AskDefine | Define meritocracy

Dictionary Definition



1 a form of social system in which power goes to those with superior intellects
2 the belief that rulers should be chosen for their superior abilities and not because of their wealth or birth

User Contributed Dictionary



merit (From merere), to earn + -cracy (From κρατεία, strength, power]]


  1. Rule by merit, and talent. By extension, now often used to describe a type of society where wealth, income, and social status are assigned through competition.

Derived terms


Extensive Definition

Meritocracy is a system of a government or another organization wherein appointments are made and responsibilities are given based on demonstrated ability (merit) and talent rather than by wealth (plutocracy), family connections (nepotism), class privilege, cronyism, the will of the people (as in democracy) or other historical determinants of social position and political power.
The word "meritocracy" is now also often used to describe a type of society where wealth, position, and social status are in part assigned through competition or demonstrated talent and competence, on the premise that positions of trust, responsibility and social prestige should be earned, not inherited or assigned on arbitrary quotas. Meritocracy is used both to describe or even criticize competitive societies, that could accept large inequalities of income, wealth and status amongst the population as a function of perceived talent, merit, competence, motivation and effort.

Origin of term

The term 'meritocracy' was first used in Michael Young's 1958 book Rise of the Meritocracy. The term was intended to be pejorative, and his book was set in a dystopian future in which one's social place is determined by IQ plus effort. In the book, this social system ultimately leads to a social revolution in which the masses overthrow the elite, who have become arrogant and disconnected from the feelings of the public.
Despite the negative origin of the word, there are many who believe that a meritocratic system is a good thing for society. Proponents of meritocracy argue that a meritocratic system is more just and more productive than other systems, and that it allows for an end to distinctions based on such arbitrary things as sex, race or social connections. Detractors of meritocracy, on the other hand, argue that the central dystopian aspect of Young's conception — the existence of a meritocratic class that monopolises access to merit and the symbols and markers of merit, and thereby perpetuates its own power, social status, and privilege.
In writing the United States "Declaration of Independence" Thomas Jefferson relied heavily on Chapter Five of John Locke's Second Treatise on Government, which conceives of a society where the foundation of all property is solely the labour exerted by men. Locke argued that the acquisition of property was not morally wrong, if it were acquired through the exertion of labour and if it were in order to meet one's own immediate needs. So, he said, society is necessarily stratified, but by merit, not by birth. This doctrine of industry and merit as opposed to idleness and inheritance as the determining factor in a just society argued strongly against kings and governments of nobles and their lackeys, in favor of representative republicanism.
Often, opponents of the concept of meritocracy argue that characteristics such as intelligence or effort are simply impossible to measure accurately. Therefore, in their view, any implementation of meritocracy necessarily involves a high degree of guesswork and is inherently flawed. Those who support free markets believe that the free market can and should determine both merit and reward. Meritocracy has also been criticized as a myth which merely serves to justify the status quo; merit can always be defined as whatever results in success, thus whoever is successful can be portrayed as meriting success, rather than success being in fact predicated on rational, predetermined criteria of merit.

The Composition

Meritocracies are comprised of these governing principles: 1) Job placement is not awarded due to experience or expertise, but instead it is awarded on the basis of merit, 2) on the conditions of the opportunity under the application of the job principle and 3) one that specifies the rewards for job attainment. These principles however, do not account for injustices but disregard them. Not all meritocrats operate in this manner. Most evaluate the structure of job equalities and inequalities through human abilities and personalities that allow them to perform job tasks to the best of their abilities.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is a social theory which holds that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is a model for the development of biological traits in a population and is sometimes incorrectly applied to human social institutions. Social Darwinism was at its most popular from the late 19th century to the end of World War II. Proponents of Social Darwinism sometimes used the theory to justify social inequality as being meritocratic.

