Meritocracy is the idea that society should reward people based on merit, i.e. if you work hard and/or are more talented you should generally get ahead. Most people tend to agree that this is a good idea, and better than alternatives such as monarchies or other systems that give wealth and power based on a concept of hereditary rights. You often see this issue come up with university selection processes and the use of legacy preferences (i.e. getting a boost because one of your parents went to the university) or the use of affirmative action. Affirmative action also comes up a lot with jobs and the candidate selection process there, with people often trying to argue that it goes against meritocratic principles.
In this post I want to talk about how meritocracy only works if there is real equality of opportunity, how hard this is to achieve in practice, and how programs like affirmative action are not just a temporary measure to increase equality but are in fact a necessary, permanent requirement of any system that genuinely seeks to be a meritocracy.
It seems fairly obvious that a meritocracy will work if you have a level playing field. If everyone begins under identical circumstances, then rewarding those who work hardest and perform best is probably fair. Now, of course, in our current society we are far from a level playing field, with massive wealth inequality and legacies of discrimination that give some people a much greater advantage than others.
What difference does this make? Well, if you take two children with otherwise identical potential, a child born into a wealthier family is going to have so many more opportunities to realize that potential. Parents can pay for extra tutoring so the child can perform better at school. Children are less likely to have to work in a family business after school, do chores around the house to help their parents out, look after siblings, all of which means more time to study and get ahead.
A child of more educated parents may have a big advantage of being able to learn more directly from their parents. The parents may set a better example of spending spare time reading, studying and doing activities that help improve their own knowledge and education, which can rub off on children who learn to see this as normal behaviour and tend to do the same.
Successful families typically have much better contacts and networking opportunities so the child can meet the right people and build up a social network with much greater opportunities for career advancement.
Level playing field
Now, the big problem is that even if we start from a level playing field, as soon as we begin rewarding some people based on meritocratic principles, things immediately get skewed and unequal. Those who get rewarded are better able to provide their own children (and of course themselves) with the various opportunities mentioned above, and more. It can easily become like a snowball effect, with the playing field becoming less and less level.
Those getting ahead will of course try to defend their success as being meritocratic, but it's actually extremely rare in this kind of environment that someone with very poor opportunities gets ahead. Most of the success stories you hear about involve various factors that can make you say, "ah, well that obviously would have helped them." This isn't to say that hard work isn't also involved, but rather that their chances of success would have been much smaller without the various factors that increased their opportunities.
Gaming the system
The other important thing to consider is that the people who get ahead and make it to the top tend to modify the rules to favour themselves. Whether it is CEOs and top executives awarding themselves huge salaries and bonuses; successful companies lobbying to get rules changed to make it easier to keep their position and make it harder for competition to have a fair chance; or setting up organizational structures and responsibilities in companies to increase their own influence and power; there are countless ways that the people who get ahead meritocratically can set up the system to keep themselves ahead.
So when we combine all of these issues, it's clear that explicit actions need to be taken in order to keep a society meritocratic. Affirmative action is a big one that can help level the playing field for groups that can be clearly identified in a society as being disenfranchised and subject to higher levels of inequality than average. While it may sometimes be a blunt instrument, it can be highly effective and a far better trade off than other alternatives. People who miss out on opportunities due to affirmative action obviously don't tend to feel this way, but this is because they can see a single case of explicit discrimination against them, while not seeing the many implicit and subtler forms of discrimination and reduced opportunities of the people that affirmative action is designed to help.
The estate tax is another tool for keeping meritocracy fair. Often called a 'death tax' by the very people who have benefited from inequality and have a strong incentive to keep it that way, one of the main functions of estate taxes is to stop wealth and power from accumulating and being inherited. If a person required inherited wealth from their parents and can't create it themselves through hard work, then in a meritocracy they don't really deserve it. In practice we tend to think it's fair to allow people to pass on some of their wealth to their children, hence a tax rather than some sort of confiscation. It's hard to see how anyone who claims to be in favour of meritocracy could be against an estate tax in principle.
NOTE: I got a lot of the ideas here from the excellent book Twilight of the Elites by Chris Hayes, which I listened to in audiobook form a few months ago and have been pondering some of the ideas in it since.