Commentary Magazine

The Idea of Merit

Our Honours, and our Commendations be Due to the Merits, not Authoritie.

Robert Herrick,
“Merits make the Man,” 1648

The current American social squall has caused a number of logistical difficulties for beleaguered liberals. How do we protect certain long-taken-for-granted liberal virtues at a time when few things are taken for granted? Going to the closet for some old, trusted weapon, we likely as not find it rusted from disuse, or inappropriate for the occasion, or we find we have forgotten how to use it, if ever we did know.

So it was for me a couple of years ago at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement convulsion. One afternoon at its furious height, I went off to read and think about the Essential Nature of the University, thus better to grasp what the real issue was. I sought and found Ortega y Gasset’s fine book, The Mission of the University. But by the end of the afternoon I realized I had wasted my time; the book was useless to me. The circumstances of Spanish universities in the 1930’s were wholly alien to the situation I was involved in, and Ortega’s prescriptions pointless. What else should I have read? I still am not sure.

In such confusion, we are especially caught off guard when militant enthusiasts use intellectual arguments for profoundly anti-intellectual causes. Normal life seems always to require that its beneficiaries take too much for granted, and thus it is that lazy innocents are not the only ones who are condemned to repeat history because they never learned it.

Much the same intellectual difficulty afflicts us now, in the current onslaught upon the idea and practice of merit and excellence in American occupations and institutional life. Merit, and its twin, equal opportunity, have been thought to be firmly woven into the fabric of American democratic thought. Possibly they still are. But the tension at the seams is rather great.

Let us consider the idea of merit. As a conception of justice, it means “to each according to his abilities,” or in another and closely related sense, “to each according to his works.” In these two combined senses merit advances and rewards according to ability and accomplishment, rather than according to status, preferment, or chance. But we are now told by the critics of merit that either its standards are themselves unfair and discriminatory, or that the fair and uniform employment of such standards leads to unequal and unjust results. And there are also those who argue that the idea of merit is in any case no more than the means whereby an abhorrent middle-class system coopts its new retainers. (Edgar Z. Friedenberg, who among other things is a consultant to the College Entrance Examination Board, has recently written, for instance: “A people dedicated to competition and manipulation surely find their social preferences sustained by the kind of testing that has evolved. Granted the College [Entrance Examination] Board, Robert McNamara follows.”)

In current American circumstances, when the anti-hero cult is very prominent, it is difficult to believe how recently the ethos of merit and achievement was honored in American life, even to excess. Only a decade ago, John Gardner’s Excellence (1961) achieved best-seller status, a bit perhaps like the glorious appearance of Minerva the Owl at twilight. A little earlier, in the 1950’s, there were two quite different but equally formidable figures who argued forcefully for merit and achievement: Adlai Stevenson and Hyman Rickover, both of whom appealed, if for somewhat different reasons, for an improvement in the qualitative performance of American life. Throughout that entire period, in fact, the dominant American emphasis in training and education and advancement was more and more upon improving quality.

But of course the idea of merit goes back beyond the 1950’s and has the deepest of roots in American democratic thought. The case for merit in America was most authentically laid out by Jefferson, whose view of an open democratic society depended upon his conception of a natural aristocracy based on “virtue and talents.” This he contrasted with what he had noticed in Europe: an “artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth without either virtue or talents.” The natural aristocracy, he asserted, was “the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and the government of society,” and education was needed to foster it. No wonder, then, that Jefferson wished most to be remembered as founder of the University of Virginia; he might have been memorialized also for his establishment of universal primary education in his state. Such acts, and others for which he was responsible like the abolition of the right of entail and of primogeniture, “laid the axe to the root of Pseudo-aristocracy.” Now, given equal opportunity, talent and merit would naturally arise in great numbers, from among the rich and the poor alike.

John Adams—more of a realist than Jefferson—raised a special objection to his friend’s optimism. “Nobility in Men,” he replied, “is worth as much as it is in Horses Asses [sic] or Rams, but the meanest blooded puppy in the world, if he gets a little money, is as good a man as the best of them.” Subsequent historical experience lent weight to Adams’s warnings. In retrospect, we can note the many anti-meritocratic tendencies which crafty Americans devised: elitist, as to be seen in successful attempts of status groups to maintain privilege by denying merit as a means of access to it; populist, as to be seen in Jacksonian democracy’s spoils system—which flaunted patronage in the face of skills and qualifications; and meliorative, as to be seen in efforts to check undesired consequences of cutthroat competition. Yet it is safe to say that none of these quite different countervailing tendencies, or all in combination, really succeeded in overwhelming the Jeffersonian ethic. The generations of American thinkers who succeeded Jefferson were agreed with him on the ethos of equal opportunity: rich and poor alike should be exposed to knowledge and skills; these would both equip and license entry into a broad, if competitive, world of opportunities and choices. The general quality of life would improve; arts and letters would flourish; all men would be evaluated against the common standards of their calling.



