile of the developed countries.  In short, if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor—no matter your merits.

If nothing else, we should use the college admissions scandal as an opportunity to think about and debate the desirability of meritocracy, and the extent to which we live in one.  For my part, I am convinced that justice is meritocracy, and that the meritocratic ideal will unite us anew.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation

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.