Some time last winter, the Harvard sociologist, Nathan Glazer, drew my attention to a public statement against the meritarian principle which had appeared in one of our national dailies. Glazer was intrigued by a misprint and asked if I knew what the word “meritorian” meant. He was also intrigued by the names of the signatories, all intellectuals of great renown, including a couple known to both of us personally.
The meritarian principle is the one according to which benefits are distributed unequally among individuals according to merit, and not equally to all irrespective of ability or performance. It is a feature of societies marked by competition, innovation and change as against those marked by stability and adherence to traditional ways of life and socio-economic arrangements. The meritarian principle is at odds with caste and all socio-economic arrangements based on feudal, semi-feudal and quasi-feudal ties of patronage and dependence.
The meritarian principle is familiar to all college and university teachers, although it may not be equally cherished by all. It is difficult to see how a college or a university can function if students are not assessed and graded according to merit. I have known academics who scoff at the idea of merit but use the strictest standards in admitting, promoting and awarding degrees to students; but there are also others who take these matters lightly. Where teachers take such matters lightly, students are inclined to believe that once they have secured admission they should all be awarded degrees, and some even feel that they should all be awarded first-class degrees. The meritarian principle has at best a limited appeal in a society in which patronage and dependence are so extensive.
It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the meritarian principle, or at least its salience, is a historical and not a universal phenomenon. It is salient in some societies and disregarded in others. Hence it may be unwise to make an assessment of it without regard for its social and historical context. There may be a case for restraining it in some social and historical contexts while encouraging it in others.
The meritarian principle as one expects it to operate in education and employment in our public institutions is, in a historical perspective, a modern phenomenon, going back barely two hundred years in time. It is modern, not just in the Indian context, but in the world as a whole. The principle was given a great impetus by the reforms introduced into France by Napoleon. Central to these reforms was the creation of the twin institutions of the great schools or the grandes ecoles and the great services or the grands corps, recruitment to which was through open national competition. These institutions were designed to give expression to Napoleon’s ideal of “careers open to talent”.
Napoleon’s ideas spread rapidly from France to other European countries, and then to other parts of the world. They acquired distinctive institutional forms as they spread from one part of the world to another. Our own University Grants Commission and Union public service commission may be said to embody, each in its own way, the meritarian principle and the ideal of careers open to talent. Whether the problems these institutions now face arise from too much attention to the meritarian principle or a wilful disregard of that principle is a question that cannot be easily set aside.
Egalitarians in the 19th century and even later welcomed the meritarian principle which they believed to stand for equality of opportunity without consideration of birth, social origin or patronage. But doubts began to gradually arise about the social consequences of a single-minded application of the idea of careers open to talent. Talent or merit may be wrongly defined or wrongly assessed, and in that case the rewards of success or the penalties of failure might both turn out to be arbitrary and capricious. At the beginning of the 21st century, egalitarians have many more misgivings about the meritarian principle than they had at the beginning of the 19th or even the 20th century.
A book published in 1958 by Michael Young with the title of The Rise of Meritocracy became a turning point in attitudes towards the meritarian principle among progressive intellectuals. Young drew pointed attention to the negative consequences of selection by merit as tested by competitive examinations. Many have come to believe that a single-minded attachment to the idea of merit as described above discourages diversity and stultifies creativity. It also fosters an unfeeling attitude towards those who fail in the competition, often through no fault of theirs, and are condemned as being without merit. There are social theorists who have warned against a “callous meritocratic society”.
A meritocracy may be viewed as a system which carries the meritarian principle to its extreme limit by excluding all other social principles, such as amity, compassion, fellow-feeling, moderation and tolerance. But one does not need to be an advocate of meritocracy in order to appreciate and support the meritarian principle. The most common way of throwing cold water on it is to say that there is no agreed definition of merit and that it means different things to different people. That is true but it hardly settles the matter. Most things that are of value are difficult to define, but that does not mean that we should not take them into account in the operation of institutions. Critics of the meritarian principle often say that what should count in the distribution of benefits and burdens is not merit but need. Need is indeed a consideration of the first importance; but then it is no more easy to define need than it is to define merit, for different people have different conceptions not only of merit but also of need.
One does not need to have a general, formal and abstract definition of merit in order to grade MA examination papers or to select candidates for the civil service, without fear or favour, and in accordance with criteria agreed upon in advance. If merit is given short shrift in such cases, as it often is in India, it is not in order to meet some higher social objective but for the pettiest and the most mundane of reasons. The advocacy of the meritarian principle as well as its subversion are both tied to strategies of social mobility adopted by different members of the same middle class. Those who aspire to mobility through individual initiative are inclined to favour the meritarian principle while those who expect to achieve it through collective political action tend to make light of it.
In India, white-collar trade unionism has acted as a strong force against the meritarian principle. My own first-hand experience of it is confined largely to the union of college and university teachers. The leaders of these unions have consistently taken the view that everybody should be promoted after the passage of a certain period of time and that nobody should be promoted — or even appointed — out of turn, meaning before the passage of the right amount of time. To the argument that merit, and not just seniority, should count, their response is that merit cannot be defined and that judgments of merits are by their nature arbitrary and capricious. They will take great comfort from the fact that there are some very eminent intellectuals who are on their side in debunking the principle of merit.
Telegraph, August 2, 2002
- Doctors by merit, not privilege (thehindu.com)
- What exactly is merit?
- “Meritocracy” Is Not What You Think (washingtonmonthly.com)
- Stop Talking About Meritocracy (theamericanconservative.com)