Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
In the grand scheme of social ideals, meritocracy reigns as one of the most impactful principles, fostering a society where individuals rise to prominence and power based on their abilities and achievements, rather than birthright or privilege. The principle of meritocracy underscores the very foundation of a fair society, where hard work, talent, and innovation are rewarded. It is pivotal in maintaining a free and prosperous society, and here’s why.
Firstly, meritocracy promotes equality of opportunity. In a true meritocracy, everyone has the chance to succeed based on their own merit regardless of background. This allows for a leveling of the playing field, granting each person the right to rise according to their abilities and efforts. A society that champions meritocracy encourages individuals to strive for their best, fostering a culture of hard work, resilience, and ambition.
Secondly, meritocracy fuels innovation and economic growth. When individuals are rewarded based on their talent and efforts, they are incentivized to innovate, create, and perform at their best. This, in turn, stimulates economic growth and prosperity. History is rife with examples of societies that flourished when merit was rewarded – from the rapid technological advancements of the Silicon Valley tech giants to the economic miracles witnessed in post-war Japan and Germany.
Thirdly, meritocracy ensures the most competent individuals lead. In a society where leadership roles are based on merit, the most qualified, skilled, and effective leaders rise to the top. This promotes better decision-making, efficiency, and performance in both public and private sectors, leading to overall societal improvement.
While the term “meritocracy” was not in use during the time of the Founding Fathers, their actions and beliefs make it clear that they championed the principles that underpin this concept. Through their personal examples and the institutions they established, they laid the groundwork for a society that values individual ability and achievement. It is this foundation that has allowed the United States to continually strive towards the ideal of a meritocracy, where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed based on their own merits and abilities.
It is clear, however, that concept of meritocracy was implicit in their writings and actions. Meritocracy resonates deeply with the democratic ideals that the Founding Fathers held. Their approach to this concept, while not explicitly labeled as meritocracy, can be discerned through a careful examination of their actions, writings, and the institutions they established.
The Founding Fathers, including individuals such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, all demonstrated a belief in the power of individual merit. This belief was deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual and philosophical development that greatly influenced their thinking.
George Washington, for example, rose to prominence not because of inherited wealth or title, but due to his leadership abilities and military acumen during the Revolutionary War. He was a model of the self-made man, a figure that would become emblematic of the American Dream, and his leadership was a testament to the power of merit.
Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, held a belief in the natural rights of man. He stated that “all men are created equal,” indicating that everyone should have the same opportunities for success. This belief aligns with the principles of a meritocracy, which values individuals based on their achievements rather than their social status or wealth.
Benjamin Franklin was perhaps the most explicit proponent of meritocratic ideals. He was a vocal advocate for education, believing it to be the key to social mobility and individual improvement. Franklin’s establishment of public institutions like libraries and universities was a practical embodiment of his belief in the power of self-improvement and personal merit.
The Founding Fathers not only championed the concept of meritocracy in their personal lives but also institutionalized it in the formation of the American political system. The U.S. Constitution, which they crafted, has several meritocratic elements.
For instance, there are no hereditary offices in the U.S. government, meaning that one cannot inherit a position of power. This provision was a clear departure from the monarchical systems of Europe where power was often passed down through generations. Instead, public offices in the U.S. are filled through elections, with the aim of choosing the most qualified individuals, a clear nod to meritocratic principles.
The system of checks and balances, another cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution, is also implicitly meritocratic. It requires that individuals in power continually demonstrate their abilities and merits in order to maintain their positions. This system promotes accountability and discourages complacency, further emphasizing the importance of merit over inherited status.
In a society where positions and rewards are distributed according to merit, the concept of meritocracy reigns supreme. It’s a system that believes in the power of hard work, talent, and ambition, asserting that each individual, regardless of their background, has the potential to climb the societal ladder based on their capabilities. But what happens when we abandon this principle? How does it affect our political and economic landscapes?
Politically, abandoning meritocracy may lead to a shift in power dynamics, affecting the governance of a nation. In a meritocratic society, leaders are chosen based on their abilities, credentials, and proven track records. They have demonstrated their competence and capacity to lead, fostering a sense of public trust. If we abandon this principle, we risk ending up with leaders who might not possess the necessary skills or experience. There’s a potential for nepotism and cronyism to take root, as appointments might be influenced by personal relationships rather than professional competence. This could erode public trust and potentially destabilize political systems.
Economically, meritocracy is a key driver of innovation and productivity. When rewards and advancements are tied to performance, it encourages individuals to improve their skills, innovate, and work efficiently. Removing this incentive might lead to a decline in overall productivity. Furthermore, it could also result in an inefficient allocation of resources. If jobs and promotions are not given based on merit, then the most competent individuals may not end up in positions where their skills are best utilized. This inefficiency can slow economic growth and development.
Abandoning meritocracy also brings up concerns about fairness and social mobility. Meritocracy, at least in theory, offers an equal playing field, allowing individuals from any background to succeed if they have the ability and put in the effort. Without it, those from privileged backgrounds may have an unfair advantage, leading to increased social inequality and a decrease in social mobility.
Like so many other aspects of American society, the embedding of the principles of meritocracy within our political and economic systems have yielded enormous benefits. Abandoning those principles would be foolish, and have terrible consequences in the near and long term.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, as well as Chairman and Founder of the Institute for Regulatory Analysis and Engagement. IFL is a non-profit advocacy organization focused on advancing free-market and limited government principles into public policy at all levels. IRAE is a non-profit academic and activist organization whose mission is to examine regulations and regulatory proposals, assess their economic and societal impacts, and offer expert commentary in order to create better public policies. Andrew has been involved in free-market and limited-government causes for more than 25 years, has testified before Congress nearly two dozen times, spoken to audiences across the United States, and has taught at the collegiate level.
A globally-recognized expert on the impact of regulation on business, Andrew is regularly called on to offer innovative solutions to the challenges of squaring public policy priorities with the impact and efficacy of those policies, as well as their unintended consequences. Prior to becoming President of IFL and founding IRAE, he was the principal regulatory affairs lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest small business association. As President of the Institute for Liberty, he became recognized as an expert on the Constitution, especially issues surrounding private property rights, free speech, abuse of power, and the concentration of power in the federal executive branch.
Andrew has had an extensive career in media—having appeared on television programs around the world. From 2017 to 2021, he hosted a highly-rated weekly program on WBAL NewsRadio 1090 in Baltimore (as well as serving as their principal fill-in host from 2011 until 2021), and has filled in for both nationally-syndicated and satellite radio programs. He also created and hosted several different podcasts—currently hosting Andrew and Jerry Save The World, with long-time colleague, Jerry Rogers.
He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Troy University and his degree from William & Mary is in International Relations.