Who Deserves To Rule? No one.
Why does everyone seem to just looooove it?
People seem to do an awful lot of talking about whether or not our society is meritocratic! Usually, I would need to provide evidence that this is true, but anyone who has ever heard of the word in political discussion knows that it is almost always central. But why? It is simple. People believe that a meritocratic society is a just society. If those with merit rule we have the best possible system! Or so the claim goes. It is rarely ever stated and only assumed. Usually, a person immediately reacts viciously in a debate if you suggest that they are against meritocracy. If you ever speak against the system people believe you are being anti-intellectual or ridiculous in some way. And usually, people will always proclaim they are for this system undoubtedly. I always felt that going against strict taboos is extremely exciting, and part of being a free thinker. So, I always questioned why people thought that those with merit really deserve to rule. I mean people must have some sort of justification, right?
Before we go any further, it is probably a good idea to look at the historical use and etymology that makes up the word ‘meritocracy’. This will be an exercise in semantics and one I believe is basically central to any and all discussion. Meritocracy is a conjunction of two words, merit and cracy. Merit comes from the Latin mereō, which means to deserve. And the word cracy (which I am sure you have heard a lot) means to rule in Greek. In other words, together mereōcracy means deserving rule. Taken this way, it makes sense why no one would bother justifying it because it is rather the same as saying justified rule. It is a sort of tautology that doesn’t actually describe what it is talking about. Who are ‘the deserving rulers’?
Thankfully, we can go further to describe the context in which this word has been used that I am familiar with. Now, unfortunately I haven’t done the research of scouring many books for where and when this word is used, or who qualify as the top philosophes discussing it, but I have been entrenched in discussing politics from everywhere around the political spectrum and have gotten some sense of it’s current use (which is actually quite similar to its classical origin).[i] The word meritocracy—I believe—best fits the original meaning of Aristocracy. Aristocracy originally meant the rule of the best. This is an interesting relationship because today we often think of aristocracy being that very antithesis. Instead of those ruling being the best, rule was determined by hereditary relations. The ancients (and increasingly modern people) believed that this was the same. Those with the best blood were best and the best were of course best suited to rule.
Another modern way to look at merit is something identical to skill and/or human capital. Human capital has been defined in a multitude of ways, but I think a single one best fits what we think of merit. Any stock of knowledge or characteristics the person has (innate or acquired) that contributes to his or her ‘productivity’.[ii]
A Very Short Look at Productivity
Political Productivity can be thought of as the ability to produce preferable results in society. More generally, productivity can be thought of as simply producing. This, of course, depends on what you are producing. In this context, the product can be anything political. So, Human Capital might be more ‘intensely’ described as ‘any stock of knowledge and characteristics the person has (innate or acquired) that contributes to their ability to create political ‘realities’/results.
A circle can be thought of as a line that is finite but cannot be escaped.
Problems with Classical Use
After defining meritocracy, it was quite easy for me to pick up on some of the problems with the idea itself. In the classical sense of the word, meritocracy means very little. Meritocracy does not attempt to answer the question of who deserves to rule, all it does is describe those who deserve to rule as ruling. This means any system of rule could be potentially meritocratic except a system of that which is either anti-rule (yet even that could technically fall within the scope of being meritocratic) or that rule which is explicitly made up of people who do not deserve to rule.
Since anti-rule might actually fall into the scope of meritocracy, and anti-meritocracy doesn’t answer any more question than meritocracy as to that central question of rule itself, then I don’t see how I could possibly be against meritocracy in anyway. Yet this is only because meritocracy in this sense is so vague as to say nothing.
Democrats believe that the best suited to rule are the Demos (people), Epistocrats believe the best suited to rule are the most knowledgeable, and Plutocrats believe the best suited to rule are the rich. Both Aristocrats and Meritocrats have a problem in the classical sense. Aristocrats believe the best suited to rule are the best (no shit sherlock) and Meritocrats believe the most justified in ruling are those justified in ruling. The best suited to rule are those who deserve to rule. Meritocrats proclaim nothing in this sense because they end where they start.
