Before merit-based systems became a dominant force in the way most modern societies are organized, individual advancement was determined largely by one’s connection to those in power.
In that era, Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria says, “people moved up in the world through a clubby, informal system that privileged wealth, social status and family connections.” In many Western countries, this insular approach was gradually replaced by a process that rewarded individual ability, regardless of background.
Meritocracy Under Fire
Though broadly understood to be an equitable and enlightened concept, Zakaria says in his June 29 column, meritocracy has lately come under attack from critics across the political spectrum.
“On the right, many of President Trump’s supporters see it as a code word for an out-of-touch establishment that looks down on ordinary, hard-working Americans. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a more meritocratic society was assailed on the left as a concept that breeds elitism and inequality.”
Zakaria points to efforts by the progressive mayor of New York to eliminate the use of a single test to determine admission to the city’s selective high schools to address what he calls “a diversity problem.”
The test, Zakaria notes, “is designed to find talented students, not to raise up specific minorities. Most importantly, these schools have an astonishing track record of moving smart kids out of poverty and into the middle class.” Regardless, Zakaria says the effort reflects “a discomfort on the left with the idea of any kind of hierarchy of talent.”
Resurgence of ‘Old-Boy Networks’
If meritocracy is ultimately abandoned over charges of elitism on the right and equity issues on the left, Zakaria asks, “What would you replace it with?
He worries that such a development could result in the return of old-boy networks from the not-so-distant past.
“Historically, that was a process that smuggled in prejudice and preferences, based on class, race, religion, politics and money,” Zakaria says. “It did not find or promote talent, nor create much social mobility.”
You can read Zakaria’s full commentary, Meritocracy is under attack, at The Washington Post.