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Fair go: do we want to live in a meritocracy?

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Bert Kelly Lecture series


No. 2

Sydney, March 17, 1999

‘"Fair Go": Do we want to live in a Meritocracy?’

Peter Saunders


When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in mid 1997, it was in his first speech that he articulated his vision to turn Britain into a meritocracy. The implication is that Britain isn’t a meritocracy. I’ve been doing work which led me to believe that Britain is relatively meritocratic, as indeed are most Western industrialised nations. A meritocratic system dictates that you progress in society on the merit of two things - your ability and your effort. Social background and the associated advantages or disadvantages count for nothing, only talent and ability are the yardsticks of success.

On the surface, it appears that Britain clearly isn’t a meritocracy. This is signalled by institutions and class structures still in place. For example, the monarchy, the House of Lords and an aristocracy. They flaunt themselves every year at Henley, Ascot and Wimbledon, and we all get terribly agitated about it. It is due to this, in large part, that I think there is an image of Britain as being a crusty, closed and disharmonious society.

It is important to get under the surface and look at society as a whole. My thesis is that the rest of the society - you and me, the people who are competing for good jobs and rewarded positions - is remarkably open.

The reason that Blair is under the impression that Britain isn’t meritocratic is probably due to the fact that for 30 or 40 years the sociological establishment in Britain has been telling him and other politicians that it isn’t a meritocracy. This can be explained in part by available research on social mobility. Using each person’s starting position as their own benchmark, there’s a remarkable amount of movement up and down the occupational scale in Britain, America and Australia. However, if you look at the relative chances of a child who is born at the bottom of the heap, to a semi- or unskilled manual worker household, and compare those chances with that of a child born into a higher level professional or managerial household, statistics have shown consistently that the latter is 3 times more likely than the former to end up in a top position. In terms of chances of success, this shows a disparity ratio of 3 to 1 between children from extreme ends of the social scale.

The assumption has been that the odds are in favour of children from more privileged backgrounds because of the inherent advantages. In picturing a pure meritocracy, it is clear that from one generation to the next that you would tend to find some apparent transmission of high occupational status. If in one generation there’s open competition and people are allocated to positions according to their ability and their hard work, whether genetically or through cultural transmission this generation will pass on some of the talents and some of the cultural characteristics which brought them success to their children, thus creating another cycle of success. In view of this, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you have a 3 to 1 disparity ratio, you don’t have a meritocracy.

Research in this area has afforded us a wealth of information. A data set is available, for example, on 17,000 children born in one week in 1958 that has been followed through outlining their progress right into their 30s - we know all sorts of things about these people. The data shows if their parents read them bedtime stories, if they had an outside toilet, and their teachers’ assessment of whether they worked hard at school. This data set shows that if you want to predict where a British child, born in 1958, will end up at the end of the 1990s in the occupational system, the key variable is how they performed in an IQ test at the age of 11. That will explain about half of the variants. To be more accurate, add measures of how hard they worked at school, and this will explain about three-quarters of the variants. This means that only a quarter of variants may be explained by the things that sociologists have traditionally worried about: level of parental support, extent of parental ambition, which school the child attended, etc - these things really don’t seem to count for much at all. What’s odd is that when this work was published, some responded by saying that they didn't believe it. Other people responded by acknowledging that Britain may be a meritocracy after all, but then said, how awful that this should be so. Isn’t a meritocracy an awful thing to be? This critique sparked questions of my own. Why do I believe in pursuing meritocratic ideals? What might the alternatives be?

I am approaching this from a sociological point of view. I don’t want to get into moral/ethical issues about whether we should believe in meritocracy as a moral/ethical principle. I want to explore the sociological issues of why a meritocracy might be seen as a good thing, socially. One of the key arguments for meritocracy as a positive system of social reform is outlined in the work of Emile Durkheim.

Emile Durkheim was looking at similar issues back in 1890 in his book The Division of Labour in Society . He was concerned by the pathology of modern society, and one of the problems he identified was what he called the forced division of labour. His thesis asserted that modern societies will be dysfunctional and oppressive, and that individuals will not be content until the occupational system reflects the distribution of natural talent. Natural inequalities have to be expressed in social inequalities. When we reach that point, says Durkheim, people will accept that the place they occupy in society is a fair place to occupy because it is grounded in what they can offer to the society, free of inherited privileges that unfairly help or hinder, purely natural talents expressed in social talents. From this, Durkheim deduced that in order to get to a healthy, well-balanced, well-functioning society we need to have widespread education thereby ensuring opportunity for everybody, regardless of social status. Durkheim also believed in the abolition of inheritance, an argument which may not go down well at the Centre for Independent Studies, but was nevertheless what Durkheim believed.

