Meritocracy was a phrase originally coined by Michael Young as a warning, although his message seems to have gone unheeded by its modern advocates.  It is a political philosophy defined by its belief in individuals being rewarded purely on their talents, their merits – generally market orientated ones.  Hitherto it seems only logical to assume that complete social mobility – ‘the idea that anybody, by their own merits and hard work, can achieve a better social or economic position for themselves and their family’ (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2009) – is a necessity.  A fundamental element of ‘equality of opportunity’.  However the implications of this idea are far more radical than many self-described ‘meritocrats’ would ever advocate.

When they wish to demonstrate a centrist appeal, social mobility is often proudly presented by the right as their correct conception of social justice.  They will often imply that ‘fair’ equality of opportunity, the principle that none are barred or discriminated against from taking part in a certain activity/part of life, provides all the social mobility that is necessary for those who are merely willing to try.  What they will almost certainly ignore is the inherent and fundamental link between social mobility and equality.

There is a clear correlation between the extent of inequality in a certain society and the amount of social mobility that is achieved by its citizens.  As measured by the correlation between what a son would earn at age thirty in relation to what his father earned when he was born, it is clear that countries with the least inequality have the greatest social mobility – the greater meritocracy.  The country that often boasts about its rags to riches ‘high social mobility’ style ethos, the United States, has the worst social mobility of all the market democracies analysed (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2009; see graph 1).  Perhaps the unregulated market consensus would face stronger challenge if the public only knew that the American Dream is in fact an American Nightmare.

American conservatives (economic liberals) often justify their claims that tax breaks for the wealthy, at the expense of social programs, create equality of opportunity (somehow) and allow individuals to receive reward for their ‘merit’.  The low-tax free (internal) market philosophy is most clearly espoused by President Ronald Reagan and the Washington Consensus that has followed.  However between 1970 and 2000 social mobility in the United States fell by 22% (Pickett and Wilkinson, 2009) whilst inequality rose by 9 points on the Gini coefficient, or 34.6% of its figure before Reagan’s term (Atkinson, 2015).  How can one call such a society in which individuals are far less capable of being socially mobile, being rewarded on their merit, a meritocracy?  When social mobility decreases, and inequality soars, that is not meritocracy that is privilege.

One could ask if the market can truly provide a meritocracy, as it does not reward people for their talents or the social value of what they do, but their market value.  But this is another question.   By the view of the political right, this is what they argue an unfettered market does.  It rewards people for their ‘talents’ and their ‘willingness’ to try.  But by their standards, the mere definition of meritocracy, it clearly does not.  If the political right are serious about meritocracy they need to begin showing the vociferous passion toward tackling inequality that we on the political left do.  Once they do that we can begin a serious conversation about the merits of meritocracy.

social mobility inequality graph

Graph 1
Source: The Equality Trust