Meritocracy is a political philosophy which holds that certain things, such as economic goods or power, should be vested in individuals on the basis of talent, effort and achievement. Advancement in such a "system"(*) is based on performance, as measured through examination or demonstrated achievement. Although the concept of meritocracy has existed for centuries, the term itself was first created in 1958 by the sociologist Michael Young (Wikipedia)

What are the arguments against meritocracy as opposed to commonly implemented political philosophies/systems?

(*) Human organizations are not systematic

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    @armatita But inspecting the base of merit (i.e. how to earn merit), then I think self-built inequality is correct. Like why the heck would poor and stupid and lazy people deserve to live off the labour of those that do the important work? And why the heck would anyone want to work for the benefit of some lazy asses?
    – mavavilj
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 16:11
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    There is an ethical answer to that, but I have a feeling it won't work so let's speak pragmatism. In most developed countries half (or less) of the population is actually producing economically. Which means children, students, elder, sick, etc., are economically dependent on the rest of the country. Also there is no consensual definition of merit which means that any large scale implementation of it would be autocratic. Autocratic elites do tend to want to stay that way, usually by changing rules, like for example any arbitrary definition of merit.
    – armatita
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 16:25
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    @armatita - Plato is the one who started it. I'm not certain why you think that constitutes "little literature". Then there's stuff from around French Revolution.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 16:44
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    @mavavilj When your parents are there to help you with your homework, or can pay you additional courses, or you just don't have to help at your father's work after school your school grades tend to be better. Of course, there will always be the "inspirational story" boy/girl who does all those things (or will tell (s)he did) and gets an excellence award which sents him/her to an elite university, but in every country, including Finland, the parents' income is an excellent predictor of children success.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 7:59
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    @dsollen SE is an international venue. Which democracy is "our democracy" of which you speak?
    – shoover
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 16:20

5 Answers 5


Meritocracy Lacks Intrinsic Incentives To Benefit Others

One of the objections to meritocracy is that in the absence of a deep cultural commitment to reciprocity (such as the Confucianist philosophy that went hand it hand with the meritocratic civil service exam system of the Qin and Han Dynasties of China) or a representative democracy, that the elites in positions of power will abuse that power for their own ends rather than respecting the legitimate needs and desires of those who lack merit and are not in power.

Politics involves both power and choice. A meritocracy, pretty much by definition, grants power to people who are most capable of evaluating and implementing the best available choices. But, the ability to evaluate choices well doesn't mean that the meritocratic elite will make choices for the good of the many as opposed to their own personal self-interests as a class, unless there is some cultural or political mechanism in place to cause them to serve the people selflessly. When a meritocratic class looks out only for itself, you end up with a social Darwinist system that many people find to be morally abhorrent. Often meritorious elites have different political interests than other members of a society.

In this regard, criticism a meritocracy are similar to criticisms of nominally meritocratic efforts to limit the franchise in representative democracies, for example, by limiting it to property owners or imposing literacy tests or excluding felons from voting. Because, while these reforms may indeed reduce the share of voters who are ill informed about issues of public policy that are indirectly resolved in elections, potentially resulting in bad choices by voters as a whole based upon the decisions of the ill informed voters, a limited franchise also creates a political system that can systemically ignore the needs of people who are denied the right to vote without political consequences for doing so, thereby harming the people who are denied the right to vote.

Ancient China (discussed in the links above) tried to address this inherent flaw in merit systems by making good moral character in the sense of the Confucian notion that a superior has a binding moral obligation to look out for the well being of his inferiors, an element of merit (defined in modern parlance in terms of cognitive and executive ability and work ethic), rather than as something distinct from it.

Modern representative democracies seek to address this inherent flaw by creating institutional incentives in the electoral system for elected representatives to act in a way that makes them popular and discourages powerful or numerous factions from organizing against them, even though when implemented, these incentives don't always work as intended in the raw political theory. And, the political theory of representative democracy can overestimate the ability of voters who may lack merit to choose representative who have merit and will faithfully carry out the will of the voters.

This is less of a concern in a well regulated mixed economy, where government regulation and market incentives discourage elites in independent business firms from acting contrary to the needs of members of the society because profits can be earned only by entering into transactions deemed by the parties by mutual consent to be mutually beneficial since regulation punishes firms that engage in deceptive conduct or creates externalities that impose costs or harms on someone without their consent.

Abuses by meritocrats in the private sector are also discouraged by the cultural value of pride of ownership by which an owner of property derives personal satisfaction from having property whose quality is recognized in society as having high quality. The sense of having a stake in a community and something to lose if the community fails to function promote pro-social conduct by meritocrats in the private sector.

This pride of ownership cultural cue may have less of a powerful effect in government and publicly held companies, however, where a fundamental concept (outside of monarchies and feudal systems) is that the elites who run these institutions do not own them and instead merely manage them on behalf of others, which can give rise to what is known as the principal-agent problem.