The idea that people need to feel that the system they’re living in is fair, that once open competition is implemented talent will rise to the top, and the assumption that this will then produce a society which is functioning and which is seen as legitimate by all its members, was a prominent sociological ideal up until the 1950s and 1960s. In 1958, a key challenge to the idea of meritocracy was published in a book by Michael Young (who coined the term meritocracy) titled The Rise of the Meritocracy . The book is a spoof historical novel, claiming to have been written in the year 2033 looking back onto the 20th and early 21st centuries. In his book, Young fantasises that due to post-WWII reforms, including the increased availability of education, by 1990 an open society where talented people were able to rise to the top had been formed. A problem developed, however, when those left at the bottom of the scale found this even more objectionable than the previous system. The new system had engendered a sullen resentment towards those who were succeeding within the meritocratic structure. Why should those who happen to be born with brains get all the advantages? Far from being the cohesive system Durkheim believed it would be, Michael Young said that a meritocracy would be a recipe for social polarisation, division, fatalism, resentment, and ultimately conflict. The book ends in the year 2033 with a populist uprising and the establishment of an egalitarian regime.  

Young’s thesis is certainly valid and support for it came from the most unlikely source with the publication of The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in America. The Bell Curve proved extremely controversial after its release due to the fact that the authors strayed into the debate about the relationship between race and intelligence. This is a shame as the premise of the book is totally unrelated to this debate. The basic thesis of The Bell Curve asserts that contemporary America is facing a process of cognitive polarisation, leading to an opening up of higher education. As Michael Young predicted, if you’re bright in the United States and are willing to work hard, it is possible to attain higher education. Further education leads to a good job, and because of technological and organisational change, employers desperate for bright, highly trained people in the modern technology age are prepared to pay more and more money to retain the services of educated employees.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the society, people who are not trained, who perhaps are not bright enough to compete in this cognitive competition, are being pushed aside. Unskilled or semi-skilled workers are paid very little because there is little demand for their services, due to the mechanisation and automation of industry. This situation is producing a polarisation between those who are educated and well paid and those who are not, now the new cognitive underclass. The scenario that Murray and Herrnstein outline is very similar to Michael Young’s prediction when they say that this is a recipe for what they call the custodial state. This underclass, confined to the American inner cities and the public housing projects, is going to become resentful at its inability to share in the good things of life because it doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to do so. Those in the underclass are unable to enter into the labour market and offer the kind of services that are required to get a good return. This resentment and frustration is eventually expressed in violence, and the state is forced to incarcerate a large proportion of this underclass, hence, the custodial state. We are increasingly seeing this scenario played out in the United States.

This presents meritocracy with a major problem. Perhaps Tony Blair and other Western leaders shouldn’t pursue meritocratic principles due to the downward spiral of the custodial state and inherent polarisation, an undesirable result indeed. The problem has the potential to become even worse. If you’re left at the bottom of the social scale and there’s very little movement up, it is inevitable that you begin to compare yourselves with others who are left at the bottom. However, if you’re left at the bottom when there is a lot of upward movement, you compare yourself to those who are moving up and start to question your own lack of progress. This basic concept of relative deprivation is a key concept in sociology. The concept was beautifully demonstrated in the 1950s by R.K. Merton in his analysis of the American soldier.

In his study of the American soldier, Merton’s conclusions concerning relative deprivation were based on a comparison of the military police and the air corps. The ranks of the military police were relatively static: promotion was rare, and everyone was perfectly happy with their career prospects. The air corps, however, proved to be very different. Due to the high risk and high fatality rate associated with the job, the air corps experienced a high turnover rate of personnel. No sooner were one set of sergeants, for example, promoted than another group of sergeants were required. Promotion prospects were abundant, however many in the air corps were dissatisfied with their career prospects. Merton explained this by the theory of relative deprivation. People in the air corps were seeing many of their colleagues being promoted, thus leading them to question why they, also, were not receiving promotions. This was set in contrast with the military police, who were seeing no promotions, and thus did not question their career prospects as frequently.

This study has a message for meritocracy. The more meritocratic society becomes, the more resentful people become. The more open we get, the more the situation deteriorates. This poses an additional problem: an open society leads to more people succeeding and more people moving up the scale. This increased number of people who are succeeding can devalue success itself. It is similar to the old analogy of going to a football match where everybody is standing, making it hard to see the game. The next week, somebody brings a box to stand on and gets a great view. It follows that the whole crowd comes along with boxes the week after, so nobody’s any better off. This can translate to a meritocratic society: those who stay at the bottom become resentful, and those who do move up aren’t grateful because they are unable to appreciate the advantage of their situation.

