The economics blogosphere recently lit up with responses to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s commencement address at Princeton. Bernanke noted the fallacy that a meritocracy always has merit and/or is fair. Meritocracy means rule by the people with the greatest ability (merit). This idea was revolutionary in 17th-century Europe because it contradicted the longstanding ancient regime doctrine that God intended for power to be transmitted through family lineages rather than by ability. It is certainly fairer that power go to whoever has great ability and puts in great effort. But Bernanke points out that a meritocracy is not much fairer than a hereditary aristocracy because in both systems, it is the luck of what family you are born into that determines if you will rule.
meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.
Bernanke goes on to argue that a meritocracy can only be a good system if the leaders act with a noblesse oblige to help the less fortunate.
The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
British sociologist Michael Young who coined the word ‘meritocracy’ seemed to agree recently. He went so far as to suggest that the word be eliminated because Young now thinks meritocracy has little merit because it isn’t really fair even if it is efficient. A true meritocracy would be great for mutilitarians who worship efficiency, but Bernanke pointed out that it does not serve the rest of society well unless the goal of the elite leaders is not to keep as many of the goods for themselves, but to serve the rest of society.
But how would you measure if a meritocracy is serving the rest of society? The simplest statistic is to track median consumption. Bernanke’s goal is laudable, but it remains vague and nebulous without a way to measure progress towards it and medianism gives a way forward.