In considering the various current arguments against merit, there is one powerful case which Jefferson’s contemporaries probably never thought of. It is that merit, as both a right and a standard, is a device to inveigle people into bourgeois society. Both the knowledge purveyed, and the criteria used to discover which persons have best or adequately absorbed it, are now deemed by some as nothing more than techniques by which a technological system perpetuates itself. The anti-skill culture out of which this critique emerges is at the same time an anti-intellectual culture, attacking the authority of knowledge and reasoning processes in general in the name of intuition and creativity. Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest, in their sardonic Short Educational Dictionary, provide an introduction to the attitudes of this culture:

alphabet a set of arbitrary . . . signs which children are still often compelled to learn by rote; usually taught, moreover, in an arbitrary order.

examination an irrelevant, external test purporting to check a student’s knowledge by a set of written questions often repugnant to his personality, and failing to take into account the distractions inevitable in a concerned life.

standards irrelevant academic concept designed to exclude or penalize students distinguished for either concern or creativity or both.

underachieving coming out at the bottom in tests designed to measure . . . ability to memorize irrelevant facts and accept bourgeois indoctrination.

In addition to attacking knowledge and reason in the name of spontaneity and intuition, this movement also attacks them in the name of equality. According to Edgar Friedenberg, the existing educational system is a process designed to prevent the “underclass” from getting in, and to keep the middle class on top. (Yet he also seems to think that tests and standards are capricious, as when he says that they are “not so much a poker game as a crap game, and some young people have decided not to take any more crap.”) Real education, for Friedenberg, is “shared experience, and only that.” Its principal object is to establish a sense of “community among students.” To that end, he (and many others) would abolish skill and competitive criteria in evaluations, and even rate competitiveness negatively. For, he argues, “tests that select out for a common reward people whose special excellence is in competition and the fragmentation of experience are not going to bring together a group who are likely to enrich one another, or to care for those dependent on their leadership.”

A fraternity rush group of yore could not have put the case for discriminatory exclusion of bright and ambitious students more candidly, though they might have been ashamed to put it in writing, or demand that it be codified as college policy. In another respect Friedenberg in fact would go further than the Greek-key anti-intellectuals dared. He would have colleges so devise admissions systems and testing as to exclude persons deemed psychic or motivational deviants. “A liberal and permissive school ought,” he writes, “to be able to defend itself against the influx of punitive, authoritarian, or extremely passive-dependent people,” though it should not “exclude any social class or ethnic group as such” (italics mine). “The psychological instrument, so long as it is permitted to retain its natural cultural contamination, should be quite sufficient.” One wonders what Friedenberg would recommend as instruments for authoritarian, non-permissive schools.

In any event, returning to the main point, Friedenberg is consistent with the radical counterculture even though that culture is secessionist with respect to American institutions and he is content to work within our institutions: “Informal institutional demands of the schools are usually explicitly dehumanizing. . . . [T]he best protection for the civil liberties of students is to be found in distinguishing sharply between society’s right to demand certain skills . . . and its practice of requiring that these be exhibited as aspects of a pedantic and constricted pattern of tastes.”1

Ideas must fight a grinding battle with circumstance. The idea of merit and that of the natural aristocracy currently are challenged not only by secessionists and those within institutions who are under their influence, but also by many who would like either to save or to improve the quality of society. In her recent book On Violence, Hannah Arendt has revived interest in the dangers of meritocracy—a problem raised over ten years ago by Michael Young. “What grounds are there,” Miss Arendt asks, “for supposing that the resentment against a meritocracy, whose rule is exclusively based on ‘natural’ gifts, that is, on brain power, will be no more dangerous, no more violent than the resentment of earlier oppressed groups who at least had the consolation that their condition was caused by no ‘fault’ of their own?”

While it is hard to reply to a rhetorical question, I think it possible to detect a certain narcissism and at the same time a certain self-flagellation at work among those intellectuals who equate merit with superior brain power like their own. The domain of merit is not exclusively that of the highest mental achievers, nor is it exclusively confined to qualities of mind. Dictionaries say that merit signifies reward (or punishment) due; qualities or actions constituting the basis of one’s deserts; character or conduct deserving reward, honor, or esteem. In addition, our commonsensical view of it combines the notion that effort plus better performance represent good grounds for reward and advancement; and that it is possible to employ objective criteria of various sorts which, however crude, will enable us to make such distinctions reasonably fairly.

