The injustices of merit


“The class war is over. But the struggle for true equality has only just begun” – Tony Blair

What would a fair society look like? ‘New Labour’ thought it had the answer: ‘meritocracy’. This is the vision of a society in which the highest rewards go to those who deserve them, unhindered by the barriers of inherited wealth, class and privilege. It will be achieved by ‘equality of opportunity’, an equal start for all, regardless of class, race or creed. In this way the energetic, ambitious and talented reach the top, whatever their origins. This view of a just society has a powerful appeal in an unequal society like that of the UK, where class, gender, and race still limit the life chances of many. Unfortunately, the goal of a meritocracy is in itself deeply problematic, and equality of opportunity, at least as understood by Blair and Co., is likely to make society even less fair than it is already. That’s why anyone who cares about genuine social justice should oppose both.

The big race

Equality of opportunity is an attractive idea. Some inequalities between people are unrelated to anything they might have done: gender, race, being born to poor parents and so on. These kinds of differences ought to be compensated for, as people shouldn’t suffer because of brute bad luck, a roll of the genetic dice. But for New Labour it is as if people’s circumstances were like the opening of a race. Just as we would expect a race to be arranged so that each runner has an equal start, so the state ought to take steps to ensure that people are given equal opportunities to get on in life. Thus the state should intervene to ensure that accidents of birth (race, gender, poverty) do not act as obstacles to success in the race of life. But that’s just at the start: life, like a race, will still produce winners ― and losers. The fastest win the prizes.
It’s here we hit our first problem. Equal opportunities alone cannot achieve the goal of a meritocratic society. Imagine two caterers, each earning £10,000, and two clever and industrious lawyers, earning £100,000 each. If both couples marry and have children the difference in their combined incomes will be huge. With their £200,000 the lawyers will be able to buy their child the best start in life, including expensive schooling. Their child, regardless of merit, has an enormous relative advantage, one that it will pass on to its children in turn. In a society dominated by market values ‘equal opportunities’ is doomed to reproduce inequality, irrespective of merit.

The mirage of merit

‘Merit’ can be understood in different ways: as courage, self-sacrifice, industriousness and so on. But the market is not going to reward just any kind of merit: it selects only those with the ‘right’ kinds of abilities: ‘market merits’. Bus drivers, nurses and office cleaners aren’t necessarily less valuable to society than solicitors and advertisers, but they will be much less well rewarded. So will those, mainly women, who spend their time and energy bringing up children or supporting the elderly. “Market merit” turns out to comprise a narrow range of human characteristics, some of them, like ambitiousness, not always morally admirable. Ambitious people are often ego driven and self-centred. Contrast that type with the nurse or the unpaid carer.
Yet surely we can reward people for their ability? One is talented at playing the violin; another has financial acumen and entrepreneurial flair. We want to factor out the irrelevant things (heredity, upbringing) letting talent bloom and be rewarded. But how? People don’t choose their abilities. Take Nigel Kennedy’s talent with the violin. He didn’t choose to have that any more than he chose the colour of his eyes. Of course, we might want to distinguish between what he was born with and what he chose to do with it. We might say: Kennedy worked hard to develop his talent, and it’s his energy and determination that deserve praise and reward. But the difficulty here is how to know where one thing ends and another starts. Perhaps Kennedy’s determination to practice the violin was also a product of his upbringing or genes. If so then he was no more responsible for it than he was for his talent or the colour of his eyes. All this goes to show how difficult it is to pick out what, exactly, we mean by merit and desert. That takes us to the heart of the question: the nature of just rewards.

Justice for all?

Justice is about the business of costs and benefits, rewards and burdens – what one ought to do, what it would be fair to expect. The following principle, which goes back to Aristotle, is a common starting point: individuals ought to be treated in the same way unless there is a relevant difference between them. So if two people are to be given a slice of cake, each of them ought to get a piece the same size. But suppose one of them is already well fed while the other is malnourished; then one of them needs it more, and so would benefit more from a larger helping. Justice sometimes involves treating people differently, on account of their different circumstances and needs. And this takes us back to merit. For the meritocrat is introducing another ‘relevant difference’ as justification for unequal shares: the principle of deservingness. But what we have also seen is that (1) New Labour’s preferred method for rewarding desert is likely to entrench undeserved privilege; (2) ‘merit’ in this context has a highly restricted meaning and (3) the concept of desert itself is a highly problematic one.
The defenders of the current system of reward seem to be on stronger ground when they cite efficiency rather than merit as their justification. They argue that the free market delivers greater overall prosperity through an unequal distribution of rewards. So perhaps this is the best of all possible systems. But even this can be questioned. First, it is not immediately obvious that if this were the most efficient system, it is the one we ought to have: ‘efficient’ doesn’t mean ‘right’. Second, it may not be true that this is the most effective approach to harnessing talent in the pursuit of prosperity, as inequality tends to bury talent and human worth. Lastly, it’s clear that the often staggering rewards that some receive aren’t genuinely tied to performance. To take one example: in 2001 Britain’s top executives received an average 28% pay increase (six times the national average) although profits fell by 11.5 %. The link between even ‘market merit’ and reward is a shaky one. In practice, the best way to ensure a good income is still to get oneself born into the family of a high earner. If New Labour really wants a fairer Britain it must go beyond the rhetoric of ‘meritocracy’ and start tackling structural inequalities. Or ‘class’, as we used to call it.

Originally written and published in 2003.

About Chris Horner

teaches, studies and writes about philosophy and many other things. He is the co-uthor (with Emrys Westacott) of the CUP book 'Thinking Through Philosophy'. He has studied at the University of Sheffield, UEA, Goldsmiths and Roehampton University and has a PhD, the subject of which was Hannah Arendt and Kant's theory of reflective judgment. He has a strong interest in politics, history, literature, the visual arts and music.
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