Has there ever been a meritocracy at the scale of a nation? By meritocracy I mean a system of government in which the citizen's vote is weighted based upon the merit of the individual casting that vote.

If so, what was their measure of merit? How did it go/is it going for them?

As an example, an admittedly poor version of a meritocracy would be a nation where each citizen's vote is weighted by his income for the year. In this example a person's income would be the figure of merit. What would such a system be classified as? A meritocratic democracy?

  • @Chad I meant that the power of the citizens' choice is based on (weighted by) merit. Feb 11, 2014 at 20:28
  • OK I have edited the question to make that more clear. Make much more sense now. Feb 11, 2014 at 20:31
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    Sure there was. Every single limited franchise is "meritocracy". Just that their criteria for "merit" may range from "managed to reach the age of 18 without killing self" to "owns N amount of land/wealth".
    – user4012
    Feb 12, 2014 at 12:16
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    @ChrisMueller - I'd suggest editing the question to clarify that you're looking for a scaling meritocracy (where every person gets one or more votes based on a criteria), rather than a franchised/disenfranchised dichotomy. Assuming that's what you're looking for, anyway.
    – Bobson
    Feb 12, 2014 at 14:46
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technocracy may be a current "system" that you're looking for - the manner is different (not weighting votes) but the intended result seems to be in that direction.
    – Peteris
    Mar 19, 2014 at 19:37

10 Answers 10


In the early US in order to qualify to vote one was required to own land (as well as be white). The precept being that only those people who owned land had a real investment in country and thus deserved to have a say in how the country was governed. This was a very simple merit test and certainly not one that was scaled upon merit. It was a simply yes you are white enough, yes you own land, and yes you have a penis (though I have found no proof that this was actually verified). The US has always been guided by a principle of one man one vote, again provided you deserved your right to vote...

According to Wikipedia China may have first dabbled with a meritocratic government around 165BCE. The system allowed any that could pass certian knowledge tests to get a position in the government.

The system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honour to the whole family. The Chinese Imperial examination system seemed to start in 165 BCE, when certain candidates for public office were called to the Chinese capital for examination of their moral excellence by the emperor. Over the following centuries the system grew until, finally, almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations.

As for what a system like you suggest would be called...

I can only see 2 potential paths. The first is Oligarchy. Since having more money would result in more votes, the very rich would effectively hold all of the power. Even if it started out on an even playing field gaining more wealth results in more power inevitable those who crave power would horde the money and in a relatively short amount of time the very few are in charge. This system creates a benefit to creating a permanent underclass which has virtually no power, and is ripe for exploitation and corruption.

If the system were somehow balanced to prevent any relatively small group of people from gaining excessive power, and prevents the hording of power, you would have a system that promotes Social Darwinism. These sorts of rewarding effectiveness systems are what some say allowed the US to become a power house in the 1900s. It is also associated with the Nazi's.

  • "one was required to own land (as well as be white)" were non-white people allowed to own land?
    – o0'.
    Feb 16, 2014 at 11:39
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    @Lohoris - It theory yes... in practice it was quite a bit more difficult. Several slaves were freed in wills and bequeathed land, usually the family would contest the will, and get both provisions struck. If not then of course taxes had to be paid up front or some previously unknown creditor popped up which were always more than the land was worth and or at least was available to pay for them. Since they were just slaves and not "real" people there was also no one to fight for their rights. Feb 18, 2014 at 4:47
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    The word you are looking for is Plutocracy en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutocracy
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 26, 2017 at 2:45
  • Dates here imply some groups had right to vote, but had to be free and tax-paying; it was up to the states to decide. The idea that only a taxpaying citizen could vote really makes me wonder how different taxpaying voters vs. nontaxpaying voters are at the polls. Would love to see those data sets compared. Jun 25, 2018 at 17:23
  • @ohwilleke Not necessarily. The OP used money as an example, but other measures, such as IQ, SAT scores or highest level of achieved education could be envisaged. In "Starship Troopers" Robert Henlein envisioned one based on military service. Oct 9, 2018 at 16:16

I think the USSR can be considered to an extent depending on your definitions. This is because people with significant achievements were more or less automatically nominated to a seat in the Supreme Council or in the councils at the republican level. These included:

  • Laureates of the USSR state prizes, and prizes of the constituent republics.

  • Academicians of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Academy of Arts and lower-level academies.

