On Meritocracy


This is a paper that I did a while ago while doing a corporate law course in UBC. Just a few thoughts on meritocracy since this subject is all the rage these days. 😉

  Myth of Meritocracy[1]Meritocracy is a fundamental tenet of our society today. The suffix –cracy suggests a form of government that will be based on merit. It is also a general belief that the best and brightest rise to the top. In this meritocratic society, wealth income and society will be assigned through competition, where ability or merit will determine who will gain the upper hand in society rather than wealth, race or other determinants of social position. Economic mobility is entirely possible if one is ‘made of the right stuff’. This ideology is attractive because it appeals to one’s sense of social justice. It does not subscribe to the patently obvious lie that everyone is born equal with equal opportunities of success but claims that people of equal ability has an equal chance of success. Through this, there is an economic incentive for those who apply themselves and their talents in society. This has been used to justify social inequality by social Darwinists which can be summed up in Ayn Rand’s brittle social philosophy: “Let the strong prevail, and let the weak pay for his weakness.”[2] 


 Meritocracy is a myth because it neutralizes two contradictory terms—a sense of social justice (as dictated by ‘merit’) and large economic disparities in society.  This attractive myth perpetuates social inequities by unfairly exalting the rich and unfairly condemning the poor when in reality, social status is determined by class, birth, and wealth. Research on social mobility clearly indicates that all these supposedly neutral criteria that define merit like talent, formal education, and competence favour the children of those who are already privileged in some way.[3] The largest civil engineering company in the world, Bechtel Corporation, is an excellent example of a family business which has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1900s.[4]  


     In this age of universal capitalism and consequently of widening economic disparities, this myth has gone a step further. Corporations use ‘Meritocracy’ to rob the poor in the very name of poverty, i.e. because they are poor. It is through the exploitation of labour by the corporations that the economic gap is widened. Capitalism itself is an inverse meritocracy. One only needs to look closer at how capitalism functions—who does the work, who gains the wealth and how that wealth is being accumulated.  In a capitalist society, social advancement is based on the exploitation of the members of society who actually perform the work and who therefore create all value.[5] The myth of meritocracy neutralizes the two diametrical opposites, capitalism and social advancement according to value, or merit.

          If meritocracy was used simply to legitimize the status quo, that would have been questionable enough. However, to use it as a tool to widen economic disparity in a spirit of social Darwinism is simply nauseating. This can be seen where corporations take the wealth from its own employees through pay cuts, lay-offs, and by reducing health care and pensions. In 2002, unemployment rose, profits and stock prices sank, and CEO performance stank, but the executive suite took home bigger paychecks and better retirement goodies. The typical CEO, according to
America‘s largest union, received about $8.5 million last year.[6] Fortune looked at a narrower sample, and found the middle-of-the-road chief at the top 100 companies enjoyed a 14 percent pay raise last year, to $13.2 million.[7] These attractive CEO remuneration packages defy rational explanations but this is glossed over by the myth of meritocracy. The social message that wealth is the ultimate measure of personal merit has been portrayed by the well-heeled as a fundamental law of economics. That message is everywhere: radio, television, newspapers and magazines. The bestsellers in the bookstores reassures the common man with rags to riches stories that convince us that CEOs of corporations had humble beginnings and ‘worked their way up’ through the application of certain success principles.[8] This is not to postulate that such stories are fabricated lies, merely that they remain exceptions to the general scheme of things. The corporation remains as an entity that institutionalizes large income disparities which is entrenched in society through the meritocracy myth. Indeed ‘to him who has more, more will be given, and from him who has little, even what he has, will be taken away from him.’[9]

Conceptually, a pure meritocracy is a contradiction in terms. This is because without wealth redistribution, one generation’s successful individuals would become the next generation’s embedded caste, hoarding the wealth they had accumulated. This myth is being endorsed by corporations which impede upward economic mobility. It should be revealed for what it is, a myth that is used by the powerful, elite few to legitimize their status in society.

