The Meritocracy Paradox | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 06, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:54 PM, August 06, 2020

The Meritocracy Paradox

In an ideal world, political and economic power would be conferred upon the most meritorious and talented. A world where wealth, connections, and social class would be irrelevant. Such a world would be following a meritocratic economic system. Whilst countries like the USA like to claim that they are, in fact, meritocratic, meritocracy leaves no room for nepotism or corruption. But that's not what we are here to talk about today.

To the short-sighted, the idea of meritocracy sounds perfect. However, that is far from the truth. A truly meritocratic system is a paradox in itself because it states nothing about the determinants of what "merit" really is. What it doesn't take into consideration is that "merit" is subjective. A painter may be meritorious in their art, but because most people cannot grasp the depth of the work, they may not be considered meritorious and thus, may never "succeed".

Another facet that remains undefined in the theory of meritocracy is "success". Is success money or fame? Or is it social status? Let us assume that "success" is knowledge. But knowledge comes at a cost. To be successfully knowledgeable, you would have to attain education from a well-reputed university. Going to university is expensive and only so many people can afford to do so. Say, you get a scholarship, and you work long and hard, and become "meritorious". Now you want the same for your child, so you work long and hard to earn enough so they can focus entirely on their education and then go on to repeat the same cycle. It all ultimately boils down to money and power, the two determinants that are supposed to be non-prevalent in a meritocratic society.

The most significant loophole in this theory is its contradictory system of reward. In a meritocratic society, individuals are rewarded based on how successful they are; which ultimately makes their reward, in simple words, a conflict of interest that ends up debunking the entire theory as a sham. If the theory were to be remotely applicable to the real world, individuals would have been rewarded based on their effort. There would be no "geniuses" because everyone would be on the same scale as long as they were making the effort to be so.

The point of this argument is that "merit" is irrelevant. It is not objective. In fact, basing success on anything but objectivity would create scope for favouritism, nepotism, and classism. Would you rather work hard or work smart? Is effort necessary when you are genetically more intelligent than your colleagues? The paradox lies in the fact that even the people at the top preaching meritocracy do not realise that they are, in fact, lucky as they are already "there", while others are still making it.

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