Democracy or Meritocracy?

Writing in the early 20th century, the English economic historian and Christian socialist R.H. Tawney wrote dismissively about what he termed “the Tadpole Philosophy.” In response to growing socioeconomic inequality in Britain, some social critics were advocating for greater “equality of opportunity,” in which the impoverished and underrepresented would be able to escape their lowly status by climbing ladders of opportunity to more privileged social tiers. Tawney regarded this as akin to the relatively minute chances of tadpoles growing into frogs, leaving the dire situation of the poor masses subordinate to the opportunities open to a lucky few. This post analyzes the assertion that, in market-oriented democracies, socioeconomic inequalities generated by markets contradict the democratic principle of political equality. It then turns to the question of whether meritocracy, an ideology promoting social mobility common in many modern industrial democracies, is able to resolve the socioeconomic inequality/political equality discrepancy, or whether it is merely a façade that engineers class repression instead of hindering it. It is clear that, despite the appeal of meritocratic “equality of opportunity,” the facts suggest Tawney was correct. Meritocracy has not decreased inequality in market-oriented democracies, but has instead reinforced an oligarchic system more akin to aristocracy than democracy.

For all the lip service paid to its value in most countries in which it flourishes, democracy has usually existed only within the political realm. Democratic citizenship carries with it certain political rights, characteristically the ability to exercise certain political freedoms. Yet these freedoms rarely extend to social and economic life. In market-oriented democracies, the market largely decides conditions such as employment opportunities and the costs of goods and services, which in turn determine how much citizens will be able to afford their education, their housing, and other factors that decide their place in the social hierarchy. As the market distributes resources, it generates and reinforces socioeconomic inequality, which in turn undermines a key element of optimal democracy: that all citizens exercise the same degree of influence politically (Przeworski, 2010, pp. 66-67). The existence of a socioeconomically privileged class would inevitably lead to that class using its ample resources (and all those resources could buy) to ensure that political decisions protected their interests. Of course, it was natural that the socioeconomically underprivileged would use what political power they had to fight back. Political theorists, such as James Mackintosh and Karl Marx, argued that, once states extended suffrage to the poor masses, those masses would mobilize to appropriate wealth and equalize society, leaving the wealthy little resource other than to restrict suffrage, or failing that, resort to force to keep the masses in line (ibid, pp. 82-83). There is a great deal of credence, then, to the view that democracy has been “a project simply blind to economic inequality” and that, by initially withholding political rights to the poor, democratic institutions merely “replaced aristocracy with oligarchy” (ibid, p. 85). Yet, other than the occasional strike or spurts of protest over inequality, democracies have not proven as unstable as some theorists predicted they would be. Generally, the poor have not used democratic means to make themselves richer and elites employing violence to suppress dissent over inequality features in some democracies but not all. (One should note that, while scholars and laypeople alike tend to ascribe such violence to developing Third World states, the recent unparalleled brutality used by authorities against Occupy Wall Street protestors throughout the United States suggests that cases of such violence, while not everywhere common practice, may be observed in most market-oriented democracies, regardless of development.)

There are many competing explanations for why market-oriented democracies do not collapse by their naturally arising inequality. One such argument is that, through collective struggle and the relative dissolution of economic power, the poor oblige the state to recognize them and thereby grant greater social inclusion. This is the kernel of the argument presented by Philip Oxhorn in his 2003 essay, Social Inequality, Civil Society, and the Limits of Citizenship in Latin America. Challenging T.H. Marshall’s claim that the evolution of civil and political rights for the working class precedes the certain provision of social rights, Oxhorn argues that social inclusion must be preceded by economic change resulting in “greater dispersal of power resources” and “the capacity of distinct groups to organize” (Oxhorn, 2003, p. 41). This latter development is dependent on the state allowing a strong civil society to operate independent from it. Oxhorn contrasts the occurrence of these developments in Britain to Latin America, where civil society was weak and the working class was subject to “controlled inclusion” – in which the state captured the working class via corporatist organizations and attenuated its ability to mobilize against the ruling class (ibid, p. 44). For Oxhorn, the British working class gained a larger degree of political participation because of opportunities afforded to them economically and socially; these opportunities, more than trade unions or peasant organizations, paved the way for social and political mobility. In essence, Oxhorn’s argument is one of meritocracy. Socioeconomic inequality ceased to be a deterrent for the British working class in politics once conditions enabled them to utilize resources that allowed them to display entrepreneurship and intelligence outside the confines of the state, propelling them to a more comparable standing with the dominant classes. The inequality created by the market became justified (or at more tolerated) because spreading affluence and institutions autonomous of the state supplied ladders out their dire location on the economic hierarchy. Recent economic data, however, indicates that despite whatever “social inclusion” the British poor may have achieved through the conditions Oxhorn describes, being poor remains a profound disadvantage in the United Kingdom. A report released last year entitled An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK found that “the household wealth of the top 10%” is “over 100 times higher than the wealth of the poorest 10%” and that the wide differences between resources available to the rich and poor hinders the latter’s ability to meet their potential (Gentleman and Mulholland, 2010). Why, then, has the lot of the British working class not meaningfully improved (at least in the last few centuries), assuming that Oxhorn is correct and developments in Britain permitted their ascendance to a position where they could agitate for more equality? The answer lies in that “controlled inclusion” does not necessarily need to be a state construct, but can operate within society as well, and meritocracy serves as an example of this.

