In defense of meritocracy (precisely because it does not exist)

Public opinion is always an imperfect regime. Valid arguments coexist with fallacies, imprecise analogies or malicious biases. It has always been this way and as long as we are able to distinguish the true currency from the false one, it will not be so serious either. However, the debate around meritocracy has inaugurated a completely unusual new plot strategy that hardly responds to the semantic vocation of the concept.

Since Michael Sandel publish The tyranny of merit, there have been many followers who have subscribed to a thesis that, strictly speaking, was already suggested in the Theory of justice from John Rawls. In its best formulation, the thesis has something certain, that is, that the elites present as individual merit what is nothing more than a contextual advantage. However, that accurate and thorough intuition has degenerated into a true nonsense that does not stop spreading.

One would intuitively suggest that meritocracy is the only fully republicanly justified way of allowing certain legitimate inequalities. Even the most egalitarian (those who argue that GDP could, for example, be distributed among the nation’s citizens) would have to face the always complex paradox of the distribution of finite privileges such as public office.

The meritocracy aspires to place in the merit of each the benefits resulting from the exercise of their effort and excellence

The classics have already devised different ways to distribute the magistracies and, it seems obvious, if we have to select who will be the next lawyers of the Council of State or if we must choose the manager of a public hospital, the criteria set forth in our Constitution (namely, the merit and ability) seem to be two fair criteria. They are, in addition, two respectful markers with the civil equality expected in any liberal democracy and they are, in addition, sensitive to the retribution of virtue that must be recognized in every morally educated political community.

On many historical occasions, elites have justified their privileges on the basis of a merit that was either non-existent or inherited. The warrior ardor of the great-great-grandfather or the servile loyalty of some ancestor was enough to try to justify the inequality that each one took advantage of. His justification might be false, but he feigned or simulated his legitimate status on the basis of merit.

There is no doubt that such abuses are still recognizable in those who today hold birthright privileges, but this fact does not obscure the noble guiding criteria proposed by meritocracy. From its explicit etymology, the meritocracy aspires to place in the merit of each individual the benefits resulting from the exercise of their effort and their own excellence, something that in principle should be able to satisfy any true egalitarian.

Meritocracy does not establish what the legitimate spectrum of inequality is, nor does it even aspire to promote said inequality, but rather emphasizes, as an ultimate foundation, that any difference in the form of income, recognition or opportunity must be justified in the effort and performance of each individual. .

The calls to defend the popular classes entertain themselves in a logomachy contrary to the retribution of merit

The meritorious and well-educated condition of legitimate inequality should always be an ally of the weakest, since those who have barely had a single opportunity to prosper have had much more merit than those who have had a family mattress capable of providing them with new opportunities. for biographical trial and error. Perhaps for this reason it is discouraging to see how those who would be called to defend the popular classes entertain themselves in a logomachy contrary to the retribution of merit.

The most unusual thing about the criticism of meritocracy is the shameless contradiction that it already exhibits from its own statement. Read on both sides and you will see that the essential marrow of the argument is as absurd as the following: “meritocracy must be criticized because it does not exist”, forgetting that the condition of any regulative ideal is precisely that, not to exist to serve as a horizon rector of all that remains for us to conquer.

The absurdity of this reasoning is demonstrated if we prolong it on other values ​​that structure our civil consensus. Non-violence, equal rights or even the right to life could, under the same argumentative strategy, be discredited based on their non-existence. At the rate we are going, some enlightened mind will end up censoring peace in the world for the same reason that meritocracy is censored. This is because, like any regulative ideal, it does not exist.

*** Diego S. Garrocho Salcedo is a professor of Ethics at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

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