  • Heroes of the USSR, Heroes of the Socialist Labor and laureates of the Order of Lenin, holders of the title Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR, which was given to those who completed a space flight.

  • Holders of the titles People's Artist of the USSR and Merited Artist of the USSR, People's and Merited Writer of the USSR, People's and Merited Painter of the USSR, People's and Merited Medic, People's and Merited Teacher, People's and Merited Architect and a number of the "merited" titles from other spheres, as well as similar titles of the constituent republics.

  • Distinguished sportsmen such as Champions of the Olympics and World Championships, holders of the titles of People's and Merited Trainer.

  • Some minor titles included peredovik and udarnik of the industry, simply put, advanced laborers who exceeds the production plan, winners of the socialist competition, rationalizers(improvers) and inventors, especially those who had patents/invention certificates.

All these titles and decorations had a hierarchy and the more titles, the more chances you had. With some of them you only could expect being nominated to the regional, city or town councils, with more powerful ones you could expect to get a seat in a republican-level council or even the Union's Supreme Council.

The Supreme Council had extensive powers allowing it to adopt and change any law, including the constitution, to form the cabinet (Council of Ministers), appoint judges and all other state officials. Most decisions required the simple majority, with nobody having the veto power.

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    Interesting answer. What do you mean by "the more chances you had"? The more chances you had of being nominated, or something else?
    – Bobson
    Feb 14, 2014 at 15:36
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    @Bobson yes, you're right
    – Anixx
    Feb 14, 2014 at 15:42
  • I don't think it was more than one candidate on any elections in USSR after some time 30's. As for being nominated to Supreme Council: I agree with Anixx's answer. I think it was also requirement to be member of Communist Party but could be exceptions.
    – lowtech
    Mar 19, 2014 at 21:58
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    @lowtech membership in the Communist party was not a requirement, the share of party-less people in the Supreme Council was about 30% in the 30s and gradually rose to about 70% in the 1970s.
    – Anixx
    Sep 3, 2014 at 23:38
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    I see what you are saying now. I had always thought of meritocracy meaning the most deserving were elevated. But in reality the most awarded would be considered that. So all you have to do to game a meritocracy is reward your friends and allies and you keep control of the government. Aug 26, 2017 at 23:42

Not an expert here so I'm drawing mostly on this book, but China under the Ming (1368 - 1644) supposedly resulted in a very large meritocratic class of administrators.

This was determined via state exams which were standardized and quite rigorous. While Dynasties since the Han emperor Wudi (100s BC) had conducted such exams, it was under the Ming that nepotism and regional factors were minimized.

It went relatively well from what I understand but they were not optimizing for what you might expect. The exams were focused on one's ability to understand and apply "Confucian principles". This resulted in a bureaucracy that was reasonably fair and more equipped to minimize the role of remote warlords and bring law and order to previously anything-goes provinces. It was not well equipped for forward-looking strategy nor for technological development. Contact with the outside world was nearly cut off, the always-unpredictable Emperor was sidelined to a figurehead, and the bureaucracy focused on maintaining and refining the status quo.

They did not see the Manchu Qing coming and the Ming downfall was insanely fast - just a few years really, not the many decades that typify Chinese dynastic changes. Worse, while the emperor under the Qing had serious power in military matters - early Qing emperors pretty much "solved" the Steppe invader problem (read: a war of genocide against the Mongolians) - the bureaucracy soon re-formed and busied itself with the actual day-to-day administration. They in turn were completely unequipped to handle such cataclysms as the opium crisis, the Taiping rebellion, and the European powers that leveraged their superior navies to carve up China throughout the 1800s.

Then again, I don't know if any other government could have handled such an assault either.


There were some examples of this in some states of the United States such as literacy tests and poll taxes (which measured wealth).

Today, states would be punished for doing this due to the 14th amendment, and it is also illegal according to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

From the 14th amendment:

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

  • Poll taxes and literacy tests were not actually used to show merit but to instead prevent certian people from voting at all. In Canada it was the Chinese in the US Blacks and Indians, in the UK serfs and the underclass. Feb 11, 2014 at 20:33
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    @Chad regardless of what the actual intent behind them is, literacy tests still operated under the pretense of being a merit-based qualification, and something like them is not at all unreasonable to expect when someone introduces what he/she calls a "merit-based" voting system Feb 11, 2014 at 20:41
  • I agree. The pretense and justification was merit. Feb 11, 2014 at 20:44
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    I'm not sure if a binary "yes/no" test satisfies the question. If the number of votes you could cast was based on a series of literacy tests, that would.
    – Bobson
    Feb 11, 2014 at 21:37

The question is using a non-standard definition of meritocracy and conflating the concept with a "plutocracy".

