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Meritocracy is a system of a government or other organization wherein appointments are made and responsibilities assigned to individuals based upon demonstrated talent and ability (merit).[1] In a meritocracy, society rewards (via wealth, position, and social status) those who show talent and competence as demonstrated by past actions or by competition. Evaluation systems, such as formal education, are closely linked to notions of meritocracy.

This is opposed to other value systems, where reward and legitimacy is based upon possession of wealth (plutocracy), origin (aristocracy), family connections (nepotism), property (oligarchy), friendship (cronyism), seniority (gerontocracy), popularity (democracy) or other historical determinants of social position and political power.

Technocracy is a form of meritocracy, whereby appointments for positions are made based on demonstrated technical expertise.


Origin of term

The term 'meritocracy' was first used in Michael Young's 1958 satirical book Rise of the Meritocracy.[2][3][4][5][6] The term was intended to be pejorative, and his book was set in a dystopian future in which one's social place is determined by IQ plus effort. In the book, this social system ultimately leads to a social revolution in which the masses overthrow the elite, who have become arrogant and disconnected from public sentiment.

Despite the negative origin of the word, there are many who believe that a meritocratic system is a good thing. Proponents argue that a meritocratic system is more just and more productive than other systems, and that it allows for an end to distinctions based on arbitrary criteria such as sex, race, wealth and social connections. Conversely, detractors of meritocracy point to the central dystopian aspect of Young's conception: the existence of a meritocratic class that monopolizes access to merit and the symbols and markers of merit, thereby perpetuating its own power, social status, and privilege.[citation needed]

Meritocracy has been criticized as a myth which merely serves to justify the status quo; merit can always be defined as whatever results in success. Thus whoever is successful can be portrayed as meriting (deserving) success, rather than success being in fact predicated on rational, predetermined criteria of merit.[7]

The Composition

The following governing principles comprise meritocracies: Job placement is not[citation needed] awarded due to experience or expertise, but instead it is awarded 1) on the basis of merit (although experience, expertise and seniority tend to result in greater merit), 2) on the conditions of the opportunity under the application of the job principle and 3) to one that specifies the rewards for job attainment. These principles however, do not account for injustices but disregard them. Not all meritocrats operate in this manner. Most evaluate the structure of job equalities and inequalities through human abilities and personalities that allow them to perform job tasks to the best of their abilities.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is a social theory which holds that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is a model, not only for the development of biological traits in a population, but also can be applied to human social institutions. Social Darwinism was at its most popular from the late 19th century to the end of World War II. Proponents of Social Darwinism argue that the theory perfectly justifies social inequality as being meritocratic. Darwin himself only propounded his theories in a biological sense, and it is other theorists and thinkers who have attempted to use Darwin to justify discompassionate ambition and exploitation.


In the chapter "Merit and Justice,"[8] Amartya Sen first complains about the lack of a precise definition of "merit" (and consequently meritocracy). Another of Sen's main criticisms of meritocracy can be clearly seen in such examples as Singapore, or the Open Source Initiative: it is the "confounding merit of actions with that of persons (and possibly of groups of people)." Both in the case of Singapore, and the Open Source Initiative, leaders are chosen through past performance - in tests (for Singapore) or code submitted (in the Open Source community) - so merit is given to people based on past performance, instead of on their current and ongoing actions (which would need continuous assessment).

The Peter principle, "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence," notes that meritocracy promotes individuals based on the ability to perform their prior assignment, not the new assignment.

Individual proponents



"In teaching there should be no distinction of classes." - Analects XV. 39. tr. Legge Many western admirers of Confucius, such as Voltaire and H. G. Creel, have pointed out an innovative and revolutionary idea of Confucius': he replaced the nobility of blood with one of virtue. Jūnzǐ (君子), which had meant "superior person," coming from the contemporary meaning of the literal translation "son of the ruler," slowly took on a new meaning close to the English term "gentleman" (long before the emergence of English). In this way a virtuous plebeian who cultivated his virtuous qualities could be a "gentleman", whilst a shameless son of a King was only a "small man". That Confucius allowed any kind of student to be his disciple - his teachings were intended to train future rulers - is a clear indication that he didn't wholly support feudal structures in Chinese society.

Osei Kofi Tutu I

Osei Tutu selected government officials through merit rather than by birth.


