Meritocracy is not the enemy

Simon Cowan

18 October 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Of all the ways we have tried to organise society in the thousands of years of human existence, nothing has come close to the 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. Labor’s policies were predicated on a 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.

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.

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

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.

And perhaps more important is the possibility that undermining our meritocratic 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.

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.

There is no reason why meritocracy can’t be compatible with an agenda focused on reducing poverty. However it may require abandoning the myth that every difference in outcome is the result of government not doing enough, or discrimination of some kind.

This is an edited extract of a piece published in the Canberra Times as Labor should embrace meritocracy ahead of the next election.

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