The term “meritocracy” began its life not in a positive sense, but as a satirical idea conceived by Michael Young, a British sociologist and Labour politician. In 1958, Young wrote about a Britain where being born into wealth or good pedigree had become irrelevant, so the elite ceased using economic or social class to select its membership but instead used education. Those deemed “intelligent” – the best students from the most prestigious schools – were praised and promoted, while those deigned less promising found their opportunities narrowed or closed. Although nature allocates ability at random, society only opens doors for a tiny minority (which then reproduces itself and concentrates power in its hands), leaving the remainder vulnerable, and marginalized (Young, 1958). Those at the top, believing that they have reached where they are by their own merit, have few qualms in subsequently rewarding themselves with all manner of luxuries, including substantial salaries and bonuses. In our current society, where meritocracy is not a dirty word but honored ideology, there is evidence that Young’s satire is reality. In a 2011 article in The Washington Post, Peter Whoriskey documented that widening income inequality in the United States can be attributed to recent significant increases in the salaries of corporate executives, who validate the excess because “companies are larger and more complex” and that, when profits grow, so should the rewards for decision-makers (Whoriskey, 2011). Some commentators have pointed to an evolving ethos, arguing that in recent decades greed has taken on a degree of permissiveness. It is easy, however, to find indications that suggest that the rich believe they are rich because their merit made it inevitable. One need only consider the words of John D. Rockefeller: “I believe the power to make money is a gift of God … to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience” (Flynn, 2007, p. 401).

It has been said that the study of politics is the study of power. Yet the study of politics often reveals that it is not always in the political realm where true power lies. In market-oriented democracies, power ostensibly lies in the hands of the people, yet the market and those who benefit most from it concentrates economic power in such a way that a majority of people cannot reach the Aristotelian end of politics: the good life. When the state fails to improve the condition of the poor, there is a temptation to look outside the state, to point to society as a means by which the worst off might become better. Ideology does not determine governments and policies alone, however. Ingrained in our culture are fundamental beliefs that seek to portray the status quo as fair, that the balance of power is natural and proper. Meritocracy is such a cultural ideology. Much as monarchs and later aristocrats appealed to divine right and age-old customs to validate their rule, the unequal societies that characterize most modern democracies cites classical liberal faith in individual innovation and worth. If there is indeed widespread interest in not making the good of all secondary to the ascension of the minority, meritocracy is not the solution. Rather, it is an embrace, not a cynical wisdom, of democracy’s belief in the equality of humanity, and that this equality should not just exist in our politics, but in our economic and social lives as well.

Works Cited

Flynn, John. 2007.  God’s Gold: The Story of Rockefeller and His Times.  Auburn: The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Gentleman, Amelia and Hélène Mulholland. 2010. ” Unequal Britain: richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest,” The Guardian, 27 January 2010

Oxhorn, Philip.  2003.  “Social Inequality, Civil  Society, and the Limits of Citizenship in Latin America,” in  What Justice?  Whose Justice?  Fighting for Fairness in Latin America. Eds. Susan Eckstein, Eva and Timothy P. Wickham-Crowley. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 35-63

Przeworski, Adam. 2010.  Democracy and the Limits of Self-Government.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 66-98

Whoriskey, Peter. 2011. “Income Gap Widens as Executives Prosper,” Washington Post, 19 June 2011

Young, Michael. 2008. The Rise of the Meritocracy.  New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers


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