A month after the Taking of the Bastille, in 1789, the National Assembly of France approved one of the most important texts in the history of the world – the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
An excerpt enshrined a new idea for the time, one of the banners of the French Enlightenment: people should be judged on their merit, and not on their race, sex or the “nobility of blood”.
“All citizens are equal in their eyes and equally admissible to all dignities, places and public jobs”, says the sixth article of the declaration, “according to their capacity and without any distinction other than that of their virtues and talents. ”.
The term “revolutionary” has been used so much – everything is revolutionary today. But the word applies perfectly to meritocracy.
Until the Enlightenment, says Adrian Wooldridge in a brilliant book that has just come out, “The Aristocracy of Talent”, selection for positions in the Army and in public administration was based on origin or surname.
The belief that there was a fixed social order was in force, that it was necessary to accept the position that God reserved for each one. Social climbing was considered an offense to the natural order. After the rise of meritocracy, the poor and the discriminated at last gained the right to compete.
In traditional aristocratic societies, says the author, people were judged by their collective identity, family connections and relationships. Influence peddling was the essence of social life.
In a meritocratic society, however, it is ugly to use friendships to gain advantages. Coming from below is a source of pride; people are above all individuals “masters of their destiny and captains of their souls”.
No wonder conservatives were the first to criticize merit as a selection criterion – a criticism that populates the left. Conservative intellectuals reacted to the fashion of choosing officers through intellectual tests and warned that this would cause “disharmony between classes.”
Policy editor and columnist for The Economist, Wooldridge believes meritocracy is the closest we have to a total ideology, in which everyone believes, even its critics.
For example, the struggle of feminists or transgender people against discrimination in the labor market is founded on the idea that people should be judged on their abilities.
Martin Luther King famously defended meritocracy when he said he dreamed “that one day my four children will live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin, but by their character”.
The very idea that we should provide education and opportunity for the poor is based on merit. In a world where the selection criterion is some collective identity or skin color rather than intellectual capabilities, there is less incentive to invest in education.
“The Aristocracy of Talent” is something of a response to the book “The Tyranny of Merit” that Michael Sandell released last year.
Wooldridge is generous to those who disagree — he recognizes that the current state of meritocracy has flaws and describes them in detail. But he doesn’t see a better (and more morally correct) alternative for organizing society. He believes that the system’s problems are solved with more –and better– meritocracy.
In Brazil, we have an additional question. The public school aggravates the birth inequality that undermines meritocracy.
The child is born poor, often with absent or neglectful parents, and we still send him to schools where he will leave without knowing a simple rule of three.
Public education – and teacher unions that prevent innovations in the sector, such as the allocation of funds from Fundeb to “charter schools” – aggravate the failures of Brazil’s meritocracy.
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