12 October 2016
Meritocracy is ultimately a flawed project
An American friend of mine once declared despondently that the United States was still an experiment, and it was too soon to say whether it was working. If he was right, the current presidential election may turn out to be its critical moment. Is the rise of Donald Trump the ultimate triumph of the American Dream, which is thereby discredited? Is Hillary Clinton the perfect embodiment of secular liberal democracy, including all its faults, and do those faults outweigh its benefits?
Both sides represent different theories of meritocracy. Trump’s says that, starting from an equal basis, merit lies in business success measured by wealth. Merit, here, has manifestly nothing whatever to do with virtue. Clinton has also climbed the slippery pole, but by exercising the political arts at which she excels. She makes a claim to moral merit, to virtue; and the controversy is largely about whether that claim is legitimate.
Neither model invalidates meritocracy per se. Indeed, in any very unmeritocratic society, an increase in meritocracy is the right way to go. The philosophy of Theresa May’s new government regards meritocracy as good, and therefore makes a claim to supplant Labour as the party of social justice. Meritocracy implies equality of opportunity, which, in turn, implies social mobility, something the British have not been good at.
But in politics, as in life, one should be careful what one wishes for.
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