What is Merit and What is Not?

The idea of merit has been thoroughly scrutinized in both the ivory tower and the public square. Harvard professor Michael Sandel presents a philosophical case against meritocracy in his best-selling book The Tyranny of Merit (2020), arguing that “the talent game generates hubris among the winners… and creates humiliation and resentment among the losers.” Sandel’s work is widely cited as fuel for the anti-merit movement. Debunking meritocracy has become a ritualistic exercise in trendy equity training sessions. Characteristics such as hard work, personal initiative, and grit are only myths and vehicles of privilege that perpetuate structural inequities. If merit is an illusion, how do we evaluate its central project: the history of modernity and the broader subject of human enterprise?

Before passing moral judgement on a workable system of organizing the world, we should first make a genuine attempt to conceptualize merit.

Merit is a combination of natural talent and effort

According to Sandelian critics of merit, innate ability, a core component of merit, is a factor beyond our control, just like patronage or blood line, while a purportedly meritocratic system often exacerbates social inequality by rewarding those who can afford test prep and homes in good school districts.

The central issue with Sandel’s perception of merit is that it relies on a false dichotomy between insurmountable, external obstacles and genetically determined, internal abilities. This absolute definition of merit leaves no room for other consequential ingredients such as hard work, grit, perseverance, personal initiative, and agency. In turn, it paints a grim picture of life and what one can do in life to get ahead.

Adrian Wooldridge, author of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021), succinctly summarizes four tenets of a meritocratic society:

1. People can get ahead in life on the basis of natural talent.

2. Meritocracy secures equality of opportunity by providing education for all.

3. It forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and other irrelevant characteristics.

4. It awards jobs through open competition, rather than patronage or nepotism.

It is patently true that merit is not just about standardized test scores for college admissions. But it is equally factual that those pursuing technical career paths without college degrees also need to cultivate their skills and develop some sort of minimum qualifications. In the U.S., Emergency Medical Technicians, general contractors, and food truck operators must obtain state licenses or certifications to carry on their respective lines of work. A society that shuns any measurable standards expected of its contributing members is not one that can maximize the utilization of different talents, potentials, and skillsets.

[Related: “In Review: Adrian Wooldridge’s The Aristocracy of Talent”]

According to Sandel, a true meritocracy “can only be achieved by leveling the playing field between the privileged and the disadvantaged.” This is a faulty proposition. Given the multifaceted nature and cross-cutting realities of privileges vis-à-vis disadvantages, the playing field may never be sufficiently leveled. What’s more, leveling it necessarily entails coercion, which when attempted has had disastrous consequences on quality of life, human dignity, and liberty. Take myself as an example: my privileges include earning advanced degrees, owning private properties, and working hard to offer my child a stable, two-parent household. But at the same time, I came from a humble background without any generational wealth, I never could afford test prep or tutoring in my entire life as a student, and I speak English as a second language (third, if you count my native dialect). Do my blessings and obstacles then cancel each other out? Where can I be situated in the matrix of “leveling the playing field”?

In this sense, Wooldridge is correct in arguing that despite its flaws, meritocracy remains the best system for organizing human societies. Imperfect testing methods, loopholes vulnerable to corruption, and normative biases, if any, require incremental reforms, not a systemic revolution. Meritocracy is not a panacea to all human failings and societal ills, but it is the most personally empowering and historically successful vehicle for social and economic progress.

The contemporary alternative to merit is detrimental

Again, Wooldridge gets it right in his observations on three waves of the anti-meritocratic revolution:

First, academics question the idea that you can measure merit with any precision.

Second, public intellectuals question the idea that meritocracy is worth having it all.

Third, progressives embrace the alternative values of equity and community.

While few would argue that a return to ancient aristocracies “founded on wealth and birth” would be better than a meritocracy, an increasing number are pushing for a different alternative to merit: equity. In the name of equity and for the sake of “leveling the playing field,” powerful educational institutions have engaged in attacks against merit. The American Bar Association, for example, is entertaining a proposal to eliminate the requirement of “a valid and reliable test” for law school admissions. Over 1,800 American colleges and universities have abandoned testing requirements for undergraduate admissions. The State of California has phased out the California Basic Skills Test and the California Subject Matter Exams for incoming teachers. The first test of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), a daylong exam that tests medical students’ theoretical and empirical knowledge, has been reformed to only grade test-takers on a pass/fail basis. To promote racial integration, leaders in New York City have advocated for canceling the city’s gifted and talented programs in K-5. The list goes on and on.

[Related: “‘Test-Blind’ Is Another Tool for Discrimination”]

Replacing merit with equity is a radical paradigm shift rooted in illogical red herrings, emotions, and leftist ideology. Certainly, the Michael Sandels of the world come from a place of empathy and compassion, but their good intentions can only go so far before encountering challenges from both defenders of merit and from within. Innate talent is not an excuse for spurning excellence and blaming the system for under-achievement. Furthermore, it is incredibly hypocritical for those who have presumably made something out of their life on the basis of merit to champion revolutionary changes to the system after they reaped the benefits. For instance, I expect that Professor Sandel values his own hard work and does not chalk up his Harvard professorship to mere “privilege.” After all, the American public can’t seem to support that: more than 85% of Americans say that standardized test scores should at least be a minor factor in college admissions, according to a 2022 Pew survey.

