Mixture of social prediction and description of English sociologist and writer Michael Young (1915-2002).
Social power, and particularly economic power, will in the future be held by those selected on the basis of measurable merit. In a society nominally egalitarian, these meritocrats will enjoy higher standards of living than their fellows by the manipulations of ‘perks’.
Also see: aristocracy
Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy (London, 1958)
The “most common definition of meritocracy conceptualizes merit in terms of tested competency and ability, and most likely, as measured by IQ or standardized achievement tests.” In government and other administrative systems, “meritocracy” refers to a system under which advancement within the system turns on “merits”, like performance, intelligence, credentials, and education. These are often determined through evaluations or examinations.[page needed]
In a more general sense, meritocracy can refer to any form of evaluation based on achievement. Like “utilitarian” and “pragmatic”, the word “meritocratic” has also developed a broader connotation, and is sometimes used to refer to any government run by “a ruling or influential class of educated or able people”.
This is in contrast to the original, condemnatory use of the term in 1958 by Michael Dunlop Young in his work “The Rise of the Meritocracy“, who was satirizing the ostensibly merit-based Tripartite System of education practiced in the United Kingdom at the time; he claimed that, in the Tripartite System, “merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications.”
Meritocracy in its wider sense, may be any general act of judgment upon the basis of various demonstrated merits; such acts frequently are described in sociology and psychology. Supporters of meritocracy do not necessarily agree on the nature of “merit”; however, they do tend to agree that “merit” itself should be a primary consideration during evaluation. Thus, the merits may extend beyond intelligence and education to any mental or physical talent or to work ethic. As such meritocracy may be based on moral character or innate abilities such as intelligence.
In rhetoric, the demonstration of one’s merit regarding mastery of a particular subject is an essential task most directly related to the Aristotelian term Ethos. The equivalent Aristotelian conception of meritocracy is based upon aristocratic or oligarchic structures, rather than in the context of the modern state.
More recent definitions
In the United States, the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 prompted the replacement of the American Spoils System with a meritocracy. In 1883, The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed, stipulating government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit through competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation.
The most common form of meritocratic screening found today is the college degree. Higher education is an imperfect meritocratic screening system for various reasons, such as lack of uniform standards worldwide, lack of scope (not all occupations and processes are included), and lack of access (some talented people never have an opportunity to participate because of the expense, most especially in developing countries). Nonetheless, academic degrees serve some amount of meritocratic screening purpose in the absence of a more refined methodology. Education alone, however, does not constitute a complete system, as meritocracy must automatically confer power and authority, which a degree does not accomplish independently.
Although the concept has existed for centuries, the term “meritocracy” is relatively new. It was used pejoratively by British politician and sociologist Michael Dunlop Young in his 1958 satirical essay The Rise of the Meritocracy, which pictured the United Kingdom under the rule of a government favouring intelligence and aptitude (merit) above all else, being the combination of the root of Latin origin “merit” (from “mereō” meaning “earn”) and the Ancient Greek suffix “-cracy” (meaning “power”, “rule”). (The purely Greek word is axiocracy (αξιοκρατία), from axios (αξιος, worthy) + “-cracy” (-κρατία, power).) In this 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. The essay, written in the first person by a fictional historical narrator in 2034, interweaves history from the politics of pre- and post-war Britain with those of fictional future events in the short (1960 onward) and long term (2020 onward).
The essay was based upon the tendency of the then-current governments, in their striving toward intelligence, to ignore shortcomings and upon the failure of education systems to utilize correctly the gifted and talented members within their societies.
Young’s fictional narrator explains that, on the one hand, the greatest contributor to society is not the “stolid mass” or majority, but the “creative minority” or members of the “restless elite”. On the other hand, he claims that there are casualties of progress whose influence is underestimated and that, from such stolid adherence to natural science and intelligence, arises arrogance and complacency. This problem is encapsulated in the phrase “Every selection of one is a rejection of many”.
It was also used by Hannah Arendt in her essay “Crisis in Education”, which was written in 1958 and refers to the use of meritocracy in the English educational system. She too uses the term pejoratively. It was not until 1972 that Daniel Bell used the term positively.
