A Meritocracy Is Only As Good As What It Rewards

A word that comes up frequently in support of industrialized states built on democracy: ‘meritocracy.’ The idea is moving up in society by one’s actual merit instead of by being the dictator’s favorite nephew.

Of course any society must be imperfect at best in this regard. It always helps(a lot) to be born into a family of millionaires. But the idea is that meritocracy is something enlightened societies do much better than despotic states.

As good as it all sounds, however, there’s a critical aspect most people don’t stop to think about.
In a perfect world where we really were advanced by our true merits, what merits are we talking about?
In other words: what does the society and/or organization value in its people?
Our perfect world ends up not being so perfect after all if the meritocracy is looking for and rewarding the destructive and the meaningless.

Truly a merit based system can only be as worthwhile as the merits it promotes and rewards.

Read the news or turn on the television, watch a movie. What kinds of personalities and what kinds of values does industrialized society idolize and reward? Take a look at the leaders of powerful organizations and government. What type of person gets praise and acclaim? Are these worthwhile people with worthwhile values?

This is where the idealistic concept of meritocracy falls flat. Faulty ideas of merit are just as destructive and tyrannical as an actual tyrant.


2 responses to “A Meritocracy Is Only As Good As What It Rewards

  1. You said: ”In other words: what does the society and/or organization value in its people?”
    That’s a VERY good point.

  2. It’s is not the idea of meritocracy that fails. It’s the people who fail. You answered yourself in your question: ‘Are these worthwhile people with worthwhile values?’ For most people, the shortest route/self-interest is the best – take any aspect of human lifer: this is our nature (well of most people). A child is divided on rigorously studying for his exam and opting the easier route of ‘cheating’. What does he do? Unless the child has any idea of what is ‘right’, he is going to cheat – saves time and effort — nobody in their ‘right’ mind want to work! As long as the same fruit is obtained, honesty/dishonesty is not really a matter of concern. The child doesn’t know what ‘meritocracy’ is – he wants to have his cake and eat it too. Same happens when we enter the ‘world of adults’.

    Meritocracy, or any honest system, can function only if the people who form the system and the people who govern the system, both stand firm. That is a difficult thing to achieve. India, the most corrupt nation, is the perfect example. It is not the system of governance (politics, education, community et al.) that is faulty here but the general populace. I am one of the many millions who form the masses – yet as far as I can remember, I have not indulged in any malpractice, though I have witnessed many and could have been a subject of many (had I been ignorant). Of course, this has posed many ‘disadvantages’ to me – making me the ‘idealist’ fool – lagging behind my more ‘practical’ peers, but is this really foolhardy ‘idealism’ or a certain ‘way of life’?

    Such foolhardy idealism would be when I cannot differentiate between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and see the world through rose-tinted lenses. But that is not the case here. I am very well aware of the benefits that accrue out of taking the shortest possible route. It is just not in my constitution to do that. So am I at fault? I don’t think so.

    When we have people with similar bent of mind, we can make the system of meritocracy work – or any system, for that matter.

    One can always argue what is the ‘good’ in that self-sacrificial action. Well, ‘good’ has different definitions for different folks. For me, ‘the good’ is that I can sleep at night without any weight on my conscience – that my action did not kill some man’s honest effort. For another, ‘the good’ can be that through his shortcut, he can now provide food to his family. Without being judgmental, I think I have answered – this may be viewed as a ‘failure’ on my part. One can argue that having a clear conscience is not as life-governing as putting food on the table, but we must remember that this action always makes another stomach suffer – it’s just that you are saved.

    One can also argue that if ‘bad always wins’, then why practice ‘good’? The flaw in this premise is: ‘bad wins’ because majority follow the bad — because it leads to instant results. And we know the power of the majority. But this doesn;t lead to the conclusion that principles or morals or merit-based systems are faulty. It is that human nature is inherently oriented toward self-interest/self-reward. Meritocracy will work only when we give merit value, irrespective of whether that is ours or others, but that is a hard thing to do when instant gratification is the norm of our world and we want to make ‘our people’ happy.

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