Charles says he believes in meritocracy, and Shem too thinks that admission to university should be based on merit. Polling the CIS did a few years back shows that most Australians also like the idea of meritocracy.
Meritocracy is a theory of desert; that if you have some characteristic – usually linked to ability – you deserve a position associated with that characteristic, most commonly places at educational institutions and particular jobs. Meritocracy’s Wikipedia entry states that this is in opposition to allocation by
wealth (plutocracy), family connections (nepotism), class privilege (oligarchy), cronyism, popularity (as in democracy) or other historical determinants of social position and political power.
But Wikipedia’s list is too short. Both liberals and social democrats support principles of distribution that are at least in tension with meritocracy.
Don Arthur likes pointing this out in the case of liberalism. Liberalism favours distribution by free exchange, and there is no guarantee that this will match distribution according to personal merit. The market is usually too impersonal to judge directly whether people are intelligent, hard-working, or have any other positive personal attribute. Consumers and producers often know little or nothing about each other. People can be stupid or lazy but lucky, and so reap market rewards. And people can be intelligent and hard-working but unlucky, and so go unrewarded in the market (as recent graduates are about to find out, at least temporarily).
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