Ancient times: China
According to scholarly consensus, the earliest example of an administrative meritocracy, based on civil service examinations, dates back to Ancient China.[a] The concept originates, at least by the sixth century BC, when it was advocated by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who “invented the notion that those who govern should do so because of merit, not of inherited status. This sets in motion the creation of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies open only to those who passed tests.”
As the Qin and Han dynasties developed a meritocratic system in order to maintain power over a large, sprawling empire, it became necessary for the government to maintain a complex network of officials. Prospective officials could come from a rural background and government positions were not restricted to the nobility. Rank was determined by merit, through the civil service examinations, and education became the key for social mobility. After the fall of the Han Dynasty, the nine-rank system was established during the Three Kingdoms period.
According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of American History:
One of the oldest examples of a merit-based civil service system existed in the imperial bureaucracy of China. Tracing back to 200 B.C., the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as the basis of its political philosophy and structure, which included the revolutionary idea of replacing nobility of blood with one of virtue and honesty, and thereby calling for administrative appointments to be based solely on merit. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position that would bring wealth and honor to the whole family. In part due to Chinese influence, the first European civil service did not originate in Europe, but rather in India by the British-run East India Company… company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism.
Both Plato and Aristotle advocated meritocracy, Plato in his The Republic, arguing that the wisest should rule, and hence the rulers should be philosopher kings.
17th century: spread to Europe
The concept of meritocracy spread from China to British India during the seventeenth century, and then into continental Europe and the United States. With the translation of Confucian texts during the Age of Enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional ancient regime of Europe. Voltaire and François Quesnay wrote favourably of the idea, with Voltaire claiming that the Chinese had “perfected moral science” and Quesnay advocating an economic and political system modeled after that of the Chinese.
The first European power to implement a successful meritocratic civil service was the British Empire, in their administration of India: “company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism.” British colonial administrators advocated the spread of the system to the rest of the commonwealth, the most “persistent” of which was Thomas Taylor Meadows, Britain’s consul in Guangzhou, China. Meadows successfully argued in his Desultory Notes on the Government and People of China, published in 1847, that “the long duration of the Chinese empire is solely and altogether owing to the good government which consists in the advancement of men of talent and merit only,” and that the British must reform their civil service by making the institution meritocratic. This practice later was adopted in the late nineteenth century by the British mainland, inspired by the “Chinese mandarin system”.
The British philosopher and polymath John Stuart Mill advocated meritocracy in his book, Considerations on Representative Government. His model was to give more votes to the more educated voter. His views are explained in Estlund (2003:57–58):
Mill’s proposal of plural voting has two motives. One is to prevent one group or class of people from being able to control the political process even without having to give reasons in order to gain sufficient support. He calls this the problem of class legislation. Since the most numerous class is also at a lower level of education and social rank, this could be partly remedied by giving those at the higher ranks plural votes. A second, and equally prominent motive for plural voting is to avoid giving equal influence to each person without regard to their merit, intelligence, etc. He thinks that it is fundamentally important that political institutions embody, in their spirit, the recognition that some opinions are worth more than others. He does not say that this is a route to producing better political decisions, but it is hard to understand his argument, based on this second motive, in any other way.
So, if Aristotle is right that the deliberation is best if participants are numerous (and assuming for simplicity that the voters are the deliberators) then this is a reason for giving all or many citizens a vote, but this does not yet show that the wiser subset should not have, say, two or three; in that way something would be given both to the value of the diverse perspectives, and to the value of the greater wisdom of the few. This combination of the Platonic and Aristotelian points is part of what I think is so formidable about Mill’s proposal of plural voting. It is also an advantage of his view that he proposes to privilege not the wise, but the educated. Even if we agreed that the wise should rule, there is a serious problem about how to identify them. This becomes especially important if a successful political justification must be generally acceptable to the ruled. In that case, privileging the wise would require not only their being so wise as to be better rulers, but also, and more demandingly, that their wisdom be something that can be agreed to by all reasonable citizens. I turn to this conception of justification below.
Mill’s position has great plausibility: good education promotes the ability of citizens to rule more wisely. So, how can we deny that the educated subset would rule more wisely than others. But then why shouldn’t they have more votes?
Estlund goes on to criticize Mill’s education-based meritocracy on various grounds.
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