Reflections on Meritocracy

If you think you’re in favor of meritocracy, imagine that the person you regard as the world’s biggest idiot gets to define what counts as merit.

We shall suppose that a creature, possessed of reason, but unacquainted with

human nature, deliberates with himself what rules of justice or property would best

promote public interest, and establish peace and security among mankind: His most

obvious thought would be, to assign the largest possessions to the most extensive

virtue, and give every one the power of doing good, proportioned to his inclination.

In a perfect theocracy, where a being, infinitely intelligent, governs by particular

volitions, this rule would certainly have place, and might serve to the wisest

purposes: But were mankind to execute such a law; so great is the uncertainty of

merit, both from its natural obscurity, and from the self-conceit of each individual,

that no determinate rule of conduct would ever result from it; and the total

dissolution of society must be the immediate consequence. Fanatics may suppose,

that dominion is founded on grace, and that saints alone inherit the earth; but the

civil magistrate very justly puts these sublime theorists on the same footing with

common robbers, and teaches them by the severest discipline, that a rule, which, in

speculation, may seem the most advantageous to society, may yet be found, in

practice, totally pernicious and destructive.

—David Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section III, Part II (emphasis in original).

In twenty-first century American, thus:

If you think you’re in favor of meritocracy, imagine that the person you regard as the world’s biggest idiot gets to define what counts as merit.

…and note that half the country thought in 2004 that “never explain, never apologize” was a good rule of human conduct.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.