True Meritocracy

How to define meritocracy!

Dividing the concept of meritocracy into logical and historical/etymological components is a great approach to deeply understanding this governance model. Let’s start with the logical aspect, which involves exploring the underlying principles and rationale that justify the meritocratic system.

Logic of Meritocracy

1. Rational Allocation of Roles:

The foundational logic of meritocracy is that positions should be filled based on relevant skills and abilities rather than arbitrary factors like nepotism, inheritance, or demographic characteristics. This principle appeals to the rational aim of maximizing efficiency and effectiveness within any organization or society. For example, in a meritocracy, a position such as a surgeon or politician should be filled by individuals who have proven their competence through rigorous testing and relevant experience, ensuring that they are the most capable of performing the required duties.

2. Promotion of Fairness and Equality:

Another logical pillar of meritocracy is its promise of fairness. Ideally, everyone has the opportunity to compete on an equal footing for positions, with success determined solely by one’s ability and effort. This theoretically reduces social biases that can occur when other factors influence decision-making, promoting a more equitable society where individuals feel that their hard work and talents are justly rewarded.

3. Encouragement of Skill Development and Education:

Meritocracy logically encourages continuous personal and professional development, as advancement depends on one’s ability to meet clearly defined criteria of merit. This drives individuals to acquire education and skills that not only aid their personal growth but also contribute to societal progress. The emphasis on education and training ensures that the workforce remains skilled and competitive, which is essential for economic innovation and growth.

4. Accountability and Performance:

In a meritocratic system, the emphasis on merit (as opposed to seniority or other non-performance-based criteria) for advancement holds individuals and groups to higher standards of accountability. Performance becomes a key indicator of suitability for roles and for rewards, which fosters a culture of responsibility and continual improvement.

5. Utilitarian Efficiency:

From a utilitarian perspective, meritocracy is justified on the grounds that it leads to the greatest good for the greatest number by optimizing the match between individual capabilities and societal needs. Efficient allocation of human resources ensures that the most capable individuals handle tasks that are critical to societal welfare, thus theoretically maximizing overall productivity and well-being.


Each of these logical aspects supports the structure of a meritocratic system, providing a clear rationale for why such a system might be desirable or effective in achieving specific societal goals.

History and Etymology of Meritocracy

1. Etymology:

The term “meritocracy” is derived from the Latin “meritus” meaning “deserving” and the ancient Greek “-cracy” meaning “power” or “rule.” Thus, at its roots, the word signifies a system where power and positions are given to those deemed most deserving based on their merit. This definition encapsulates the core idea of meritocracy—rewarding individuals based on ability and achievement rather than birthright or other extrinsic factors.

2. Origin of the Modern Concept:

The modern concept of meritocracy was popularized by British sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 satirical essay “The Rise of the Meritocracy.” Young envisioned a society where IQ and effort determined social standing and power, critiquing what he saw as the rigid, unjust aspects of such a system. Interestingly, while Young’s work was intended as a caution against the idea, it instead sparked interest in meritocracy as a positive goal, particularly in educational and political reforms aimed at increasing social mobility.

3. Historical Implementations:

Throughout history, various forms of meritocratic systems have been attempted. For example, the imperial examination system in ancient China (from the Han dynasty onward) is often cited as an early form of meritocracy, where government positions were awarded based on performance in rigorous exams rather than aristocratic lineage. This system sought to ensure that the bureaucracy was staffed by capable individuals, although over centuries, it also faced criticisms regarding accessibility and rigidity.

4. Modern Adaptations:

In contemporary times, many societies strive towards meritocratic ideals, particularly in contexts like education, employment, and governance. Educational reforms often focus on merit-based scholarships and entrance criteria to promote equal opportunities. In the corporate and political worlds, there are ongoing discussions about the best ways to define, measure, and reward merit, with varying approaches to balancing objective performance metrics with equity and inclusion considerations.

5. Contemporary Debates:

Today, the debate around meritocracy is vibrant, with scholars, policymakers, and activists examining how best to implement its principles without exacerbating social divisions. This involves rethinking how merit is assessed and ensuring that systems genuinely provide equal opportunities for all members of society.


The historical and etymological exploration of meritocracy reveals its deep roots and complex evolution as a concept that continues to shape global societies. Understanding this background helps in critically assessing how meritocratic principles can be effectively and justly applied in modern contexts.

Summa Summorum

Logical Underpinnings of Meritocracy

Rational Allocation of Roles:

Meritocracy logically dictates that roles should be assigned based on relevant skills and abilities, aiming to maximize efficiency and effectiveness within any organization or society.

Promotion of Fairness and Equality:

The system theoretically promotes fairness by ensuring that advancement is based on ability and effort, thereby reducing biases associated with other non-merit factors like nepotism or demographic characteristics.

Encouragement of Skill Development and Education:

Meritocracy incentivizes individuals to pursue education and develop skills relevant to their career goals, aligning personal growth with societal needs and fostering a skilled workforce.

Accountability and Performance:

It holds individuals to higher standards of accountability, with performance and merit being key indicators for advancement and reward, encouraging a culture of responsibility and continual improvement.

Utilitarian Efficiency:

From a utilitarian perspective, meritocracy is justified on the grounds that it leads to the greatest good for the greatest number by optimizing the match between individual capabilities and societal needs.

Historical and Etymological Context


“Meritocracy” combines “meritus” (deserving) and “-cracy” (rule), emphasizing governance based on deservedness and ability.

Modern Concept Origin:

Introduced through Michael Young’s satirical essay “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” the term was initially meant as a critique but has evolved into a broadly endorsed ideal.

Historical Implementations:

Early examples include China’s imperial examination system, which sought to ensure government efficiency by staffing based on exam performance rather than lineage.

Modern Adaptations:

Contemporary societies strive toward meritocratic principles, particularly in education and employment, seeking to ensure that achievements and capabilities drive advancement.

Criticisms and Challenges:

Meritocracy faces criticisms for potentially entrenching inequality by justifying disparities as merit-based, overlooking structural inequalities that limit access to opportunities.

Contemporary Debates:

Ongoing discussions focus on defining and measuring merit, ensuring that merit-based systems are genuinely equitable and inclusive, without exacerbating social divisions.

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