Some people have more than others; more income, more capital, more possessions, more status. Is that fair? Well, yes, provided they have more because they have earned it on merit, either by working harder than other people, or by being better at what they do than other people. Effort and talent deserve to be rewarded. That's the theory behind meritocracy.

Up until about 100 years ago, inequality mostly derived from birth; the aristocracy had more because of the families they were born into. Although inherited wealth and privilege undoubtedly still exist, the UK in the twenty-first century is much more like a meritocracy. A meritocracy is a society in which people are rewarded according to their work and their talent. However, the thing about a meritocractic society is that it is also (inevitably) an unequal one. Is that inequality fair? Might it even be a good thing?

Defenders of meritocracy say that it is the fairest possible system, because it allocates rewards to people in return for what they offer society. They also say it is the most effective possible system, because it incentivises people to work hard and to develop their talents, to the greater benefit of society. Moreover, it gives people the freedom to make what they want of their lives. Societies based on meritocracy are fairer, more prosperous and freer.

Critics of meritocracy say that it is not actually that fair a system, as people's level of talent and attitude to work are not as much under their control as they appear to be. They are very largely determined by their upbringing and social context. They also say it is not very effective, as it creates a society in which there are winners and losers. The winners think that they are better people than the losers, (when in fact they are just luckier) and as a result they feel both arrogant and insecure, constantly afraid they or their children might lose their superior status. The losers are made to feel that their lower status is their fault, for not being smarter or harder working (when in fact they are just unluckier) and as a result they feel both depressed and resentful.

It was no fun being poor in the middle ages, but at least you could console yourself with the thought that you being poor was all part of God's plan; now if you're poor it means there's something wrong with you. These so-called 'losers' could actually achieve much more if they were brought up in a more equal society. The social division and the lack of mutual understanding and respect caused by economic inequality undermine levels of trust and social cohesion to everyone's detriment. Meritocracy creates an unequal society, and unequal societies are unfair, ineffective and divided.

To boil it down to a point of clash. Which is more important: equality of opportunity, where everyone has the same chance to succeed, even though this may mean some will be much more successful than others? Or equality of outcome, where differences between people are very small, even though this means preventing some people from getting ahead of others? Should life be like a race, in which everyone runs as fast as they can in the hope of coming first? Or should it be like a group hike, in which everyone walks at more or less the same pace, and the stronger walkers look after the weaker ones? Do you agree more with Karl Marx, who said: 'From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs'? Or with Margaret Thatcher, who said: 'Let our children grow tall, and some taller than others, if they have the ability in them to do so'? Answer these questions, and you will know whether you believe in meritocracy or not.

Motions that go with this topic

  • This house would introduce a maximum wage.
  • This house would abolish income tax.
  • This house would introduce a flat rate for income tax (i.e. everyone would pay the same rate of income tax, e.g. 25%, unlike the current system, where the more you earn the higher a percentage of your income is taken in tax).
  • This house would impose a maximum 10:1 ratio between the highest and lowest paid employees of any business.
  • This house believes that economic inequality is bad for society.