How Meritocracy Minimises Injustice

Image by Pixabay (2016)

Meritocracy tells us that those at the top are there because they’re objectively the most competent and hard-working. It convinces us that those at the bottom deserve to be there because they had the same opportunities and resources but were too lazy and incapable of making the most of them. However, society is built on discriminatory policies and practices which cause social inequality. Therefore, meritocratic thinking minimises injustice and maintains and perpetuates social inequality.

Problems of Meritocracy

1. Meritocracy sees people as equal economic competitors with the same resources and opportunities

Image by Nicholas Swatz (2019)

According to Kenneth Allan, the idea of people being equal economic competitors came from nation-states and liberal capitalism promoting “equality based on market competition.” Socioeconomic differences between people then became a result of economics and market forces. Modern society came to be defined by “democratic freedoms and responsibilities.” Governments also formalised social relationships to ensure all citizens could fully participate in the economy. At the time, capitalists in the U.S. were against the government regulating the market because they said it would prevent the ‘best’ from “rising to the top.”

These developments might sound progressive, except that colonialism, slavery, racism, sexism, and classism were prevalent. As a result, from the end of the 18th century to the 20th century, the U.S. (among other countries) only recognised ‘white’ people, more specifically, ‘white’ men, as citizens. This meant that only ‘white’ men had democratic freedoms and responsibilities and could fully participate in the economy and ‘rise to the top.’ Instead of creating an equal playing field for all citizens, Allan says free markets resulted in monopolies run by “an elite group of [‘white’] businessmen.”

Even after states abolished slavery and segregation, colonies became independent, and women and ‘non-white’ people became citizens; racism, colonialism, sexism, and classism continued, maintaining and perpetuating socioeconomic differences. However, after meritocracy, these differences became attributed to laziness, incompetence, and a lack of resourcefulness. Furthermore, meritocracy resulted in what William Julius Wilson calls laissez-faire racism. Laissez-faire racism is the idea that “blacks [and other ‘non-white’ people] are responsible for their own economic predicament and [are] therefore undeserving of special government support,” which not only minimises racism but also maintains and perpetuates social inequality and stigma.

2. Meritocracy is thought to reduce corruption based on family background, wealth, and personal relationships

Image by Savvas Stavrinos (2018)

We often think of meritocracy as a fair and transparent mechanism that objectively rewards people based on personal effort and performance. Yet, the 2019 college admissions scandal made it glaringly obvious that this isn’t always the case. However, despite the scandals, credible institutions and organisations are hell-bent on selling the illusion of meritocracy to hopeful masses. For example, Harvard College’s admissions page says the following about its admissions criteria: “There is no formula for gaining admission to Harvard. Academic accomplishment in high school is important, but the Admissions Committee also considers many other criteria, such as community involvement, leadership and distinction in extracurricular activities, and personal qualities and character. We rely on teachers, counselors, and alumni to share information with us about an applicant’s strength of character, his or her ability to overcome adversity, and other personal qualities.”

I’m not sure how Harvard dares to say that there’s no formula for gaining admission. Firstly, relatives of Harvard alumni have a 33% higher chance of admission through its legacy program. Secondly, the college’s former fencing coach accepted US$1.5 million in bribes that got the sons of a wealthy businessman admitted to Harvard. Thirdly, those who make generous ‘donations’ to Harvard considerably and legitimately improve the chances of their children and relatives getting accepted to Harvard. Even when applying through the ‘front door,’ applicants from wealthy families have access to top tutors who significantly improve their chances of admission to Harvard. So contrary to what Harvard says, there are several formulas to get accepted, which rely on family, wealth, and personal relationships.

Image by Karolina Grabowska (2020)

In addition, Harvard’s reliance on the recommendations of teachers, counsellors, and alumni shows that personal relationships still play a significant role, even within a meritocracy. Harvard’s prioritisation of extramural activities advantages middle-class and wealthy students. Moreover, not every student has the resources and opportunities to participate in extramural activities.

In 2017, Harvard’s self-reported average GPA of accepted applicants was 3.94. The majority of students had a perfect 4.0 GPA. Such a GPA is difficult, if not almost impossible, to achieve while battling socioeconomic challenges. Furthermore, highlighting the challenges you face to meritocratic institutions and organisations is sometimes seen as vying for sympathy, an excuse for not being good enough, or expecting a ‘handout’ or an ‘unfair advantage.’

Also, let’s be real — not every student with a 4.0 GPA gets one because they outworked or outperformed the others. As mentioned in my article, several factors contribute to one’s grade that have nothing to do with effort or performance. Some students get high grades because teachers favour them, others get them because their parents paid someone to write their exams, and others get them from riding the coattails of more hardworking but overlooked students.

3. Meritocracy claims to be impartial

Image by Emily Rose (2019)

We tend to think that meritocratic organisations and institutions are impartial and transparent. Yet, research shows that family background, wealth, and personal relationships are also important in meritocratic organisations. Evidence of this is that those who’ve attended ivy league schools, the wealthy, and the well-connected have an advantage within business, politics, education and employment. Race, class, sex, sexual orientation and whiteness also play a crucial role in success. These factors make for an unequal society full of biased humans who can’t be impartial.

As is the case in school, not everyone who gets to the top in meritocratic organisations outworked or outperformed the others. These people could just be more favoured, more connected, more willing to cooperate or more willing to look the other way. Therefore, organisations claiming to be impartial and transparent when they aren’t, creates the perfect environment for corruption, nepotism, discrimination and incompetence to thrive unchallenged. These claims also deny competent people from occupying the positions they deserve, hinder efficiency, and minimise injustice while maintaining and perpetuating social inequality.

Conclusion

Although meritocracy has helped many climb the social ladder, it’s far from the fair, transparent and enabling mechanism that it’s said to be. From the beginning, meritocracy has ensured the uncontrolled advancement of ‘white’ men (mostly elite ‘white’ men) while justifying the low social status of everyone else, particularly ‘non-white’ people. Meritocracy also sees people in an unequal society as equal economic competitors with the same access to resources and opportunities, which minimises injustice and maintains and perpetuates social inequality and causes laissez-faire racism.

Furthermore, meritocracy is thought to reduce corruption and reliance on family background, wealth, and personal relationships. However, research and the 2019 college admissions scandal show that these factors matter, even within meritocratic organisations. In addition, although meritocratic systems claim to be impartial, wealth, connections, family background, race, class, sex, sexual orientation, and whiteness play a crucial role in success. Finally, meritocracy has contributed to a lack of both empathy and a remedy for those facing socioeconomic challenges. Ultimately, these aspects of meritocracy minimise injustice while maintaining and perpetuating social inequality.

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