Meritocracy, the system that has proposed itself as a fair replacement for hereditary aristocracy, promised to eliminate economic injustice by allowing people from all walks of life to prosper, on one condition: that they work fiercely. This ideal has conquered the most powerful people on the planet, who, in turn, want to instill it in the people they lead. The last two American presidents, for instance, despite their different ideological orientations, have proposed the same dream of equal opportunities.
Barack Obama said in his inaugural address in 2013 that we are “true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else…”
Donald Trump translated this equality in the field of labour when, in his 2017 inaugural speech, he said: “We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.” Analyst Clifton Mark, who noted this similarity in the political discourse of the two state leaders, also said that meritocracy, as a proper social ideal, “is not only wrong; it’s bad”—a deeply countercultural assessment given that the majority of international respondents say in polls not only that the world should be governed by meritocratic principles, but that this is how it is conducted today.
Why we aren’t all Bill Gates
However, the argument is based on numerous biographical examples, including that of Bill Gates’ career. This is what economist Robert Frank says in his book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Frank proves that the sudden rise of the Microsoft founder is emblematic of how “luck” intervenes in the equation of success, contributing with merits and providing circumstances in which these merits can be translated into success.
There are many programmers at least as talented as Gates who have failed to become the richest person on the planet, the American author says. As exciting as it is to discuss this “luck,” that Frank invests with godlike qualities, it is not relevant now, because Frank’s message is a negative one: it is not work that made the difference between the success of Bill Gates and the anonymity of other brilliant programmers.
This term meritocracy, however, is not only wrong, but even harmful. Numerous psychological studies demonstrate this, showing how, despite its laudable intentions, meritocracy ends up in the paradox of discriminating against the very people it wants to protect. Clifton Mark quoted a study in which the participants were divided into two categories: proponents and recipients. The proponents had to split an amount of money between themselves and the recipients. Recipients could receive or reject the offer. If they refused, nobody received anything. Researchers at Beijing Normal University, who conducted this experiment, called the “ultimatum game,” found that the proponents generally tended to split the money relatively evenly—in the range of $40-50, for a total of 100 dollars.
However, when the organizers introduced a change to the study, the results were completely different. Prior to the ultimatum game, they invited participants to take part in a fake skill game, one in which the proponents would win regardless of their actual skills. After participating in this game, the proponents—who had suddenly acquired an unrealistically good self-image—began to suggest a distribution of money that was much more advantageous for them, as if, due to their abilities, they deserved more than the receivers.
The experiment, replicated in many other scientific contexts, has always revealed the same thing: when we think we have certain merits, we think we deserve more than others. And this highlights the paradox of the meritocracy trap: “Satisfied that they are just, [believers in meritocracy] become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice,” Mark says.
This mechanism has been mapped by three other studies conducted by management analyst Emilio Castilla (Massachusetts Institute of Technology–MIT) and sociologist Stephen Bernard (Indiana University) on several companies that implement meritocratic organizational policies. They found that in companies that adopted performance-based reward as their core value, managers rewarded men more often than women with equal performance (this discrepancy disappeared in companies that did not explicitly adopt meritocracy as an organizational value).
This is because, convinced of their own fairness, decision-makers were less attentive to their own prejudices and discriminated against women, as they were inclined to do. The researchers’ explanation was that, for managers, meritocracy was actually a kind of “ritual” to be followed, not a real value. Therefore, this could not achieve its goal, but instead became the basis on which the very actions it sought to combat were justified. In short, managers came to discriminate because they ruled out the idea that they could discriminate.
Similarly, no matter how much hard work working or middle class kids may put in, when it comes time to apply for higher education, they will always be at a disadvantage when compared to children who are the product of rich parents and privilege—something which became abundantly clear in the college admissions scandal which shook the public in 2019
In conclusion, no matter how flattering it may be for one who has achieved some success, meritocracy, as a social system, actually promotes selfishness, discrimination, and even indifference towards those who have not been ‘deserving enough’ to achieve success. A meritocratic society will not produce true equality—indeed, a true meritocracy will only perpetuate the faults present.
The endless rise of meritocracy
The term “meritocracy” is relatively new in contemporary vocabulary. It was not popularized until 1958, when British sociologist Michael Young’s essay, The Rise of the Meritocracy, was first published. However, the system described by this concept—a society ranked according to the merits of the individuals who make it up—has manifested itself for longer than we probably realize. Its religious counterpart, for example, existed even in the time of Jesus Christ, and has experienced a very vocal revival today.
Religious meritocracy sees in prosperity of any kind a proof of divine approval, the mark that its possessor is on good terms with the Divinity. Implicitly, in this narrative, any of life’s hardships are perceived as shortcomings of the believer, who has attracted God’s contempt.
In one of His instructive walks with the disciples, Christ faces a question that seems to have exactly this principle as a premise. John the Evangelist recounts how, meeting a blind man near the temple, the disciples ask their master, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus’s answer, however, contradicts the popular theology that underpinned the disciples’ question. The disciples had alluded to the belief that any disease is the consequence of a certain sin, but they were puzzled by the fact that this particular man had been born with his disease, so they thought that it could not be a sin of his own causing the disease, but his parents’ sin.
Christ answers from outside the false dilemma the disciples were facing, showing them that, although they saw only two possible solutions to the question, before His divine wisdom a whole array of possibilities was open: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him”. The event concludes with the performance of a miracle—the healing of the blind man—which uniquely revealed Christ’s divine identity.
In a different context, Jesus told the disciples that their philosophy, which calculated an assured reward in this life for the deeds of men, was wrong. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” the evangelist Matthew records.
