Sean Speer: Meritocracy matters—even if it’s imperfectly practiced

The solution to imperfect meritocracy is more meritocracy, not less
A young boy holds a Canadian flag while watching a special Canada Day citizenship ceremony in West Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, July 1, 2017. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

This week The Hub ran an article by Karamveer Lalh in which he makes the case that the idea of a “pure meritocracy” is a “noble lie.” His basic point is that, notwithstanding our society’s tendency to tell itself that individual initiative and merit alone determine one’s fate, various other factors at play —including even systemic racism—often stand in the way. The upshot of his argument is that conservatives ought to abandon (or at least reorder) their ideological commitment to notions of meritocracy and redouble their focus on the social structures such as the family that ultimately shape and guide us. 

Lalh’s call to recognize the possible limits of meritocratic thinking is well-taken. His dismissal of meritocracy as a “utopian ideal” is not. 

Let’s start where we agree. Of course it’s true that we can come to overstate how inclusive and democratized the path to success is in our country. There remain too many barriers for some people to live out their aspirations and maximize their human potential. 

Some of these barriers are familial. There’s overwhelming evidence, for instance, that growing up in a two-parent household is associated with better economic and social outcomes. There’s a good argument even (as Lalh alludes) that family breakdown and single-parent households may be the biggest cause of inequality in modern society. 

Some of the ongoing barriers are indeed systemic. Conservatives shouldn’t be averse to recognizing that the legal structures and conventions governing Indigenous peoples in Canada are an expression of systemic racism. How else should one describe a system of laws that’s fundamentally predicated on race? The status quo facing too many Indigenous peoples in our country is a tragic indictment of a worldview that de-emphasizes individuals and categorizes them according to immutable characteristics such as ethnicity and race. Conservatives should be more offended than anyone by such a regime. 

Yet the answer for Indigenous peoples and others for whom the meritocratic aspiration too often remains elusive isn’t to abandon notions of meritocracy. It’s to double down on them and extend their promise to as many Canadians as possible. 

That the idea of meritocracy isn’t “pure” is hardly an indictment. It’s a silly measure. The conservative test is never perfection or purity for that matter. That would be a radical—indeed utopian—expectation.  

It’s instead a call for ongoing cultural and political efforts to remove the impediments to a society in which individuals are ultimately judged by their character, merit, and hard work rather than immutable characteristics like class, race, gender, or sexuality. 

The alternative followed logically would have conservatives come to effectively match the group categorization of today’s modern Left. The groups (defined perhaps by family structure rather than race or sexuality) and solutions (hiring quotas for the children of single parents) may differ but the unhealthy emphasis on “social hierarchies” and “privilege” is essentially the same. Not only is that a bad path for conservatism, but it’s a worse one for our society. 

That doesn’t mean that we ought to neglect social relationships, institutions, and the various other factors that help to shape, mould, and elevate individuals. Conservatism at its best is committed to the preservation and strengthening of such a healthy and vibrant civil society. As I’ve written before: 

Personal success is typically neither the result of solitary pursuit nor bestowed by a benevolent state. It’s usually a consequence of the contributions and sacrifices of one’s family and friends. It’s why NHL draft picks thank their parents or award-winning movie stars recognize their spouses or successful entrepreneurs acknowledge their friends. They implicitly understand that their accomplishments are shared with those closest to them.

I recognize that I stand in large part on the shoulders of my parents and grandparents whose choices, support, and love have helped me immensely. But to effectively distil my entire life up until this point according to my family relationships is to eliminate any role for personal agency. It’s the essence of the wrongheaded Obama-ian idea: “You didn’t build that.”

One can recognize the gifts that our families have given to us without abandoning the idea that it’s still up to us to make something of ourselves. That’s not some kind of “stubborn libertarianism.” It’s a basic insight of conservatism. 

I’ve previously argued that the future of cultural and political debates will be between who I’ve come to call the “structuralists” and those with an expansive view of human agency. The latter, in my view, have a built-in advantage not only because their outlook is more positive and aspirational, but it’s rooted in an understanding of the equal distribution of human dignity. It would be a huge mistake therefore to abandon it in favour of losing arguments that define people downward based on characteristics or traits that they cannot control. 

The upshot is that while Lalh offers a useful corrective to the tendency to lionize the meritocracy and neglect the real barriers still facing too many in our society to realize their potential and have a better future, his call to essentially abandon meritocratic ideas is the wrong prescription. The solution is more meritocracy, not less. 

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