Individual proponents


"In teaching there should be no distinction of classes." - Analects XV. 39. tr. Legge Many western admirers of Confucius, like Voltaire or H. G. Creel, have pointed out an innovative and revolutionary idea of Confucius': he replaced the nobility of blood with one of virtue. Jūnzǐ (君子), which had meant "superior person," coming from the contemporary meaning of the literal translation "son of the ruler," slowly took on a new meaning close to the English "gentleman" (long before the emergence of English). A virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities could be a "gentleman", whilst a shameless son of a King was only a "small man." That he allowed any kind of student to be his disciple (his teachings were intended to train future rulers) is a clear indication that he didn't wholly support feudal structures in Chinese society.

Han Feizi

In addition to Confucius, another ancient Chinese philosopher of the same period (the Warring States) advocated a meritocratic system of government and society. This was Han Feizi who was famous as being the foremost proponent of the School of Law (otherwise known as the philosophy of Legalism). The central tenet of his argument was the absolute rule of law, but there were also numerous meritocratic elements to be found . Another Legalist, Shang Yang implemented Legalist and meritocratic reforms in the state of Qin by abolishing the aristocracy and promoting individuals based on skill, intelligence, and initiative. This led to the armies of the Qin having a critical edge over the other nations that adhered to old aristocratic systems of government. Legalism, along with its anti-aristocratic, pro-meritocratic ideals, remained a key part Chinese philosophy and politics for another two millennia, although after the Qin Dynasty it was heavily diluted.

Genghis Khan

Meritocracy was the primary basis for selection of chiefs and generals in the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan chose whomever was talented and fit for his military chain of command. He even trusted generals and soldiers from opponents' armies if they showed loyalty to their leaders. For example, Genghis Khan's general Jebe had been an enemy soldier who had shot Genghis in battle before he became Great Khan.


Napoleonic (Revolutionary) France is also sometimes considered to have been meritocratic. After the revolution of 1792 hardly a member of the former elite remained. When Napoleon rose to power, there was no ancient base from which to draw his staff, and he had to choose the people he thought best for the job, including officers from his army, revolutionaries who had been in the peoples' assembly, and even some former aristocrats such as prime minister Talleyrand. This policy was summed up in Bonaparte's often-quoted phrase "La carrière ouverte aux talents", careers open to the talented, or as more freely translated by Thomas Carlyle, "the tools to him that can handle them". A clear example is the order of the Légion d'honneur, the first order of merit, admitting men of any class. They were judged not by ancestry or wealth but by military, scientific or artistic prowess.
A later non-meritocratic practice, however, was Bonaparte's appointment of family members and Corsican friends to important positions (specifically regional leadership); loyalty may have been a more important factor than sheer merit in performance, a common case in political situations.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was a strong advocate of meritocratic types of government, believing they are superior to all other known forms of government; in more general terms, he believed a noble "natural aristocracy" would arise to look after the common good.

