Is the world a meritocracy? If you work hard will you be rewarded? If you are lazy, will you be poor?
A meritocracy is a world in which everyone is rewarded in proportion to their abilities and effort: if you work hard you will be rewarded in proportion to your effort level and your ability regarding your work. Nobody believes the entire world functions like this but many people – perhaps most people – believe that aspects of our society function this way, whether it’s the market which functions this way, schools, the policies of your employer, or the bureaucracy of the government. It has been noted as a key component of the famous American Dream:
The idea is basically “If I work hard I will be rewarded for my efforts. If I work hard I will become a better person (smarter, more able, what have you) and should be even better rewarded for my efforts.” This is a very common belief. But it’s wrong.
Meritocracy is Aspirational
To the extent that a meritocracy exists in any country or in any industry within any country it can only ever be aspirational. This claim might strike you as controversial but I would argue that it’s actually the belief that the world can be a true meritocracy that should be controversial. Why? Well, because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Many of us, it not most of us, believe that everyone should be treated fairly based upon merit. Even if we don’t believe everyone should be, we believe everyone like us should be judged on merit, and we certainly believe we should be judged on our own merits (as part of our internal hero narrative). But the balance of world history says that the clear majority of people are not treated fairly based on their own merits.
- Everyone dies for no good reason. If you made a ledger of every person that has ever been alive and how they died – and whether or not that death was “deserved” based upon the life they lived – far more people have died despite trying to do a good of job living than having been below average as a human (or worse) and “deserving” to die, because everybody dies, and most of us do not die “well” or deservedly.
- Everyone suffers for no good reason. Now, obviously suffering varies in severity and physical and emotional costs throughout time and place, but, again, if you were to make a ledger of every person who ever lived and figured out who deserved their suffering and who didn’t… no matter what human moral code you used, more people would be on the ‘undeserved suffering’ side of the ledger than the ‘deserved suffering’ side. (Unless you are a heartless asshole, I guess, and feel as though people deserve suffering for being alive.)
- Bad luck happens for no good reason. Every person who has ever lived has experienced bad luck to some degree or other; in their personal lives or their professional lives, but likely both. If you once again made a ledger of everyone who ever lived and meted out the luck, you would once again find that more people didn’t deserve their bad luck most of the time, as opposed to those who did. (Once again, this would be true regardless of the particular human morality you chose to evaluate the lives by.)
The clear majority of people – everyone but sociopaths, basically – mean well and try to get through life as well as they can, according to the norms they grew up with. The clear majority of these people are not rewarded for this by wealth or any other manifestation of success. Instead they suffer and die. If the opposite was true – that we are rewarded by The Universe or God according to our efforts or intentions – the world would look very, very different. (It would be incomprehensible to us humans, I think.)
To claim that the world is a meritocracy – or to claim that your country is a meritocracy, or to claim that your industry within your country is a meritocracy – is to deny everything I have said above, plus lots more about the nature of reality. Because
- There is no force in the universe that causes human beings to be rewarded in proportion to their efforts and their skill-sets (or their personal worth).
- There is no moral code – whether bestowed by a deity or invented by humans – that has solved the problem of rewarding humans in proportion to their personal worth. (In part because there isn’t complete agreement about personal worth between our competing moral codes.)
- No matter how hard we have tried, there has never been a time in history when a group of human beings has been able to reward another, usually larger, group of human beings in direct proportion to their personal worth.
There is nothing in the human story that proves a perfect meritocracy is actually achievable. Go to any discipline that studies human beings and you will find rampant evidence of human fallibility and corruption. (Not necessarily “corruption” in any negative sense of the word, just in terms of hypocrisy and bias.) So, to the extent that we can try to implement a meritocracy, it is only ever imperfect and aspirational. To pretend otherwise is to believe in the Just World Fallacy.
The Belief in Meritocracy is the Just World Fallacy
The Just World Fallacy is the fallacious belief in a fair and just universe. It is a fallacious belief because the world is not fair or unfair – the world predates our concept of fairness by billions of years. The idea that we can create a society in which people are rewarded by wealth or power due to their personal strengths can only ever be aspirational. Aspiring to a meritocracy is a noble idea, but none of us should be convinced that we will ever get there. Believing that a meritocracy is more than an aspiration, that it can be realized or, worse, that it has been realized, is a fallacious belief. It’s a fallacious belief has some dire consequences:
- Believing that a meritocracy can or will be completely achieved through human endeavor blinds both to other ways in which people can be judged and assessed but also promotes the myth of institutional neutrality. Believing that a meritocracy can be accomplished furthers the belief that the only thing that matters is effort and ability, when that’s very obviously not true. (If you do not think this is obvious, try to list all the times you believe you’ve been wronged by an employer or future employer or by a teacher or other authority figure growing up, or any time this has happened to a friend. Make a list, as it will likely be a long one. Still believe in a meritocracy?)
- But it’s worse when people believe a meritocracy actually exists. The fallacious belief in a meritocracy can further all sorts of forms of institutional discrimination, be it sexist, classist, racist, ageist. This is a classic expression of the just world fallacy: because the system is based on merit people who suffer due to systemic problems are suffering because they want to suffer or because they deserve to suffer. It’s not that the meritocratic system that is flawed, but the people whom the system harms or doesn’t benefit that are flawed.
Both these views lead to status quoism at the best, and the perpetuation of injustice and oppression at the worst.
The Just World Fallacy is a key component of why it is so hard to end institutionalized oppression and the belief in the existence of a meritocracy or even the belief that we’re almost in a meritocracy allows the justification of systematic oppression:
- If you believe society is merit-based, the gender pay gap is a function of skill, not misogyny. (If society is merit-based, women are harassed on the internet because they don’t know how to behave themselves, not because of misogyny.)
- If you believe society is merit-based, poor students who achieve at lower rates than rich students do so because of their ability, not because of lack of opportunities and supports.
- If you believe society is merit-based, minorities do not inhabit top jobs due to their own incompetence and not because of systemic racism. (If society is merit-based, black people are shot by cops more frequently because they are criminals and not because of systemic racism.)
- If you believe society is merit-based, millennials are spoiled and lack a work ethic, rather than lack the opportunities boomers had.
The belief in a meritocracy, either real or achievable, is fallacious and contributes to status quoism and institutionalized oppression. We need to stop using the language of a meritocracy when we discuss our systemic problems.