Meritocracy, in the first, most administrative sense, is a system of government or other administration (such as business administration) wherein appointments and responsibilities are objectively assigned to individuals based upon their "merits", namely intelligence, credentials, and education,[1] determined through evaluations or examinations. The "most common definition of meritocracy conceptualizes merit in terms of tested competency and ability, and most likely as measured by IQ or standardized achievement tests."[2]

Meritocracy itself is not a form of government, but rather an ideology. In government applications, individuals appointed to a meritocracy are judged based upon certain merits which could range from intelligence to morality to general aptitude to specific knowledge.

Supporters of meritocracies do not necessarily agree on the nature of "merit", however they tend to agree that "merit" itself should be a primary consideration during evaluation.

Although meritocracy as a term is a relatively recent invention, the concept originates from the works of Confucius, along with other Legalist and Confucian philosophers. The first meritocracy was implemented in the 2nd century BC, by the Han Dynasty, which introduced world's first civil service exams evaluating the "merit" of officials.[3] Meritocracy as a concept spread from China to British India during the 17th century, and then into continental Europe and the United States.[4] With the translation of Confucian texts during the Enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional ancient regime of Europe.[5] In the United States, the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 prompted the replacement of the American Spoils System with a meritocracy. In 1883, The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed, stipulating government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit through competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation.[6]

Like "utilitarian" and "pragmatic", the word "meritocratic" has also developed a broader definition, used to refer to any government run by "a ruling or influential class of educated or able people."[7] This is in contrast to the term originally coined by Michael Young in 1958, who critically defined it as a system where "merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications."[8] Meritocracy in its wider sense can be any general act of judgment upon the basis of people's various demonstrated merits; such acts are frequently described in sociology and psychology. Thus, the merits may extend beyond intelligence and education to any mental or physical talent or to work ethic. In rhetoric, the demonstration of one's merit regarding mastery of a particular subject is an essential task most directly related to the Aristotelian term Ethos. The equivalent Aristotelian conception of meritocracy is based upon aristocratic or oligarchical structures rather than in the context of the modern state.[9][10]

The most common form of meritocratic screening found today is the college degree. Higher education is an imperfect meritocratic screening system for various reasons, such as lack of uniform standards worldwide [11] [12], lack of scope (not all occupations and processes are included), and lack of access (some talented people never have an opportunity to participate because of the expense, most especially in developing countries).[13] However, academic degrees serve some amount of meritocratic screening purpose in the absence of more refined methodology. Education alone, however, does not constitute a complete system, as meritocracy must automatically confer power and authority, which a degree independently does not accomplish.



Although the concept has existed for centuries, the term meritocracy was first coined by British politician and sociologist, Michael Young in his 1958 satirical essay,[1][14][15][16][17] "The Rise of the Meritocracy", which pictured the United Kingdom under the rule of a government favoring intelligence and aptitude (merit) above all. The essay is written in the first-person by a fictional historical narrator in 2032, and interweaves history from the politics of pre- and post-war Britain with those of fictional future events in the short (1960 onward) and long term (2020 onward).[18]

The essay was based upon the tendency of the then-current governments in their striving towards intelligence to ignore shortcomings and upon the failure of education systems to correctly utilize gifted and talented members within their societies. [19]

Young's fictional narrator explains that, on the one hand, the greatest contributor to society is not the "stolid mass" or majority, but the "creative minority" or "restless elite".[20] On the other hand, he claims that there are casualties of progress whose influence is underestimated and that, from such stolid adherence to natural science and intelligence, arises arrogance and complacency.[20] This problem is encapsulated in the phrase "Every selection of one is a rejection of many".[20]

History of the concept

According to scholarly consensus, the earliest example of an administrative meritocracy, based on civil service examinations, dates back to Ancient China.[21][22][23][24]a[›] The concept originates at least by the 6th century BC, when it was advocated by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who "invented the notion that those who govern should so because of merit and not inherited status, setting in motion the creation of of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies open only to those who passed tests."[25] As the Qin and Han dynasties developed a meritocratic system in order to maintain power over a large, sprawling empire, it became necessary for the government to maintain a complex network of officials.[26] Prospective officials could come from a rural background and government positions were not restricted to the nobility. Rank was determined by merit, through the civil service examinations, and education became the key for social mobility.[26] After the fall of the Han Dynasty, the nine-rank system was established during the Three Kingdoms period.

