The Injustices of Merit
Chris Horner writes in Think:
‘The class war is over. But the struggle for true equality has only just begun’ –Tony Blair
What would a fair society look like? ‘New Labour’ thinks it has the answer: it’s “meritocracy”. This is the vision of a society in which the highest rewards go to those who deserve them, unhindered by the barriers of inherited wealth, class and privilege. It will be achieved by ‘equality of opportunity’, an equal start for all, regardless of class, race or creed. In this way the energetic, ambitious and talented reach the top, whatever their origins. This view of a just society has a powerful appeal in an unequal society like that of the UK, where class, gender, and race still limit the life chances of many. Unfortunately, the goal of a meritocracy is in itself deeply problematic, and equality of opportunity, at least as understood by Blair and Co., is likely to make society even less fair than it is already. That’s why anyone who cares about genuine social justice should oppose both.
THE BIG RACE
Equality of opportunity is an attractive idea. Some inequalities between people are unrelated to anything they might have done: gender, race, being born to poor parents and so on. These kinds of differences ought to be compensated for, as people shouldn’t suffer because of brute bad luck, a roll of the genetic dice. But for New Labour it is as if people’s circumstances were like the opening of a race. Just as we would expect a race to be arranged so that each runner has an equal start, so the state ought to take steps to ensure that people are given equal opportunities to get on in life. Thus the state should intervene to ensure that accidents of birth (race, gender, poverty) do not act as obstacles to success in the race of life. But that’s just at the start: life, like a race, will still produce winners – and losers. The fastest win the prizes.
It’s here we hit our first problem. Equal opportunities alone cannot achieve the goal of a meritocratic society. Imagine two caterers, each earning £10,000, and two clever and industrious lawyers, earning £100,000 each. If both couples marry and have children the difference in their combined incomes will be huge. With their £200,000 the lawyers will be able to buy their child the best start in life, including expensive schooling. Their child, regardless of merit, has an enormous relative advantage, one that it will pass on to its children in turn. In a society dominated by market values ‘equal opportunities’ is doomed to reproduce inequality, irrespective of merit.