Meritocracy is a political ideology that holds that people’s outcomes, in terms of economic resources and social position, should be tied to their merit. While there is little consensus on what exactly it connotes, merit is thought to be what people deserve, generally as a result of their own hard work and ability. As an ideal, meritocracy can be thought of as the vision that people should have all that they deserve, and only what they deserve by virtue of their merit.
Even though meritocracy as an ideal frames policy and discourse in most of the world to some degree, it is perhaps most at home in Singapore, a nation where meritocracy is a “hallmark of…national identity, pervading national curricula and political rhetoric.” (Teo, 2019) As another paper suggests: “In Singapore’s national discourse, meritocracy is regularly and straightforwardly advanced as the only viable principle for organizing and allocating the nation’s scarce resources to optimize economic performance and political leadership within conditions of vulnerability and resource scarcity.” (Tan, 2008, p. 11)
Here, I am interested in meritocracy as it pertains to a system of distribution in society. By a system of distribution, I mean the combination of the market and state mechanisms such as taxes, subsidies and pay-outs along with existing laws and regulations that are responsible for determining how much, in socio-economic terms, each individual has, given what they do.
One function of meritocracy is to justify an existing system of distribution. A system of distribution is justified if there are moral reasons to prefer the distribution resulting from this system over possible distributions from different systems of distribution at any given time. Here, I will be particularly concerned with justifications for systems of unequal distribution, that is, systems where some have higher economic resources and social positions than others.
Even many who object to the implementation of would-be meritocratic countries today often believe that genuine meritocracy justifies a system of distribution. That is, the fact that a system of distribution is genuinely meritocratic gives us a moral reason to prefer the resulting distribution over others. This seems reasonable: if a distribution gives everyone what they merit or deserve, that is one reason to prefer it over other distributions. Put another way, if some should have more than others, then they should deserve it.
This matters because thinking a system of distribution to be justified has consequences. In an unjustified system of unequal distribution, it is always reasonable to ask: why do some people have more than others? Why is this system and distribution in place and not some other? In a justified system, questions doubting the legitimacy of the system seems less reasonable.
For example, if a system is justified because it is meritocratic, then the questions seem already answered. Some people have things because they merit them, and others don’t because they don’t. This is system and distribution are in place because they are meritocratic. Thus, when we seek to address issues resulting from how much individuals have in justified systems, we are likely to resist systemic change and focus on individual, case-based changes.
I think this effect of meritocracy is in play to some degree in several key policy issues in Singapore. First, Singapore is resistant to tackling equality in general. This was made evident in an Oxfam study where, as this report writes, “Singapore ranked 149 in an Oxfam index of 157 countries based on efforts to tackle the gap between the rich and poor” (CNA). Secondly, Singapore is resistant to taxing the rich. It boasts a “very low tax rate” capped at 22% for the highest earners and provides enviable tax incentives for the maritime and financial sector (CNA).
Lastly, Singapore is resistant to policies of comprehensive welfare to its poor and vulnerable population. As this paper notes, “to the extent that there is welfare in Singapore, it is low (as it is intended to meet basic needs only), strictly and carefully means-tested, and residual in nature.” (LKYSPP, p.1) In its strict-means testing welfare is incomprehensive in the breadth of coverage, and in being residual and small, it is incomprehensive in depth, that is, in how much it gives to those that it does.
Evidently, considering Singapore’s distribution to be genuinely meritocratic—an idea the state strongly advocates—can serve to justify such policies and resistance to systemic change. For example, if the state provides welfare to a whole class of people without demanding they work for it, then it would be unfair to those who earn their resources through their ability and hard work. Rather than undermine this meritocratic system through blanket aid, it would be better to provide aid as the exception, on cases where the individual can really be determined to need these resources. In all other cases, it is fair to leave individuals to fend for themselves, so they can work for their income in a society that will fairly reward their work.
