by Sonia Maria Pavel
Imagine two societies. In the first, children are separated at birth from their biological parents and raised collectively by specialised educators. These educators, carefully selected for the task, closely observe the children in order to discern their talents, abilities, and dispositions. Based on how well they perform at various tasks and the ease with which they acquire knowledge, the children are then categorised and assigned what is believed to be their proper place in society. Those who are particularly musically gifted are given the instruments, instructors, and all the conditions they need to become musicians. The ones who are thought to show a great love of truth and distinct reasoning abilities are raised to become the leaders of that society. The desires and wishes of each individual child are irrelevant to this allocation. Nevertheless, most are content with this arrangement because they are taught and come to believe that they are all brothers and sisters who must serve their community by fulfilling their natural, preordained role. The society is just as long everyone contributes to it by minding their business and not interfering in that of others.
In the second society, children are raised in private, nuclear families. The unchosen circumstances of their birth, including who their parents are, where they were born, and their class, race, and gender status shape their life paths, often to a significant extent. From the beginning, their chances of becoming a musician, a politician, an academic, or a service worker are shaped by various factors beyond their control and irrelevant from the perspective of their ability to fulfil such roles. If their parents are highly educated and wealthy, they are much more likely to receive an education that will allow them to occupy a well-compensated and highly respected position. By contrast, if their parents live in a poor, perhaps racially segregated area, the educational and professional paths in fact available to them will be severely limited. Many people are content with this arrangement because they are taught that the competition is fair—opportunities are by law equally open to all those individuals willing and able to seize them, regardless of who they are and to whom they were born. According to the dominant ideology, accidents of birth can be corrected through hard work, which will allow everyone to ‘rise’ as far as their talents take them.
Which of these is a meritocracy? Surely, the first society seems to be governed by merit—each task and role is fulfilled by the person best suited for it. Show yourself to have a keen eye for the visual arts and all the resources to become a great painter or sculptor will be placed at your disposal. Nobody will have a better chance than you at becoming one—it does not matter that they really want to try their luck at painting (perhaps much more than you), that their biological parents were artists, or that they could have afforded tuition at the best art school. That person will only become a painter if the teachers discern that same talent in them. Otherwise, they will be assigned a different task, through which they can best contribute to society. No drop of talent will be wasted.
The second society, which much more closely resembles our own, also seems to be meritocratic, but in a different respect. Regardless of any natural disposition or proclivity, there is no legal barrier to you becoming a visual artist. If you start painting and you are appreciated by other artists or critics, or have success selling your art, then you are free to be a painter. Nobody can tell you that you have no business creating visual art because your talents lie elsewhere and are being wasted. Nor can anyone accuse you of squandering society’s resources in becoming a visual artist when so many others are or would have been much better at this task—the choice to compete with you to make their living in the same fashion was open to them.
In my view, both of these social arrangements can be called meritocracies because the concept of ‘meritocracy’ is far more open-ended than its proponents and critics have so far recognised. Rather than having a standalone meaning, meritocracy is always reliant upon other values and ideals for what a good human life and a good society look like, which can vary dramatically.
To begin with, we should distinguish between the principle of merit and a social, economic, and political arrangement we call a meritocracy. Merit is a principle according to which rewards, positions, and goods are allocated to particular persons on the basis of desert—as a result of certain qualities, feats, or achievements. Both the rewards and the rewarded traits vary in accordance with context—the team who wins the Premier League is awarded a few dozen million pounds and a prestigious trophy, while the winner of my friends’ Fantasy PL Mini-League gets a kit of their choice. But not every context in which judgments of merit are made and rewards allocated on their basis is a meritocracy. A mother might give a treat to the child who is most well-behaved at the doctor, but that does not make the family a meritocracy. For this reason, we should reserve the label ‘meritocracy’ only for those social and political communities and institutions in which goods are primarily or exclusively distributed on the basis of merit.
