Meritocracy is a deceptively simple idea which has infected the political discourse of the last thirty years, and even the Tories – no longer a proper party of reaction, but instead deluded self-described liberals who are just as guilty of utopianism as the socialists of yore – have succumbed to its duplicity.
Thatcher’s argument was that a more unequal society was fairer, because those at the top would have risen to the top through merit; useless, talentless scroungers would have sunk to the bottom, and everyone would be in their rightful place. Meritocracy, when properly thought through, is really a savage form of social Darwinism, with echoes of far nastier right-wing movements.
The trouble with this, is that if you assume – as all good Burkeans should – that there will always be an elite of some kind, as evidenced by almost every civilisation that ever existed, including some of the most prosperous ones; then really what you are looking for is an elite which is grounded, which knows where it came from, its duties to society, and what it owes to those who work in its factories and fields. This is surely a recipe for social cohesion and happiness, far more than an arrogant, impetuous, international elite whose wealth has surpassed reason or purpose, and who carries itself with an intolerable haughtiness because it believes it “deserves it”. They have risen through their own “merit”, they have done the proles the great service of employing them on minimum wage, and that’s where their obligations end.
The second problem is this weird idea of “merit”. What is merit? Who gets to define it? Because so-called free market capitalism isn’t doing a great job so far. As Owen Jones once said: care workers are paid the minimum wage whilst advertising executives are paid outrageous sums: which do you suppose is doing society a greater service? Which has the greater merit?
But suppose merit is viewed as ability rather than moral fibre and kindness: here were run into another issue. Intelligence is a strange quantity: it can come in many forms, many of which come from the environment in which your early childhood development took place. Why is a child whose parents read to them, more deserving than a child who never got to read a book until they were 14? Where is the fairness in that? And even if these values are innate, they are still awarded by lottery, which makes it no more fair than aristocracy.
The one argument left standing for meritocracy is that it catapults people of skill into positions where they are needed, doing society a service by fulfilling those roles more competently. This I grudgingly accept. But here we find ourselves stuck on this issue of “the two equalities”: Equality of opportunity and of outcome.
This is a very weird notion: one of those things that it appears no-one in politics has properly sat down to think about, before ranting their piece. The idea that you will ever achieve “equality of opportunity” is preposterous. There will always be hidden advantages, an uneven playing field. If thatcherites truly believed this they would abolish the great public schools, like Eton and Harrow; we all know this won’t happen. And the idea that creating more academies is going to create equality of opportunity is again ridiculous; by creating variation in what children are taught at school, you obviously diminish equality of opportunity, because it relies at its most basic level on equipping people with the same tools.
Equally ridiculous is the idea that these two equalities can be cleanly separated. Thatcherites will often say: “I believe in equality of opportunity, but not of outcome – that’s a socialist idea”. They are living in a fantasy land. Children from richer households obviously do better at school. Children who come from households where their parents struggle to make ends meet are obviously likely to underperform. I’m not saying this is without exceptions, but it’s imperative to acknowledge that this is an overwhelmingly accurate rule. And it’s getting worse.
Lastly, is the simply ludicrous idea of “getting to the top through merit” in the first place. There are absolutely no people in the world who have gotten rich purely off their own merit and hard work. This is a lie, but a lie which has become the consensus. There are innumerable aspects of running a business that rely on exploiting public capital: roads to transport your goods; schools to educate your workers; hospitals for when they fall sick; limited liability: the very basis of capitalism; and lastly, but certainly not least: the workers themselves. Certain conservatives seem to misunderstand how capitalism works (surprising from the party of business), but the surplus (or that all important “wealth creation”) is almost entirely due to the efforts of workers and the natural resources which have been extracted: it rests very little on shareholders. This is why, even with a large welfare state, workers will NEVER be properly compensated for the role they play, unless they take part in some kind of co-operative.
So to sum up, after that lengthy and exhaustive treatise, meritocracy is no excuse for an unequal society; indeed, meritocracy is impossible without at least some level of equality of outcome. It is marginally better than aristocracy, but should certainly not be the holy grail of politics.