Meritocracy (merit, from
Latin mereō, and -cracy, from Ancient Greek
κράτος kratos "strength, power") 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.
1.1 Early definitions
1.2 More recent definitions
3.1 Ancient times: China
3.2 17th century: spread to Europe
3.3 19th century
3.4 20th century to today
4 Modern meritocratic movements
6 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
The "most common definition of meritocracy conceptualizes merit in
terms of tested competency and ability, and most likely, as measured
by IQ or standardized achievement tests." In government and other
administrative systems, "meritocracy" refers to a system under which
advancement within the system turns on "merits", like intelligence,
credentials, and education. These are often determined through
evaluations or examinations.
In a more general sense, meritocracy can refer to any form of
evaluation based on achievement. Like "utilitarian" and "pragmatic",
the word "meritocratic" has also developed a broader connotation, and
is sometimes used to refer to any government run by "a ruling or
influential class of educated or able people."
This is in contrast to the original, condemnatory use of the term in
1958 by Michael Young in his work "The Rise of the Meritocracy", who
was satirizing the ostensibly merit-based
Tripartite System of
education practiced in the
United Kingdom at the time; he claimed
that, in the Tripartite System, "merit is equated with
intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early
age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an
obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications."
Meritocracy in its wider sense, may be any general act of judgment
upon the basis of various demonstrated merits; such acts frequently
are described in sociology and psychology. Supporters of meritocracy
do not necessarily agree on the nature of "merit"; however, they do
tend to agree that "merit" itself should be a primary consideration
during evaluation. Thus, the merits may extend beyond intelligence and
education to any mental or physical talent or to work ethic. As such
meritocracy may be based on character or innate abilities. Meritocrats
therefore reject evaluation on the basis of race, wealth, family
circumstances, and similar criteria.
In rhetoric, the demonstration of one's merit regarding mastery of a
particular subject is an essential task most directly related to the
Aristotelian term Ethos. The equivalent Aristotelian conception of
meritocracy is based upon aristocratic or oligarchical structures,
rather than in the context of the modern state.
More recent definitions
In the United States, the assassination of President James A. Garfield
in 1881 prompted the replacement of the American
Spoils System with a
meritocracy. In 1883, The
Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act
Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was
passed, stipulating government jobs should be awarded on the basis of
merit through competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or
The most common form of meritocratic screening found today is the
college degree. Higher education is an imperfect meritocratic
screening system for various reasons, such as lack of uniform
standards worldwide, lack of scope (not all occupations and
processes are included), and lack of access (some talented people
never have an opportunity to participate because of the expense, most
especially in developing countries). Nonetheless, academic degrees
serve some amount of meritocratic screening purpose in the absence of
a more refined methodology.
Education alone, however, does not
constitute a complete system, as meritocracy must automatically confer
power and authority, which a degree does not accomplish independently.
Although the concept has existed for centuries, the term "meritocracy"
is relatively new. It was used pejoratively by British politician and
sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 satirical
essay The Rise of the Meritocracy, which pictured
United Kingdom under the rule of a government favouring
intelligence and aptitude (merit) above all else, being the
combination of the root of
Latin origin "merit" (from "mereō" meaning
"earn") and the
Ancient Greek suffix "-cracy" (meaning "power",
"rule"). In this book the term had distinctly negative
connotations as Young questioned both the legitimacy of the selection
process used to become a member of this elite and the outcomes of
being ruled by such a narrowly defined group. The essay, written in
the first person by a fictional historical narrator in 2034,
interweaves history from the politics of pre- and post-war Britain
with those of fictional future events in the short (1960 onward) and
long term (2020 onward).
The essay was based upon the tendency of the then-current governments,
in their striving toward intelligence, to ignore shortcomings and upon
the failure of education systems to utilize correctly the gifted and
talented members within their societies.
Young's fictional narrator explains that, on the one hand, the
greatest contributor to society is not the "stolid mass" or majority,
but the "creative minority" or members of the "restless elite". On
the other hand, he claims that there are casualties of progress whose
influence is underestimated and that, from such stolid adherence to
natural science and intelligence, arises arrogance and
complacency. This problem is encapsulated in the phrase "Every
selection of one is a rejection of many".
