[Perhaps today's post is the product of my belief that given my skill-set, I have manged to over-achieve in my professional career.--ES]
I used to embrace an article of faith that all hiring and appointments should be based on defeasible and broadly construed meritocratic principles that may be bent for some other important principles (overcoming past discrimination, ensuring diversity for various reasons, etc.) I still think this would improve the actual societies we live in. But recently I have come to wonder if an ideal society that is fully meritocratic (a so-called meritocracy) would be worth having.
Before I get to my concern let me offer four, important qualifications: first, a meritocracy is compatible with some (even considerable) chance if, for example, it is also a market based society. (As even Hayek and Frank Knight taught, market outcomes always involve some chance.) Second, by raising concerns about merit, I do not mean to advocate for nepotism or for willful incompetence in the actual world. I am here exploring a feature of far-off, counter-factual ideal theory. While I am unfamiliar with a political theory that is fully grounded in embrace of merit, lots of theories appeal to meritocratic principles along the way (see Rawls here).* Third, here I am ignoring the debates over the many flawed proxies for merit (IQ, race, religion, gender, etc.) that rightly cause concern among many people of good will over the very idea of objective merit. (I am stipulating for the sake of argument that merit can be established and that the criteria/proxies are multi-dimensional, context sensitive, and sensible, etc.) Fourth, meritocratic decision procedures or rules that settle athletic or sports competitions are fine.** So, I do not object to a boxing referee saying 'may the best man win' (unless, perhaps, we should urge the referee to use 'person' instead of 'man').
But while fair play and our sense of fairness are important commitments in support of justice, we should not confuse the way we envision an ideal society with the norms that regulate a boxing match. I think the analogy between a boxing match and a meritocracy is not accidental. We care about meritocratic principles in zero-sum contexts: that is, in circumstances where there are winners and losers. Obviously, we do not always describe patterns of merited outcome in terms of wins/losses (or rankings), but it is a fairly common temptation to do so.
In a meritocratic situation, other people's advancement would be entirely fair and one's (relative or absolute) disadvantage fair, too. But would an entire meritocratic society be worth having, that is, flourishing, happy, content, inspiring, and politically stable? I have started to question this. While undoubtedly there are more psychologically galling things in life -- Nietzsche famously called attention to being the object of pity --, it is surely very annoying to be told that one deserved to lose. It is worse, I think, if one is told repeatedly and frequently by a whole society's morality and shared commitments (I hesitate to call it 'ideology') that the systematic pattern of outcomes in which one always end up on the losing side is morally just and due to your cognitive, physical, psychological, aesthetic (etc.) flaws, especially, perhaps, if it all seems true.
Thus, I worry that a meritocracy does not generate widespread contentment, but rather widespread frustration and anger (if not self-loathing). If that's right (big if--it turns on one's moral and empirical psychology), then a meritocracy, even if fair, would not be worth having as such. Maybe the bad-making features of meritocracy can be contained or eliminated, but perhaps we should be cautious when we rely on appeals to merit when we are thinking of structures of ideal society or ideal principles to live by.
*This post was prompted by reflection on a recent discussion I had with Holly Lawford-Smith over her very interesting paper on the ethical demands of privilege. I should also thank Martin Van Hees for helping me think about the issues. (Neither should be blamed for my mistakes!)
**Perhaps they are also fine for areas of life where the difference between life and death turns on detectable differences in skill.