In 1958, British sociologist Michael Young coined the term "meritocracy" in his satirical novel, called "The Rise of the Meritocracy." Its point was simple: When intelligence and effort are selected by any society as the basis for success or failure, those with such merit begin to comprise their own class. That class hardens into an elite that brooks no dissent and stratifies society. As Young would say in 2001, "It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others."
This general point has become the basis for illiberal thinkers, both on the left and on the right. Philosopher Michael Sandel, in his latest book, "The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?" argues that the very notion of a meritocracy carries with it an inescapable and unsustainably selfish moral judgment. According to Sandel, "The ideal itself is flawed. Meritocracy has a dark side. And the dark side is that meritocracy is corrosive of the common good. It encourages the successful to believe that their success is their own doing and that they therefore deserve the bounty that the market heaps upon them … it generates hubris among the winners. They believe that their success is their own doing and they also believe, implicitly at least, that those who struggle must deserve their fate as well."
This argument can be marshaled on behalf of both right-wing and left-wing critiques of the current capitalist order. On the right, the argument is that capitalism – rewarding, as it generally does, intelligence and hard work – undermines important social institutions. David Brooks argues in The New York Times that meritocracy destroys "civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self." On the left, the argument is that meritocracy justifies existing imbalances of economic and social power.
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The debate over meritocracy, however, depends on a crucial failure to distinguish between economic merit and moral merit. The term meritocracy itself does a great disservice in smudging this distinction – that is, in fact, why Young coined the term that way. Instead of linking "merit," with all of its moral implications, with intelligence and hard work, we ought to instead use the term "skillsocracy." Any economic system that rewards skills produces positive externalities. A person who works hard, who innovates – who creates better products and services and trades those products and services with someone else – enriches not only those involved in the voluntary trade, but also the society at large by raising the bar on the products and services that will eventually become available to everyone. Every innovation is quickly followed by competition, by the spread of that innovation to a broader and broader market – which is why peasants today in Western societies live better than kings did centuries ago.
By contrast, any economic system that prizes an alternative set of values has negative externalities. Should we adjudicate economic distribution by race? Creed? Religion? Simple ethical preference? Disincentivize risk-taking, guarantee incomes by "moral occupation," and watch as misallocation of labor destroys economic progress entirely; watch as society breaks down as those who produce less for their fellow man are rewarded more.
This does not mean that those who are most dexterous should "run society." To create such a system would, in fact, undermine the skillsocracy itself, since it would allow the centralized will of some to undermine the innovative efforts of all. Economic mobility must remain predicated on skill, or the skillsocracy is undermined.
This also does not mean that the skillsocracy actually acts as a measure of moral good. Intelligence is largely inborn, and thus not a moral attribute per se; propensity for hard work may be partially genetic but can be cultivated. But in a moral society, we find noneconomic ways of treasuring virtue. We cultivate friendships; we provide honor and respect; we build communities on virtue and exclude those people who do not abide by such moral standards.
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This means that a skillsocracy ought not be at odds with a virtuous society. Far from it. The so-called "meritocracy" need not devolve into a moral measure of intelligence and hard work; indeed, in a healthy society, it must not. But by the same token, we must never destroy the skillsocracy as a supposedly expedient way to revive moral living. That effort would be both unsuccessful and wildly counterproductive.