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).
Liberalism doesn’t guarantee that rewards will be distributed according to merit, but egalitarians are against rewards being distributed according to merit. A Marx’s famous dictum stated, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ In left-wing thinking, ability is substantially a matter of luck. Intelligence is a matter of genetic good fortune, as is being born into a family capable of developing, through high quality parenting and schooling, what natural potential a person may possess.
In egalitarian thought the surplus this luck produces should not go to those who have it, as it typically will in a liberal market society. Though markets are not formally meritocratic, in practice they are probably increasingly so as income is distributed more according to education and hours worked than in the past. Meritocracy means inequality. Arguably, meritocracy is an even worse form of inequality than aristocracy – at least then the poor could console themselves with the thought that it was unfair and the rich weren’t really better than the poor. But under meritocracy, unequal rewards are also just rewards.
Understandably, few on the left want to sign up to this idea. Instead, the left favour distribution of rewards according to other criteria, to all citizens usually according to ‘need’ in some form. Simple income redistribution is part of this, but there is also the problem of access to a range of rationed goods and services. Education, at least at the better schools and universities, and through them the leading professions, is one of these.
The left understands that ability must be part of the entry criteria – ability has to be made productive so that the needs of other can be met. The problem here is that while a certain level of intelligence and willingness to work is necessary to be a competent professional, there are generally more people who meet these criteria than there are places in the top schools and universities.
Particularly in the United States, the left has run a major campaign against strict academic merit based entry to higher education (the story is told in Nicholas Lemann’s excellent book, The Big Test). And more discreetly, every Australian university has long let students from disadvantaged backgrounds in on lower entry scores than other people. This has always been a huge complication in the argument against the full-fee places: a strict order of academic merit entry principle would disadvantage poor people far more than rich people.
I partially agree with the left on this point, which is why I argued for entry to university by lottery earlier in the year. But my larger point is that beyond the minimum entry requirements necessary to successfully complete a course, I don’t think strict order of academic merit is necessarily an optimal way of distributing places.
The main arguments in favour are that it encourages effort in school, for research universities it recruits those most likely to pursue postgraduate work, and that it is cheap for universities to run, as selection can be carried out by a computer.
There are arguments against all these points. While effort in school is good, students would still have to work hard to reach the minimum standards of the top courses, but perhaps without the same levels of stress they suffer now. And as Conrad notes this system favours private school students, when it is reasonable to encourage some upward social mobilty by giving people with less favourable home or school backgrounds a greater chance of selection. If universities are trying to create an interesting campus experience, they may also want to encourage some diversity in the classroom.
While future academic researchers are likely to be high academic achievers, to the extent the universities are schools for the professions a strict order of academic merit selection method is not necessarily going to produce the best lawyers, doctors, engineers etc. Increasingly, more specific aptitude tests are being used. This is more expensive than selection based just on school results, but it is sensible to spend a few hundred dollars getting a better match between a student and a course that will cost tens of thousands of dollars to deliver.
And where I would most depart company with the left on this, I think that where there is an income-contingent loan willingness to pay is also relevant. Willingness to pay fees is a sign by applicants that they intend to use their education in ways that will deliver high returns, rather than just doing the course out of interest, or because they can’t decide what they want to do with their lives. If there is a genuine shortage of places, surely we should take steps to see that they are not wasted or used sub-optimally?
So I am not a strict meritocrat, and indeed despite its intuitive appeal I think strict meritocracy even in education is hard to defend. It doesn’t reliably predict academic success, much less achieve other purposes of education, and it clashes with the ideas of free exchange and fair distribution. Classical liberals and leftists are united against meritocracy, albeit for different reasons.