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

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.