Similarly, one might say the rich in a genuinely meritocratic Singapore would have earned their place through hard work and talent, so they should not be taxed more. So it goes for inequality in general: in a genuinely meritocratic system, people have what they deserve—and if they want more, they can always work for it in a fair system. Then, there is no need to address inequality, in fact, being too heavy-handed in addressing inequality might undermine the just meritocratic system in the first place by reducing the incentives for hard-work and personal responsibility.
I think that these are poor justifications to avoid seriously considering viable policies such as comprehensive welfare and increased taxation. I believe it is dangerous for us to think a system of distribution to be justified and thus become resistant to even radically different possibilities. Systems of distribution should never be justified. Instead, distribution systems should stand or fall only on the consideration of how individuals fare under those systems.
To defend these views, I will argue that even genuine meritocracy cannot justify systems of distribution. I hope it will follow that if even meritocracy cannot justify these systems, then perhaps we should move on from seeking to justify them at all.
To see this, let us imagine what a genuine meritocracy might look like. The first possibility is:
- Practical Meritocracy: A genuine practical meritocracy is a system of distribution that does not define or directly reward merit. Instead, it has fair equality of opportunity which ensures that the most meritorious rise socio-economically while the least meritorious fall.
A practical meritocracy is still idealistic in that no state in reality seems to have achieved the fair equality of opportunity free from any discrimination or prior advantages that is presupposes. Yet it is practical in that it does not define merit but allows market forces and other factors within the system of distribution to allow merit to rise by fair equality of opportunity.
I argue that a practical meritocracy like this could not justify an unequal distribution since many different distributions would all be meritocratic in this sense. To see this, Imagine Maya and Claire. Claire is artistically minded and Maya loves numbers. Suppose they live in a practical meritocracy with in a finance dominated capitalist market just like Singapore’s. Here, Claire is rich and Maya is poor.
To justify their respective socio-economic positions, practical meritocracy would say that Claire is rich and Maya poor because they merit exactly these positions in society. Yet, this appeal to merit is not satisfactory. For, we can hypothetically imagine a different economy and market that values art more than ours, where Maya is rich and Claire is poor. This economy could be just as practically meritocratic. Even given equality of opportunity, Maya’s talents just do better in the artistic society.
If practical meritocracy is to justify the financial system of distribution we first imagined, then it should give us moral reason to prefer that distribution over the one in the hypothetical artistic system. But practical meritocracy cannot do this, that is, it cannot justify why Claire should be rich and Maya poor because in another equally practical meritocracy, Maya is rich and Claire poor. So, appeal to the fact that the system is meritocratic gives no justification for why Maya should be poor and Claire rich.
After all, the reason for their relative position seems not to be meritocracy but the particular system in place. And, our preference for meritocracy gives us no reason to prefer the financial system over the artistic one. Therefore, I argue that that practical meritocracy cannot justify a system of distribution. Even though practical meritocracy gives us a preferable mode of distribution—fair equality of opportunity—within a system of distribution, it does not justify the system itself that we are functioning under.
Perhaps then, we should imagine a different kind of genuine meritocracy, one that attempts to use meritocracy to justify the system of distribution itself. This I will call,
Idealistic Meritocracy: It is a system of distribution that directly rewards merit; the system is meritocratic because it identifies exactly what merit is and rewards it.
For a society to directly reward merit would be for distribution in society to pick out merit as the sole criterion. Since one’s socio-economic position is strictly tied to their merit in these systems, any two idealistic meritocracies would place individuals in the same relative positions to each other at a given time.
Since we lack consensus on what merit is, we will just take for granted that there is some such thing, and that idealistic meritocracies have found out how to measure it. Given this, idealistic meritocracies would seem to survive the objection to practical meritocracies; in all idealistic meritocracies, Claire and Maya would have the same relative positions to each other. So by appeal to idealistic meritocracy we could always justify the same relative distribution between Claire and Maya. Would idealistic meritocracies then justify systems as a whole?