[1] See Michael Young,  Rise of the Meritocracy, (Penguin books, 1961) where the term ‘meritocracy’ was first used, in a pejorative sense, in which is set in a dystopian future in which one’s social place is determined by IQ and effort. In the book, this social system eventually leads to a social revolution in which the masses overthrow the elite, who have become arrogant and disconnected from the feelings of the public.

[2] See William Greider in “Greenspan’s Con Job”, The Nation, 22 Mar 2004 issue.

[3] Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr., “The Myth of Meritocracy”,
Sociation Today, North Carolina Sociological Association, Vol 2 No. 1, Spring 2004.

[4] See Bechtel Corporation History in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechtel.

[5] See the Labour Theory of Value proposed by Karl Marx in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol I. The Process of Capitalist Production. (edited by Frederick Engels), Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1906.

[6] Statistics taken from Executive Paywatch webpage at
America’s Union Movement website at http://www.aflcio.org/corporatewatch/paywatch/.

[7] Statistics taken from Fortune magazine website at http://money.cnn.com/ magazines/fortune/.

[8] See Singaporean Ismail Gafoor who is the CEO of PropNex, the largest real estate corporation in
Singapore. He is the author of “You can Fly,” Rank books 2005. See also Jack F. Welch Jr, in “Jack: Straight from the Gut”, Warner Books Inc., 2001.

[9] Matthew 25:29, The Holy Bible, New King James Version, 1982 by Thomson Nelson, Inc.

7 Responses to “On Meritocracy”
  1. Meritocracy (which is in some ways akin to a free market philosophy) alone may not be sufficient to address social class divides and achieve social justice.

    I am unsure if legislating redistribution is the entire solution. High taxes can breed an attitude of having paid one’s dues. The wealthy and their capital are also more mobile.

    The challenge is creating that sense of social responsibility among those who have talent and wealth: i.e. With great gifts come great responsibility.


  2. Chip says:

    Your quote attributed to Ayn Rand is either completely made up or a summary of something she would have vehemently disagreed with. Such a quote would be abhorrent to her. Your citation is bogus as well: how about some primary research?

  3. Chip says:

    Follow-up …

    I actually found the link (it’s broken but Google helped me). It is not even a quote from Ayn Rand. Rather it is a pathetic misrepresentation of what she said, but your use of it indicates that it is her quotation. This is extremely reckless scholarship, to say the least.

    Ayn Rand was not a “Social Darwinist” and if you had actually read her you might actually understand that. In politics she advocated individual rights, e.g., you cannot violate the rights of other people — including people you might consider inferior — FULL STOP.

    If you desire to be honest you should immediately correct this misrepresentation. It is flat-out unjust, if that matters to you.

  4. farnie says:

    Hi Chip, I’m guessing you like Ayn Rand and so do I. I’ve read her works, namely Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead and enjoyed them immensely. The quote attributed to her was a brief summary, yes, by someone else about her. If you follow the footnote, you’d be able to see that it was an article by William Greider. So just chill, you have the right to disagree but hey, politeness won’t kill you.


    I agree that it would be best to instil a sense of social responsibility among the general populace, but the rich do not owe it to the poor to help them. I mean it would be nice if they did, but the poor should not feel entitled to it. Hence, I think the best way is to have wealth redistribution by legislating higher taxes and the rest will be up to the individual. Cheers. =D

  5. bendecidestoblog says:

    Randy said that:

    “The rise of capitalism swept away all castes, including the institutions of aristocracy and of slavery or serfdom” The Age of Envy, Return of the Primitive at p. 140.

    “Since some men are able to rise faster than others, the egalitarians forbid the concept of “merit”….” The Age of Envy, Return of the Primitive at p. 141.

    “Let the strong prevail, and let the weak pay for his weakness.”

    Farnie said that the rise of capitalism did not do that. Farnie says that capitalism has created this era of the meritocrats. Farnie is right. Chip is angry.

    I finish my essay. I am editing it now.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] In the meantime… For those who have been asking, is meritocracy a myth?Well, I don’t know. Haha. Actually I’m too lazy to do a post on this. I will instead refer you to Humanoid Interface – the post on Meritocracy. You can go read it and decide for yourself. It can give you more things to think about. […]

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