What's the Merit of Meritocracy?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader broadens the debate that started with the number of Black students at elite universities:

In response to the email questioning the North American and European idea of meritocracy, I would argue that very few Americans believe in it to the degree that your reader is suggesting. While there are some on the right who argue against government intrusion while ignoring all the positive and necessary things they provide (highways, public transportation, schools, to name one of thousands), I don’t think most people are unaware of the basic fact that they’ve been helped by things outside of their control, including being born into positive circumstances.

However, just like your reader describes in South Asia, most people see hard work as a factor, in addition to environmental factors.

Your reader describes the problem of viewing success purely as a result of hard work, which “allows these individuals to ignore the suffering of others by blaming any lack of success on personal moral failings, thereby removing any impetuous for social change.” The alternate viewpoint, however, is viewing things purely as a matter of happenstance and birthright. That removes the legitimate pride of having succeeded through hard work and attitude, as well as decreases motivation to make individual decisions to better your own life.

Of course, taking one side or the other is essentially the same as taking an absolute stance in nature vs. nurture.  To choose one or the other in any objective way is silly.  

Personally, I find that focusing on how I’ve contributed to my success is helpful because it’s what I’m capable of controlling. I would also say that this attitude leads me to be more helpful, rather than less, as it gives me respect for human capacity.

Another reader recalls an anecdote from a few decades ago:

The first time I hear the term “meritocracy” was from the lips of a top executive of a Fortune 100 company (Detroit Edison) that I worked for in 1989. I actually laughed out loud (not too loudly) when he told us that things were going to be different because promotions were now going to based on objective measures of MERIT and not on personal characteristics.

I laughed because he, personally, was to have total, secret and unquestioned control over whom and what was worthy for every management position in the company of 15,000 employees. He was a very cunning man whose life goal focused on amassing personal power and allegiance (by giving or threatening promotions/position/pay). He was also an open, virulent racist and misogynist.

By 1995, he and the company were being sued by 3,500 former employees for the systemic race and sex discrimination that had been their practice and pattern for many years. The company settled the lawsuits in 1998 for well over $40 million dollars (a state record at the time). However, management remained the same (except the CEO resigned within six months) and opportunity for minorities and women stagnated and deteriorated even further.

For more on the meritocracy debate, Marianne Cooper just wrote a piece for us claiming “The False Promise of Meritocracy.” If you have strong views on the subject, email hello@theatlantic.com.