Photo courtesy of Florian Direny.

By Florian Direny || Staff Writer

A common objection presented by inequality apologists in the face of social and economic disparities pertains to the argument that the free-market operates under the guise of meritocracy. The argument advances that the economic inequities occasioned by competition in free-market contexts are primarily the result of individual differences in skill sets, work ethic, creativity and competence and are therefore fair, justified and even necessary. Under a meritocratic system – the argument goes – individuals are guaranteed success only to the extent that they are willing to sacrifice their time and efforts to contribute productively to the greater community. According to this view, those who manage to develop valuable skills through hard work and dedication get remunerated better — a dynamic which incentivizes individuals to work arduously. The argument further adds that this emphasis on merit boosts general productivity, maximizing overall profit by promoting competition.

The meritocratic justification for inequality is convenient since it seemingly addresses equity-based objections to inequality by asserting that everyone in the free-market gets an equal opportunity to climb the socioeconomic ladder through merit. It further insinuates that individuals have complete autonomy on their socioeconomic outcomes, a claim that inadvertently places the blame for economic inequality on those at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy — while downplaying the impact of generational, environmental, social and economic factors. At its extreme, the meritocratic mindset can lead to a stigmatization of the poor through the labeling of economically disadvantaged individuals as unproductive, lazy, or incompetent. Concurrently, it can foster a dangerous idealization of the economically successful, leading to an automatic characterization of financially affluent individuals as honest, hard-working, and competent. 

Although seemingly compelling from an ideological lens, the meritocratic argument for inequality is reductionist, simplistic and oblivious to nuance. It neglects to consider the many factors – other than merit – that can, in select cases, significantly impact individuals’ likelihood of attaining socioeconomic mobility. Contrary to the meritocratic view’s fundamental assumption, merit is far from being the only factor that influences likelihood of achieving financial success. There exists a variety of other generational, social and economic barriers that can prevent hard working and competent individuals at the lower end of the socioeconomic stratum from achieving upward mobility. This piece is meant to highlight these usually discounted factors in a critique of the western meritocratic ideal, especially in the context of it being commonly used as an ethical justification for socioeconomic inequality. 

 Merit and the Free-Market

The first issue with the meritocratic argument is that it uses an overly broad term to describe the dynamic of resource distribution inherent to its functioning: “merit”. According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, merit is “the quality of being particularly good, especially so as to deserve praise or reward”. If as the context of this definition suggests, goodness is being used as synonymous with showcasing professional excellence in a given domain, then for the meritocratic justification of inequality to work, only those who excel in particular market-related endeavors should be financially successful. Furthermore, for that dynamic to be equitable and fair, it should hold true for anyone who excels in a given market-related endeavor, with success being directly proportional to the work ethic and dedication that a given individual showcases. In other words, the highest earners in a perfect meritocracy should be the most dedicated, skilled and hard-working individuals of the given society and their success should be directly proportional to the intensity of their work ethic, the extent of their skills and the level of their dedication. By the same token, the least successful should be the least hard-working, the least skilled and the least dedicated.

It takes no genius to realize that these premises do not hold true in the free-market. Explicit to the economic system is the idea of inheritance, which allows parents to pass on their accumulated social, economic, cultural and intellectual capital to their children. Because of this, a lot of wealth and capital is passed down generationally, creating a situation where individuals have access to resources and advantages that they neither earned nor worked for, while others thoroughly lack them. These resources further give these individuals significant advantages in the job market, making it easier for them to afford a good education, sharpen their professional skills, and access valuable mentorship — all things that further ensure their continued socioeconomic thriving. Having access to these resources also relieves these individuals from worries about basic necessities, allowing them to focus entirely on their academic and professional development. On the other hand, growing up in disadvantaged socioeconomic milieus significantly impedes on individuals’ chances of reaching economic stability. This is because individuals from underserved backgrounds do not usually have access to the social and economic capital required to get a good education or access great career opportunities. Because of this, they are susceptible to ending up trapped in economically subpar jobs — sometimes in spite of their actual dedication, intellectual potential or work ethic. In both these cases, environment, social surroundings and socioeconomic conditions overwhelmingly affect chances of later socioeconomic advancement, to the detriment of merit.

Another equity-based issue with meritocracy pertains to the fact that in the free-market, initial acquisition of capital significantly eases the process of further getting more capital. This is because access to capital allows for greater capacity for investment, an effective tool of capital generation. Access to financial resources allow individuals to hire workers, purchase effective machinery and recruit skilled labor through EU Workers, all things that make it much easier to generate income. Individuals with capital can also directly invest in markets or businesses, in which cases they may be able to generate income passively, with minimum effort. It was established earlier that for meritocratic systems to truly be fair and equitable, material gains should be proportional to individuals’  effort, work ethic and dedication. The previously outlined dynamic of the free-market – which makes it increasingly easier to generate income the more initial capital one has – transgresses that rule, thereby suggesting that meritocracies do not rely on universal, equitable and consistent metrics for distributing financial rewards.

Power, Capital and the Incentive for Social Closure

In a meritocracy, although there may exist objective criteria for assigning individual merit within specific competitive hierarchies, no objective metrics exist for establishing and ranking those merit-based hierarchies themselves. Because of this, political and social power play an important role in determining how merit hierarchies are formed, what skills are emphasized within them, and indirectly, what forms of merit-based hierarchies are most rewarding. This situation makes merit hierarchies highly susceptible to self-serving manipulation by the individuals who create and define them.

