Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 30 May 2023

Meritocracy matters for countries

Source: By TARUN KHANNA: The Print

Broadly, our chapters suggest two trans societal and trans historical reasons why people think that meritocracy matters, that is, why society should be organized along meritocratic lines. We can label these efficiency reasons and ethical reasons.

The effective cultivation and deployment of talent and the implementation of good government and policy are often thought to be critical factors for successful economic growth (though as far as we know, there has been little empirical testing of this conventional wisdom). So, meritocracy is widely considered important to China and to India because of its implications for economic growth and other associated positive outcomes, such as poverty reduction.

At this time, there are hundreds of millions of people in China and India whose opportunities are restricted by systems of inequity produced by history, as well as the inadvertent result of more recent, well-intentioned policies with deleterious side effects. When given the opportunity, women typically perform as well as men across a range of educational and occupational measures, villagers as well as city dwellers, and students at non-elite colleges as well as students at elite schools. But these groups are not always given that opportunity, and this is widely seen as having a negative impact on the economy.

Turning to the political, in China and India, as elsewhere, promoting good governance by selecting worthy and talented people to serve also remains a work in progress. Poor operationalization of merit in the political system may contribute to lower growth and greater inequality. A system in which rewards are seen as accruing disproportionately to the few, selected on criteria that appear arbitrary, and cementing status quo hierarchies, may also generate social discontent. This in turn could have consequences for social and political stability.

In the economic realm, the supposed advantages of meritocracy are often contrasted with one specific alternative system for allocating opportunities, that is, privilege, which can be hereditary, socioeconomic, cultural, racial, or some combination. As we noted previously, in the political realm, meritocracy is also often contrasted to one specific alternative: democracy. Bell points out (although it is not central to his argument) that arguments about efficiency can actually be used in support of (and indeed against) either system. The dichotomy between merit and privilege or between merit and democratic selection is often overstated; the two poles are linked in practice in complex ways. Many arguments in support of meritocracy as against privilege or other forms of selection are founded on arguments not about efficiency but about ethics.

They are not about how to build a successful society but about how to build a good society. Arguments that draw a contrast between merit and privilege are often implicitly or explicitly ethical arguments about fairness.

In a system where privilege determines opportunity, limiting the impact of privilege by implementing meritocracy often means expanding diversity. Arguments about diversity recur in different contexts. One argument, familiar to Americans, is that diversity is desirable as a way to redress past injustice. Then there is the idea that diversity is desirable as a way to ensure equality of opportunity. Both these arguments are ethical arguments, but they are slightly different: the first is oriented to the past, the second to the present.

A third argument for diversity is instrumental and therefore actually belongs to the category of efficiency reasons. That is, promoting more diverse representation in the leadership of a government, or a corporation, or any other organization will make that organization more effective because it will incorporate a wider range of views and permit a fuller understanding of the issues.

Barriers to Meritocracy: Latent and Engineered

Contemporary America is far from the first or only society to have explored the advantages of meritocracy. Efficiency and ethical arguments have been made in other contexts. Nor is the idea that meritocracy is difficult unique to contemporary America. Much of the history of meritocracy in these different contexts is a story of the challenges to it. We can think about the difficulties of making meritocracy in two broad categories: latent and deliberate (or engineered).

By latent difficulties we refer to aspects of a society that undermine efforts to recognize merit. In India, the most systemic latent obstacle to meritocracy is the system of varnas or castes which evolved from Vedic times (1500–500 bce) on the Indo-Gangetic plain. Historians debate the extent to which the more rigid caste system of twentieth-century India was produced by the colonial period rather than surviving as a legacy from an earlier period.

But the consequences of the system for meritocracy in pre-modern as well as modern times are in little doubt.Although merit could theoretically be rewarded by new opportunities within the limits of one’s caste, and in a very small number of cases castes moved up or down the hierarchy of castes in toto, by the colonial period castes were ordered such that opportunities based on merit were chiefly confined within caste boundaries. This limitation persists in different forms today. Babu, Prasad, and Kapur (chapter 12 in this volume) point out those long-standing emphases on the strictures of caste have led to a mindset that is an insidious latent barrier to meritocracy in India. Subramanian (chapter 8 in this volume) refers to a similar phenomenon when she describes an “upper class claim to merit,” in which members of the elite confuse an actual “aristocracy of privilege” for an imagined “aristocracy of talent.” The relationship between caste membership and advancement is complex, of course. In fact, membership in a caste might even be an enabler of political office, regardless of merit, due to caste members voting en bloc.

However, such politicization of caste has not translated into economic prowess. Iyer et al. show that, as recently as 2005, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes remained significantly underrepresented (relative to their share in the population) in the ownership of private enterprises.

In contemporary China, the divide between urban and rural is perhaps the closest analog to the caste system in premodern and modern India (the divide between the majority Han ethnicity and the minority ethnicities might be a close second). Despite remarkable poverty-reduction efforts, rural people today still have inferior access to educational and occupational opportunities and are underrepresented in political leadership. Historical patterns were reinforced by policy choices made in the Maoist era. Thus geographic contingency can represent another kind of latent barrier to meritocracy. Though it is hard to imagine any political leader today proposing active policies to repress the opportunities of rural people, rural talent remains disadvantagedSo, this is another latent difficulty in implementing meritocracy.

A different kind of challenge to meritocracy takes the form of deliberate or engineered interference in otherwise meritocratic selection systems to achieve other goals. Even a society that aspires to meritocratic selection and with a meritocratic system in place, regardless of how merit is defined, may decide that pure meritocratic selection is not ideal and interfere with selection in some way.Various tools are available to interfere with meritocratic systems; US affirmative action policies offer a well-known example.