Custodial state, unhappy society, social polarisation - we’d better find an alternative! I’d like to suggest three alternatives. One alternative is to revert to ascribing people’s positions at birth. Sociologically, this alternative is ideal as you can train people from birth to have realistic expectations of what life is going to offer them. Prince Charles has known since birth that he is going to be king (well, he thinks at some point he’s going to be king!), he’s been trained for the position for 50 years. A peasant back in feudal Europe knew he was always going to be a peasant. However, realistically we can’t go back to that. Modernity can’t function with an ascribed system, we need flexibility and mobility. That leaves us with just two other possibilities (excluding meritocracy), one of which is egalitarianism, and the other is, for want of a better phrase, liberalism or the free market alternative.

To begin, it is important to clarify the difference between meritocracy, egalitarianism and the liberal position. Meritocracy is just reward for hard work and talent. Durkheim advocates the abolition of inheritance and the implementation of good education opportunities across the board so everybody’s lined up in the race, bang! go! whoever wins is fair. The main concern for the meritocrat is that everybody starts on that starting line together. The egalitarian, however, disagrees. He believes that when you’re hurtling down the track, some competitors should be pulled back so that all contestants cross the line together. Egalitarianism stipulates that the effort of the individual is unimportant as everyone must be equal at the end of the day. The end result is social justice for egalitarians. Liberals, however, do not want to be involved in the debate at all. The liberal says these principles are not necessary to determine the distribution of good in society. The choice to allocate good equally at the end of the day or according to talent and hard work is irrelevant. The primary concern is that free individuals consent with each other to exchange goods and services and the result of that, free of coercion and duplicity, is fair.

The difference between these three social options can be illustrated with two applications. Firstly, imagine that these three characters sit down to play a game of Monopoly. About five minutes into the game the egalitarian will say, "This isn’t fair becaus e you’ve now got more than I’ve got". He will then proceed to introduce rules that stipulate, for example, that nobody should have more than one house. The end result would be a Monopoly board that has Free Parking all the way around the board.

The meritocrat approaches Monopoly with an attitude that accepts that a game must have winners and losers. However, he will want to eliminate the dice because the winner should be determined on how well they play the game, not on chance.

And, of course, the liberals say, "play the game". You can do anything as long as it’s within the rules. And as long as you don’t break the rules you can do all the deals you like. For example, you can go into the next room and make a deal to swap Pall Mall for Angel plus Pentonville because it’s all within the rules. The winner is the winner. And that’s fair.

The second application is perhaps a little less flippant. Contemporary issues in Australian politics clearly illustrate my argument because these three positions are deeply embedded in all political disputes. One example is youth wage determination. The divisions on this dispute are determined by the three positions. The egalitarian position says that setting a minimum wage for youth that is different from the minimum wage for the adult worker is unfair. They are all workers, therefore they should all get the same. The meritocrat says it is justifiable to set the minimum wage lower than everyone else because young people by and large are less experienced , they’ve probably had less training, and they’re probably not as good at the job. The liberal, however, asks why the government is playing around with wage determination in the first place. If the employer wants to pay so much an hour and the young person wants to accept it, then that’s fair and the government ought not to get involved. Other disputes such as work for the dole, the GST, welfare reform, are all divided on these three boundaries

The problem is that all three are very plausible positions. It is not evident that any one of them is not fair. All three are fair, but all three are incompatible, you cannot implement them all. It is impossible to have a system that rewards people according effort and talent, but also ensures that everyone ends up equal whilst allowing people to freely determine how much they’re going to pay each other. While Australian culture celebrates its commitment to fairness and the ‘fair go’, I don’t sense in the time I’ve been here that there’s any consensus over what that means. Some people mean egalitarianism, some people mean meritocracy, and some people mean a free market. All three are fair, but all three are contradictory.

To recap, the problem with meritocracy is that if you’re not careful, it produces a custodial state, social polarisation, fatalism, resentment and conflict. So let us focus on the other two. First let us examine egalitarianism and the egalitarian critique of meritocracy. Egalitarians believe that meritocracy is not fair for two reasons. Firstly, when you reward ability and talent, you’re really rewarding social advantage. This argument originates from a strong belief in the egalitarian tradition that everyone is born with equal abilities. The nature/nurture debate ripples through this argument between egalitarianism and meritocracy. The egalitarian position held by people who argue against meritocracy, is well illustrated by their stance on the IQ test for children at 11 years old, as mentioned earlier. Egalitarians argue that any results from the IQ test are just a reflection of any advantages the child had in its first 11 years. It is not a reflection of natural abilities. This argument is invalid and does not hold up to further scrutiny. It is incontrovertible that people are born with different abilities. Due to the lack of validity of its first argument, the egalitarian critique of meritocracy has slid into a second argument which questions why people should be rewarded simply because they happen to be born bright. This is a different argument, but a more interesting argument. My response to that question is that meritocracy does not reward people because they are bright. Meritocracy rewards people who are bright and who use that ability in socially useful ways. Meritocracy does not reward intelligence, it rewards the use of intelligence.