According to the Princeton Encyclopedia on American History[4]:

One of the oldest examples of a merit-based civil service system existed in the imperial bureaucracy of China. Tracing back to 200 B.C., the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as the basis of its political philosophy and structure, which included the revolutionary idea of replacing nobility of blood with one of virtue and honesty, and thereby calling for administrative appointments to be based solely on merit. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position that would bring wealth and honor to the whole family. In part due to Chinese influence, the first European civil service did not originate in Europe, but rather in India by the British-run East India Company... company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism.

The concept of meritocracy spread from China to British India during the 17th century, and then into continental Europe and the United States.[4] With the translation of Confucian texts during the Enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional ancient regime of Europe.[5] Voltaire and François Quesnay wrote favourably of the idea, with Voltaire claiming that the Chinese had "perfected moral science" and Quesnay advocating an economic and political system modeled after that of the Chinese.[5]

The first European power to successfully implement a meritocratic civil service was the British Empire, in their administration of India. To avoid corruption, "company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism."[4] British colonial administrators advocated the spread of the system to the rest of the Commonwealth, the most "persistent" of which was Thomas Taylor Meadows, Britain's consul in Guangzhou, China. This practice was later adopted in the late 19th century by the British mainland, inspired by "Chinese mandarin system."[27]

In the United States, the United States Civil Service utilized the Spoils System since 1828, until the assassination of United States President Garfield by a disappointed office seeker in 1881 proved its dangers. Two years later in 1883, the system of appointments to the United States Federal Bureaucracy was revamped by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, partially based on the British meritocratic civil service that had been established years earlier. The act stipulated that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit,[6] through competitive exams,[6] rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation. It also made it illegal to fire or demote government employees for political reasons.[6] To enforce the merit system and the judicial system, the law also created the United States Civil Service Commission.[6] In the modern American meritocracy, the president can only hand out a certain number of jobs which must be approved by the Senate.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is a social theory which holds that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is a model, not only for the development of biological traits in a population, but also as an application for human social institutions — the existing social institutions being implicitly declared as normative. Social Darwinism was at its most popular from the late 19th century to the end of World War II. Proponents of Social Darwinism argue that the theory justifies social inequality as being meritocratic. Darwin himself only ventured to propound his theories in a biological sense, and it is other thinkers and theorists who have applied Darwin's model to unequal endowments of human ambition.

Historical examples


In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes. (Analects XV, 39)

The main basis of his teachings was to seek knowledge, study, and become a better person.

Although Confucius claimed that he never invented anything but was only transmitting ancient knowledge (see Analects VII, 1), he did produce a number of new ideas. Many European and American admirers such as Voltaire and H. G. Creel point to the revolutionary idea of replacing nobility of blood with nobility of virtue. Jūnzǐ (君子, lit. "lord's child"), which originally signified the younger, non-inheriting, offspring of a noble, became, in Confucius' work, an epithet having much the same meaning and evolution as the English "gentleman". A virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities can be a "gentleman", while a shameless son of the king is only a "small man". That he admitted students of different classes as disciples is a clear demonstration that he fought against the feudal structures that defined pre-imperial Chinese society.

This new idea, of the meritocracy, led to the introduction of the Imperial examination system in China. The system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honour to the whole family. The Chinese Imperial examination system seem started in 165 BC, when certain candidates for public office were called to the Chinese capital for examination of their moral excellence by the emperor. Over the following centuries the system grew until finally almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations.

Han Feizi

In addition to Confucius, another ancient Chinese philosopher of the same period (that of the Warring States) advocated a meritocratic system of government and society. This was Han Feizi who was famous as the foremost proponent of the School of Law, otherwise known as the philosophy of Legalism. This had, as its central tenet, the absolute rule of law, but also contained numerous meritocratic elements. Another Legalist, Shang Yang implemented Legalist and meritocratic reforms in the state of Qin by abolishing the aristocracy and promoting individuals based on their skill, intelligence, and initiative.