But, corrupt self-interest is a serious concern in the decision making leadership of sovereign governments because, by definition, they regulate others without being subject to regulation that effectively prohibits self-interested action themselves without some sort of cultural or institutional check on abuses of this kind. (This is sometimes called a "who watches the watchmen?" problem which as been widely discussed since classical Greco-Roman times.)

This can even undermine the meritocratic system itself. For example, even if a first generation of political elites are the most meritorious people available, as a class they have an incentive to establish a hereditary aristocracy that does not consider merit since it leaves them and their families as a whole better off.

Historically, for example, immediately following the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE, the aristocrats put in power in that system were military officers who had proven their merit and been promoted by their superiors as a result in the Norman invasion of England and previous military campaigns by the Normans. But, once those individuals were put in aristocratic offices on this merit basis, subsequent holders of those aristocratic positions of power were installed on the basis of the hereditary principle rather than merit, which over many generations caused the class of aristocrats to drift from the class of people who were most meritorious in the society.

Some hereditary systems in which aristocrats have real power that have continued to function well, in contrast, such as the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia, try to limit these potentials for abuse and degradation of leadership quality over time by mixing the hereditary principle with a principle of merit selection within a large class of potential leaders who are all part of a large extended royal family, in an effort to prevent incompetent people with royal blood from gaining power. Thus, in the Saudi system, a talented aristocrat in a "cadet line" can be appointed to a position of power and succession by an existing monarch or council of senior royal family members, over the person who would be entitled by right to take power in a European system royal succession system in which the eldest son is automatically the heir to the throne or aristocratic post. Of course, since this system limits positions of power to members of the royal family, it excludes competent people outside the royal family who might have been preferred for positions of power on a meritocratic principle.

Meritocracy Is Hard To Put Into Practice

Another, less fundamental, objection to meritocracy, is that merit as a concept is not particularly well defined or easy to operationalize in a fair and economic manner.

Meritocracy can also fall victim to the Peter Principle (promoting people to their level of incompetency resulting in bad management) and the Dunning-Kruger effect (incompetent people overestimate their competency while competent people underestimate their competency) both because self-advocacy can be confused with actual competence and because people deciding who has merit are overconfident of their abilities to do so, again causing merit to be inaccurately implemented.

For example, critics of Human Relations Department involvement in nominally meritocratic hiring systems (both in government and in large and medium sized businesses) argue that HR employees don't have particularly great merit themselves which impairs their ability to evaluate the merit of prospective employees who have more merit than they do.

  • has human resources really been rebranded as human relations somewhere or is that a typo?
    – Teleka
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 2:17
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    I'm glad you opened this with the ancient Chinese civil service exams - perhaps the most organized form of meritocracy yet conceived, although of course, the emperors themselves were not advanced from the ranks of the civil service. The point about the marriage of that with Confucianism bears a lot more analysis. In general, traditional societies require less governmental leveling of the playing field because local communities and families fill the role of caring for the sick and elderly. A system which both discards the weak AND reduces everything to ableism exists: it's called fascism.
    – joshstrike
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 7:29
  • @joshstrike "A system which both discards the weak AND reduces everything to ableism exists:" Yes. But such approaches predate fascism, and fascism isn't defined by this. As practiced in mid-20th century Europe fascism targeted ethnic minorities for reasons of ethnic cohesion and alleged superiority, and the disabled (mentally, cognitively and physically as it defined those matters), but paid special attention to children, cared for the temporarily sick or wounded, and did not systemically discard the elderly either. Historic nomadic hunter-gatherer & herder societies were much more "abelist".
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 20:43
  • @ohwilleke Modern hunter/gatherer tribes display great reverence for their elders. Separately, all eugenics under Nazism whether towards minority ethnic groups, conquered nations or Germans who dissented or were disabled, fell under the rubric of treating the Reich as a single organism in which any outlier was deemed unfit and a cancer on the body of the Volk. Yes, sub-classes were created to score political points or stoke populist hatred of minorities. But Nazism was absolute ableism. No system before Fascism ever elevated the murder of those with less "merit" to a national obligation.
    – joshstrike
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 8:49

One argument against meritocracy is that it doesn't have much failure/corruption tolerance when used in a large and varied system, at least compared to more widely used political/philosophical systems. Creating a standard definition of merit in a large system is very difficult, and without such a definition there is potential to define merit to your own or others' advantage.

When implemented in a small or very homogeneous system, such as a company, town, or military, power based on merit is achievable because merit can be clearly defined. For example, a military force has a (relatively) small set of very clear goals and ways to achieve those goals, so the merit of whoever can reach those goals can be measured. Similarly, in a small company there are (relatively) few differing opinions, so they can eventually come to an agreement on standard ways to measure merit for a potentially large range of goals that the company is trying to achieve.

The ability to create a standard merit system quickly breaks down as the number of opinions and number of variables to measure increases. There is plenty of discussion on how to measure abstract concepts such as art, so how would you go about creating a standard merit system for measuring artists? Even more concrete concepts like engineering or economics would need a universally-agreed merit system in order to be judged. Although standards institutions exist to try to create universal standards in various fields, the standards are rarely adopted by everyone even when based on empirical data. An all-encompassing merit system, at least some of which would necessarily rely on universally-agreed opinions, is simply not feasible on the scale needed for an entire nation to follow.