It was also used by
Hannah Arendt in her essay "Crisis in
Education", which was written in 1958 and refers to the use of
meritocracy in the English educational system. She too uses the term
pejoratively. It was not until 1972 that
Daniel Bell used the term
Ancient times: China
Further information: Chinese Legalism
According to scholarly consensus, the earliest example of an
administrative meritocracy, based on civil service examinations, dates
back to Ancient China.[a] The concept originates, at
least by the sixth century BC, when it was advocated by the Chinese
philosopher Confucius, who "invented the notion that those who govern
should do so because of merit, not of inherited status. This sets in
motion the creation of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies
open only to those who passed tests."
As the Qin and Han dynasties developed a meritocratic system in order
to maintain power over a large, sprawling empire, it became necessary
for the government to maintain a complex network of officials.
Prospective officials could come from a rural background and
government positions were not restricted to the nobility. Rank was
determined by merit, through the civil service examinations, and
education became the key for social mobility. After the fall of
the Han Dynasty, the nine-rank system was established during the Three
According to the Princeton Encyclopedia on American History:
One of the oldest examples of a merit-based civil service system
existed in the imperial bureaucracy of China. Tracing back to 200
B.C., the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as the basis of its
political philosophy and structure, which included the revolutionary
idea of replacing nobility of blood with one of virtue and honesty,
and thereby calling for administrative appointments to be based solely
on merit. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to
become a government officer, a position that would bring wealth and
honor to the whole family. In part due to Chinese influence, the first
European civil service did not originate in Europe, but rather in
India by the British-run East India Company... company managers hired
and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to
prevent corruption and favoritism.
Aristotle advocated meritocracy,
Plato in his The
Republic, arguing that the most wise should rule, and hence the rulers
should be philosopher kings.
17th century: spread to Europe
The concept of meritocracy spread from
China to British India during
the seventeenth century, and then into continental Europe and the
United States. With the translation of Confucian texts during the
Enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in
the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional ancient
regime of Europe.
François Quesnay wrote favourably
of the idea, with
Voltaire claiming that the Chinese had "perfected
moral science" and Quesnay advocating an economic and political system
modeled after that of the Chinese.
The first European power to implement a successful meritocratic civil
service was the British Empire, in their administration of India:
"company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive
examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism."
British colonial administrators advocated the spread of the system to
the rest of the commonwealth, the most "persistent" of which was
Thomas Taylor Meadows, Britain's consul in Guangzhou, China. Meadows
successfully argued in his Desultory Notes on the
People of China, published in 1847, that "the long duration of the
Chinese empire is solely and altogether owing to the good government
which consists in the advancement of men of talent and merit only,"
and that the British must reform their civil service by making the
institution meritocratic. This practice later was adopted in the
late nineteenth century by the British mainland, inspired by "Chinese
The British philosopher and polymath
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill advocated
meritocracy in his book, Considerations on Representative Government.
His model was to give more votes to the more educated voter. His views
are explained in Estlund (2003:57–58):
Mill's proposal of plural voting has two motives. One is to prevent
one group or class of people from being able to control the political
process even without having to give reasons in order to gain
sufficient support. He calls this the problem of class legislation.
Since the most numerous class is also at a lower level of education
and social rank, this could be partly remedied by giving those at the
higher ranks plural votes. A second, and equally prominent motive for
plural voting is to avoid giving equal influence to each person
without regard to their merit, intelligence, etc. He thinks that it is
fundamentally important that political institutions embody, in their
spirit, the recognition that some opinions are worth more than others.
He does not say that this is a route to producing better political
decisions, but it is hard to understand his argument, based on this
second motive, in any other way.
Aristotle is right that the deliberation is best if
participants are numerous (and assuming for simplicity that the voters
are the deliberators) then this is a reason for giving all or many
citizens a vote, but this does not yet show that the wiser subset
should not have, say, two or three; in that way something would be
given both to the value of the diverse perspectives, and to the value
of the greater wisdom of the few. This combination of the Platonic and
Aristotelian points is part of what I think is so formidable about
Mill's proposal of plural voting. It is also an advantage of his view
that he proposes to privilege not the wise, but the educated. Even if
we agreed that the wise should rule, there is a serious problem about
how to identify them. This becomes especially important if a
successful political justification must be generally acceptable to the
ruled. In that case, privileging the wise would require not only their
being so wise as to be better rulers, but also, and more demandingly,
that their wisdom be something that can be agreed to by all reasonable
citizens. I turn to this conception of justification below.