Sports are a great, practical example of the dynamics regulating merit hierarchies. Merit in sports like soccer can be objectively assigned using measures such as the number of goals scored by individual players or the number of dribbles successfully attempted. Very few would question rankings based on these criteria since soccer players who score the most goals and complete the most dribbles are objectively most valuable to their team. However, the rules of soccer – which establish that the ability to score goals and complete dribbles are important skills for players – were at some point created by a group of individuals who arbitrarily decided that they would create a game where these skills would be emphasized. These same individuals could have created a sport where other skills were emphasized, which could have resulted in people with completely different skill sets than current soccer stars like Messi and Ronaldo being better at competing — think of basketball for example, and how different the skills needed to excel in that sport are from those emphasized in soccer. 

This is all to say that although once a hierarchy of merit is formed, merit can be objectively assigned, there is generally a subjective component involved in the initial creation and establishment of any given merit hierarchy. That subjective component plays an important role in establishing the sort of hierarchy that will be formed, the rules for competing in that hierarchy and the criteria that will be used to assess merit. It is within that subjective component that power can be used in a manner that is self-serving. This is because individuals may have an incentive to create rules that, far from benefiting society or highlighting relevant individual skills, are instead structured to give the socioeconomically and culturally dominant group a competitive edge while marginalizing socially powerless groups. This practice is known as social closure, a dynamic hypothesized by sociologist Max Weber.

Before continuing, it is important to acknowledge that power is not the only variable that influences the creation of merit-based hierarchies. In free-market contexts, demand, in conjunction with supply, also heavily influences what sorts of merit-based hierarchies are established, and, among those hierarchies, which are most financially rewarding. Going back to the previous example of soccer, part of the reason why soccer players who dribble well and score many goals are generally better paid than their less proficient counterparts has to do with the fact that they bring more revenue to their club. Given their skill, people may be more enthusiastic about attending games where they are on the field, significantly boosting profits for their sponsors. If that is the case, it would make sense that they feel entitled to a more significant share of the income pie than others who aren’t as skilled and are, thereby, less financially profitable to their respective clubs. 

Important to note is that hard-work is not the direct criterion for distributing financial reward in the aforementioned case — as is usually assumed in the meritocratic argument. Although there may be a correlation between hard-work and skill mastery, what is being rewarded is the skill mastery itself, purely and simply. It just so happens that hard-work in this case increases the chance of an individual attaining mastery. However, even though dedication and hard work may increase the chance of an individual mastering a skill, hard work and dedication themselves aren’t the criteria for distributing financial reward. This is evidenced by the fact that in cases where individuals require minimal efforts to learn skills due to innate talent, or have access to information that allow them to master those skills more efficiently, hard work becomes less relevant. 

This is also true of cases where individuals require more effort than others to attain goals due to innate disadvantages. Regardless of the intensity with which these individuals work, all that matters in the end is whether they are able to satisfy the demands of the market by appropriately mastering a profitable skill. If they are unable to reach similar results as less hard working individuals, they will still receive less financial rewards than their competitors, even though they may be harder working. That dynamic is completely contrary to what one would expect if meritocracy only distributed rewards based on merit.

                                                         Recapitulation and Conclusion

In summary, the meritocratic argument, when examined thoroughly from a practical lens and in the context of the free-market, is a rather poor ethical justification for inequality. Its use of merit to describe the dynamic of resource distribution inherent to its functioning is  impractical, given the fact that there exist a plenitude of potential merit hierarchies. Furthermore, given that these merit hierarchies are for the most part, subjectively defined  If one goes by the typical way of defining merit through hard work and dedication, then one realizes that the free-market does not directly reward these criteria, but rather only recompenses skill mastery in the context of  service provision and goods production. 

The common misconception that the free-market rewards hard-work stems from the fact that hard-working, dedicated individuals tend to be better at mastering skills and producing marketable goods due to the intuitive correlation between practice and mastery. However, although they correlate, hard-work and skill mastery are not interchangeable. Hard work does not always lead to skill mastery or successful production of goods. We illustrated this dynamic by considering the hypothetical case of an individual with innate advantages. These advantages would make it easier, more convenient for that individual to master marketable skills or produce high-demand goods compared to another person without these advantages. In that case, hard-work and work ethic would become less relevant to these individual’s comparative success as the individual with advantages would be able to generate income with less effort than another individual without the same innate advantages. Whether that advantage is innate – being born with greater physical abilities – or acquired – growing up in an academically oriented family with lots of intellectual capital – the fact of the matter is that in the end, the free-market only rewards skill and ability, irrespective of hard-work. 

Given these conclusions, there are ways to make meritocracy fairer. Ensuring that all individuals actually get an equal opportunity to showcase their talents by controlling for generational, cultural, social and economic variables is a great start. Mixed economic systems with strong welfare programs do this relatively well. By providing individuals with basic necessities and educational foundation, the state is able to ensure that generational economic factors do not overwhelmingly prevent social mobility. Another crucial step is, preventing and pushing against attempts at social closure by socioeconomically dominant groups. This can be done by making the means of testing for competence more inclusive so as to allow society to benefit from a broader range of talents, from all strata of the socioeconomic hierarchy while getting rid of all extraneous cultural and social exclusionary pressures. 

With continuous innovation and the rise of machines and artificial intelligence, maybe in the future, societies will become truly egalitarian as competition between individuals becomes less fierce due to the availability of an artificially engineered workforce that would produce abundantly and skillfully, making human skills near obsolete. This would bring ethical concerns eventually of course, as these robots become more evolved and possibly sentient, but this is all a highly, highly speculative, hypothetical scenario.

Florian Direny is a senior and a staff writer for The College Reporter. His email address is: