True meritocracy leads away from contempt of the elite

True meritocracy leads away from contempt of the elite

Text by Lars Strannegård 

In today’s society there is a strong belief in meritocracy – where it is ability rather than birthright or material resources that represents the fairest basis of selection. Nonetheless, in practice, power is often allocated precisely in accordance with aristocratic and plutocratic criteria.

A fundamental concept in building modern democracies has been that social class and economy should not impede individuals’ opportunities to develop and participate at any level in society. This political ambition, with equality as its ideological foundation, is rooted deeply in the Swedish political landscape and has a broad span across party boundaries. The ambition rests on the notion that those who have their wits about them and a strong ambition should not be hindered by structural impediments. Skill and ability should afford people access to the arenas that serve as springboards to progress in life.

Knowledge does not automatically convey power, but higher education is one of the most important factors for people being able to assume positions of power later in life. Those with power determine the type of community that is created, and it is in the design of selection principles that we establish a society’s DNA. However, sociologists have shown that one of the surest ways to gain a position within a power elite is to be born into it, and in Sweden it is mainly Swedish-born, middle-aged men with a university education who are to be found in spheres of influence. Such facts bear witness to the frailty of society and that the mechanisms of selection to positions of power are too streamlined.

The selection of those who exercise influence and gain access to more resources than others has varied over time and location, but there are at least four mechanisms of selection that continue to exist side by side. Many wish that the first, the aristocratic (selection based on birth, ethnicity or caste), would have passed its best before date. However, it is enough to look at the surnames or ethnicities represented among those in positions of power in society to realize that this is hardly the case. A second selection mechanism is the plutocratic, whereby power is assigned to those who have material resources in terms of money and property. People with ample resources, such as those who own businesses or properties, exert real influence on employees or tenants. A third selection mechanism is the democratic, that people simply choose decision makers. This selection principle is simple and quantitative: whoever gets the most votes, gets the most power. The fourth principle of selection is the meritocratic, based on performance, ability and effort. In a meritocratic system, those who have shown good results and who have been persistent are rewarded with resources and influence.

Meritocracy, as described by Max Weber, rests on the idea that recruitment, promotion and hierarchies should be determined by an individual’s knowledge and skills. In Sweden, in particular, there is a widespread belief that democracy and meritocracy are interlinked. Put briefly, meritocracy forms the cornerstone of democracy, that is to say that those with the most adequate merits gain the confidence of the people. In the US, it appears as though a hodgepodge of plutocracy, aristocracy and democracy prevailed in the most recent presidential elections. Donald Trump, rich as Croesus, but lacking merit in terms of political experience, to say the least, has a plutocratic-based position. On the other side stood Hillary Clinton, with extensive political qualifications and with family ties to a former president. Her credentials appear, however, to have been overshadowed by her connection to the aristocracy in Washington. She fell under the pressure of the plutocrat’s promises to clean up among back-slapping and corrupt friendships in the establishment – that is, the political aristocracy that previously held power. Democracy became disconnected from meritocracy.

The low level of representation of women and ethnic minorities in too many positions of power in Sweden testifies to the meritocracy not being as self-evident as we have been led to believe. It can be said that homogeneity indicates a lack of meritocracy. In Sweden, school grades are the predominant selection principle for induction into tertiary education programs. The same applies to promotions and job assignments in academia. The principles are obvious manifestations of meritocracy as the selection principle.

Again illustrated by Donald Trump’s presidency, one of the major problems facing meritocracy is that merit is not always easily specified. Although his political credentials were scant, he was clearly perceived by enough Americans as capable of stirring up the pot that they had come to see as politically correct, elitist, corrupt and out of touch with reality. He won the election perhaps primarily because he conveyed a sense of potential for change, not because he had achieved results in the political establishment.

By necessity, meritocracy is based on the individual’s past performance. Individuals gain access to positions or seats based on what they have done, not what they are expected to do. Meritocracies must strive for objectivity and comparability. An accepted method for establishing just comparability is by quantifying merit and performance. This is how we can understand the passion for counting, weighting and measuring: one scientific article has a higher impact factor than another, citations can easily be counted, and one grade average is higher than another – end of story!

Quite simply, meritocratic systems require opportunities to quantify performance. But quantification leads not only to comparability but also to streamlining and homogeneity. Meritocratic, quantitatively-based selection systems are perceived by most as the fairest we have. Being accepted to university programs leading to positions of power in society and business require the highest grades in almost all subjects. Meritocracy in all its glory. The principle is simple: the better life progresses for students with a degree from a certain program, the higher the grades required to enter the program. However, parents with higher education are also required to enter such programs. Obviously this is not stated in the admission requirements, but the statistics show this to be the case. The young people with the highest grades have often been guided and spurred by parents who know what it takes. Such socially slanted selection prevents ambitious and academically gifted students from other backgrounds from getting through. Having a university education is not self-evident for young people from non-academic environments, and certain programs or institutions are simply not included in their mental opportunity maps. The effect is that young people from such backgrounds embark to a lesser extent on the path towards the privileged future that certain educational programs permit.

Here we begin to discern the Achilles’ heel of the meritocracy: that merit all too frequently correlates with plutocracy and aristocracy. Put simply, students whose parents are well-off, well-educated or hold influential positions in society are over-represented on prestigious educational programs. Meritocracy, as it is designed in society in general, and in the principles of admission to universities and colleges specifically, is simply not an effective tool for generating diversity among decision-makers in society.

Those who believe in meritocracy as society’s fairest selection mechanism should conclude that the determination of merit must be allowed to vary more than is currently the case. We must accept that each selection mechanism, however constituted, entails one type of individual being offered admission while another is not. Each principle of inclusion, simultaneously entails a principle of exclusion. Consequently, a true meritocracy must be able to assess different types of qualifications. There must be more paths into the institutions and environments that serve as springboards to progress in life. The road towards a genuine meritocracy goes via a diversity of pathways to admission.

The power elite that sociological research describes as being formed already at birth, and academic education is one of the safest entrance tickets to privileged positions. The institutions that train such individuals have an important role to play because they exert influence over these individuals during a very formative period of their lives. One of the most important measures for creating a more equal society involves increasing the heterogeneity of admission principles.

At my own institution, in connection with this autumn’s admissions, we will be introducing an alternative route to the bachelor’s program. The ordinary grade point average will remain, with a likely score of 19.9 (of a maximum 20) being required for admission. But anyone with a grade point average of at least 17.0 will now be welcome to apply under the new selection quota and may be called to an analytical test and interviews. This is combined with ambassador programs targeted at schools in the catchment areas where higher education is not an obvious next step, open houses targeting young women, and broader communications. These are attempts to open the doors that many have perceived as closed, or to show that those doors are there. The same motives form the basis for the training program for recent immigrants that is now available. Anyone with asylum status and a basic university degree can apply for a one-year program and related internship. The aim is precisely to increase diversity in the pathways to admission.

The diversity of pathways to admission is the basis for a more heterogeneous society and the plutocracy and aristocracy are the mortal enemies of meritocracy. A society that is caught in a belief that a meritocracy is created through homogeneous, quantified and standardized principles also accepts therefore a lack diversity. Without heterogeneous admissions principles, meritocracy is undermined, leaving the field open for the plutocracy and aristocracy to strengthen their positions. A true meritocracy requires selection principles that are less homogeneous, but based on assessments and the well-informed and articulate arguments. Without a broader view on the merits, the populism and disdain of the elite that we are now seeing around the world will grow even stronger. Editor Ludvig Hertzberg underscore @svd.se SINCE 1918 True meritocracy leads away from contempt of the elite In today’s society there is a strong belief in meritocracy – where it is ability rather than birthright or material resources that represents the fairest basis of selection. Nonetheless, in practice, power is often allocated precisely in accordance with aristocratic and plutocratic criteria.


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Lars Strannegård (pictured) is the President of the Stockholm School of Economics and Professor of Business Administration, specializing in Leadership