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Do you really deserve the great job you have?

Unthinkable: … Or is meritocracy just a modern version of aristocracy?

The resignation earlier this month of Claudine Gay as Harvard University’s first black president was welcomed with glee by conservatives in the United States. She was under pressure over plagiarism allegations and her weak performance at a congressional hearing on anti-Semitism on college campuses, but it seems her real crime was being a “diversity hire”.

“Here’s a radical idea for the future: select leadership based on *merit.*” So wrote Republican presidential candidate and millionaire businessman, Vivek Ramaswamy, celebrating news of her demise on the social media platform X.

The case hit upon several of today’s hot-button issues, but above all highlighted how the defence of meritocracy has become a new frontier in the culture wars. An ideal that was originally promoted by progressives as a revolt against the aristocracy is today weaponised by the right-wing to justify inequality. “What’s great about meritocracy, almost incontrovertibly, is that the emphasis is on giving people what they deserve. What could be wrong about that?” asks Trinity College Dublin lecturer Dr Kenneth Silver.

“So put, meritocracy is incredibly attractive.”


However, “there are loads of problems”, he adds hastily when quizzed by this columnist about the philosophy. “To begin, there’s an immediate kind of defeater for my intuition that meritocracy is true. I’m a professor at Trinity, so of course I want meritocracy to be true. I want to believe that I deserve the great job I have, because aren’t I such a special little boy who worked so much harder than everyone else?

“In general, this might resonate with the intelligent readers of The Irish Times. Successful people should question their intuition about the truth of meritocracy, because they highly benefit from assuming that it’s good and at work in society.”

Capitalism functions most efficiently when the people best-suited to the job get the job, and so it’s beneficial for a capitalistic system to push the idea that meritocracy is actually just

—  Dr Kenneth Silver

One of the most prominent critics of meritocracy is Harvard political scientist Michael Sandel. “He thinks people should get what they deserve, but he doesn’t think that people actually deserve different goods, because he thinks that the difference borne out through our efforts are down to luck in important ways,” explains Silver, who specialises in research on business ethics.

Think about your own start in life. You didn’t have any say over the genes that shaped your physical and mental abilities. Nor did you have a say over whether you were born in a relatively prosperous democracy rather than in a failed state that might prompt you to flee on a raft to Europe.

Sandel’s argument gives support to positive discrimination. He makes the case that college entry should be decided by a lottery among applicants who hit a basic entry threshold. This would mitigate the situation where richer students can “game” the system through grinds or other unfair advantages.

For market-oriented thinkers, however, Sandel’s recommendations are the path to lower standards. In his book The Aristocracy of Talent, Adrian Wooldridge, the Economist’s political editor, claims Europe and the United States are falling behind Asia because they aren’t rewarding “merit” enough.

Ramaswamy, a son of immigrants and a successful entrepreneur, takes the argument further, claiming diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are “anti-white and anti-Asian”. Like his political role model Donald Trump, he realises this is rich territory for fomenting resentment among disillusioned voters.

Meritocracy has its staunch defenders in Ireland too. Look at how better-off parents strongly oppose attempts to reform the Leaving Cert and the allied “points race” for college.

“One issue with meritocracy is that there’s a sense in which it’s bad for everyone,” Silver remarks. “The losers of meritocracy don’t get things they might need to survive, like jobs, and they are made to feel that it’s their fault. But the winners in a meritocracy succeed in a way that is ultimately precarious. They have to keep working hard to remain meritorious, and they are always close to losing it, or they cannot guarantee a nice life for their children.

“Also, not to be a complete Marxist, but meritocracy is one of those classic ideologies perpetuated to the masses to justify the current necessary structure of production. Capitalism functions most efficiently when the people best-suited to the job get the job, and so it’s beneficial for a capitalistic system to push the idea that meritocracy is actually just.

“It also warped our perception of what actually constitutes meritoriousness. Notice that what counts as meritorious is often defined purely [in] the ways that facilitate capitalism – being fast, or hardworking, etc.”

While Silver teaches the pros and cons of meritocracy to his students, he says “meritocrats might be thought of as fetishising the idea of desert [what someone deserves in a situation], focusing on it even when other things might matter more, and where it’s not clear that there really is a difference in what is deserved. For instance, isn’t it important for everyone who wants a job to be able to potentially get one and be treated with dignity and paid a living wage?”

The trump card for defenders of meritocracy is that it’s “better than the alternatives”. According to Wooldridge, we need “wiser meritocracy” rather than less meritocracy. But given that today’s major problems require collective solutions, and social co-operation on an unprecedented scale, is it wise to continue incentivising one-upmanship through individual rewards?

“Imperfect meritocracy often ends up entrenching class and stalling social mobility, while giving the illusion of social mobility,” says Silver. “So, at their worst, meritocracies act as a kind of justification for modern-day aristocracy.”