Meritocracy: The Facade That Determines Who Deserves Success

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On a drive home from a bachelor party, I was so bored that I got to thinking about meritocracy and its consequences. It’s amazing what the mind can do.

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Who Deserves Success?

Meritocracy has a lot of different definitions, but in the United States it is probably best defined as follows: a system in which individuals will succeed in life as long as they do some combination of hard work, talent development, and learning.

Under a belief in meritocracy, the question of “who deserves success?” springs forth. After all, if someone demonstrates merit, we would argue that they deserve success. In fact, we see this all the time in certain contexts.

One context that comes to mind for me is hockey because amazing players regularly fail to earn a cupOpens in a new tab.. A couple players in recent memory who have never won a cup are Joe Pavelski, who just announced his retirementOpens in a new tab., and Henrik Lundqvist. Though, many would argue that they both deserved a cup.

Likewise, we often see this with rich people in general. A solid portion of society will look at people like Bezos and Musk and assume that they deserved their success. After all, under meritocracy, it’s not possible for someone to reach that level of success without having earned it. Confronting the reality of their success would quite literally crumble the belief system, so people don’t do it.

Overall, I find it interesting to look at examples of folks who succeed within the meritocratic framework as expected (e.g., CEOs) and look at how people use that to justify their belief system. I also find it interesting to look at folks who don’t succeed within the meritocratic framework who otherwise should (e.g., hockey players) and look at how people don’t update their belief system. The entire concept of people “deserving” things is really interesting!

Who Doesn’t Deserve Success?

Interestingly, for every example of an individual or group that we feel deserves success through the lens of meritocracy, there are examples of folks who we argue don’t deserve success.

Almost the entire inspiration for this article stems from a conversation I had with some friends at a bachelor party about unions. I started the conversation about unions, so I could tell the story about why my dad hates them. However, to preface the conversation, I stated that I’m very pro-union.

Having shared my story, it wasn’t long before a few of my friends were pitching arguments for why unions are bad. One very common argument that I always hear, which came up during this conversation, was that unions are bad because they enable lazy workers. This, of course, is subtly arguing that lazy people don’t deserve success—which is right in line with what we’d expect from a society built on a belief in meritocracy.

We see very similar takes in political discussions around policies intended to help folks. For example, the concept of “universal” anything—such as universal basic income, universal healthcare, or universal student loan forgiveness—is always met with pushback from both sides of the aisle.

When democrats talk about student loan forgiveness, they always want to put stipulations on it where rich people won’t get the benefit because “they don’t deserve it.” Deserve in this context is actually not related to meritocracy at all but rather related to need (i.e., it’s not that rich people haven’t merited forgiveness but rather they don’t need it.). Unfortunately, this often leads to beneficial policies not passing due to pushback from rich groups.

Meanwhile, republicans often argue that students haven’t worked hard enough to merit the forgiveness. Often times, the argument is around the trades being “real work” and desk jobs being the opposite. Ironically, there are a ton of working class folks who could benefit from student loan forgiveness, and they find themselves voting against their own interests for the sake of upholding some ideal form of meritocracy (e.g., hard workers don’t take handouts).

Overall, what we see with the comparison between folks who don’t deserve success and don’t get it versus folks who don’t deserve success but get it is exactly the same as previously discussed. Results that align with meritocracy are used to reinforce that belief system while results that don’t align are discarded.

Making Sense of the Facade

I don’t think anything I’ve written about hasn’t been explored by actual scholars (e.g., Erin CechOpens in a new tab.), but I got bored on my drive home from the bachelor party, and I had meritocracy on my mind. Ultimately, I encourage you to apply these same ideas around “who deserves something” in your own life to see where it crops up.

For instance, I personally think amazing hockey players deserve to win a cup, but I am also aware of the randomness that occurs in sports. There is so much out of the control of that individual player that it’s not like they failed; they just got unlucky.

With all that said, I’ll save some of my more “burn down the system” takes for another time. For now, I’m going to continue to think about this idea of “deserving” success and even “deserving” failure or punishment. In the meantime, I hope you’ll continue to browse the site! For instance, here are some other weird articles that have nothing to do with programming or education:

Hope that will keep you busy! If not, you can always head over to my list of ways to grow the site. Otherwise, take care.

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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