Labor should embrace meritocracy ahead of the next election

Simon Cowan

14 October 2019 | The Canberra Times

There have been several recent books exploring the merits (or otherwise) of meritocracy. That such a meritorious concept as status and financial reward in society reflecting intellectual gifts and industriousness is being openly rejected makes it clear just how far down the rabbit hole we’ve come in so many ways. Reeve’s statement should be considered extraordinary but it isn’t.

Of all the ways we have tried to organise society in the thousands of years of human existence, nothing has come close to creating the happiness and abundance of our capitalist meritocracy.

Those on the more socialist side of politics need to do some deep thinking about meritocracy in Australia. It is particularly relevant to both Labor’s recent election loss and subsequent determination of its future direction.

Labor’s election policy manifesto was, in effect, a radical rejection of Australian meritocracy. Signature policies targeted not the ultra-rich, or those who inherited huge sums of wealth, but ordinary people who worked hard and saved for an investment property. Or those who resented letting the superannuation industry clip their retirement ticket.

And Labor didn’t just seek to cut back on supposed excesses. These ordinary people were demonised as rorters who were scamming the system. At its core was the idea that the great harm in society was not just poverty but inequality. This argument states that the rich getting richer is itself a problem, even if the poor were getting richer too (as has been the case in Australia).

Or to put in a different way, echoing Reeve’s claim: it’s the belief that the poor and disadvantaged people in society (and those who champion the cause of those people) have a greater moral right to the proceeds of success than the successful.

There are significant problems with this, both in principle and in practical terms.

Of course it would be wrong to think that the financial rewards that skew towards intelligence and industriousness are indicators of moral superiority. But this is neither a fundamental principle of meritocracy or a reason to reject meritocracy as a whole.

Rich people are not “better” people or more morally deserving in general, but they should have the first and best claim on the rewards of their success. Poor people do not, by virtue solely of their poverty, deserve moral condemnation. Yet passive welfare receipt is a personal failing, not a systemic one: the primary stimulus for escape from poverty must come from within.

The Australian people fundamentally disagreed with Labor’s rejection of merit. We are an egalitarian society, but also a fiercely meritocratic one.

Of course the left has long been focusing more attention on the “egalitarian” side, than the meritocratic side. As long as they believe the primary function of government is to remedy inequality of outcome, progressives will always be uneasy with rewarding intellectual merit and industriousness.

“Society benefits enormously from the innovation and prosperity generated by allowing the best and brightest to personally benefit from their skill.”

A meritocratic system predicated on equality of opportunity is more or less the opposite of a centrally controlled system predicated on ensuring equality of outcome.

A market-based capitalist system is the closest we can come to replicating a true meritocracy. Capitalism doesn’t guarantee that everyone has the same level of opportunity to succeed (the advantages of birth being what they are) but that the largest number of people have at least some opportunity to succeed.

And perhaps more important is the possibility that undermining this system may actually undercut efforts to remedy inequality. At a basic level, it’s likely that the prosperity generated by efficient markets, by meritocracy, is actually a prerequisite for such an agenda actually succeeding.

Society benefits enormously from the innovation and prosperity generated by allowing the best and brightest to personally benefit from their skill.

Many left-wing doctrines reject the premise of meritocracy outright. After all, when British sociologist (and Labour politician) Michael Young first used the phrase meritocracy in 1958 to describe a society where intelligence and merit have replaced class, he actually meant it as a warning.

The Marxist idea of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” involves an explicit split between the merits of contributors and the reward for their contributions.

Identity politics, which draws a lot from Marxist principles if not directly from Marxism itself, is also a system that seeks to substitute other attributes in the place of merit (in this case “disadvantage”, particularly so-called “structural disadvantage”) as the organising principle of society.

The attempt to retrofit equality of outcome on an economy makes it less efficient, and it’s not at all clear that it actually does that much for inequality other than shift the benefits from one type of ruling class to another.

Yet there is no reason why meritocracy can’t be compatible with an agenda focused on reducing poverty. An election winning formula for Labor is to couple respect and support for a meritocratic system that rewards success, with a robust safety net aimed at encouraging participation and escape from poverty.

This may require abandoning true “pernicious myths” though, such as the idea that every difference in group outcome is the result of discrimination or bigotry of some kind.

And while it may be too much to hope that Labor would adopt free choice as its guiding principle, at a minimum they should firmly reject the contention that the successful don’t deserve their success.

Simon Cowan is research director at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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