The liberal critique of meritocracy is best demonstrated by the words of Friedrich Hayek. Hayek, like the egalitarians, is anti-meritocratic. He says, "However able a man may be in a particular field, the value of his services is necessarily low in a free society unless he also possesses the capacity of making his ability known to those who can derive the greatest benefit from it. Though it may offend our sense of justice to find that of two men, who by equal effort have acquired the same specialised skill and knowledge, one may be a success and the other a failure, we must recognise that in a free society, it is the use of particular opportunities that determines usefulness. In a free society we are remunerated not for our skill, but for using it rightly." Hayek goes on to say that in a system of free market capitalism, sometimes very deserving people will fail and scoundrels can succeed. Awful people, morally reprehensible people can get lucky, and those who are more deserving will get nowhere. Hayek says that that is the price you pay for a free society.

While he is to be admired for his honesty, Hayek was an economist and a legal philosopher, not a sociologist. A sociologist would heartily disagree with Hayek’s conclusions. As Durkheim said 100 years ago, in order for any society to work and function with stability, it has to have a clear sense of how it justifies its arrangements to those who live in it. Hayek’s ‘like it or lump it’ stance is unproductive because it will never provide legitimation and justification for a free capitalist society. It does matter why people end up where they do and with the resources they end up with. The reasons are important, and the questions must be answered. Neither the egalitarian nor the liberal position can function as an alternative to meritocracy because ultimately they both offend a sense of what is appropriate and fair. The egalitarian position is offensive when it says to working people that they must work and pay taxes to support not only those deserve support, but those who don’t. The history of social policy for the last 100 to 200 years, until recently, was an attempt to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor, and it’s a distinction that has become confused and perhaps even lost in the post war years. Governments have struggled with this problem precisely because it is offensive to working people to say their money is going to be taken away and given to those who don’t deserve support.

Equally, the liberal position is offensive when it says I don’t care why you’ve got your money, I don’t care whether you deserved it, and I’m not going to make an effort to rectify what, as Hayek himself says, appears to be a gross injustice. The fact that really hard working, honest people don’t get rewarded, and that this situation is not worth rectifying is offensive to popular sentiment. Logically, people will not be sold on either the egalitarian or liberal alternatives. The evidence for this, probably the flimsiest to have ever been put before you, is the results of a survey I conducted some years ago (it is British evidence I’m afraid). In this survey I posed three questions which corresponded to the three different positions. Essentially, the egalitarian question asked whether incomes should be flatter and more equal irrespective of what people do. Half of those surveyed agreed, about a third disagreed and the rest were neutral. The liberal question asked if they thought it was right that people should be rewarded according to how useful their services are. The response was similar to that of the egalitarian-based question: about half agreed and about a third disagreed. The meritocratic question asked if they agreed that people should be rewarded according to their talent and hard work. Ninety percent of those surveyed agreed with the principle behind this question. I suspect that Australian responses would be similar.

I challenge you to find another moral principle in the fragmented, pluralistic, modern society that will get an assent from nine out of ten people. Meritocracy does. In view of this, we should endeavour to make the meritocratic principle work. Although we have already examined the problems with this alternative, it is still important to bring to the fore evidence which suggests that meritocratic societies are open. People living in Australia and America, which have a greater sense of being open societies than Britain, are not as aware as they should be of how much opportunity there is in a world of universal access to education, a world that’s rapidly changing, a world of open competition, of movement both up and down the occupational scale. This kind of information needs to be put into the public realm far more than it is currently. Although there are many different factors contributing to problems with youth in this country, as in Britain, one of the main reasons is that young people do not seem know that their destiny is within their own hands. There is an overriding sense that ‘the system’ is to blame, ‘the system’ is out of control, that there are problems that none of us can do anything about.

I’ll end with an anecdote. My father left school in the 1930s at the age of 14. He was a working class boy going to a working class school and for some reason, which I’ve never understood, he took his autograph book into school on his last day at school an d asked the teachers for their autograph. One of the teachers wrote a message in the book which was to become my father’s ethos, "Aim high for though you may not reach the sky, you almost certainly will reach the mountain tops." I was brought up to believe in that ethos. It is important for our youth that society comes to a point where it is normal to teach our children that adage, "Aim high, you may not reach the sky, but you almost certainly will reach the mountain tops".


About the Author:  

Peter Saunders is Research Manager at the Australian Institute for Family Studies. Before joining the AIFS in January, Professor Saunders held a chair in Sociology at the University of Sussex and has previoiusly held research and professorial positions at Melbourne University, RMIT and ANU. He is the author of Unequal but Fair? A study of class barriers in Britain .