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 or other administration systems, meritocracy, in an administrative sense, is a system of government or other administration (such as business administration) wherein appointments and responsibilities are assigned to individuals based upon their "merits", namely intelligence, credentials, and education, determined through evaluations or examinations.
In a more general sense, meritocracy can refer to any form of government based on achievement. Like "utilitarian" and "pragmatic", the word "meritocratic" has also developed a broader definition, and may be 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 meritocracies 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.
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.
Although meritocracy as a term is a relatively recently coined word (1958), the concept of a government based on standardized examinations originates from the works of Confucius, along with other Legalist and Confucian philosophers. The first meritocracy was implemented in the second century BC/BCE, by the Han Dynasty, which introduced the world's first civil service exams evaluating the "merit" of officials. Meritocracy as a concept 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. 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 was passed, stipulating government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit through competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation.
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 by British politician and sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 satirical essay The Rise of the Meritocracy, which pictured the 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.
According to scholarly consensus, the earliest example of an administrative meritocracy, based on civil service examinations, dates back to Ancient China. 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 Kingdoms period.
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.
Both Plato and Aristotle advocated meritocracy, Plato in his The Republic, arguing that the most wise should rule, and hence the rulers should be philosopher kings.
After Muhammad's death in 632 CE, the Medinan Ansar debated which of them should succeed him in running the affairs of the Muslims while Muhammad's household was busy with his burial. Umar and Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah pledged their loyalty to Abu Bakr, with the Ansar and the Quraysh soon following suit. Abu Bakr thus became the first Khalīfatu Rasūli l-Lāh "successor of the Messenger of God", or caliph, and embarked on campaigns to propagate Islam. First he would have to subdue the Arabian tribes which had claimed that although they pledged allegiance to Muhammad and accepted Islam, they owed nothing to Abu Bakr. As a caliph, Abu Bakr was not a monarch and never claimed such a title; nor did any of his three successors. Rather, their election and leadership were based upon merit.
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. Voltaire and 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 Government and 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 mandarin system."
The British philosopher and polymath 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 (2003:57-8):
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.
So, if 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 various grounds.
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 States Federal 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 "mateship" and political 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.
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 hierarchy.
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 nondiscrimination."
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 reservation."
Within the Ecuadoran Ministry of Labor, the Ecuadorian Meritocracy Institute was created under the technical advice of Singapore government.
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 meritocracy.
In 2007 an anonymous British group called The Meritocracy Party 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:
1. A world in which every child gets an equal chance to succeed in life.
2. The abolishment of party politics.
3. 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 or 21.
4. The introduction of 100% Inheritance Tax, so that the super-rich elite can no longer pass on their wealth to a select few (their privileged children) rather than the Commonwealth, would mean the end of the elite dynasties and hereditary monarchy.
5. A radically reformed educational system, based on the MBTI personality types, and insights from radical innovators such as Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori.
6. To replace free market capitalism with social capitalism and to replace democracy with a fully transparent meritocratic republic, under a meritocratic constitution.
7. The end of nepotism, cronyism, discrimination, privilege and unequal chances.
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.
Due to the nature of online interaction, where identity and anonymity are more readily managed than in direct interaction, the effects of offline social inequity often may be discounted in online communities. Intelligence, effort, education, and personality may be readily conveyed in an online interaction, but a person's gender, race, religion, and social standing can be obfuscated easily, or left entirely unaddressed.
The GNOME Foundation, Apache Software Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, and The Document Foundation are examples of (open source) organizations that officially claim to be meritocracies.
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 nor the potential of students. 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 Harvard or 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 meritocratic system.
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.
Khen Lampert has argued that the principle of meritocracy stems from neo-capitalist ideas of aggression and competition.
Chris Hayes has attributed what he calls the "Fail Decade"—which includes 9/11, the Enron scandal, the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the subprime crisis, and the Great Recession—to the deterioration of America's meritocratic system into one of plutocracy.