A meritocracy is a society where people get into positions of power, wealth, and influence out of skill. They have out-competed their competition. It’s also a central feature of the American dream mythology.
A perfect meritocracy would theoretically create a fair society because people get what they deserve. However, there are many downsides and barriers to meritocracy. Barriers include nepotism, favoritism, inequality of opportunity, and corruption which lead to people cheating the system.
Similarly, the biggest downside of a meritocracy is that people who are lowly skilled or incapacitated (e.g. disabled) end up unemployed. This leads to poverty, homelessness, and other inhumane social conditions.
1. Getting the Job due to Higher Qualifications
Why it’s Meritocratic: We could consider getting a job due to higher qualifications as a sign of meritocracy working. In this instance, you’d get the job purely based on your ability to outdo your competitors and not based on factors like nepotism or politicking.
Barriers and Limitations: People with greater wealth and higher socioeconomic status tend to have better access to top-level qualifications. For example, universities are stacked with middle- and upper-class people. Working-class people often don’t have the resources to achieve the qualifications, putting them at a disadvantage in society.
Oftentimes, people also get jobs because they know the interviewer, they fit a certain identity profile, or they were in the right place at the right time. In these instances, meritocracy will have failed.
2. A Startup finding a Better Solution
Why it’s Meritocratic: If a startup enters the market and offers a better product than the existing brands offer, then they may steal market share. For example, Tesla entered the electric vehicle market by creating more attractive and affordable electric vehicles than the major car companies. Now, Tesla is a multibillion-dollar company.
Capitalism works because it relies upon meritocracy. In a competitive free market, new products can enter the market that provide better and cheaper solutions than the products that exist, and this lowers costs and improves efficiency.
Barriers and Limitations: Often, people have great product ideas but they can’t get them to market due to lack of funding, a close oligopoly, or excessive government regulation. This entrenches the big players in a market and stymies progress.
Related: Social Stratification Examples
3. Clean Energy Costing Less
Why it’s Meritocratic: When clean energy costs less than fossil fuels, the transition to clean energy occurs. It wins not because of an ideological policy position, but because it’s cheaper and better!
For example, advances in solar technologies have meant it is one of the most affordable ways to produce energy, which has decreased household reliance on coal fired power plants.
Barriers and Limitations: Meritocracy in the context of the free market isn’t always the best solution. If we keep burning fossil fuels, we will speed up climate change. This is called an externality. To address this, governments may need to give extra support to clean energy solutions, even though they’re not always the cheapest option.
4. Getting the Highest Grades in the Class
Why it’s Meritocratic: In a class where every student gets the same instruction from the teacher and all the students complete an exam, then the student who gets the top grades likely won due to meritocracy. Everyone had the same opportunity to get the information they needed and participated in the same lessons. The smartest student, however, rose to the top.
Barriers and Limitations: While at some point we need to acknowledge that some people have better aptitude in classroom subjects than others, we can also acknowledge that some students have hidden advantages. For example, the teacher’s teaching style may benefit some students over others (e.g a teacher who allows students to chat may help a student who learns through conversation, but frustrate a student who learns best through quiet contemplation).
Similarly, one student may get a lot of homework support from their parents while another may not.
As a result, education systems always work to find new ways to provide equality of opportunity. Teachers also need to use effective differentiation strategies so all students can get a chance to learn in the ways that best suit them.
Why it’s Meritocratic: An entrepreneur goes out and tries to sell products and services to people in a free market. If people think it’s the best product, they buy it. If they don’t, then they don’t buy it. This is just about the most meritocratic job you can get into!
Barriers and Limitations: Many types of businesses require startup capital (money) or social capital (people you know) who can get you started, connect you with distributors, and so on. So, some people start off in business at much more of an advantage than others.
6. A Commission-Based Job (e.g. Real Estate)
Why it’s Meritocratic: Commission-based employment means you only make money if you sell things. If you were to line everyone up at the end of a pay period and ask them how much they made, you’ll see a spectrum of incomes. The people who made the most money earned it: they sold the most things! The people who earned the least were least productive, so it makes sense. Income is linked to merit!
7. Winning a Sporting Game
Why it’s Meritocratic: When two players go up against each other in a sporting arena, there is a clear set of rules that each player knows and agrees to. This is in an effort to create a level playing field so that the winner wins on merit. The winner should win because they’re stronger or more strategic. In other words, they win because they deserve it.
Barriers and Limitations: Anyone who has lost a game knows that there are always excuses for why you lost! Sore losers might blame a bad referee, but there are other objective advantages some teams have. For example, there may be a home ground advantage or, simply, the winner of the coin toss at the beginning of the game (e.g. in Tennis or Cricket) gets an advantage.
