Worries about the Stability of Meritocracy

In §17 of A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempted “to forestall the objection to the principle of fair equality of opportunity that it leads to a meritocratic society” (86, emphasis added; see also 73). This statement is surprising, at least at first glance; isn’t meritocracy a good thing?

Rawls was worried about the problem of social respect and self-respect raised by Michael Young’s 1958 The Rise of Meritocracy.  Here is a nice summary of the worry about merit, based on a 1994 article by Young:

“If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and, if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage… [A]uthority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people… have the confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized. Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people have less native ability than those selected for high position, that would not mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right to advantage.”

Michael Young, “Meritocracy Revited,” Society, Vol. 31, No. 6, 1994, p.89

At the time of writing The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek had not read Young’s book, but he nonetheless cited its message approvingly.  In Chapter 6 of The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek doubted whether making rewards more closely correspond to merit would yield a better social order.

“A society in which it was generally presumed that a high income was proof of merit and a low income a lack of it… would probably be much more unbearable to the unsuccessful ones that one in which it was frankly recognize that there was no necessary connection between merit and success” (98).

It is in the accompanying footnote that Hayek cites Young, along with the socialist (!) Anthony Crossland:

“When opportunities are known to be unequal, and the selection clearly biased towards wealth or lineage, people can comfort themselves for failure by saying that they never had a proper chance – the system was unfair, the scales too heavily weighted against them. But if the selection is obviously by merit, this source of comfort disappears, and failure induces a total sense of inferiority, with no excuse or consolation; and this, by a natural quirk of human nature, actually increases the envy and resentment at the success of others.”

One finds the same sort of idea in Milton Friedman’s chapter on income distribution in Capitalism and Freedom:

“Despite the lip service that we all pay to ‘merit’ as compared to ‘chance,’ we are generally much readier to accept inequalities arising from chance than those clearly attributable to merit. The college professor whose colleague wins a sweepstake will envy him but is unlikely to bear him any malice or to feel unjustly treated. Let the colleague receive a trivial raise that makes his salary higher than the professor’s own, and the professor is far more likely to feel aggrieved. After all, the goddess of chance, as justice, is blind. The salary raise was a deliberate judgment of relative merit” (166)

The source of this worry about the psychological stability of a meritocratic society may have been Frank Knight. One of Knight’s many insightful points about the “competitive system” from his 1923 essay “The Ethics of Competition” was that people object not only to the material upshot of the “game” but to its character (59), to being forced to play it (71), and to having their social status determined on the basis of their performance.

“Turning to look for motives attached to production as an activity rather than to the product, the most obvious is its appeal as a competitive game. The desire for wealth takes on more or less of the character of the desire to capture an opponent’s pieces or cards in a game. An ethical criticism of the industrial order must therefore consider it from this point of view. In so far as it is a game, what kind of game is it? There is no doubt that a large amount of radical opposition to the system arises in this connection. The propertyless and ill-paid masses protest not merely against the privations of a low scale of living, but against the terms of what they feel to be an unfair contest in which being defeated by the stacking of the cards against them is perhaps as important to their feelings as the physical significance of the stakes which they lose. In a higher social class, resentment is aroused in the hearts of persons who do not like the game at all, and rebel against being compelled to play it and against being estimated socially and personally on the basis of their successor failure at it” (60).

I wish I’d included this passage in my paper on Knight and Rawls – and Hayek’s quote of Crossland. But the paper couldn’t consist only of quotes. In any case, this worry about the psychological stability of a market-based social order is another dimension of the connection between Rawls and Knight / Hayek / Friedman. They all dealt with it by emphasizing the importance of luck, in determining of success. Rawls made the additional claim that self-respect would be protected if it was commonly understood that inequalities between social positions raised lower positions (his difference principle).

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