This led to the armies of the Qin gaining a critical edge over the other nations that adhered to old aristocratic systems of government. Legalism, along with its pro-meritocratic ideals, remained a key part of Chinese philosophy and politics for another two millennia, although after the Qin Dynasty it was heavily diluted. But meritocratic governance within the bureaucracy remains a key stone of Chinese government all the way to the present. This can be most clearly seen in the use of standardized "imperial examinations" to determine entry into the official class, which began in the Sui Dynasty.

Genghis Khan

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 in battle before he became Great Khan.

British India

Under Chinese influence, the first European power to successfully implement a merit-based civil system was the British Empire, in their administration of India. To avoid corruption, "company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism."[4]


Napoleonic (Revolutionary) France is considered to have been meritocratic. After the revolution of 1789 most members of the former elite had been removed. When Napoleon rose to power in 1799, 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 National Assembly, and even some former aristocrats such as prime minister Talleyrand. This policy was summed up in Bonaparte's often-quoted phrase "La carrière ouverte aux talents", careers open to the talented, or as more freely translated by Thomas Carlyle, "the tools to him that can handle them". A clear example is the order of the Légion d'honneur, the first order of merit, admitting men of any class. They were judged not by ancestry or wealth but by military, scientific or artistic prowess.

Modern meritocratic states


Singapore describes meritocracy as one of its official guiding principles for domestic public policy formulation, placing emphasis on academic credentials as objective measures of merit.[28] It separated from Malaysia in 1965 after the federal Malaysian government insisted on giving special privileges to the Malays as part of their "birthright" as an "indigenous" people (the majority, 76%, of the island's population are Chinese). Political leaders in Singapore argued instead for the equality of all citizens, with places in universities, government contracts, political appointments, etc., going to the most deserving candidates, rather than to those chosen on the basis of connections or ethnic background (It is worth noting that Lee Kuan Yew was originally a Fabian Socialist and opposed racism). This dispute between State and Federal governments proved irreconcilable; Singapore therefore became an independent city-state separate from Malaysia.

There is criticism that, under this system, Singaporean society is being increasingly stratified and that an elite class is being created from a narrow segment of the population.[29] Although most agree that Singapore's economic success has been due in part to its strong emphasis on developing and promoting talented leaders, there are signs that an increasing number believe that it is instead becoming an elitist society.[30] Defendants recall the ancient Chinese proverb 'Wealth does not pass three generations', suggesting that elitists will eventually be, and often are, replaced by those lower down the hierarchy. Indeed, many top political leaders in Singapore come from peasant backgrounds, while modern peasants boast about their great ancestry.[citation needed]


Meritocracy Online

The great thing about the internet is it is a meritocracy and it's free.

Damian Kulash, OK Go, [31]

Although formal meritocracies are uncommon online, informal ones are quite prevalent. They often occur in online games such as MMORPGs where the best players are more likely to become guild leaders or be otherwise influential,[32] although the ability to invest large amounts of time and/or money is also important. In discussion forums, it is often assumed that the most knowledgeable users have the best chances of becoming moderators, although online popularity and policy support may be just as important.

Further, due to the nature of online interaction, where identity and anonymity are more readily managed than in direct interaction, the effects of offline social inequity can often be discounted in online communities. Intelligence, effort, education, and personality may be readily conveyed in an online interaction but a person's gender, race, religion, and social standing can be easily obfuscated or left entirely unaddressed.

Open Source

There is a tendency, in the structure of open source projects, for a meritocracy to arise. Technically, the more proficient the developer is in contributing towards the project - developing new features or maintaining existing code - the more they are required or the more the project necessitates their contribution, and thus the more senior their informal position becomes. Those who contribute more code, and have more of an effect on the direction or status of the project, will tend to have more seniority and influence. The Apache Software Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation are examples of (open source) organizations which officially claim to be meritocracies.[33] [34]


The primary concern with meritocracy is that the unclear definition of "merit" itself. [35] Different people often have their own standards of merit, thus raising the question of which "merit" has the best merits - or in other words, which standard is the "best" standard.

Meritocracy has also been criticized by egalitarians as a mere myth which serves only to justify the status quo, with its proponents only giving lip service to equality.[36] In the words of sociologist Laurie Taylor[36]:

“The hideous thing about meritocracy is it tells you that if you’ve given life your all and haven’t got to the top you’re thick or stupid. Previously, at least, you could always just blame the class system.”

