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In the Name of Meritocracy: The Dark Side

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Clements
October 2, 2019

Much has been made of the term equality and fairness in the current political landscape. We have heard political pundits debate furiously between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. To many, the answer seems to rest in the term merit. On the surface, merit seems to be a concept that is noble, just and fair. However, upon closer observance something intriguing begins to take shape. Meritocracy can have major adverse impacts on the quality of life of both the aristocracy, middle-class and lower-class sections of society. This brief analysis will look more in detail at the reasons that this could be the case.

Meritocracy can add tremendous stressors and demands on the aristocracy, middle-class and lower-class equally. The perfect starting position would be to acknowledge the role of merit at the nation’s leading universities such as Yale, Harvard and Stanford. While these institutions stand as giants in academe, they also serve as beautiful yet disturbing reminders of the separation that meritocracy is capable of creating. While we have heard much of the admission scandal that has gripped the country, there are thousands of stories that unfold completely opposite of the nepotistic narrative of, “Admission gate.”

Since the 1970’s elite schools such as Yale and Harvard had moved to a meritocratic system which coincidentally allowed for upward vertical class mobility, but this occurrence was accompanied by tremendous competition; competition that cost young adults hours of intense study and an almost complete forfeiture of their teenage years. This occurrence arguably contributes to a further fragmenting effect of society. As appealing as it may be on the surface, merit poses its own issues for public administrators. The question to be asked is simply, how do we ensure that merit is not exchanged for civility?

Meritocrats in public administration may be more knowledgeable and possess more credentials, but what of compassion, empathy and concern? While knowledge and skill are important in governance, a concern for our fellow citizen should remain high on the list of priorities. We have seen our share of baffling moments as they have occurred in public arena. For many, there seems to be a lack of terminal degree holders working in local, city, and state government. The logical next observance would be that terminal degree holders are an extremely small fraction of society. If we are to provide adequate governance and representation to citizens in our respective cities and towns, merit-based hiring processes may aid in ensuring that government is functioning at an efficient level, but possibly at the expense of representation. Nonetheless, there lies another disturbing component to the idea of merit. If hiring decisions regarding public officials were made on merit, would this pose a threat to representation in our society?

As politics has evolved over the past few years into something short of satire, there are those who would assume that politics has taken its downward spiral mostly due to voter apathy and a loss of intellectualism in politics. While this position is not the purpose of this piece, an argument could be made to support such a claim. A more important question would be the link between government appointments and unmeritocratic decisions which place the unqualified individuals in positions of power. A well-known fact is that many Presidents will appoint friends, colleagues and the like to cabinet positions within the government. It is likely that such appointments are made in manners that are completely unmeritocratic. Though mostly taboo, this occurrence happens in workplaces around the globe as well. Is merit something that should be championed or something that should be perceived as a noble ideal, like that of socialism? Though noble in design, the actual practice of such systems mask major pitfalls and dangers that could pose a serious threat to the public.

In conclusion, while we enter this period of uncertainty in society, public administrators must be diligent and aware of the potential downfalls associated with any ideology. Ad we have seen on the campuses of top tier universities, merit does allow for mobility, but there is a reciprocity that is impossible to ignore. The question now is simple. Do we remain in the dim light of the familiar or do we journey into the unknown in the name of meritocracy?


Author: William Clements, Ph.D., is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Psychology at higher education institutions. He possesses a Bachelor of Science degree in Justice Studies, a Master of Science degree in Forensic Psychology, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Public Policy and Administration. He is also a Fellow at the Institute for Polarities of Democracy. He has served in the field of public service for a total of 12 plus years and is a well-read enthusiast for topics of economics, politics, homeland security, and most of all, public policy. Email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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