Meritocratic states


Among modern nation-states, the Republic of Singapore claims to be meritocratic, placing a great emphasis on identifying and grooming bright young citizens for positions of leadership. The Singaporean interpretation places overwhelming emphasis on academic credentials as objective measures of merit.
Meritocracy is a central political concept in Singapore, due in part to the circumstances surrounding the city-state's rise to independence. Singapore was expelled from neighboring Malaysia in 1965 as a result of the unwillingness of the majority of its population, mostly ethnic Chinese, to accept a "special position" for the self-proclaimed Bumiputra (Malay for "inheritors of the earth"), Malays. The federal Malaysian government had argued for a system which would give special privileges to the Malays as part of their "birthright" as an "indigenous" people. Political leaders in Singapore vehemently protested against this system, arguing instead for the equality of all citizens of Malaysia, with places in universities, government contracts, political appointments, etc., going to the most deserving candidate, rather than to one chosen on the basis of connections or ethnic background. The ensuing animosity between State and Federal governments eventually proved irreconcilable. Singapore was expelled, and became an independent city-state. To this day, Singapore continues to hold up meritocracy as one of its official guiding principles for domestic public policy formulation.
There is criticism with evidence that from within that the increasing stratification of Singaporean society and the creation of an elite class based on a narrow segment of the population as a result of this system has some serious disadvantages. Commentators have also criticized the city-state for not applying this principle uniformly, citing for example the disproportionate influence and presence of the family of the founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in both political and business circles. Although most Singaporeans still agreed that the city-state's tremendous economic success was due in part to its strong emphasis on developing and promoting talented leaders, there are increasing signs that an increasing number of Singaporeans believe that Singapore is becoming an elitist society instead.
A 2008 article in International Political Science Review titled "Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore" argues that: The concept of meritocracy is unstable as its constituent ideas are potentially contradictory. The egalitarian aspects of meritocracy, for example, can come into conflict with its focus on talent allocation, competition, and reward. In practice, meritocracy is often transformed into an ideology of inequality and elitism. In Singapore, meritocracy has been the main ideological resource for justifying authoritarian government and its pro-capitalist orientations. Through competitive scholarships, stringent selection criteria for party candidacy, and high ministerial salaries, the ruling People’s Action Party has been able to co-opt talent to form a “technocratic” government for an “administrative state.”

Grand Duchy of Finland

Another example is the 19th century Finland, which was formally ruled by an autocrat, though in practice governing was exercised by the educated class. Although ancestry and inherited wealth influenced one's educational opportunities, education and not ancestry was the principal requirement for admittance to, and promotion within, the civil service and government. Well into the mid-20th century, academic degrees remained important factors for politicians asking for the electorate's confidence. Likewise, one's military rank in reserves has been a decisive factor on selecting leaders and managers both in public and private sector. Even today, most Finnish managers are amongst those who have attained an either NCO or reserve officer rank during their conscript tour of duty.

Venetian Republic

Lasting 1,112 years, the Republic of Venice at times used a system based on meritocracy to decide the membership of its ruling council. Each year, citizens were assessed based on the number of merit points earned through their successes — in academia, for works or art, for business ventures, and so on — and the top names were appointed to the council. The council had a role encompassing legislative, judicial and executive functions. They elected a Doge, on the understanding that any councillor who voted to appoint a Doge who took Venice to war and lost would, with that Doge, be put to death.

Meritocracy Online

Although formal meritocracies are uncommon online, informal ones are much more prevalent. They often occur in online games such as MMORPGs where the best players are more likely to become guild leaders or be otherwise influential., although the ability to invest large amounts of time and/or money is also important.

Open Source

There is a general tendency among open source projects for meritocracies: The more able a programmer seems to be, the higher their position (albeit informal) will be. The Apache Software Foundation is an example of an (open source) organization which officially is explicitly a meritocracy.


External links

meritocracy in Bulgarian: Меритокрация
meritocracy in Catalan: Meritocràcia
meritocracy in Czech: Meritokracie
meritocracy in Danish: Meritokrati
meritocracy in German: Meritokratie
meritocracy in Estonian: Meritokraatia
meritocracy in Spanish: Meritocracia
meritocracy in Esperanto: Meritokratio
meritocracy in Basque: Meritokrazia
meritocracy in Persian: شایسته‌سالاری
meritocracy in French: Méritocratie
meritocracy in Galician: Meritocracia
meritocracy in Indonesian: Meritokrasi
meritocracy in Italian: Meritocrazia
meritocracy in Dutch: Meritocratie
meritocracy in Norwegian: Meritokrati
meritocracy in Polish: Merytokracja
meritocracy in Portuguese: Meritocracia
meritocracy in Romanian: Meritocraţie
meritocracy in Russian: Меритократия
meritocracy in Slovak: Meritokracia
meritocracy in Serbian: Меритократија
meritocracy in Serbo-Croatian: Meritokracija
meritocracy in Finnish: Meritokratia
meritocracy in Swedish: Meritokrati
meritocracy in Ukrainian: Меритократія
meritocracy in Chinese: 精英政治
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