This has nothing special to do with the layering of society. Any occupation or profession, however inefficient or corrupt, at least must make a pretense of equitably rewarding, honoring, and advancing its members on some grounds other than caprice, favoritism, lottery, or automatic tenure principles; for were it otherwise, it is hard to imagine how it could even claim to be just or fair in its practices, or exempt from harsh complaints from victims of its shoddy practices. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the merit principle was wholly absent in static, traditionalist status societies.

Finally, I think Jefferson to have been essentially correct when he stressed the need to “diffuse” knowledge. It could hardly be said that the logical consequence of this would be to construct a new status-pyramid of excellence, to replace the status pyramid of a pseudo-aristocracy of prescriptive rights. The diffusion of talents throughout society, already observed in Tocqueville’s time, guaranteed checks against this.



Still, there are important truths in some critiques of the merit system as we have recently used it. There is good reason to suppose that some standardized tests, taken too seriously or too often employed, can stultify authentic creativity or create the impression that achievement is simply the act of test-passing. Evaluation can become an end in itself; it may favor test drudges; standards may invidiously contain cultural values irrelevant to the skill being tested; psychic injury may result from the anxieties entailed in anticipating or taking tests. To modify a proverb of the late Dean Acheson, a farmer does not pull up his carrots every night to see how they are growing, nor would a carrot benefit from such benign surveillance. Tocqueville long ago pointed to one unintended byproduct of a social system which abandons prescriptive rights for rights of achievement: namely, the constant uncertainty as to where one stood, and the anxious need constantly to reaffirm one’s competence in order to reaffirm one’s tenuous status. And then there is also the moral effect of replacing prescriptive aristocracy with performance democracy, which is to elevate the principle of interest over that of duty.

Yet none of these special arguments against the practice of merit and equal opportunity denies the principle. Rather, they expose its imperfections, and some suggest ways of dealing with the defects. This is not, however, the case with the principle of equality of results, which does thrust at the heart of the principle of equal opportunity and merit. To that challenge I now turn.



A commendable but innocent habit of some optimists, until recently at least, has been to assume that in the land of opportunity the just society and the meritocratic society would be one and the same. Now we are abundantly told otherwise. It is not simply, of course, that in the real world equal justice is never wholly consummated, nor that it is a foolish aspiration. (Paul Valéry once wrote that if all men were equally enlightened, equally critical, and equally courageous, no society would be possible.) The problem is that the ideal of equal opportunity has some harsh impediments (some of which can be eliminated) to its attainment in the real world, while the closer we come to its attainment, the more we become aware of disparities of result. Some of these disparities in fact become more starkly visible the fairer the procedures employed; and some show up more visibly in certain sociological categories and groups than in others. Equality of opportunity sets the fair rules of the running; but the new ethic of equality of results would investigate the winning, on behalf of disadvantaged constituencies.

It is clear that the ideal of merit, like justice, should be blind to irrelevant distractions. But it may be that its companion ideal of equal opportunity can never be wholly free from discriminatory impediments. In America, very real, though often concealed, barriers to access have always existed. Jefferson had slaves, and Abraham Lincoln had a wife who could not vote, much less run for office. Certain minority groups have either been denied access to employment, or rendered incapable of benefiting from jobs or training because of past social evils. All this suggests the need for redress, if not retribution.

Yet even in the fairest of all procedures, where arbitrariness has been banished, and where steps have been taken to overcome the effects of inherited disadvantage of every kind, equal opportunity will all too often fail to produce the equality of results which some would wish. The consequence is that those who value equality of results over equal opportunity, and over the principle that all men should be judged and treated according to their individual merits, are attempting to lead us into a new era of discrimination on the basis of race, creed, and color.

Is discrimination as objectionable when pressed on behalf of previously disadvantaged minority groups as when pressed on behalf of advantaged ones? There is now, as well we know, a strong push for proportionality of group representation not simply in schools and universities, but in the professions, business, and industry.2 The principal device is the quota, although the new discrimination can operate without specific quotas as well. Beaumarchais’s point in The Marriage of Figaro was that exclusionary practices in 18th-century aristocratic France were repugnant precisely because they had nothing to do with a person’s individual qualities and skills, but everything to do with his arbitrarily assigned status. Is the situation any different where reverse discrimination is concerned? The gravity of the current situation in America can be seen in the fact that what began several years ago as a method of alleviating the black man’s condition has since spread like wildfire to other groups and categories—ethnic, sexual, or chronological—each claiming the right to preferential treatment. In India when a system of reverse discrimination was established, the stigmata of deprivation were mysteriously transformed into signs of grace. Much the same seems to be happening here as one group after another proclaims its handicaps and oppressions in the hope of becoming eligible for compensatory advantages.

