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Meritocracy, inequality and the common good

"Like democracy, meritocracy is the best known system of social advancement. But it is not as perfect as one might think. Therefore, it must be maintained, but adapted."

Perhaps merit is one of the factors that better explains the progress of human societies in recent times. Merit legitimizes change and transformation, which are, in turn, the fuel for the advancement of society. 

The merit

What is the merit? Theoretically it can be defined as:

“A set of attitudes and achievements that allows people to be better and evolve towards a certain state of wealth or to achieve a status recognized by society. " 

"A person has made merits for ..." awards him a recognition that makes him a creditor of something. The merit can be the academic tests passed or the jobs successfully performed. All of this leads to credentials that are related on LinkedIn profiles indicating to be used by algorithms in talent searches. Academic and professional merit also opens the door to contacts. From this perspective, the merit is good, since it is proof in good part of the personal effort and of authentic capacities that would not be obtained "without making merits for it." 
The merit is even recognized as moral virtue. In all religions the concept of merit is socially recognized, although what is meritorious in each one it can respond to different values ​​and actions. In theocratic religions, the deserving of heaven is the one who performs actions in life that make him the creditor of a life in the afterlife. In the Christian world, virtues such as effort, forgiveness or helping others are rewarded. In the Muslim world, religion influences social life so strongly that merit one learns through its sacred texts and in the interpretations of its ulama. In the main Asian religions, merit is closely associated with collective behavior and harmony.

The tyranny of merit

Michael J. Sandel's book "The Tyranny of Merit" (2018, Debate editorial) examines merit as an element of social upward mobility within the scale of economic progress in today's societies. The meritocracy that prevails especially from the second part of the XNUMXth century can be seen as the evolution of the previous aristocracy (promotion based on cradle rights). 

Merit as we conceive it today is strongly linked to deserved achievements and education is crucial in this. "Education and specifically universities are the filter that distills the deserving, and the most deserving are those who rule the world," says the theory. In an ever-changing world, meritocracy seems the best method of securing opportunity with objective criteria and promoting social advancement.


The book explains the almost Darwinian system of the leading universities in the United States, where entrance exams, due to their cost and demand, are inaccessible to most of those interested, although they may have sufficient qualities. Or because factors such as the country of birth, the economic capacities of the family in which each one grows up, or the impulse of the parents matter. But there are undoubtedly factors that influence success that belong to the realm of what people can do for ourselves. 

Meritocracy and equality

Of course, there are public universities in many countries where access and studies allow a general elevation of people's possibilities, but it is evident that inequality in the world has increased, even in countries with universities, public and private, and this is visible above all in North America and Europe. Global inequality in the last 20 years has been reduced mainly due to the rise in the standard of living in the Asian world.


Meritocracy is a value for upward mobility shared by virtually all advanced cultures. China itself is the epitome of meritocracy in the form of historical organization of its state machinery. From the Mandarin entrance exams in the imperial era to today, where accessing the best universities and obtaining the best grades has become the greatest aspiration of Chinese families, who are willing to sacrifice all their savings for their children (with often the only child) study in the best universities. Anecdotally, all the permanent members of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party have university degrees with technical degrees including Xi Jinping himself. The economic and technological leap in China in the last 20 years is not strange. At the same time, it has dramatically raised the median income of all Chinese in an admirable move.


Therefore, and globally, the meritocracy as it is conceived today does not ensure the social lift generalized that it's supposed to be. At this point it is appropriate to connect with the technocracy, the government through academically prepared, and therefore accumulate merits of ability and experience. However, it must be recognized that throughout history it must be recognized that it was people without training who, from the humility of their origins, led changes of wide social repercussion, especially in the last two centuries. 


But in the XNUMXst century, do we want technocratic governments ruled by people whose academic meritocracy and the supposed associated competition are the ones who run our societies? 

Certainly yes, but is it enough? Where is the government of ideas that is born from the inner impulse of the leaders, questions that are not learned in the universities and that are not part of the technical competences that today populate the curricula of the universities? Where is that learned or felt humanism that balances technical training? Undoubtedly a mixture is the most appropriate, but at the same time we would all like to see the structure of the state managed in the "operational" sense as a company, since it results in economic results (difference between public income and expenditure) they affect all citizens. 

Meritocracy and the common good

And if the meritocratic conception is not enough, and governing by merits can impose a tyranny on the system, stimulating the pride of the lucky ones ("I have earned it"), and the frustration of the unsuccessful or less gifted ("it is an injustice" ), How do we manage the common good space? But first, what is the common benefit?

The common good "are the values ​​and conditions of security, freedom, peace and tranquility that allow people to evolve in the happiest possible way within a society."  

When there is a risk of loss of the common good, fear appears, the feeling of loss of dignity or even worthlessness. In this framework, populisms of the left or right warn, often correctly, of the loss of fundamental conditions for peace, but they propose solutions that are sometimes simplistic and difficult to implement in today's complex world. 


This book is not conclusive about the solutions, but it does point out lines of thought that lead to reflection. 
Should we reform universities as mechanisms for social advancement in such a way that humanistic skills and training are evaluated, giving rise to more well-rounded people? Leading universities in the Anglo-Saxon world increasingly introduce humanistic teaching into their curricula. This is hopeful news. 

Should the tax system be reformed to especially tax the enormous accumulation of wealth in the extremes most benefited by the current meritocratic success? The G7 has just announced an agreement to tax the profits of large companies at least up to 15%. This is good news. 


Like democracy, meritocracy is the best known system of social advancement. But it is not as perfect as one may think before reading "The Tyranny of Merit." Therefore, it must be maintained, but adapted. 

Henry Titos,

Independent Director. Member of the Academic Council of Fide.

Director of the Digital Money and Payment Systems Group Fide.

Article originally published in The Alcazar of Ideas

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