Have We Been Getting Meritocracy All Wrong?

How to redefine healthy market competition, for the good of everyone

Anna Mercury


Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

At the heart of many popular debates on economics in America today lies a simple ethical question: Does a billionaire deserve to be a billionaire?

Proponents of free-market capitalism might answer with a resounding, “Yes!” The billionaire worked hard and produced value the market deemed worthy enough to reward with over a billion dollars. Opponents of it would, of course, say “No!” With the federal minimum wage at a mere $7.25 per hour, nearly 40 million Americans living in poverty and the reality that humans are not intrinsically more valuable than one another, the existence of billionaires at all is a gross miscarriage of economic justice.

Those who find themselves somewhere in the middle might offer a quiet, stilted, “Perhaps… Under certain circumstances. It would depend, really… I’d need to see the numbers.”

The deeper question underlying this debate is whether the market, as we know it, is equipped to allocate resources appropriately. Is our economy truly the meritocracy it claims to be? If it is, then its assessment is correct that one person’s labor can be worth millions of times that of another’s. If it isn’t, we need to change the market’s measures of merit, or stop allocating resources based on merit at all.

From where I sit, American culture seems deeply wedded to the ethos of meritocracy, so much so that I don’t think we’re likely to embrace an economy anytime soon that doesn’t allow for some competition on the basis of merit. At the same time, our supposed meritocracy has undoubtedly become a system that is inefficient, inequitable and unsustainable. The economy we have is not able to meet most people’s needs, not based on the way the market currently allocates resources.

So are we simply to abandon meritocracy altogether?

We actually don’t have to. We just need to switch the kind of merit we’re assessing.

Our typical understanding of a meritocracy is a system in which economic and political power are granted to those who deserve such power, determined on the basis of their merit. The most popular political candidate, the business that provides the…