The closest match to a national meritocracy in historical experience was under a number of Chinese dynasties when the primary means by which governmental positions were obtained and promotions were secured was via examinations based upon Confucian philosophy which were widely viewed at that time as an objective measure of governmental managerial ability.

In contrast, the question's use of the term is a form a "plutocracy" with government by the wealthy, which is how most modern publicly held companies are governed in elections for the Board of Directors. Historically, there were periods of time in the Roman Empire, when people were granted votes proportionate to the amount of taxes that they paid, which was a proxy for wealth that encouraged the useful for the empire value of paying your taxes. But, it would be very non-standard to call that system in the Roman era to have been a "meritocracy" which is often contrasted with a "plutocracy."

  • there is no contrast or conflation if one argues plutocracies are a type of meritocracy.
    – jiggunjer
    Aug 28, 2017 at 11:29
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    @jiggunjer Plutocracies are not tautologically a type of meritocracy because wealth is not by definition a form of merit, and indeed, it is rather obviously true that while wealth sometimes overlaps with merit that it is not itself merit, the most obvious cases involving inherited wealth and lottery winners.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 31, 2017 at 21:23
  • I think merit has no innate metric, so anything that got you in power can be called merit. Even votes could be 'merit' by that reasoning.
    – jiggunjer
    Sep 1, 2017 at 1:26

You may also consider the Roman Senate where the senators usually were those people who previously occupied a governmental position, although I do not know how much it depended on the person's performance.


At multiple points in ancient Greece there were classifications of voting rights, eligibility for offices and also duties (i.e., requirements to provide arms or ships to the army) based on your wealth. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentacosiomedimni for example.

The difference from other examples is that it's not a binary classification that removes the slaves or poor, but a multiple layer system providing for separate rights and duties, and mobility between those layers as you became rich or suffered losses.


While I apologize for not replying directly to your perception of meritocracy, some view non-partisan systems without campaigning (even China which ends up being effectively non-partisan) as more conducive to a system where technically competent people get voted in. Democracy can also be non-partisan (potentially alleviating some of the criticisms of absolute meritocracies).

As far as tweaks to who may vote in the interests of meritocracy, indirect elections have been supposed to refine the selection process (e.g., mere celebrities may be less likely to get voted in). The Electoral College had been intended in this vein, though in practice it has rarely led to any practical difference due to the role of parties and electors sticking to their pledges (in some states, required by law) and by a lack of secret ballot to allow an elector the chance to vote their conscience without fear of public retribution.


If you judge by wealth then you could say that plutocracy is a form of meritocracy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutocracy gives a few examples. For instance between 1866 and 1918 Sweden used a weighted system for votes. If you had little money you couldn't vote at all and you got more votes with more money.


Looks like modern Latvia is country fitting to definition of 'meritocracy'. They have 'non-citizens', mostly russian minority (~300k) living in Latvia. That 'non-citizens' don't have a right to vote, only Latvia citizens could vote. Note that "Latvian non-citizens can be regarded neither as citizens, nor aliens or stateless persons but as persons with "a specific legal status" (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-citizens_%28Latvia%29)

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    This has nothing to do whatsoever with meritocracy
    – user4012
    Mar 9, 2015 at 14:09
  • @DVK depends on how you define meritocracy. Original question was about voting rights as merit. So my answer is consistent and correct - if you would assume that russian minority member deserves the right to be latvian citizen and was stripped out of that right.
    – lowtech
    Mar 9, 2015 at 19:27
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    "the merit of the individual casting that vote" - being of a given nationality is not an individual based merit, hell it isn't a merit at all. That's like saying ALL democracies are meritocracies since they don't allow foreigners to vote.
    – user4012
    Mar 9, 2015 at 19:29
  • @DVK then you should address the question itself. My answer is based on the question. If agree and it was your recent downvote please return that.
    – lowtech
    Mar 9, 2015 at 19:32
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    The question - and real life - uses the definition of meritocracy that does NOT apply to your example.
    – user4012
    Mar 9, 2015 at 19:57

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