If there is something in life worth fighting for, I believe it must be liberally endowed with a sense of personal agency, with the idea that we are the architects of our own life. The American Dream, a happy consequence of our meritocracy, is the notion that we can get to a place that is not predetermined by our birth or circumstances. God help those who want to help themselves.


Image: Jukan Tateisi, Public Domain

Wenyuan Wu

Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

9 thoughts on “What is Merit and What is Not?

  1. The most obvious point to make (and is not made in this essay) is that while merit may actually be a useful concept (who wants to operated on by a non-qualified neurosurgeon?) the rewards given to what we discern as merit are all out of proportion for the need to ensure that competent individuals are placed in demanding jobs. When 80% of American workers have not had a raise in 40 years (adjusting for inflation), there is going to be profound questioning of the fairness of that society, particularly when one can see the lavish lifestyles of the non-submerged 20 percent. I would suggest an approach based on respect for ability combined with ensuring the affordability of the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing and increasingly medical care) would be a winning platform for the political party that adopts it.

    1. “When 80% of American workers have not had a raise in 40 years”
      I suspect that this is leaving out some important things.

      It may be true for salary income for individual workers. But when you look at household income, that does not seem to be true. Probably because household income includes more working people e.g. women (who may be making better salaries than 40 years ago).

      Second, I don’t think the figure includes medical benefits, which have become much more pricey over the years. One can argue about whether we are getting our money’s worth, but I believe the expenditure is there and is increasing.

      Third, a smaller proportion of the population is in the work force. That means that those of us who have been working have been supporting an ever-increasing share of idle people. Retirees, people on social security and medicare, medicaid, etc. The working people may be right to resent this, or not, but it should at least be acknowledged.

      1. Regarding medical care–our share of GDP is twice that of other G7 countries, yet we are less healthy by most measures. While this may be part of the explanation as to why cash compensation has not increased, how is paying three times as much for much the same level of care (life expectancy has remained much the same) in any sense an increase in compensation (I’m comparing 1970 level of GDP for health–around 6%, to current levels–over 18%)?

        Also, you need to reconcile how more working people in a household leads to a smaller proportion of the population working. But having more people in a household work may increase household income but it takes away from the benefit of one parent remaining home to raise children, which, if individual incomes had increased, would be possible. And childcare costs remove most of the benefits of the additional income.

        Interested readers should peruse

        https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/07/for-most-us-workers-real-wages-have-barely-budged-for-decades/

      2. Your comments are non sequitur vis vis Wu’s essay on meritocracy. First, the only quantitative “fact” you cite is in the first sentence (“80% of American Workers”) is ridiculous. The 80% group does not exist as a monolithic and static entity. Young workers start out at a lower rate of pay than their more experienced seniors, high school graduates earn more than drop outs, STEM graduates from university earn more than sociology or Women’s Studies or “Critical Theory” majors, etc. The American workforce is neither monolithic nor unchanging, but is organically dynamic. Second, medical services are more broadly accessible and of a higher quality than was the case 40 years ago, although any further shift toward single payer will threaten both the quality of, and access to this care for the majority of working and retired persons. Third, you are correct in citing the well known fact that not all Americans of working age in fact work. However, you indicate pique that those of us who do work full time have to carry the burden of sustaining idlers. Again, this subset of the population is not monolithic and unchanging. Within this subset, current welfare programs maintaining the able bodied of working age hardly serve as catalysts for motivating a change in attitude toward work.

    2. Been there, done that. For decades the democrat party has lauded merit (at least at election time) but the real focus has been on passing huge welfare programs to cover the “necessities of life” for the “less fortunate”. So after 50 years, how’s that been working out?

      1. Patti, the vast majority of the expense is government bureaucrats & service providers.

        We ALWAYS provided for the unfortunate, we just didnt pay 6 figure salaries to those doing it.

  2. Sandel’s book confirms what many have suspected: affirmative action is alive and well at Harvard. How else can you explain why so much puerile nonsense spews forth from individuals who hold the title “Harvard Faculty”?

    Merit does produce winners and losers. So what? The winners deserve to brag; after all, they accomplished something—they won. The losers need to either try harder or find something else to do. Who said participation automatically guarantees success and rewards? Nobody.

    Without winners there would be no smartphones, space travel or cancer treatments. People with talent and resolve and dedication did that. People like that prosper in a meritocracy and all of society benefits from their achievements. People who whine about meritocracy are losers who are nothing but drains on society (or maybe members of the Harvard faculty.)

    1. But then Albert Einstein did his best work as a patent clerk.

      What exactly did he have for an academic CV?

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