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Meritocracy is a system of government based on rule by ability (merit) rather than by wealth or social position. “Merit” means roughly intelligence plus effort. One implication is that whatever level in society a citizen reaches is held to be what such an individual deserves. Meritocratic can also sometimes be used to describe a government, or other body, that stresses formal education and competence despite other features (e.g. ancestry or sex).
Most systems of government contain some meritocratic elements; for instance, elected officials usually hire expert advisers to help formulate policies. Some would suggest that the military ranking system is perhaps the closest meritocratic organization which can easily be found. Pure meritocracies, however, are virtually unknown.
"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 "noble man," slowly took on a new meaning in his sayings — something like the English "gentleman." 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.
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 Fei-zi 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, though there were also numerous meritocratic elements. Eventually, a follower of his teachings, 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. By this time Han Fei was long dead, although legalism, along with its anti-aristocratic, pro-meritocratic ideals, remained a key part of Chinese philosophy and politics for another two milennia.
Among modern nation-states, perhaps the Republic of Singapore comes closest to being a pure Meritocracy, with its emphasis on identifying and grooming bright young citizens for positions of leadership. There is also a strong emphasis on academic credentials; these are seen as objective measures of both intelligence and effort.
Meritocracy is a central political concept in Singapore, and is at the heart of its founding myth. Specifically, Singapore is seen to have been "expelled" from neighbouring Malaysia in 1965 as a result of the unwillingness of its majority immigrant groups (especially the ethnic Chinese) to accept the special position of the indigenous communities (especially the 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. In time, the federal government came to implement an affirmative action policy that favoured the numerically preponderant but economically backward indigenous groups.
The Singapore government argued 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. In the ensuing conflict between State and Federal governments, Singapore was expelled, and became an independent city-state.
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's horse 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, therefore, 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 people's assembly, and even some former aristocrats such as prime minister Talleyrand.
A later non-meritocratic practice, however, was the appointment of family members and Corsican friends to important positions (specifically regional leadership).
Grand Duchy of Finland
Another example is the 19th century Finland, which was formally ruled by an autocrat, though in practice governing was left to 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.
Origin of term
Ironically, the term was first used in a pejorative sense in Michael Young's 1958 book Rise of the Meritocracy , which was written from the standpoint of a 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 social class or race.
Young's central criticism of meritocracy was that a system in which social position is determined by objective characteristics would still be inegalitarian and unstable. There have since been other lines of criticism; proponents of critical theory often argue that merit is defined by the power elite simply to legitimise a system in which social status is actually determined by class, birth, and wealth.
- World Wide Words — Michael Quinion writes about the changing use of the term
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