Problems with Colloquial Use
As described in the section Defining Meritocracy, in the second paragraph I write about the similarities between the common modern use of the word as a stand in for the classical idea of aristocracy. This of course, looked at quite quickly, has the problems discussed in the problems with classical use section. By analogy, this would be true. There are a few things that distinguish it though. In the section Problems with Classical Use, I made the mistake of using the word best each time instead of deserving. It was somewhat intentional because that is often how people think of why the best should rule. Thought of in terms of deserving though, this is no longer a circle. Those who deserve to rule are the best. This is a claim we can put to the test and does not end where it begins.
Who is best?
The best can be looked at in two ways. Either as the second modern definition I used in section two or as the best human beings. The reason both of those are quite different is that one is more about superior general ability and the next is about specific ability as it relates to the task. There is, of course, the possibility that these are the same thing. I believe it is best to think they are different. In this section, I do not intend to cover the second definition I used because I believe that Idea of best is less similar to the way people use ‘best’ in everyday conversation. The best to be discussed are then the smartest, and strongest. The social Darwinian best. Those humans that will survive best. The alpha.
Why Should I Submit to the Best?
There are arguments here ranging from obeying the natural order, to increasing human survival, to that being the best is equivalent to being the best ruler.[iii] Those of you who are more philosophically adept will immediately dismiss any ‘natural order’ arguments. It is false to believe that there is some ‘natural order’ humans are capable of moving against, and fallacious to conflate the ‘natural’ (the norms we find in a place without modern human influence) with the Good or the Right. Natural orders are those things like gravity and other universal ‘laws’ that we have come to justify through observation. In short, what is natural cannot be trifled with. The argument of the ‘natural’ is more in tuned with the moral or godly order. For most of western history, and all around the world, the moral and the natural were one and the same because the Gods or God controlled the universe. All natural order arguments can be seen as originating from the idea of objective morality. This is a morality that exists independent of humans preordained by God or Gods as being the proper way in which to act.[iv] Nature permits, and morality restricts. Those who believe in the deities that created moral objectivity have on their shoulders the burden of proof. I see no reason to discuss the Gods in this essay. Those who do not believe in an order preordained by Gods have to explain how this can be arrived at through reason alone.
Those who believe that one should submit because it will increase human survival must justify both why I should submit simply because something increases the survivability of all humans and why the best ruling would increase human survivability.[v] Simply because one is the best individually does not mean that they will provide best for the group. Which leads me to the next argument that these are indeed one and the same. That the best individual is the best ruler. Might makes right and might must be submitted to. There has certainly been a long discussion of this since antiquity that I will not approach in this essay with a ten-foot pole. I will merely say that I haven’t found the arguments in this sphere convincing.
Problems with Rigorous Use
The final definition of meritocracy I arrived at was the most well thought out and the one I believe captures best what an academic might think of a perfectly meritocratic society. Those who rule have the stock of knowledge and characteristics (innate or acquired) that contributes to their ability to create political ‘realities’/results. There were also two ways that I investigated productivity. I thought of productivity that gave preferable societal results and in a more neutral way. The problem with the idea of preferable societal results is that it is incredibly subjective what is preferable for society. People disagree all the time about what societies would be best to live in. This is why I do not believe that this definition came with those problems. Who gets to decide what is preferable? I will investigate this further later in the next section, but I will leave you with that question for now.
The neutral definition of creating political realities has its own problems as well. Precisely because these political results might not be preferable to me or general society. The political results gained might serve only those in power. The meritocrats create an endless cycle that reinforces domination on everyone else and the expense of everyone else. Why would I submit to such a political reality? I have no reason to. In short, if you include preferability the definition becomes subjective and if we exclude preferability the is no reason to accept the system of meritocracy.
Who gets to decide Preferability?
The Market, Stupid.
Unless you believe that all preferability is univariate and universal we need to ask this question. Many people believe that when a question like this rises up we should simply point to the majority. As long as most people agree on what preferability is, it does not matter what the other people think. Outliers are irrelevant. Why? Possibly because they are either insignificant or they will be overwhelmed in a conflict. This is a sort of might makes right argument. As described before, I don’t believe that the arguments in support of submitting to those stronger simply because they are strong as any benefit to me and those not convincing.
