Wednesday, 5 June 2013


Short post: Via Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum, I got made aware of a speech Ben Bernanke gave to students at Princeton and which contains a paragraph about "meritocracy".

"The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense?

Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate—these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others.

As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say".

The articles by Matt and Kevin are worth a read, as usual, but neither actually questions whether this reading of 'meritocracy' is actually correct.

First, it is worth remembering that the term 'meritocracy' was coined by Michael Young in 1958 as a rather bad thing. To quote, from the relevant Wiki, in [Michael Young's] book the term had distinctly negative connotations as Young questioned both the legitimacy of the selection process used to become a member of this elite and the outcomes of being ruled by such a narrowly defined group.

In this sense and the way Bernanke uses the term, it's easy to see why some people associate 'meritocracy' with social Darwinism. Basically, you identify the best and brightest and you give them all the power, political and economical.

But this is not the way I personally understand the word 'meritocracy' and I would define 'meritocracy' as a system which actually tries to cancel out or compensate for the circumstances of one's birth and one's family to leave out only hard work/discipline and innate intelligence/talent as the determining factors.

And I am not the only one to interpret 'meritocracy' as meaning 'leveling off the playing field'.

In 2007, an anonymous British group calling itself The Meritocracy Party published its first manifesto. I am far from sharing every ideal or goal with the people behind it but I note that their first objective was "A world in which every child gets an equal chance to succeed in life — there should not be elite private schools for the children of the rich and lower quality public schools for everyone else". They also want to tax inheritance 100% to eliminate inherited wealth and the accompanying skewing of life's chances. Said more simply, they want to do away with nepotism, cronyism, discrimination, privilege. and unequal chances.

... which, according to Ben Bernanke, a meritocracy would actually entrench.

Clearly, there is a big difference in the definition Ben Bernanke uses and the definition I and others use.

I don't have any larger point to make, especially as I suspect that Ben Bernanke would be quite okay with leveling the playing field and his quoting of the scripture could even be construed by naughty left-wingers as defending a firmly progressive income taxation scheme!

Still, I thought it was worth a blog-post: Meritocracy is often used as a positive word by progressives BECAUSE it recognizes the inequality we face at birth and implies to do away with it, inasmuch as possible. Maybe meritocracy started as fancy new way to say 'social Darwinism' but it has now moved on to mean something else, something good: The equality of chances and the end of privileges.


  1. Hi Fred,

    I’m surprised to see you taking exception to Bernanke’s take on meritocracy which, on the face of it, seems conducive to the redistribution of wealth.

    In attributing discrepancies in income to “luck”, Bernanke is already working to disabuse his audience of the notion that individuals have earned their property through hard work and the intelligent application of their talents (i.e. that they deserve to retain it). This is made more explicit by his subsequent point, in which he argues that the fruits of said “luck” rightfully belong to all mankind and are not, therefore, something which individuals should expect to retain for themselves.

    To address the second half of your post, I suspect that the search for an ‘even playing field’ of the sort which the Meritocracy Party envisage would prove both fruitless and damaging. The problem being that much of what we have come to call ‘privilege’ stems from people’s entirely natural desire to care for their children and grandchildren and to provide them with the best possible start in life. This isn’t something which a government can easily legislate away. And I suspect that you wouldn’t like the results if they tried it.

    I sincerely doubt that a 100% inheritance tax would be workable: people would either transfer their property to their friends and relatives while they were still alive or move it overseas.

    Passing legislation to prohibit parents from sending their children to private schools (as the Meritocracy Party suggest) could be workable, if authoritarian (and the wealthiest parents would, of course, respond by having their children educated overseas). However, as with most socialist policies, this could only succeed in bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator (i.e. in forcing middle-class children back into already overcrowded and under-resourced state schools).

    Moreover, such a law would rob a country of the very capable individuals which such a process of intensive education tends to create without setting anything in their stead. This would not merely be a case of lopping off the heads of the tallest poppies, but of poisoning the earth to stunt the growth of generations of poppies to come. (For more on this matter, you might enjoy C.S. Lewis’ ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’ :

    This could, of course, be avoided by creating a similar class of selective schools for which children might be selected by competitive exams. However, I suspect this this would of itself entrench privilege, as the middle-classes would do everything in their considerable power to prep their children for these exams.

    Furthermore, parents provide their children with support which is not necessarily financial.

    To ensure a truly even pitch you would need not merely to prevent the middle-classes from hiring tutors to educate their children, but also to forestall the parents from stepping in and providing such tuition themselves. Otherwise, the best educated parents will inevitably pass on some of their knowledge to their children, which would risk entrenching privilege by increasing their future earning power.

    Perhaps the best solution might be if children were taken away from their parents at birth and raised by a government body in a carefully controlled and monitored environment?

    1. Hi, James

      You're right, of course. But, imho, a strong inheritance tax etc (let's just call it a 'strong redistribution policy') would go a long way to equalize things. Sure, kids with parents who devote a lot of time to their education, may have an edge but it's nothing compared to the edge of inheriting a business empire a la Murdoch or a la Duke of Westminster...

      However, if we're talking practicalities, I would prefer to strengthen what has been called predisposition policies and seems to be gaining popularity in the UK Left. It's the idea to 'make work pay'... for the poorest i.e. a job should pay a decent wage and if some big corporate has to suffer an ever slightly squeezed profit margin as a consequence, so be it.