However, Jesus’s words, recorded for centuries in the pages of Scripture, did not prevent the persistence, until the second millennium after Christ, of the belief that God guarantees all kinds of joy and prosperity to the religious, here on Earth.
Today, this Christian-meritocratic vision has a name that has become firmly entrenched: the “gospel of prosperity,” and there is a multitude of superstar-pastors who are willing to support it. Believers who become followers of this vision are still plentiful, although theologians who have been fighting it have existed for centuries.
Although it was not identified by this name, the gospel of prosperity was opposed even by the authors of the Protestant Reformation, whose goal was to combat the temptation of believers to “buy” salvation by works. It was the revelation of Martin Luther’s life to discover that his sin—over which he was genuinely horrified and mentally tortured—had only one remedy, and that was the grace that God wanted to grant without him deserving it in any way, offered freely out of love. Once Luther understood this, the Protestant Reformation took on greater proportions than the life of the one who ignited its spark.
Nevertheless, as in Luther’s day, there are people today who cannot accept that salvation— or even the temporary blessings of this life, such as health, intelligence, beauty, and material wealth—are gifts that God gives us regardless of our qualities or the lack thereof. There are people who struggle to believe that God receives them exactly as they are, but they just can’t bring themselves to believe it. Presbyterian Pastor Timothy Keller says that the reason for this inability lies in the greatest sin a person can be guilty of: pride.
Pride, Tim Keller explains, is a form of cosmic plagiarism. To be proud means to look at the good things in our lives and to take credit for them, thinking they are something we have achieved in our own strength. Christians, however, know that, as the apostle James says, “every good and perfect gift is from above”.
(Or, in the words of the apostle Paul, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”) Being proud means claiming that we are the authors of what is, in fact, a gift from God.
This has at least two implications. First, as the author of the good things in a person’s life, God is their rightful owner. When we proudly take credit for what He has created in our lives, we rob God of the praise He deserves. Then, as the owner, God has total control over His work. He has the right to dispose of the gifts He gives us (or does not give us) exactly as He wishes. This is extremely difficult to tolerate for our human nature, which—thanks in part to our human ego—would like to have control over what happens to us.
In other words, pride can also be our belief that we have every right to have control over what happens to us. That is why pride can also be manifested both in wealth (“All I have is by my merits”) and in poverty or trouble (“I did not deserve this”, or, “I deserve more than what I got”). To foster true humility in our hearts is, as Dr Keller notes, a difficult task.
The sin that makes the devil laugh
Pride is such a versatile sin that, at first glance, it can even be a tool for good. The apologist C.S. Lewis noted that many teachers often use pride to teach their students to behave properly: “Many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper, by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity—that is, by Pride”,
Lewis says in Mere Christianity.However, he comes back and says: “The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride—just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”
A proud person cannot love, because pride makes him incapable of recognizing the other person’s value and of wanting them for what they are, in themselves. Lewis says: “Pride is essentially competitive…Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not.
“They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”
Keller adds a broader explanation and notes that pride makes us incapable of even feeling compassion for others, of being empathetic. “How do you know if you’re proud?” Keller asks, quoting Lewis. “By how much you hate those who are proud.” By this the pastor means that the extent to which we feel threatened by the pride of others is caused by the amplitude of our own pride.
Pride, he says, reduces us to the status of animals driven by the instinct for survival, for which the qualities of the other are always a threat. Therefore, in the presence of God, who is the absolute of all qualities, the proud person revolts, in an attempt to become the centre of their own selfish story.
Pride makes us incapable of that joy which only men can nurture. Animals can only be happy when all their living conditions are optimal, when their needs are met. Humans, on the other hand, can rise above their circumstances—if they’re not proud. If they are, pride will hijack every kind of circumstance: it will turn the good ones into a feeling of, “This is long overdue! I have deserved this for a long time now!” and will turn the bad ones into insurmountable tragedies.
The biblical solution to the cancer of pride is its opposite, the Cinderella of beautiful character traits: humility. Humility is such an unpopular concept today that even the word by which we describe it is an old-fashioned concept whose meaning we do not even understand very well. We imagine that people can walk all over a humble person, that a humble person is someone who does not know their potential, and who is deprived not only of pride, but even of a healthy sense of self-esteem. However, this view is an unseemly distortion of Christian humility.
Keller describes Christian humility as the ability to believe that this world and the life we live in are better than what we deserve as human beings. He says that true humility does not mean low self-esteem, because it receives the gift of life.
There is also a false humility, one that says, “I don’t deserve the good gift, so I don’t want it.” This is, in fact, an inverted form of pride: “I want to deserve it, and I should, so I will not receive it unless I deserve it.” Humility, however, is a radically different paradigm, which does not work according to the principles of pride, in any of its forms. The humble admit that they do not deserve the gifts, but they joyfully receive them. How could they possibly refuse the One who offers them?
Humility is the confidence that God, as the author of creation, of which we are a part, loves His work, because He did it and is attached to it. The belief that God had a good idea when He created us is a truly stable foundation for trust and joy.
The humble person will not be that kind of slippery, pathetically insincere man who constantly points out that, “Of course, they are a nobody”. If we saw a humble man, Lewis says, “probably all you will think about him is that he seems a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. (…) He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
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Alina Kartman (35 years old) graduated from the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest (SNSPA), but chose a career in journalism. With hundreds of published analysis materials, she has accumulated over 13 years of editorial experience. She is a senior editor at ST Network, the European version of Signs of the Times. A version of this article first appeared on their website and is republished with permission.