Meritocracy (noun): 1. a form of social system in which power goes to those with superior intellects: 2. the belief that rulers should be chosen for their superior abilities and not because of their wealth or birth.
Meritocracy is a system of government based on rule by ability (merit) rather than by wealth, race or other determinants of social position.
However, the word "meritocracy" is now often used to describe a type of society where wealth, income, and social status are assigned through competition, on the assumption that the winners do indeed deserve (merit) their resulting advantage. As a result, the word has acquired a connotation of Social Darwinism, and is used to describe aggressively competitive societies, that accept large inequalities of income and wealth amongst the population as a function of merit, contrasted with egalitarian societies.
Meritocratic governments and organizations stress talent, formal education, and competence, rather than existing differences such as social class, ethnicity, or sex. In practice, research on social mobility indicates that all these supposedly neutral criteria favour the children of those who are already privileged in some way. This too is a Darwinian phenomenon, since every parent struggles to make and provide a better life for their children, passing on the benefits of their knowledge, prowess, and resources to ensure their children's success. This is an instinctual drive found in many of Earth's more complex animals, of which humans are only one. Many modern societies attempt to mitigate these factors of inequality (with varying degrees of success) through state intervention in education, health care, tax relief, and even cash payments per child. (see: social welfare)
Meritocracies believe in a principle of equal opportunity through equality before the law and a society free of racism, sexism and other isms but do not enforce or demand equality. To illustrate you have a right to work at and where you chose, but you do not have a right to a job. Or put differently no one has the duty to provide you a job, it is a reward that is to be earned through merit.
In a representative democracy where power is theoretically in the hands of the elected representatives, meritocratic elements include the use of expert consultants to help formulate policies, and a meritocratic civil service to implement them. The perennial problem in advocating meritocracy is defining exactly what one means by merit or as importantly who makes the selection and on what basis.
Origin of term
The term 'meritocracy' was first used, in a pejorative sense, in Michael Young's 1958 book Rise of the Meritocracy, which is set in a dystopian future in which one's social place is determined by IQ plus effort. In the book, this social system ultimately leads to a social revolution in which the masses overthrow the elite, who have become arrogant and disconnected from the feelings of the public.
Despite the negative origin of the word, there are many who believe that a meritocratic system is a good thing for society. Proponents of meritocracy argue that a meritocratic system is more just and more productive than other systems, and that it allows for an end to distinctions based on such things as sex and race (though social classes would still exist).
Young's central criticism of meritocracy was that a system in which social position is determined by objective characteristics would still be inegalitarian and unstable. There have since been other lines of criticism; proponents of critical theory often argue that merit is defined by the power elite simply to legitimise a system in which social status is actually determined by class, birth, and wealth.
Often, opponents of the concept of meritocracy argue that characteristics such as intelligence or effort are simply impossible to measure accurately (for example, one may ask "Who was more intelligent, Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein?"). Therefore, in their view, any implementation of meritocracy necessarily involves a high degree of guesswork and is inherently flawed.
Social Darwinism is a social theory which holds that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is not only a model for the development of biological traits in a population, but can also be applied to human social institutions. Social Darwinisim was popular in the late 19th century to the end of World War II, although some have claimed that contemporary sociobiology could be classified as a form of Social Darwinism. Proponents of Social Darwinism often used the theory to justify social inequality as being meritocratic. Others used it to justify racism and imperialism. At its most extreme, some Social Darwinism appears to anticipate eugenics and the race doctrines of the Nazis.
Ironically, while Social Darwinism applies the concept of evolution and natural selection to human cultural systems, none of the political and quasi-theological ideologies related to it are a part of Darwin's biological theory of evolution. Equally, Social Darwinism itself does not necessarily engender a political position: some Social Darwinists argue for the inevitability of progress, while others emphasize the potential for the degeneration of humanity. Some even attempted to enroll Social Darwinism in reformist politics. The theory of Social Darwinism draws on the work of many authors, including Herbert Spencer and Thomas Malthus, but aside from making vague statements about "survival of the fittest" (Darwin, like Spencer, used the term fittest to mean "best suited to an environmental condition"), most modern proponents of Social Darwinism have never read any of Darwin's writings and have little knowledge of biology.