A second concern regards the principle of incompetence, or the "Peter Principle". As people rise in a meritocratic society through the corporate ladder, they reach and are stuck at the first level of what they are unable to do.

See also



^ a: This is the history of the meritocracy in the technical sense. The vaguer definition of a meritocracy as a "rule by intelligence" has been applied to many ancient Greek, Indian, Chinese and Jewish thinkers and statesmen. For example, the Sanhedrin, the legislature of Ancient Israel and Kingdom of Judah, is sometimes called as an "intellectual meritocracy", in the sense that its members were drawn from religious scribes and not the aristocracy.[37] However, appointment was self-perpetuating and new members were personally chosen by existing members.[38] These are not meritocracies in the administrative sense, in which merit is determined objectively as a "tested competency or ability."[39]

  1. ^ a b Young, Michael (1958). The rise of the meritocracy, 1870-2033: An essay on education and inequality. London: Thames & Hudson. OCLC 3943639. 
  2. ^ Levinson, David; Sadovnik, lan R. (2002). Education and sociology: an encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. pp. 436. 
  3. ^ Casey, Wilson (2009). Firsts: Origins of Everyday Things That Changed the World. Penguin USA. ISBN 9781592579242. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Kazin, Edwards, and Rothman (2010), 142.
  5. ^ a b c Schwarz (1996), 229
  6. ^ a b c d e
  7. ^ "Definition of Meritocracy". Oxford Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 12 September 2011. 
  8. ^ Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. Fontana Press. 1988. pp. 521. 
  9. ^ Aristot. Pol. 2.1261b
  10. ^ Aristotle, (351 BCE) Politics. Book Three Part IV. (Jowett, B., Trans)
  11. ^ What's College For?: The Struggle To Define American Higher Education; Zachary Karabell; ISBN 9780465091522
  12. ^ Journal of College Teaching & Learning – May 2008 Volume 5, Number 5 AACSB Accreditation
  13. ^ Furlong, Andy; Cartmel, Fred. Higher education and social justice. Maidenhead: Open University Press. ISBN 9780335223626. 
  14. ^ Young, Michael (29 June 2001). "Down with meritocracy: The man who coined the word four decades ago wishes Tony Blair would stop using it". The Guardian (London). 
  15. ^ Ford, Boris (1992). The Cambridge cultural history of Britain. Cambridge University Press. p. 34. ISBN 9780521428897. 
  16. ^ Kamolnick, Paul (2005). The just meritocracy: IQ, class mobility, and American social policy. Westport CT: Praeger. p. 87. ISBN 9780275979225. 
  17. ^ Best, Shaun (2005). Understanding Social Divisions. London: Sage. p. 32. ISBN 9780761942962. 
  18. ^ Young, Michael (1958). p. 11.
  19. ^ Young, Michael (1958). p. 13.
  20. ^ a b c Young, Michael (1958). p. 15.
  21. ^ Kazin, Edwards, and Rothman (2010), 142. One of the oldest examples of a merit-based civil service system existed in the imperial bureaucracy of China.
  22. ^ Tan, Chung; Geng, Yinzheng (2005). India and China: twenty centuries of civilization interaction and vibrations. University of Michigan Press. pp. 128. "China not only produced the world's first "bureaucracy", but also the world's first "meritocracy"" 
  23. ^ Konner, Melvin (2003). Unsettled: an anthropology of the Jews. Viking Compass. pp. 217. "China is the world's oldest meritocracy" 
  24. ^ Tucker, Mary Evelyn (2009). "Touching the Depths of Things: Cultivating Nature in East Asia". Ecology and the environment: perspectives from the humanities (Harvard Divinity School): 51. "To staff these institutions, they created the oldest meritocracy in the world, in which government appointments were based on civil service examinations that drew on the values of the Confucian Classics" 
  25. ^ Sienkewicz, Thomas J. (2003). Encyclopedia of the Ancient World:. Salem Press. pp. 434. "Confucius invented the notion that those who govern should so because of merit and not inherited status, setting in motion the creation of of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies open only to those who passed tests" 
  26. ^ a b Burbank and Cooper (2010), 51.
  27. ^ Huddleston, Mark W. Boyer, William W.The higher civil service in the United States: quest for reform. (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), 9-10.
  28. ^ Speech by Singapore Ambassador to France, 28 August 2008.
  29. ^ Ngiam Tong Dow (28 October 2006). "Singapore's elites". Little Speck. 
  30. ^ "Please, get out of my elite uncaring face". Tomorrow, Bulletin of Singapore Bloggers. 20 October 2006. 
  31. ^ "Behind OK Go's viral video". CBC News. 26 April 2010. 
  32. ^ BBC - h2g2 - The Politics of Internet Discussion
  33. ^ How the ASF works - The Apache Software Foundation
  34. ^ Mozilla Governance
  35. ^ Arrow, Bowles and Durlauf — Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, (Princeton,1999)
  36. ^ a b Duffy, Jonathan (23 November 2004). "The rise of the meritocracy". BBC News. 
  37. ^ Elazar, Daniel Judah (1985). The Jewish polity: Jewish political organization from Biblical times to the present. Indiana University Press. pp. 127. 
  38. ^ Novak, David (2005). The Jewish social contract: an essay in political theology. Princeton University Press. pp. 134. "The Sanhedrin were appointed by those who were members when there was a vacancy" 
  39. ^ Levinson, David; Sadovnik, lan R. (2002). Education and sociology: an encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. pp. 436. 


