Stille calls out that in a meritocracy, the winners are more inclined to believe they earned their status, while sympathizing less with others (a point that Douthat also echoes). For this exact reason, Michael Young, the British Labour Party leader who wrote a satire that coined the term meritocracy, intended it to have negative connotations.
Putting aside the question of whether meritocracies are about who leads us ("cracy" comes from Greek for rule, or power) or about how society distributes rewards, I wanted to take up the debate after touching on this question in a post back in May.
It seems that there are four ways to challenge meritocracy.
First, it's possible to argue that the world isn't yet meritocratic enough. In their 2004 book, The Meritocracy Myth, sociologists Stephen McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr. do just that. They argue that while merit plays a part in determining income and wealth in America, other factors overwhelm it, and in some cases negate its value.
Second, what do we really mean by "merit"? Most people will agree that merit includes intelligence, diligence, and social skills, and with respect to those traits, it does seem that today's America is far more meritocratic in rewarding those traits than any past aristocracy.
Some would also argue that merit should include aspects of moral character (as McNamee and Miller do, for example). Traits like honesty, compassion, and humility could be important for merit. But, not everyone agrees on which such traits should be include. For example, some Americans will undoubtedly include religious piety in a list of merits, while others would completely disagree. The last sentence of Douthat's op-ed mentions humility as a desirable characteristic of our leaders, and he implies that meritocracies don't value that trait, but that doesn't have to be true in all meritocracies. In many cultures, humility is prized, and leaders are open and self-effacing.
And even where we might agree - honesty, for example - it would seem again that our systems aren't sufficiently meritocratic: billionaire hedge-fund scandals are proof that the merit of honesty isn't adequately filtered for on the ascent to Wall Street wealth. Or, maybe that it's our prioritization of multiple merits that is askew. Which should we value more, ambition or honesty?
A third issue pushes us to the brink of modern psychology and philosophy. The question is, how should we attribute merit? Research incontrovertibly shows that traits like talent and self-discipline depend not just on individual choices, but also on genes, childhood nutrition, and upbringing. Psychologist Walter Mischel's famous "marshmallow test" studies suggest that the ability to delay gratification at age six is a stronger predictor of academic achievement and social adjustment in young adulthood than many other traits. Does anyone really deserve credit or blame for merit that is due to influences before they were six-years old? Liberals often ask this question.