Where does this leave our current debates and controversies about merit and meritocracy? Some social and political thinkers argue that most contemporary societies are not, nor have they ever historically been, meritocracies. The implication of this view is that ‘true’ or ‘real’ meritocracy would have certain political, economic, and institutional features that are absent from our existing and past arrangements. Other thinkers have articulated trenchant critiques of merit and meritocracy, discussing the “tyranny” of merit and meritocracy, the “meritocracy trap”, the “meritocracy myth” and even the “haunting spectre of meritocracy”. The latter argue that our meritocratic arrangements are deeply unjust, harmful for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and that ideologies of merit often function to obscure these realities and justify our social, economic, and political institutions. Elite higher education institutions in the US and UK have been the targets of both types of criticisms. While some have called out the spurious nature of elite universities’ claim that admission is exclusively or even primarily merit-based (see the legacy admissions, class and race bias, bribery, and corruption scandals of the past few years), others have focused on the negative effects that the intense competition pre- and post-college admissions have on students’ mental health and general wellbeing, as well as on society writ-large.
Though both types of criticisms are well-founded, I think that they misidentify merit (or the lack thereof) as the culprits. Because of its open-ended nature, merit as a principle necessarily attaches to other values, ideals, and commitments. For example, universities with a liberal arts focus often evaluate the ‘well-roundedness’ of candidates, including their involvement in arts, sports, activism, etc., as a central merit, while research-focused universities pay much more attention to specialised academic merits such as grades and test scores. Thus, what the resulting meritocratic arrangements look like depends on an institution or society’s conception of individuals and their relationship to the collective, how individuals are expected to relate to each other and the larger group, and the purposes of the collective endeavours and coordination efforts. In other words, merit attaches to a social theory, a set of moral, social, and political norms, as well as an ideal of justice and the good life.
Take the first society described above. The principle of merit serves a vision of social life that prioritises the collective good over and above the good of its individual citizens. In order to achieve justice, each person must fulfil the role they are most suited for, regardless of their personal desires, ambitions, and preferences. The influence of factors that are arbitrary and irrelevant from the perspective of justice—such as class, race, or gender—is therefore neutralised to the greatest extent possible. If I can best make a contribution as a cobbler, I will be given all the resources to become one. At the same time, I am prevented by society from being a ‘busybody’ by attempting to become an opera singer. Regardless of my personal fancies and ambitions, I must submit to the judgment of our communal teachers about my talents and abilities. This arrangement of society will of course strike modern sensibilities as extreme in its lack of concern for individual freedom and its assumptions about natural or innate talent. The point of the example is not to defend this social arrangement as an actionable alternative type of meritocracy, but rather to point out that meritocracies exist on a spectrum, varying from this pole to the more familiar one inherent in the second society described.
In the second example I offered, society is supposed to resemble the free market model of ‘careers open to talents’. Merit is subordinated to the pursuit of private profit within capitalism, as opposed to a vision of the collective good. Judgments about the value of an elementary school teacher’s contribution to society, as compared to a hedge fund manager, are determined by market forces. The social theory is one of extreme individualism and society is not seen as anything more than an aggregate of people, each of them pursuing their interests. Unlike the first example, there is no sense of a collective vision of justice that individuals must contribute to. Even though all opportunities are formally open for anyone willing to compete for, they are in fact limited and circumscribed by structural injustices and inequalities.
These two different examples of social arrangements that can plausibly be called meritocracies show us that the concept should not be understood as describing a single unitary system, but rather as a spectrum of social, economic, and political arrangements that take very different forms depending on the values placed at their core. Like many contemporary critics, I recognise the profound injustices and limitations that characterise our contemporary forms of meritocracy. However, unlike them, I do not think the ideal of meritocracy itself is to blame. Nor is the solution to try to make the current system ‘more meritocratic’. By criticising merit itself we are focusing on an empty abstraction, rather than the deeper political commitments that we should be collectively deliberating upon and changing. Somewhere between the two societies I portrayed at the poles of this spectrum, we might find a more just meritocracy.
 This description is roughly based on Plato’s Ideal City (The Republic, trans. by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991).
 On the ‘rhetoric of rising’, see Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Chapter 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).
 See, for example, Stephen McNamee and Robert K. Miller, The Meritocracy Myth (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
 Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020); Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (Penguin: 2019); Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015); Kai Yu, The Implementation of Inclusive Education in Beijing: Exorcizing the Haunting Specter of Meritocracy (Lexington Books: 2014).
 For a critical analysis of this feature of contemporary meritocracy, see Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020), especially Chapter 5: Success Ethics.