On Merit and Meritocracy

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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 

	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.

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