Plato's concept of the ideal government presented in his Republic is innately meritocratic.[9]

Han Feizi

In addition to Confucius, another ancient Chinese philosopher of the same period (that of the Warring States) advocated a meritocratic system of government and society. This was Han Feizi who was famous as the foremost proponent of the School of Law, otherwise known as the philosophy of Legalism. This had, as its central tenet, the absolute rule of law, but also contained numerous meritocratic elements[citation needed]. Another Legalist, Shang Yang implemented Legalist and meritocratic reforms in the state of Qin by abolishing the aristocracy and promoting individuals based on their skill, intelligence, and initiative. This led to the armies of the Qin gaining a critical edge over the other nations that adhered to old aristocratic systems of government. Legalism, along with its anti-aristocratic, pro-meritocratic ideals, remained a key part of Chinese philosophy and politics for another two millennia, although after the Qin Dynasty it was heavily diluted. But meritocratic governance within the bureaucracy remains a key stone of Chinese government all the way to the present. This can be most clearly seen in the use of standardized "imperial examinations" to determine entry into the official class, which began in the Sui Dynasty.

Genghis Khan

Meritocracy was the primary basis for selection of chiefs and generals in the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan chose whomever was talented and fit for his military chain of command. He even trusted generals and soldiers from opponents' armies if they showed loyalty to their leaders. For example, Genghis Khan's general Jebe had been an enemy soldier who had shot Genghis in battle before he became Great Khan.


Napoleonic (Revolutionary) France is considered to have been meritocratic. After the revolution of 1792 hardly a member of the former elite remained. When Napoleon rose to power, there was no ancient base from which to draw his staff, and he had to choose the people he thought best for the job, including officers from his army, revolutionaries who had been in the peoples' assembly, and even some former aristocrats such as prime minister Talleyrand. This policy was summed up in Bonaparte's often-quoted phrase "La carrière ouverte aux talents", careers open to the talented, or as more freely translated by Thomas Carlyle, "the tools to him that can handle them". A clear example is the order of the Légion d'honneur, the first order of merit, admitting men of any class. They were judged not by ancestry or wealth but by military, scientific or artistic prowess.

A later non-meritocratic practice, however, was Bonaparte's appointment of family members and Corsican friends to important positions (specifically regional leadership); loyalty may have been a more important factor than sheer merit in performance, a common case in political situations.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was a strong advocate of meritocratic types of government, believing them superior to all other known forms of government; in more general terms, he believed a noble "natural aristocracy" would arise to look after the common good.[10]

Early Socialists

Early utopian socialist thinkers advocated meritocracies or technocracies based on equal opportunities for all individuals to realize their own potential for the benefit of society as a whole.[11] Administration based upon experts, or those who work hardest, was a strong rationale for ridding social inequality, which instead leads to judgments about a persons worth based on their race, gender or economic class rather than their intellectual capacity or talent.

Meritocratic states


Among modern nation-states, the Republic of Singapore claims to be meritocratic,[citation needed] placing a great emphasis on identifying and grooming bright young citizens for positions of leadership (e.g., Lee Kuan Yew).[citation needed] The Singaporean interpretation places overwhelming emphasis on academic credentials as objective measures of merit.[citation needed]

Meritocracy is a central political concept in Singapore, due in part to the circumstances surrounding the city-state's rise to independence. Singapore was expelled from neighboring Malaysia in 1965 as a result of the unwillingness of the majority of its population, mostly ethnic Chinese, to accept a "special position" for the self-proclaimed Bumiputra (Malay for "inheritors of the earth"), the Malays.[citation needed] The federal Malaysian government had argued for a system which would give special privileges to the Malays as part of their "birthright" as an "indigenous" people. Political leaders in Singapore vehemently protested against this system, arguing instead for the equality of all citizens of Malaysia, with places in universities, government contracts, political appointments, etc., going to the most deserving candidates, rather than to those chosen on the basis of connections or ethnic background. The ensuing animosity between State and Federal governments eventually proved irreconcilable; Singapore was expelled and became an independent city-state. To this day, Singapore continues to hold up meritocracy as one of its official guiding principles for domestic public policy formulation.[12]

There is criticism backed by evidence that this system has some serious disadvantages: for one, Singaporean society is being increasingly stratified; and, for another, an elite class is being created from just a narrow segment of the population.[13] Commentators have also criticized the city-state for not applying the meritocracy principle uniformly; they cite, for example, the disproportionate influence and presence of the family of the founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in both political and business circles.[14] Although most Singaporeans still agree that the city-state's tremendous economic success has been due in part to its strong emphasis on developing and promoting talented leaders,[15] there are more and more signs that an increasing number of Singaporeans believe Singapore is instead becoming an elitist society.[16] Defendants claim the ancient Chinese proverb that 'Wealth does not pass three generations', suggesting that elitists will eventually be, and often are, replaced by those lower down the hierarchy. Indeed, many top political leaders in Singapore (and also China) come from peasant backgrounds, while modern peasants boast about their great ancestry, though the current Prime Minister is the son of a former Prime Minister.