There are those who advocate reverse discrimination as a temporary measure, but as the experience of India has also shown, the beneficiaries of quotas or other forms of preferential treatment come to look upon them as prescriptive rights. Quotas, once established as institutional practice, prove as vigorously able to perpetuate themselves as do Texas oil-depletion allowances, and for the very same reason.3

Race, sex, and age: these are our most elementary human attributes, in the possession of which we have absolutely no choice. We have them regardless of what we seek to become, or what we actually become. They are qualities with which we commence and end life. But with respect to what as individuals we may hope to gain from or contribute to a common culture, they have very little to say. One does not aspire to be a male or middle-aged or old. These are facts of existence. To imagine that one can or should realize or establish one’s identity upon them is to debase one’s humanity, which consists in possibilities. Yet in the strange winds of American change, these categories are now to be seen emblazoned on the gonfalons of reform and liberation. In the current view, equal opportunity can only be deemed truly equal if in its results it places a proportional representation of each biological category in the positions of effective status within every major institution.



As observers of the Indian scene noted decades ago, the quest for equality of results does no justice to criteria of excellence; what is less noticed is that it does no justice to authentic human need either. In the current affirmative-action crusade in America, one wonders whatever happened, for example, to the poor. A logician unfamiliar with the nuances of the American cultural revolution but knowledgeable about the vagaries of human statistical classification systems might well note the obvious difficulty which the poor as such have in becoming eligible for affirmative-action handouts.

For while the proportion of poor blacks to blacks-as-a-whole clearly is greater than the proportion of poor whites to whites-as-a-whole, the total number of poor whites is considerably greater than the total number of poor blacks. Yet under the categories of the disadvantaged on which affirmative-action programs are based, the only poor people eligible for reverse discrimination are those fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to be both poor and disadvantaged. (Many in the disadvantaged categories, needless to say, have never known poverty.)

Were the American reformist assault on the merit system simply expedited by means of formal quotas, and their twin sister, goals, the condition would at least have the unusual advantage of being open and above-board: one would know what was going on by reading the vast computer print-outs which, presumably, the authorities would collect and disseminate. (By way of contrast, in the old bad days of bad quotas, the data most likely were banked in the back of a prudent Dean’s mind; they certainly were not published in college catalogues.) But this is not the case today when quotas are supplemented and sometimes replaced by other devices. Examinations may be abolished; tests of skill eliminated or downgraded; IQ tests eliminated—the argument being that if the tests do not produce the required sociological results they are defective and should go. In my home city, Berkeley, affirmative-action programs now call for precisely such abandonment of certifications. One proposal goes so far as to advocate that previous felony convictions not be considered in the employment of civil servants. Why, one wonders, do we not simply have recourse to a lottery? It may not be meritorious but at least, like justice, it is blind.



It was said of the American spoils system, which had its own informal rules of favoritism before testing came in (i.e., party loyalty and patronage), that the influence of its example corrupted the whole body politic. But that system was at least not codified or required by law. The patently discriminatory implications of affirmative action, however, have all the force of law behind them and are likely to be all the more corrupting both to the body politic and to the life of the society in general. For a complex society like our own, after all, depends on the skills of the individuals composing it. Concerns of human safety, convenience, and the quality of our collective life are of as great consequence as our concern for equal protection of the laws. We do want a qualified surgeon when we need an operation. We assume a skilled pilot, especially when it is we who are on the plane. We want a clever lawyer when we are in trouble. We want the telephone to work, and our mail to come to us, and not to someone down the street. We want competent teachers for our children. In universities we want high standards of scholarship and research and we want them visible also as exemplars of excellence. In short, we want the entire complex of amenities and necessities in a condition which we can reasonably trust.

Our existence places us at the mercy of persons, often invisible to us, who are certified for their qualities. While we may argue about the manner in which, in real life, skill and competence are elicited and ascertained, we can hardly argue that there are no such things as skill and competence or that there is no way of measuring them. But there are those among us who do make this argument and those who also accept it, and its spreading influence may well constitute the single greatest threat to the quality of our lives today.





1 Report of the Commission on Tests, College Entrance Board, Briefs (1970), pp. 34-6.

2 See Elliott Abrams, “The Quota Commission,” COMMENTARY, October 1972.

3 I am indebted to Professor Donald E. Smith's important study, India as a Secular State, for his account and analysis of this sad experiment, which bears many drab parallels to the current American situation. It is somewhat out of date, however, in its remarks about the relevance of the Indian situation to possible American developments. Smith wrote, in 1963, that in the United States it would be regarded as “patently unfair” to favor race groups with state aid. “[S]ome Negroes are professional people with high incomes, and there are many white tenant farmers . . . whose standard of living is not much above that of bare subsistence. But apart from the unfairness of such a system, it would meet with strong objections from the Negro community itself, which would resent the official label of social or economic backwardness.”

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