What I find interesting though is that people will often proclaim the market (in theory) is a perfectly meritocratic system and one in which preferability is decided democratically. One can find a somewhat similar comparison between votes and money. The idea is that money is both a vote and a measure of merit. Those with more merit have more weight in the decisions being made but merit is ultimately defined by the people. There are two problems with this. First of all, this argument rest upon decisions made by the people which makes it democratic; Democracy must then be justified on top of meritocracy and this creates the second problem: Meritocracy and democracy conflict.
A system is either run by those with merit or the people and not both. If a meritocracy must rely upon a democracy to be valid, one must ask why not run things democratically? This conflict is two-fold because the system is increasingly defined by those with what was defined originally by the demos as merit. If the demos change in their preference however, then what is defined as merit should also change. Yet this does not happen. The system becomes static and reinforcing what might have been helpful in the past but are no longer helpful. You could think of it a lot like oil corporations, increasingly, oil is becoming a harm to everyone in society. Yet the oil companies have an immense amount of power to reinforce the use of oil which contributes to their power despite the desire for change. I suppose you could call this ‘merit’ accumulation.[vi]
What is valuable in the past does not always remain valuable and this makes it incredibly hard for things to change even when it is in the interests of the majority. The market cannot deliver on the promise of justified meritocracy. Those who don’t realize this problem might begin to think the opposite and believe that merit in both past and present is innate and hereditary which then leads them to believe in aristocracy and be able to see the difference. This is possibly what happened to those in power.
Merit Without Foundations
How will the problems of meritocracy be addressed? Possibly in these terms: preferability could be defined by what you believe is preferable. Completely accepting a totally subjective definition makes the only one worthy of your submission being you! This has its own problems obviously. By accepting it is wholly subjective, you cannot justify your rule to any other subject. This means there is no reason for anyone else to submit to you or for who you deem to be worthy of submission. This means that a meritocracy on these foundations is no different from anarchy or anti-rule. Merit becomes anarchic. This has incredible implications for those who still have a desire for meritocracy, it means that they are essentially anarchists!
Why does everyone really love it?
People who haven’t deeply investigated it deeply accept it because it is an incredibly simple idea. It falls apart in five pages with but a closer look.
[i] Since writing this essay I have looked closer into the idea of meritocracy. In the book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and The Myth of Meritocracy the author, Robert Frank, writes about the term being coined by a sociologist named Michael Young in his essay The Rise of Meritocracy. The funny thing is that the original work was intended as a satire of meritocracy.
[ii] There is another major difference between the common modern use and the way I described it. That second major difference is that those characteristics cannot be innate but acquired. Someone must earn their way to the top through hard work or ingenuity. I didn’t bother mentioning it because I don’t think it relevant to my arguments against meritocracy whether the attributes are innate or acquired.
[iii] There are, perhaps, arguments about why one should submit to the best that I am not familiar with. If you know of some, I would be delighted to considered them and add them to the arguments considered here.
[iv] Objective morality as defined here is similar to the school of metaethics known as moral realism. Moral realism more generally doesn’t depend on deities existing and it may be possible to seek out this morality using pure reason. However, this attempt to justify an existing moral code outside of the subject using pure reason is rather knew. The ancient adage made by Muslim scholars “truth does not contradict truth” does potentially mean that people thought of this in antiquity but for the most part the notion (moral realism) came from theology.
[v] Survivability is interchangeable here. I could perhaps better describe it as human flourishing or eudemonia or perhaps describe it as human well-being. I chose survivability because it is easy to understand and doesn’t have as many philosophical underpinnings.
[vi] An important thing to mention is the relationship between this and capital accumulation which is more or less the same mechanism. There is a debate as to whether capital accumulation actually occurs in a truly freed market. The arguments against capital accumulation actually describe freed markets as being anarchic and more or less egalitarian as to the power relations. Cooperatives are the firms to make most decisions in this type of market making it more democratic than anything. This does solve the problem of capital accumulation but it does still make Market meritocracy baseless by being an extension of peoples decisions and thus ‘democracy’ in its classical sense.