The idea of meritocracy may have many virtues, but clarity is not one of them. The lack of clarity may relate to the fact, as I shall presently argue, that the concept of "merit" is deeply contingent on our views of a good society. Indeed, the notion of merit is fundamentally derivative, and thus cannot but be qualified and contingent. There is some elementary tension between (1) the inclination to see merit in fixed and absolute terms, and (2) the ultimately instrumental character of merit--its dependence on the concept of "the good" in the relevant society.
This basic contrast is made more intense by the tendency, in practice, to characterize "merit" in inflexible forms reflecting values and priorities of the past, often in sharp conflict with conceptions that would be needed for seeing merit in the context of contemporary objectives and concerns. Some of the major difficulties with "meritocracy" arise, I would argue, from this internal conflict within the concept of "merit" itself.
From Amartya Sen's paper on Merit and Justice, published in Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, edited by Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles, and Steven Durlauf (Princeton University Press, 1999). [Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the pointer].
Here's the central thesis:
[The] practice of rewarding good (or right) deeds for their incentive effects cannot but be an integral part of any well-functioning society. No matter what we think of the demands of "meritocracy" as it is usually defined, we can scarcely dispense with incentive systems altogether. The art of developing an incentive system lies in delineating the content of merit in such a way that it helps to generate valued consequences. [...]
The derivative character of merit leads us to the central question as to what the "valued consequences" are and how the success and failure of a society are to be judged. Once an instrumental view of merit is accepted, there is no escape from the contingent nature of its content, related to the characterization of a good--or an acceptable--society and the criteria in terms of which assessments are to be made.
Towards the end of the paper, Sen gets to what he calls "substantial departures" from this view of 'merit', and they are quite interesting:
- Personification and genetics: In the incentive approach to merit, it is characteristic of actions, not of people as such. But conventional notions of "meritocracy" often attach the label of merit to people rather than actions. A person with standardly recognized "talents" (even something as nebulous as "intelligence") can, then, be seen as a meritorious person even if he or she were not to use the "talents" to perform acts with good consequences or laudable propriety. This "personal quality" of merits sometimes gets invoked even in a largely incentive-oriented system of economic reasoning, with which the "personal quality" view is basically in conflict. [...]
- Deserts and entitlement: An incentive argument is entirely "instrumental" and does not lead to any notion of intrinsic "desert." If paying a person more induces him or her to produce more desirable results, then an incentive argument may exist for that person's pay being greater. This is an instrumental and contingent justification (related to results)--it does not assert that the person intrinsically "deserves" to get more. To return to an illustration used earlier, an incentive argument may well exist even for paying a blackmailer some money to induce him or her to hand over some compromising material, but that incentive argument is not the same as accepting that the blackmailer "deserves" to get that money because of the blackmailer's intrinsic virtue.
In a meritocratic system, however, this distinction gets blurred, and the established and fixed nature of the system of rewards may generate the implicit--sometimes even explicit--belief that the rewards are "owed" by the society to the meritorious persons. [...]
- Distribution independence: A system of rewarding of merits may well generate inequalities of well-being and of other advantages. But, as was argued earlier, much would depend on the nature of the consequences that are sought, on the basis of which merits are to be characterized. If the results desired have a strong distributive component, with a preference for equality, then in assessing merits (through judging the generated results, including its distributive aspects), concerns about distribution and inequality would enter the evaluation. [...]
I have posted this link over at How the Other Half Lives. Comments are welcome there.