Karamveer Lalh: The noble lie of meritocracy is holding us back

We'd be better off strengthening families and communities instead
Demonstrators march down Broadway during a rally to demand more inclusion for minorities and the disabled on April 22, 2021, in New York. Mary Altaffer/AP Photo.

Meritocracy has been at the heart of liberalism since its inception, offering a vision of a fair and just society that transcends traditional hierarchies and divisions. In a meritocratic society, individuals are rewarded for their talents, hard work, and contributions rather than their birthright or social connections. This principle has long been seen as the foundation of modern liberal democracies, which strive to promote equality of opportunity and social mobility.

However, the belief in a pure meritocracy is a noble lie. While it is a powerful organizing principle that offers an appealing vision of fairness and rationality, it often obscures the reality of systemic barriers and inequalities that prevent certain groups from accessing opportunities and resources on an equal footing. By propagating the belief that everyone has an equal chance to succeed, the noble lie of meritocracy can mask the existence of these barriers and make it more challenging to address them effectively.

At its core, the noble lie1The concept of the noble lie, introduced by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and later developed by political philosopher Leo Strauss, has long been debated among philosophers and political theorists. refers to the idea that rulers may deceive the public for the greater good of society, maintaining social order and preventing chaos. In liberalism, the noble lie is the idea that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed based solely on their abilities, regardless of wealth, social status, race, and gender.

Ironically, the most effective social critique of liberalism and meritocracy had its roots in liberalism itself. The most (in)famous being Critical Race Theory (CRT), and the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives it informs. Proponents of CRT argue that the noble lie of meritocracy obscures systemic barriers that prevent certain groups from accessing opportunities and resources. Although CRT and DEI initiatives aim to address these issues and promote social justice, they have also been criticized for potentially undermining social cohesion and perpetuating a culture of victimhood.

Another important critique of CRT is that it is overly focused on racial divides as an explanatory factor for social divisions;2n.b. that CRT was developed in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil Rights movement it underplays the effects of social class and social structures more generally in creating social divisions. The role of inherited advantages and privileges, such as wealth and social status, are somewhat under-emphasized when shaping one’s life chances.

Modern Western conservatism, in its stubborn libertarianism, clings to the lie of meritocracy to its own detriment. A conservative should know that the idea of a purely neutral system where anyone can be everything is a utopian vision of society sold to children to encourage them to study harder or to keep practicing their chosen sport.

Conservatives should instead recognize that social hierarchies are a natural consequence of human interaction and the diversity of talents and abilities within a population. Individuals naturally gravitate towards others with similar interests, values, and skills, forming social networks and communities that reflect these affinities. These networks, in turn, shape the distribution of resources and opportunities within society.

I do not wish to underemphasize the role of individual talents and abilities in forming social hierarchies. Some individuals possess extraordinary skills or aptitudes that enable them to excel in their chosen fields. In contrast, others may struggle to find a niche where their talents can be fully realized. These differences in ability, combined with the influence of social networks, lead to the inevitable emergence of hierarchies as individuals rise or fall within the social order based on their unique combination of skills, connections, and resources.

While the idea of a meritocracy, in which individuals are judged solely on their talents and abilities, is appealing, it is essential to recognize the limits of this concept in practice. In a pure meritocracy, systemic barriers and inequalities would not exist, as everyone would have an equal opportunity to succeed based solely on their merits. However, individuals do face significant obstacles in their pursuit of success due to factors such as discrimination, bias, and lack of access to resources. 

Conservatives are rightly skeptical of CRT; however, they must also recognize that it is an uncontroversial idea that the children of physicians, lawyers, and other high-status professions tend to enter those same professions and be more successful socially, financially, and politically than the median child. Similarly, it should be uncontroversial that individuals from low-income backgrounds may lack access to quality education and social networks, which can hinder their ability to compete on a level playing field with their more privileged peers.

Instead of hanging onto the idea that meritocracy exists and is being eroded by overly woke liberal decision-makers, conservatives should recognize that meritocracy has never existed and is instead a utopian ideal. Conservatives must contend with that reality and offer their own response to the question of, “what is the most practical but also fair way to organize society?”

The answer is a renewed emphasis on the importance of strong families and communities as the foundation of success and prosperity in society. More often than not, successful individuals are the products of strong families and communities.3Although stories of exceptional talent rising from the lower classes are inspirational and have utility, practically, these success stories are few and far between. It is far easier to climb the social ladder building off the successes of one’s parents and family.

Accordingly, the family should be recentered as the foundational unit of society instead of the individual. Doing so would provide individuals with the support, values, and resources necessary for personal growth and achievement. Given the inevitability of social hierarchies, the challenge for any political movement is to create the necessary conditions for human flourishing, regardless of that individual’s relative position within society. Conservatives must reemphasize the importance of cultivating virtues and values that promote human flourishing, such as resilience, perseverance, and a strong work ethic. By encouraging individuals to cultivate these virtues, society can help to ensure that each person is equipped to overcome the challenges they may face in their pursuit of success.

Families are the most essential way to provide the necessary emotional and financial support needed to nurture a solid moral foundation. They allow children to develop their talents and pursue their aspirations, and become citizens capable of contributing positively to society.

Likewise, thriving communities foster an environment of mutual support and cooperation, where individuals can develop strong social networks and access resources that may be unavailable to them otherwise. These communities encourage collaboration, mentorship, and the sharing of knowledge, which can significantly enhance an individual’s ability to succeed in their chosen field.

While CRT and DEI initiatives attempt to address systemic barriers and promote social justice, they may inadvertently undermine the importance of individual responsibility, personal agency, and strong families and communities. By focusing primarily on race, gender, and other identity factors, these initiatives can inadvertently foster a sense of victimhood and entitlement, leading individuals to overlook the significance of personal effort and determination.4Furthermore, affirmative action policies, while well-intentioned, can lead to unintended consequences such as reverse discrimination, stigmatization of beneficiaries, and the potential for resentment among those who perceive themselves as unfairly disadvantaged by such policies. This may ultimately harm social cohesion and unity and undermine the principles of fairness and meritocracy.

Empowering families and communities to become the bedrock of individual success can be achieved through policy initiatives that promote marriage and responsible parenthood and support families facing economic hardship. Investments in community development, including education, infrastructure, and public safety, can create an environment that fosters growth, collaboration, and opportunity. Mentorship programs and local initiatives that unite individuals can help break down barriers, promote understanding, and encourage cooperation across socioeconomic, racial, and gender lines.

Meritocracy has served as a powerful organizing principle for liberal societies, but it is crucial to recognize the limitations of top-down initiatives like CRT, DEI, and affirmative action that inadvertently undermine social cohesion and personal responsibility. By strengthening families and communities we can create an environment that promotes personal growth, resilience, and prosperity and actually begins to address the societal issues that the meritocratic ideal claims to care about but too often neglects.  

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