Mill's position has great plausibility: good education promotes the
ability of citizens to rule more wisely. So, how can we deny that the
educated subset would rule more wisely than others. But then why
shouldn't they have more votes?
Estlund goes on to criticize Mill's education-based meritocracy on
In the United States, the federal bureaucracy used the Spoils System
from 1828 until the assassination of United States President James A.
Garfield by a disappointed office seeker in 1881 proved its dangers.
Two years later in 1883, the system of appointments to the United
Bureaucracy was revamped by the Pendleton Civil Service
Reform Act, partially based on the British meritocratic civil service
that had been established years earlier. The act stipulated that
government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit, through
competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political
affiliation. It also made it illegal to fire or demote government
employees for political reasons.
To enforce the merit system and the judicial system, the law also
created the United States Civil Service Commission. In the modern
American meritocracy, the president may hand out only a certain number
of jobs, which must be approved by the Senate.
Australia began establishing public universities in the 1850s with the
goal of promoting meritocracy by providing advanced training and
credentials. The educational system was set up to service urban males
of middle-class background, but of diverse social and religious
origins. It was increasingly extended to all graduates of the public
school system, those of rural and regional background, and then to
women and finally to ethnic minorities. Both the middle classes
and the working classes have promoted the ideal of meritocracy within
a strong commitment to "mate-ship" and political equality.
20th century to today
Singapore describes meritocracy as one of its official guiding
principles for domestic public policy formulation, placing emphasis on
academic credentials as objective measures of merit.
There is criticism that, under this system, Singaporean society is
being increasingly stratified and that an elite class is being created
from a narrow segment of the population.
Singapore has a growing
level of tutoring for children, and top tutors are often paid
better than school teachers. Defendants recall the ancient
Chinese proverb "
Wealth does not pass three generations" (Chinese:
富不过三代), suggesting that the nepotism or cronyism of elitists
eventually will be, and often are, replaced by those lower down the
Singaporean academics are continuously re-examining the application of
meritocracy as an ideological tool and how it's stretched to encompass
the ruling party's objectives. Professor Kenneth Paul Tan at the Lee
Kuan Yew School of Public
Policy asserts that "Meritocracy, in trying
to 'isolate' merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal
backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores
and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are
unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal
society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental
inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having
merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very
beginning, ignored according to the principle of
Meritocracy in the
Singapore context relates to the application of
pragmatism as an ideological device which combines strict adherence to
market principles without any aversion to social engineering and
little propensity for classical social welfarism, is further
illustrated by Kenneth Paul Tan in subsequent articles:
There is a strong ideological quality in Singapore's pragmatism, and a
strongly pragmatic quality in ideological negotiations within the
dynamics of hegemony. In this complex relationship, the combination of
ideological and pragmatic maneuvering over the decades has resulted in
the historical dominance of government by the PAP in partnership with
global capital whose interests have been advanced without much
Within the Ecuadorian Ministry of Labor, the Ecuadorian Meritocracy
Institute was created under the technical advice of the Singapore
Most contemporary political theorists, including John Rawls, reject
the ideal of meritocracy. However, in recent years, Thomas
Mulligan has defended meritocracy. He argues that a just
society is one in which there is equal opportunity and people are
judged on their merits.
Modern meritocratic movements
According to Osho, only persons with appropriate qualifications should
be allowed to vote. Moreover, all politicians should have appropriate
college or university degrees. Only the geniuses of the world should
govern. Osho suggested that, first the various nations should become
meritocracies, after which they could all be joined to form a global
In 2007 an anonymous British group called The
published its first manifesto, to which they have now added more than
two million words on the subject (discussing Hegel, Rousseau, Charles
Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, and various other philosophers,
scientists, reformers, and revolutionaries). In summary, The
Meritocracy Party wants to achieve the following:
A world in which every child gets an equal chance to succeed in life.
The abolishment of party politics.
Only those with a relevant education and work experience should be
allowed to vote, rather than just anyone who has reached the age of 18
The introduction of 100% inheritance tax, so that the super-rich can
no longer pass on their wealth to a select few (their privileged
children). This would mean the end of the elite dynasties and
A radically reformed educational system, based on the
types, and insights from radical innovators such as
Rudolf Steiner and
To replace free market capitalism with social capitalism and to
replace democracy with a fully transparent meritocratic republic,
under a meritocratic constitution.