I argue that it would not. For, idealistic meritocracies would claim hegemony over the definition of merit and this would make the system oppressive to individuals. This becomes clear when we consider that in unequal societies some people must always be in the worst-off class. We might allow that any particular person in this class might work to improve their position in society (since working more might increase merit), but all others could work too. Some people will inevitably be worst-off and some individuals may consistently be stuck as worst-off.
To remove the possibility of systems that reward merit differently, idealistic meritocracies must hold that theirs is the only merit worth rewarding. So, in all meritocratic worlds, the worst-off at any given time would always have the lowest merit. Now, if we consider merit to be a deeply moral notion of self-worth, then this is clearly oppressive. In fixing people’s merit in this way through the system of distribution, the state would deny them the right to self-determination is a matter of deep moral and personal significance.
We generally believe that individuals should have freedom to self-determine in deeply personal moral matters such as religious belief and personal friendships. And if state is overreaching in telling people who to be friends with or who to pray to, then, I argue, it will be overreaching in telling people what they are morally worth. In this way, idealistic meritocracies would be oppressive if they claim merit is a moral notion of an individual’s worth.
So what if idealistic meritocracy held that merit was not a moral notion denoting individual worth? This strategy too, I argue, would not help. Let us consider it. If merit must not be morally relevant to the individual, then it should either be specific to the society, or relevant to the individual but not morally so.
Say merit is specific to society, that is, merit is defined as whatever society finds valuable at a time. If idealistic meritocracies are operating under this notion of merit, then there will always be different meritocratic distributions operating under different notions of merit in different societies. If this is true, the situation is just like with practical meritocracy: a different distribution could also be meritocratic since its own society-specific definition of merit differs from current society. What society finds valuable is open to negotiation, so why should we prefer this set of societal values over others? This kind of idealistic meritocracy then fails to justify a system of distribution.
But say merit is relevant to the individual, that is, tied to some trait an individual has such as IQ but not relevant morally. Such a definition would allow merit to be constant across all societies. Yet this notion of merit would provide no justification for a system of distribution. For, if we truly consider the trait on which an individual’s socio-economic position is determined to be truly morally arbitrary, then we would have no moral reason to prefer this distribution over other distributions where individual’s outcomes depend on something else morally arbitrary.
Thus, idealistic meritocracies, under any definition of merit, cannot justify a system of distribution. As we have seen, neither can practical meritocracies. Yet, if a meritocracy is genuine, then it must be one or the other. To be a genuine meritocracy, distribution must reward merit consistently. And this can only either be accomplished by identifying and rewarding merit directly as idealistic meritocracies do, or by not identifying meritocracy but causing it to be rewarded systemically as genuine meritocracies do. Thus, since a genuine meritocracy must either be idealistic or practical, and since neither can justify systems of distributions, no genuine meritocracy can justify a system of distribution.
In showing that meritocracy, even a genuine one, cannot justify a system of distribution, I hope to motivate the view that systems of distribution may never be justified. Someone’s socioeconomic position always is a social fact that is morally irrelevant to individual worth. So, systems according distribution should not be defended on moral terms but only on the terms of how individuals fare in that system.
And finally, if I am right, then policy arguments for comprehensive welfare and increased taxation on the rich are perhaps bolstered. Even granting the fact that Singapore is genuinely meritocratic should give us no reason to think that the system is above revision. So, if systemic changes such as comprehensive welfare for the entire class of the worst-off does empirically improve the conditions of individuals, then they should be favored. After all, our systems are built to serve our people, and we would be making a mistake to think that it was the other way round.
- Terri-Anne Teo (2019) Perceptions of Meritocracy in Singapore: Inconsistencies, Contestations and Biases, Asian Studies Review, 43:2, 184-205, DOI: 1080/10357823.2019.1587592
- Tan, K. (2008). Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore. International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale De Science Politique,29(1), 7-27. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20445123
- CNA = Singapore in bottom 10 of Oxfam index on efforts to tackle inequality (news report) in Channel News Asia. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-inequality-oxfam-index-10806026
- LKYSPP = Rethinking the Delivery of Welfare Programmes in Singapore (article) in Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy