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Meritocracy, or the rule of the most qualified, is the primary mechanism by which hiring takes place in modern contexts. This is not to say that it operates perfectly, or even frequently. Obviously, discerning merit is a difficult process which begins with the need to advertise to the widest pool of meritorious candidates, through to perceiving merit in interviews and resumés, through to avoiding unfair discrimination, and more. What I mean by saying that meritocracy prevails in the modern West is that most employers, when hiring, are concerned primarily with obtaining the candidate most suitable to perform the assigned jobs; they will say that merit is the primary consideration, and most will act in general accordance with the principle of merit. Still, meritocracy is coming under assault from many fronts in modern contexts of employment. It is worthwhile, I think, to consider the alternatives to meritocracy in order to understand modern hiring considerations better. In a very facile sense, the opposite of meritocracy is kakistocracy, or the rule of the worst. However, I cannot think of a single instance where kakistocracy is or has been the hiring practice of choice (although I can think of several where it has been the result). Rather, meritocracy is opposed by several principles, none of which is immediately evident. By opposition to the merit principle I do not mean diametrical opposition, but rather an insistence on the superiority of non-merit principles. None of these principles, including the much- despised “merit” principle, should be seen as an entirely consistent body of principles, but rather as a messy combination of morality, politics and ignorance. Once we see the question of hiring criteria using a model of competing ideological stances, we may be better able to assess their relative usefulness. The first such principle is radical equalism, which states in its most extreme form that all people are equal in merit at everything. In more moderate forms equalists argue that we are unable to apprehend the differences in merit which do exist between people, and that therefore any distinctions we make on the basis of merit are likely to use the wrong criteria. Moderate equalism is entirely compatible with affirmative action. It is commonly asserted that the criteria which are often used are the ones which have been specifically designed by white males to benefit other white males; therefore, one of the primary functions of affirmative action is to determine the proper principles to be applied. If merit is no longer the primary hiring criterion, the result is a void in purpose criteria, leaving open a path for representativeness to replace merit as the primary criterion for hiring. This position is held by some theorists, particularly in the United States, where rigid quotas have been imposed which circumvent merit altogether on the assumption that all groups of candidates will have the same distribution of candidate quality. Thus, while not advocating true equality throughout all elements of society, the position taken is that groups will, on average, have the same percentage of qualified, underqualified and incompetent candidates, and that any deviation from this in actual hiring must, therefore, be the result of discriminatory practices. The second enemy of meritocracy is even more odd than equalism, particularly since many of its adherence pay at least lip service to the merit principle. This second and equally pervasive enemy is radical liberal individualism. According to the “harm principle” outlined by Mill and others, one is free to do whatever one wants so long as it harms no other person. In terms of hiring decisions, some libertarians hold that they should be free to hire whomever they want, regardless of race, sex, or merit. This includes refusing to hire women or blacks, in some instances, whether meritorious or not. Of course, the objection might be raised that to act with such discrimination in mind constitutes harm. However, liberal philosophy has a built-in retort. For, if any discrimination (in the sense of distinguishing between hirees) is unfair, it is impossible to justly hire anyone, for there will always be those who do not get the job. And, if one contends that certain forms of discrimination are unfair (racial, sexual, etc.) and others are not, one has evaded the question entirely by presuming that a meritocratic distinction is a fair one! The only other option is to slink back into equalism, where, since all candidates are equal, one may as well just pick a name out of a hat. Nepotism is an unusual instance of liberal individualism. Taking as a basic premise the right to hire whomever one wishes, nepotism endows the hiring process with community obligations and duties to “take care of your own”. Thus, although it is based on the premise of free choice, the right choice is the fulfillment of one’s family obligations by hiring one’s kin. “Old boys’ networks” and such institutions are simply variants of this basic principle involving non- kin. I do not think it contentious to assert that nepotism does not always result in the choice of the best candidate for the job. The principle of seniority is central to the hiring philosophy of most unions and labour organizations. Seniority ensures that a capitalist institution cannot simply discard its employees of many years’ service as it would dispose of broken machinery. It is particularly beneficial in protecting middle-aged workers who may not be financially secure enough to retire, but at the same time have increasing financial burdens of family (both older and younger generations) and are virtually unhirable due to advancing age. However, seniority also serves as an alternative principle to merit (although the two are not necessarily opposed). Anti-union sentiment among the public seems to derive at least in part from the protection of the sub- competent and incompetent from justly deserved dismissal. Since I suspect that older workers are generally more responsible than and more competent than younger ones in general, meritocracy and seniority often gel well. However, libertarian and laissez-faire thought is virulently opposed to seniority, as it implies to a certain extent that a company is not entirely free to pursue profit, but must also be aware of its positive social duties towards its employees. So we see that the poor merit principle is under assault from at least three competitors in modern thought on hiring: a) the principle of representativeness; b) the principle of individual liberty; c) the principle of seniority. By no means are these the only possible or logical principles which might exist; they are merely the primary objections to meritocracy which are raised in modern fora. As such, no one can justifiably advocate the absolute morality of one principle, but only state the relative costs and benefits of each. We are thus left with a situation which is as much political as it is philosophical. Copyright 1997 Steve Chrisomalis. This work may be downloaded for personal reference but may not be redistributed or altered without permission.