The end of nepotism, cronyism, discrimination, privilege and unequal
On their website The
Meritocracy Party lists five meritocratic
principles and thirteen primary aims. The Meritocracy
International is the host of all meritocratic political parties in the
world and the place where these may be found by country of origin.
See also: Just-world hypothesis
The term "meritocracy" was originally intended as a negative
concept. One of the primary concerns with meritocracy is the
unclear definition of "merit". What is considered as meritorious
can differ with opinions as on which qualities are considered the most
worthy, raising the question of which "merit" is the highest—or, in
other words, which standard is the "best" standard. As the supposed
effectiveness of a meritocracy is based on the supposed competence of
its officials, this standard of merit cannot be arbitrary and has to
also reflect the competencies required for their roles.
The reliability of the authority and system that assesses each
individual's merit is another point of concern. As a meritocratic
system relies on a standard of merit to measure and compare people
against, the system by which this is done has to be reliable to ensure
that their assessed merit accurately reflects their potential
capabilities. Standardized testing, which reflects the meritocratic
sorting process, has come under criticism for being rigid and unable
to accurately assess many valuable qualities and potentials of
Education theorist Bill Ayers, commenting on the limitations
of standardized testing, writes that "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." Merit determined through the
opinionated evaluations of teachers, while being able to assess the
valuable qualities that cannot be assessed by standardized testing,
are unreliable as the opinions, insights, biases, and standards of the
teachers vary greatly. If the system of evaluation is corrupt,
non-transparent, opinionated or misguided, decisions regarding who has
the highest merit can be highly fallible.
The level of education required in order to become competitive in a
meritocracy may also be costly, effectively limiting candidacy for a
position of power to those with the means necessary to become
educated. An example of this was Chinese student self-declared
messiah, Hong Xiuquan, who despite ranking first in a preliminary,
nationwide imperial examination, was unable to afford further
education. As such, although he did try to study in private, Hong was
ultimately noncompetitive in later examinations and unable to become a
bureaucrat. This economic aspect of meritocracies has been said to
continue nowadays in countries without free educations, with the
Supreme Court of the United States, for example, consisting only of
justices who attended
Yale and generally only considering
clerkship candidates who attended a top-five university, while in the
1950s the two universities only accounted for around one fifth of the
justices. Even if free education were provided, the resources that
the parents of a student are able to provide outside of the
curriculum, such as tutoring, exam preparation, and financial support
for living costs during higher education will influence the education
the student attains and the student's social position in a
meritocratic society. This limits the fairness and justness of any
Another concern regards the principle of incompetence, or the "Peter
Principle". As people rise in a meritocratic society through the
social hierarchy through their demonstrated merit, they eventually
reach, and become stuck, at a level too difficult for them to perform
effectively; they are promoted to incompetence. This reduces the
effectiveness of a meritocratic system, the supposed main practical
benefit of which is the competence of those who run the society.
Meritocracy also has been criticized by egalitarians as a mere myth,
which serves only to justify the status quo, with its proponents only
giving lip service to equality.
In his book Meritocratic
Education and Social Worthlessness (Palgrave,
2012), the philosopher
Khen Lampert argued that educational
meritocracy is nothing but a post-modern version of social Darwinism.
Its proponents argue that the theory justifies social inequality as
being meritocratic. This social theory holds that Darwin's theory of
evolution by natural selection is a model, not only for the
development of biological traits in a population, but also as an
application for human social institutions—the existing social
institutions being implicitly declared as normative. Social Darwinism
shares its roots with early progressivism, and was most popular from
the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II. Darwin only
ventured to propound his theories in a biological sense, and it is
other thinkers and theorists who have applied Darwin's model to
unequal endowments of human ambitions.
Civil service entrance examination
Educational entrance examination
Equality of opportunity
Equality of opportunity vs. Equality of outcome
Meritocracy in China
^ This is the history of the meritocracy in the technical sense. The
vaguer definition of a meritocracy as a "rule by intelligence" has
been applied to many ancient Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Jewish
thinkers and statesmen. For example, the Sanhedrin, the legislature of
Ancient Israel and Kingdom of Judah, is sometimes called as an
"intellectual meritocracy", in the sense that its members were drawn
from religious scribes and not the aristocracy. Appointment was
self-perpetuating, however, and new members were chosen personally by
existing members. These are not meritocracies in the
administrative sense, in which merit is determined objectively as a
"tested competency or ability."