8. Getting Rich from the Stock Exchange
Why it’s Meritocratic: Talented day traders can get very wealthy by picking the market, doing deep research into the strengths and weaknesses of stocks, and knowing when the market will go up or down. Warren Buffet, for example, has been able to consistently buy companies that continue to grow, making him one of the wealthiest men on earth.
Barriers and Limitations: The stock exchange is highly erratic, meaning there is a great deal of short-term luck and risk involved in stock trading. Just because someone got rich on the stock exchange doesn’t mean they managed to do it out of skill and intelligence.
9. Getting the Promotion through Hard Work
Why it’s Meritocratic: When you work within an organization, your boss can observe you and get a great idea of how good you are at your job. With this knowledge, they can make very well-informed decisions about who out of their team to promote and who not to promote. This should make the decision as meritocratic as possible.
Barriers and Limitations: Often, people advance up organizations because of how friendly they are with the boss rather than their skills in the job. This makes social factors equally as important as pure ability. Sometimes, excellent employees who would do a better job in the promoted position don’t get it.
10. Winning a Video Game
Why it’s Meritocratic: Winning in a video game is similar to winning in sports. The rules are clearly set and everyone starts the game from the very beginning. In fact, in some ways, video games are perfect meritocracies because everyone starts at level 1 with the same number of resources, giving virtual equality of opportunity.
11. Ranking an Article on a Search Engine
Why it’s Meritocratic: Search engines like Google, Bing, and Yandex aim to be meritocratic. The best possible response to a search query needs to be presented to the searcher. To do this, search engines create algorithms that read the articles and try to see which ones provide the best quality information. Everyone who owns a website knows this and they compete against each other to convince the algorithm to rank their article first. But, only one article can be top ranked! Ideally, that top article is the one with the most merit.
Web searchers are also aware of this meritocratic model. They generally trust search engines that they will rank the best article a the top, so most people will click the top result.
Barriers and Limitations: Search engines are not humans, and their ability to read articles is imperfect, so it’s not always the case that the best quality content will float to the top.
12. Becoming the Top-Rated Product
Why it’s Meritocratic: Today, online reviews allow you to get a crowd-sourced picture of which products perform best in each product category. For example, if you were to search for a new lamp online, you’ll be able to compare reviews (e.g. out of 5 stars) online and find out which product is most highly-reviewed. This product is likely to become the most widely-purchased, as well.
This process is a process of meritocracy. It helps the best product (i.e. the product with the most merit) to rise to the top and others to fall into obscurity because they don’t do the job you want them to!
Barriers and Limitations: To develop a product that is top-rated, you likely need a strong marketing team and venture capital backing your product, which each act as barriers to many people with low economic capital in creating a great business.
13. Writing a Best-Selling Book
Why it’s Meritocratic: To get your book to the top of the best-seller list, you need to get a wide range of people to read, enjoy it, and recommend the book to others. Books that other people don’t enjoy will likely not get recommended, so won’t become best-sellers. Enjoyable books will rise to the top. They have more merit.
Barriers and Limitations: Often, books become popular because they were picked up by influencers (e.g. the famous Oprah’s Bookshelf). Here, a perfectly good book that most people would enjoy may not reach the top, simply because gatekeepers like Oprah decide not to embrace them.
14. Becoming a Self-Made Millionaire
Why it’s Meritocratic: We often criticize people who inherited their wealth because there is a sense that they didn’t get their money based on merit. By contrast, self-made millionaires are respected and admired because they got wealthy from a standing start. These people are believed to have risen to the top based on meritocracy.
Barriers and Limitations: It’s uncommon for working-class people to become self-made millionaires because they start at a disadvantage. This shows how meritocracy is rarely pure. Generally, millionaires have gotten a lot of help to get where they are – from attending the right schools, through to knowing the right people!
15. Becoming a Top-Ranked Sports Star
Why it’s Meritocratic: Professional sports people usually want to become the best in the world. We look at rankings such as the world men’s tennis rankings and admire the people in the Top 10. There is little doubt that these people are amazing sports stars who objectively are the best in the world. It’s simple to test this: get them to play in tournaments!
Meritocracy is certainly imperfect, but it is also argued that a meritocratic society is the best model we have. It enables us to place the most competent people in positions of power, get access to the best and most innovative products, and get rewarded for creating added value for society.
As a society, our goal should be to encourage equality of opportunity. This can help smooth out the inequalities in a meritocratic system and allow everyone to compete based on merit. It means people will get ahead not because they were born into wealth or families with high social status, but because of their hard work, skillset, and effort.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.