In short, large numbers of people with differing opinions and priorities almost always fail spectacularly to reach agreements, and if no universally-agreed merit system exists then the meritocracy will not function properly.

  • I dislike your way of using the term "system", because human organizations are not systematic. It's a very lousy way of claiming that political systems have "certain properties", when in fact it's the people acting on them that do the thinking. I don't also see your argument about "gaming the system" to be opposed to meritocracy, because "gaming the system" exists possibly in all current economies. Doing unproductive labour or feeding artificial demand is "gaming the system", trying to live off the labour of others, while contributing nothing significant.
    – mavavilj
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 16:02
  • Regarding the valuation thing, artists are not on top of the most important professions. There are many easier ones before them. But a start could be for example to consider, whether media fields are rightfully earning more money than e.g. physicists. I think it's possible to categorize professions based on their importance. Some people precede others. Those that produce basic necessities are important to everyone in society. Those that don't produce basic necessities are not on the same level of importance and therefore they don't deserve the same.
    – mavavilj
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 16:04
  • I agree that universally-agreed merit system would be a difficult, if not impossible task. But rather than woe on its impossibility, why not recognize that some lesser quality merit system is devisable, using e.g. the examples I gave. It's better than nothing? Social scientists and philosophers have sometimes too ideal views on everything having to be perfect or something, because e.g. they have too much time to think. However, the real world is way too complicated for almost anyone to classify. But it doesn't meant there couldn't be fairer "systems".
    – mavavilj
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 16:05
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    @mavavilj: I used 'system' just as a generic way to refer to any group, and if you don't like the word then you may want to remove its use from your question. Regardless, your use of the word 'rightful' shows how difficult a meritocracy would be, since a commonly agreed definition of 'rightful' and 'fair' would be needed. All of your examples of non-'rightful' shows that those systems don't need these terms defined, and a 'lesser quality merit system' is basically capitalism(in my personal opinion).
    – Giter
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 16:35
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    @mavavilj: Unfortunately, comments are not the place for the type of long discussion that you clearly want to have. However, there is a StackExchange chat area where I'm sure you'll be able to find some people to properly discuss this with.
    – Giter
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 18:37

As described by others, a common criticism can be the issue of defining "merit". Some people consider using standardized testing to measure merit, but there are flaws with this method and as education theorist Bill Ayers puts it "Standardized tests can't measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning." There are many people like savants who are brilliant people, but have low IQ scores and would be overlooked if such a method was used. So for meritocracy to work by putting great people in charge of parts of governance, one would have to come up with a good, agreed upon method for selecting the best people for the job that could get around the flaws of standard testing.

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    To me this is the fundamental issue. Whose 'merit'? There is nothing like an objective system for defining such and every attempt has shown fundamental flaws and biases, unsurprisingly consistently in favor of the people trying to create the definitions. Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 18:25

All other answers point out good things, however I think the most fundamental problem with meritocracy is the following.

Politics is essentially about choices which don't have an objective correct answer. The answers to most political choices boil down to moral values and/or interests.

  • Should we give social security to poor people, and if so how much ?

  • Should we give the death penalty for the most abhorrent crimes ?

  • What is more important, economic development or preservation of a pristine natural reserve?

  • Should primary education be free ? What about secondary or tertiary ?

A person might be very smart and knowledgeable in/about math/physics/accounting/law but why should this qualification make him/her more entitled to decide about these kind of choices than an average Joe/Jane?

  • This sounded like a good answer upon initial read, but then coming back to it I noticed this: "The answers to most political choices...<soft stuff>" I'm not sure that is true. Sure, those are some of the policy decisions that need to be made, but there is so much more that isn't as soft. There are things that both parties (just for the sake of argument), agree should be done (such as improve the quality of education in the US), but they may disagree in how to do it. To answer this, a knowledge (merit) about the education system can be really helpful, compared to not merit based traits Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 6:03

In addition to the reasons given in other answers, another serious disadvantage of meritocracy, or rather the uncritical belief in meritocracy, is that the ranks of prospective meritocrats have always harbored diligent cheaters, some of whom manage, (despite their lack of merit), to weasel and swindle their way up the ranks, and thereafter abuse their unearned powers to cover their tracks and advance their cronies by broadcasting politically advantageous but publicly harmful prejudices. The leadership of such uplifted cheaters is usually characterized by incompetence, venality, cowardice, superstition, scandals, etc.

Faith in Meritocracy shifts the public burden of proof in favor of government, and thusly deludes the public to uncritically believe that such inept leaders, (whom they assume earned their rank by effort and talent), will always be too intelligent and learned for common people to judge -- therefore the public passively excuses the ongoing mistakes and blunders of such inept leaders until all those warning signs ignored give way to fullblown catastrophes.

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