"In teaching there should be no distinction of classes." - Analects XV. 39. tr. Legge
Many western admirers of Confucius, like Voltaire or H. G. Creel, have pointed out an innovative and revolutionary idea of Confucius': he replaced the nobility of blood with one of virtue. Jūnzǐ (君子), which had meant "noble man," slowly took on a new meaning in his sayings — something like the English "gentleman." A virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities could be a "gentleman", whilst a shameless son of a King was only a "small man." That he allowed any kind of student to be his disciple (his teachings were intended to train future rulers) is a clear indication that he didn't wholly support feudal structures in Chinese society.
In addition to Confucius, another ancient Chinese philosopher of the same period (the Warring States) advocated a meritocratic system of government and society. This was Han Feizi who was famous as being the foremost proponent of the School of Law (otherwise known as the philosophy of Legalism). The central tenet of his argument was the absolute rule of law, though there were also numerous meritocratic elements. Another Legalist, Shang Yang implemented Legalist and meritocratic reforms in the state of Qin by abolishing the aristocracy and promoting individuals based on skill, intelligence, and initiative. This led to the armies of the Qin having a critical edge over the other nations that adhered to old aristocratic systems of government. Legalism, along with its anti-aristocratic, pro-meritocratic ideals, remained a key part of Chinese philosophy and politics for another two millennia, although after the Qin Dynasty it was heavily diluted.
Meritocracy was the primary basis for selection of chiefs and generals in the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan chose whomever was talented and fit for his military chain of command. He even trusted generals and soldiers from opponents' armies if they showed loyalty to their leaders. For example, Genghis Khan's general Jebe had been an enemy soldier who had shot Genghis's horse in battle before he became Great Khan.
Napoleonic (Revolutionary) France is also sometimes considered to have been meritocratic. After the revolution of 1792 hardly a member of the former elite remained. When Napoleon rose to power, therefore, there was no ancient base from which to draw his staff, and he had to choose the people he thought best for the job, including officers from his army, revolutionaries who had been in the people's assembly, and even some former aristocrats such as prime minister Talleyrand.
A later non-meritocratic practice, however, was the appointment of family members and Corsican friends to important positions (specifically regional leadership); loyalty may have been a more important factor than sheer merit in performance, a common case in political situations.
Among modern nation-states, the Republic of Singapore aspires to be a pure Meritocracy, placing a great emphasis on identifying and grooming bright young citizens for positions of leadership. It also heavily emphasizes academic credentials, which are seen as objective measures of both intelligence and effort.
Meritocracy is a central political concept in Singapore, due in part to the circumstances surrounding the city-state's rise to independence. Singapore was expelled from neighbouring Malaysia in 1965 as a result of the unwillingness of its majority immigrant groups (especially the ethnic Chinese) to accept the special position of the indigenous communities (especially the Malays). The federal Malaysian government had argued for a system which would give special privileges to the Malays as part of their birthright as an "indigenous" people. Political leaders in Singapore vehemently protested against this system, arguing instead for the equality of all citizens of Malaysia, with places in universities, government contracts, political appointments, etc., going to the most deserving candidate, rather than to one chosen on the basis of connections or ethnic background. The ensuing animosity between State and Federal governments eventually proved irreconcilable. Singapore was expelled, and became an independent city-state.
To this day, Singapore continues to hold up meritocracy as one of its official guiding principles for domestic public policy formulation. Although commentators justly criticize the city-state for not applying this principle uniformly, broad consensus nevertheless exists that the city-state's tremendous economic success was due in part to its strong emphasis on developing and promoting talented leaders.
Grand Duchy of Finland
Another example is the 19th century Finland, which was formally ruled by an autocrat, though in practice governing was left to the educated class. Although ancestry and inherited wealth influenced one's educational opportunities, education and not ancestry was the principal requirement for admittance to, and promotion within, the civil service and government. Well into the mid-20th century, academic degrees remained important factors for politicians asking for the electorate's confidence.