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

Authors Avatar

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


 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.

Join now!

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 ...

This is a preview of the whole essay