What if we lived in a meritocratic regime?
Prior to 1881, the United States of America used to have a “patronage government system” whereby the political party who won the election gave public posts to its supporters as a reward for victory, as opposed to a merit system where civil service jobs are granted on the basis of merit rather than political affiliation or other discriminatory features. The assassination of U.S. President James Garfield by a dissatisfied, unemployed citizen in 1881 was an alarming turning point for the federal bureaucracy to change its system of appointments. In 1883, a federal law, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, was established specifying that government positions should be awarded based on merit and not tied to politicians or political affiliations.
Meritocracy is a system of government or other form of administration based on achievement. In this regard, merits may also go beyond one’s cleverness, education and professional profile to include mental and physical talent or work ethic. This system of rewarding people having abilities and efforts with success has long been interlinked with the “American dream” by attracting Americans and non-Americans to work hard to trigger their capacities and talents and “climb the ladder of success.” For almost two decades, most Americans have supported meritocratic principles despite the growing economic and social inequalities. Commitment to meritocratic ideals was manifested largely in the workplace, notably in the business world.
Nevertheless, an awakening wave emerged, especially after the financial crisis in 2008, whereby many Americans began to realize that the meritocracy they had long believed in was not working well and was being corrupted and misguided as almost all other forms of administrative systems. As people found it hard to achieve what they wanted to achieve, and with the increasing socio-economic challenges, rising unemployment, inflation, debt and living costs in general, meritocracy has been called into question in terms of whom it’s really serving and how fair it’s actually being applied.
Criticisms have been raised by sociologists and analysts regarding the misuse of meritocracy by governments and businesses. However, a good example of how a merit system can actually be a dynamic engine for a novel “knowledge economy” is Singapore. The country’s miraculous success has often been tied to its ability to apply meritocracy in a rational, systematic and objective way and at all levels. By placing meritocracy as one of its official guiding principles in setting its public policies, Singapore places more emphases on academic and educational qualifications as one of its primary merit indicators. Accordingly, it works on building and reinforcing people’s abilities and efforts in childhood education and in everyday life.
Besides the enriched learning experience at schools, “enrichment” and “tuition” centers spread in almost all Singaporean malls were created, first to get students ready for exams and second to further enlighten kids who want to succeed in school and in life by teaching them the “art of learning how to learn.” The aim is to attract not just kids who are failing but also those who thrive to get on top.
Meritocracy in Singapore is also intertwined in everyday life through the country’s different public institutions and policies that organize society’s way of life, from marriage to childbirth to child raising, to family and home management and elderly care. People are compelled to acquire skills to get public goods such as housing, health care, security, etc. Individual merit in this sense is vital to earn opportunities.
Singapore has succeeded through its people’s will to respect the human element within themselves and within each other, and acknowledge and respect the capabilities of each individual, not only in words but also in acts, policies and the organization of daily life.
Too bad that Lebanon, so rich in great brains and potent minds, cannot be a model for meritocracy but rather has a “patronage system” that favors political power, wealth and celebrity over merit, achievement and intelligence.
Dima El Hassan is director of programs at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.