Long live meritocracy

Some 125 years ago, during the reign of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Germany, the rest of western civilization was undergoing a profound transition toward a merit-based society. No longer could countries afford to fill key roles with people who did not have the skill or disposition for those roles. Rapid technological and economic changes created new demands for education and mental acuity. Competent people were needed so that the government functioned – trains ran, factories produced, and buildings were built.

King Ludwig was undoubtedly competent in the area of artistic taste, much to the benefit of tourists like myself. He built a resplendent, fairy tale-style castle (which was used as the model for Disney's Cinderella) in the Alps of southern Germany.

But when it came to governing a country, Ludwig is widely regarded as being an abject failure. Not only was he out of touch with matters of state, he also squandered the public treasury on building extravagant castles. (Although to be fair, some claim that the money came from family sources.)

Ludwig was one of Western civilization's last rulers who owed his or her position to heredity. Monarchy was unworkable in a society becoming more sophisticated and knowledge-based. The pool of people eligible for key occupations had to be dramatically expanded; it could not be limited to the minute percentage of the population comprising the royal family of the time.

As technological and managerial sophistication progressed, Western civilization became more open and democratic. Whether it was in the universities, in the factories, or in the top echelons of government, finding the right individuals to fill key slots no longer depended on family lineage. Mechanisms were introduced – job notices, competency tests, competitive bidding, democratic elections – that expanded the pool of available talent and helped determine the best candidates. Though the new system was far from perfect – pure meritocracy is impossible – it was a vast improvement on monarchy.

Of course, monarchy is not the only barrier to meritocracy. Other obstacles include racism, cronyism, and corruption. Such obstacles are still widespread, although they are less common in America and other advanced democracies.

As society gets even more knowledge based, it will have to become even more merit based. Operating a subway requires technological know-how. Being an FBI agent calls for knowledge of sophisticated software and hardware functions. Designing a better computer chip necessitates more advanced skills. Governing a city, a state, or a country demands an ability to better grasp the changing complexities of modern-day life. Society can ill afford to have anyone less than the best fill its key roles. The goals of fairness and equal opportunity are more important now than ever.

This is why quotas and preferences based on race, gender, religion, and other such characteristics are worrisome. While the intention may be to counter another barriers to meritocracy (such as racism), the irony is that they have carried things too far. Whether it be admitting students, hiring employees, or selecting contractors, it is often the case that a certain percentage of those selected have to be of a certain skin color, gender, or ethnic group. This often results in more meritorious candidates being excluded.

In many ways, society is actually regressing from a merit-based system, while just the opposite should be taking place.

It is true that moving toward the goal of meritocracy could result in a disproportionate share of certain racial groups in key positions. This is hard for many to accept. And I am not talking about overrepresentation of white males. In the future, more and more ethnic Asians will hold key positions in American society, as their technological prowess translates into economic and political power. White males will have to accept and embrace this reality.

Racial and gender quotas move us away from meritocracy. Though the problem takes a different form than existed in King Ludwig's day, the deliberate practice of not placing the best people in critical roles carries serious consequences. As society modernizes, it should also modernize its methods of choosing the right people–no racism, no cronyism, no quotas, no special preferences. Let equal opportunity prevail.

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