A 2008 article in the International Political Science Review titled "Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore" argues that:

The concept of meritocracy is unstable as its constituent ideas are potentially contradictory. The egalitarian aspect of meritocracy, for example, can come into conflict with its focus on talent allocation, competition, and reward. In practice, meritocracy is often transformed into an ideology of inequality and elitism. In Singapore, meritocracy has been the main ideological resource for justifying authoritarian government and its pro-capitalist orientation. Through competitive scholarships, stringent selection criteria for party candidacy, and high ministerial salaries, the ruling People’s Action Party has been able to co-opt talent to form a "technocratic" government for an "administrative state".[17]

Grand Duchy of Finland

Another example is 19th-century Finland, which was formally ruled by an autocrat, though in practice governing was exercised by the educated class. Although ancestry and inherited wealth did influence one's educational opportunities, education and not ancestry was the principal requirement for admittance to, and promotion within, the civil service and government. Well into the mid-20th century, academic degrees remained important factors for politicians asking for the electorate's confidence.

Venetian Republic

Lasting 1,112 years, the Republic of Venice at times used a system based on meritocracy to decide the membership of its ruling council. Each year, citizens were assessed based on the number of merit points earned through their successes — in academia, with works or art, in business ventures, and so on — and the top names were appointed to the council. The council's role was legislative, judicial and executive, and it elected a Doge, on the understanding that any councillor who voted to appoint a Doge who later took Venice to war and lost would, along with that Doge, be put to death.[citation needed] In practice, however, a relatively small number of influential families usually provided the bulk of the council nominees year after year.


Meritocracy Online

Although formal meritocracies are uncommon online, informal ones are quite prevalent. They often occur in online games such as MMORPGs where the best players are more likely to become guild leaders or be otherwise influential,[18] although the ability to invest large amounts of time and/or money is also important. This is also the case for many discussion forums, since the most knowledgeable users often have better chances of becoming moderators.

Further, due to the nature of online interaction, where identity and anonymity are more readily managed then in direct interaction, the effects of social inequity can often be discounted in online communities. Intelligence, effort, education, and personality may be readily conveyed in an online interaction but a person's gender, race, religion, and social standing can be easily obfuscated or left entirely unsaid.

Open Source

There is a general tendency among open source projects toward meritocracy; the more able a programmer or developer seems, the higher their position (albeit informal) will be. The Apache Software Foundation is an example of an (open source) organization which officially claims to be a meritocracy.[19]

See also



  1. ^
  2. ^ Young, Michael (1958), Rise of the Meritocracy 
  3. ^ Young, Michael (29 June 2001), "Down with meritocracy: The man who coined the word four decades ago wishes Tony Blair would stop using it", The Guardian, 
  4. ^ Ford, Boris. 1992 The Cambridge cultural history of Britain. Cambridge University Press. p.34.
  5. ^ Kamolnick, Paul. 2005. The just meritocracy: IQ, class mobility, and American social policy. Greenwood Publishing Group. p.87.
  6. ^ Best, Shaun. 2005. Understand Social Divisions. SAGE. p.32.
  7. ^ Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr., The Meritocracy Myth (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); see also the authors' summary
  8. ^ Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, Kenneth Joseph Arrow, Samuel Bowles, Steven N. Durlauf, Chapter 1 - Merit and Justice Amartya Sen
  9. ^ This idea is best expressed in Book IV of the Republic, 434a-434c. The line numbers provided are according to Stephanus pagination
  10. ^ SparkNotes: Thomas Jefferson: Economic, Social, and Political Reforms 1776-1796
  11. ^
  13. ^ Singapore's elites
  14. ^ Lee Kuan Yew
  15. ^,176
  16. ^ Please, get out of my elite uncaring face
  17. ^ Kenneth Paul Tan (2008) "Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore", International Political Science Review 29(1): 7-27. Available at [1]
  18. ^ BBC - h2g2 - The Politics of Internet Discussion
  19. ^ How the ASF works - The Apache Software Foundation

External links

Simple English

A meritocracy is a system of government where people who deserve can go up in rank, as opposed to a system like nepotism.


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