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The term “meritocracy” has three interrelated meanings. First, it refers to the type of social order where rewards are distributed to individuals in accordance with criteria of personal merit. Put differently, it denotes the rule of the talented,” a system of governance wherein the brightest and most conscientious individuals are accurately and efficiently assigned to occupy the most important positions, based on their talent and achievements. Second, the concept pertains to an elite social class, a definite group of people that enjoys high prestige because its select members proved to have merit based on their unique abilities and attainments (i.e., the aristocracy of merit as coined by Thomas Jefferson). Third, the term touches upon the criteria of allocation of positions, roles, prestige, power, and economic reward, whereby excellent individuals are over-benefited in relation to others. These criteria are based on achieved rather than ascribed characteristics, and reflect the assumption that while achievements of merit are rare and difficult to attain, they are culturally valued.
In its elementary form, meritocracy is based on the allocation of rewards in congruence with human excellence, defined by Young (1958) as the sum of intelligence and effort (M = I + E, where M is merit, I is IQ, and E is effort). Practically, however, merit is usually equated with the achievement of educational qualifications, commonly measured by cognitive achievements and educational attainments. Meritocracy is also contrasted with systems that are based on selection by ascribed characteristics such as inherited wealth, social class, ethnicity, race, and, more generally, with any system of nepotism.
In essence, a meritocracy is based on inequality of outcome. Paradoxically, however, it refers to the prior arrangement of equal opportunities that — when operated fairly in free markets and open societies — should result in unequal but morally deserving outcomes. Like the Theory of Justice proposed by John Rawls (1971), the meritocracy justifies social inequality under conditions of antecedent equality. Based on a principle of equity (rather than equality or need), it states that individuals should be provided with equal opportunities to make the most of their intellectual potential and moral character. But since there are inherent inequalities in human potential (e.g., the bell curve of IQ distribution), and since individuals exhibit variable levels of motivation to excel, the social order should reflect the hierarchy of attained merit.
The meritocratic ideal states that — given that equality of opportunity is in place — the distribution of outcomes should be decided by open competition between individuals. Furthermore, the behavior of individuals during the preparatory stages of this competition is to rank them according to their merits. Intelligent individuals who invest effort in the competition (i.e., education) deserve to benefit. Others of lesser merit should be ranked lower. The resulting hierarchical rank order in the educational competition should then be transferred to the distribution of rewards in adult society.
- McNamee, S. J. & Miller, R. K. (2004) The Meritocracy Myth. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD.
- Young, (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870—2033. Thames & Hudson, London.