Theresa May has promised in “her” manifesto (others in her party seem to be bystanders) that the UK is to become “the world’s Great Meritocracy” (her capitals). What does that mean? I think it is meant to mean that family money should not determine a person’s chances in life. But it has always been better to be born rich and influential than poor and without influence. There are no proposals to change any of the factors which make it so. Indeed, it is hard to think how such an outcome could be avoided. People can be given chances to improve their lot, but they don’t all start from the same place and it is doubtful Mrs May would be so radical as to insist they should. Nor would any sane person.
But there is a more sinister side to the idea of meritocracy. It suggests that everyone will get what they deserve, what they merit. Merit, in this equation, equals something like talent plus application. That might be fine if talent or application (itself arguably a talent) were optional, but surely they are not. You either have them or you don’t, it’s broadly a matter of chance, or luck – a bit like being born rich. By all means let us nurture talent and financial reward is a good nurturer but why is it meritorious to be lucky enough to be talented? Why do I “deserve” more (Of what? Everything?) if I am talented? I’m fine with the idea that the talented will probably get more, but “deserve” more? It might be more tolerable if the rewards for different talents reflected some idea of their social value, not just their market value, so that for example we valued those who care for others. As it stands it is just homespun neoliberalism, the same free market rhetoric which promotes public austerity to make the rich richer.
What, after all, will be the test of merit? Why, success, what else?! Presumably then billionaires are more meritorious that millionaires, who are more meritorious than the rest. We get what we deserve and we deserve what we get. So this proposal, far from being an assurance that everyone will have a good chance in life, is in fact an assurance that anyone who lacks talent or good luck deserves little. It is the same thinking that promotes grammar schools, forgetting that to do so is to promote the injustice of secondary moderns. It is the same thinking that led one of Mr. Trump’s cabinet secretaries (Dr. Carson) to declare that “poverty is a state of mind”. Blame the poor, it’s their own fault they are poor – not just in occasional cases, but in most or even all. And since talents are unequal, inequality is inevitable and greater inequality must be better.
A society which allowed everyone to express and develop their talents would be great. And sure, why should people not enjoy their good luck? But shouldn’t we remember it is just good luck? Those who lack whatever talents the market values or perhaps just feel obliged to do other things should also have a chance to live satisfying lives. Poverty should not be allowed to go unchallenged. But that requires sharing in some form and only a democratic state in which the very rich did not control opinions could attempt such a thing.