^ "Definition of merit". Dictionary.com.
^ a b c Young, Michael (1958). The rise of the meritocracy, 1870-2033:
An essay on education and inequality. London: Thames & Hudson.
^ Levinson, David; Cookson, Peter W.; Sadovnik, Alan R. (2002).
Education and Sociology: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis.
p. 436. most common definition of meritocracy conceptualizes
merit in terms tested competency and ability, and most likely as
measured by IQ or standardized achievement tests
^ "Definition of Meritocracy". Oxford Dictionary. Oxford University
Press. Retrieved 12 September 2011.
^ Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. Fontana Press. 1988.
^ Aristot. Pol. 2.1261b
^ Aristotle, (351 BC) Politics. Book Three Part IV. (Jowett, B.,
^ a b c "Civil Service Reform". Digital History. University of
Houston. Retrieved 2016-02-19.
^ What's College For?: The Struggle To Define American Higher
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^ Journal of College Teaching & Learning – May 2008 Volume 5,
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^ Furlong, Andy; Cartmel, Fred. Higher education and social justice.
Maidenhead: Open University Press. ISBN 978-0-335-22362-6.
^ Young, Michael (29 June 2001). "Down with meritocracy: The man who
coined the word four decades ago wishes Tony Blair would stop using
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^ Ford, Boris (1992). The Cambridge cultural history of Britain.
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^ Kamolnick, Paul (2005). The just meritocracy: IQ, class mobility,
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^ Young, Michael (1958). p. 13.
^ a b c Young, Michael (1958). p. 15.
^ "Crisis in Education" Archived 14 October 2013 at the Wayback
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^ Littler, Jo (20 March 2017). "Meritocracy: the great delusion that
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^ Kazin, Edwards, and Rothman (2010), 142. One of the oldest examples
of a merit-based civil service system existed in the imperial
bureaucracy of China.
^ Tan, Chung; Geng, Yinzheng (2005). India and China: twenty centuries
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China not only produced the world's first
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^ Konner, Melvin (2003). Unsettled: an anthropology of the Jews.
Viking Compass. p. 217.
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Harvard Divinity School: 51. To
staff these institutions, they created the oldest meritocracy in the
world, in which government appointments were based on civil service
examinations that drew on the values of the Confucian Classics
^ Sienkewicz, Thomas J. (2003). Encyclopedia of the Ancient World:.
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Confucius invented the notion that those who
govern should so because of merit and not inherited status, setting in
motion the creation of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies
open only to those who passed tests
^ a b Burbank and Cooper (2010), 51.
^ a b c Kazin, Edwards, and Rothman (2010), 142.
^ See Estlund (2003) for a summary and discussion.
^ a b Schwarz (1996), 229
^ Bodde,, Derke. "China: A Teaching Workbook". Columbia
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^ Rawls, John (1999). A Theory of Justice.
Harvard University Press.
^ Mulligan, Thomas (2018). Justice and the Meritocratic State.
^ Mulligan, Thomas. "Plural
Voting for the Twenty First Century". The
^ Mulligan, Thomas (2018). "What's Wrong with Libertarianism: A
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^ Levinson, David; Cookson, Peter W.; Sadovnik, lan R. (2002).
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Library resources about
Resources in your library
Resources in other libraries
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Power and the
Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University
Press. ISBN 0-691-12708-5.
Estlund, David. (2003). Why Not Epistocracy?.
Kazin, Michael, Edwards, Rebecca, and Rothman, Adam. (2010). The
Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History Volume 2.
Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12971-1.
Kett, Joseph F. Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal From the
American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0801451225
Schwarz, Bill. (1996). The expansion of England: race, ethnicity and
Psychology Pres. ISBN 0-415-06025-7.
Khen Lampert, Meritocratic
Education and Social Worthlessness,
Palgrave-Macmillan, UK, 24 December 2012,; ISBN 1137324880
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Meritocracy
Look up meritocracy in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Meritocracy Party: Equal Opportunity for Every Child, organizes
volunteers to bootstrap meritocracies in communities across the world.
Quinion, Michael (2001-07-21). "World Wide Words: Meritocracy". World
Wide Words. Retrieved 2016-02-17.
Bent, Nick. "Time for a more inclusive and progressive definition of
meritocracy". Progress Online. Archived from the original on 5 June
2008. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
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