  • Burbank, Jane and Cooper, Frederick. (2010). Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691127085.
  • Kazin, Michael, Edwards, Rebecca, and Rothman, Adam. (2010). The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History Volume 2. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691129711.
  • Schwarz, Bill. (1996). The expansion of England: race, ethnicity and cultural history. Psychology Pres. ISBN 0415060257.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • meritocracy — mer‧i‧toc‧ra‧cy [ˌmerˈtɒkrəsi ǁ ˈtɑː ] noun meritocracies PLURALFORM [countable] a social system that gives the greatest power and highest social positions to people with the most ability: • Everyone wanted to belong to the new meritocracy,… …   Financial and business terms

  • meritocracy — n. 1. A form of social system in which power goes to those with superior intellects. [WordNet 1.5] 2. The belief that rulers should be chosen for their superior abilities and not because of their wealth or birth. [WordNet 1.5] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • meritocracy — coined 1958 by British sociologist Michael Young (1915–2002) and used in title of his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy ; from MERIT (Cf. merit) (n.) + CRACY (Cf. cracy). Related: Meritocratic …   Etymology dictionary

  • meritocracy — ► NOUN (pl. meritocracies) 1) government or leadership by people of great merit. 2) a society governed by meritocracy. DERIVATIVES meritocratic adjective …   English terms dictionary

  • meritocracy — [mer΄i täk′rə sē] n. [ MERIT + O + CRACY] 1. an intellectual elite, based on academic achievement 2. a system in which such an elite achieves special status, as in positions of leadership meritocrat n. meritocratic adj …   English World dictionary

  • meritocracy — mer|i|toc|ra|cy [ˌmerıˈtɔkrəsi US ˈta: ] n plural meritocracies 1.) a social system that gives the greatest power and highest social positions to people with the most ability 2.) the meritocracy the people who have power in a meritocracy… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • meritocracy — A social system in which status is achieved through ability and effort (merit), rather than ascribed on the basis of age, class, gender, or other such particularistic or inherited advantages. The term implies that the meritorious deserve any… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • meritocracy — UK [ˌmerɪˈtɒkrəsɪ] / US [ˌmerɪˈtɑkrəsɪ] noun [countable/uncountable] Word forms meritocracy : singular meritocracy plural meritocracies a system or society in which people have influence or status according to their abilities and achievements… …   English dictionary

  • meritocracy — meritocratic /mer i teuh krat ik/, adj. /mer i tok reuh see/, n., pl. meritocracies. 1. an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth. 2. a system in which such persons are… …   Universalium

  • meritocracy — [[t]me̱rɪtɒ̱krəsi[/t]] meritocracies N VAR A meritocracy is a society or social system in which people get status or rewards because of what they achieve, rather than because of their wealth or social status …   English dictionary

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