In order to implement Meritocracy, we must have a good foundation. We ought to define what we mean by merit. After all, without a clear enough definition of what constitutes merit, the vision we are aiming for becomes too vague. Nothing so vague would bode well for us, especially when it concerns the primary substance on which we build our entire edifice of Meritocracy.
Vagueness in defining merit carries the consequence that non-meritocratic elements would seep into our efforts towards Meritocracy. Someone could claim to be meritorious simply because s/he happens to have popular praise, or admiration from those who customarily judge such claims. Without a clearly articulated definition of merit — one that gets to the heart of what makes someone’s efforts meritorious — there is no proper way for people to make a judgment one way or another on the substance.
As a poignant example, we could consider a case that is by now in the public domain, that outrageous 1980’s lip synching phenomenon called Milli Vanilli. If no one had realized that this singing duo had plagiarized and lip synched their hit songs — that is, if no one had actually examined this singing duo’s true, original worth or merit — then simply having had the music press acclaim them as pop music talents deserving of that accolade would not have been sufficient to constitute true merit. Obviously, this is an extreme example of lack of merit. However, with it we can make the point that we need to examine more deeply what makes someone’s acts meritorious, in order to acclaim merit with confidence.
At first glance, recognizing merit in people and acts may seem fairly straightforward. We could simply see what someone’s accomplishments are in a given field or area of endeavor. We could simply recognize as meritorious whoever brings forward original results which exceed those of others in that field.
As the case of the Milli Vanilli singing duo demonstrates, a meritorious person must have produced or delineated these original results by oneself. This includes due and full acknowledgement by that person of what others have already produced — achievements of others which may have served as a necessary starting point for the person in question to exposit original material.
Comprising the deeper reality of merit, however, are two dimensions that are in a continual essential and dialectical relation with each other. The first dimension is that of public recognition. To those who are sufficiently knowledgeable in a certain field, those exemplary individuals who have achieved meritorious results become evident. Their deeds shine and clearly surpass those of others in that field.
The second, little discussed but crucial dimension of merit is that of the internal effort (and oftentimes immense struggle) that a given person expends to achieve something of merit. The fact is that there are some individuals who were born with certain genetic deficiencies or weaknesses. They had no choice being dealt those cards at birth. These persons’ achievements may not seem like much compared to others, in terms of objectively measurable results. Nonetheless, the immense, internal and freely willed effort that some of them may have expended to achieve certain results could even be of a heroic stature.
In these particular cases, these persons may be deserving of great acknowledgment of their merits, even more so than those who seemed to have created something of genius – but had actually been dealt an incredibly elite set of genes with natural strengths that far surpassed others. These natural strengths were not merited at all; the lucky had been born into them. The same holds to a lesser extent — but still very influentially – for environmental and social circumstances that a given person may have been born into, by sheer luck (or lack of it).
Throughout all of this reflection — whether we are considering a publicly recognizable genius or a genetically challenged individual who overcame great odds to produce what to us may seem paltry — we must keep in mind that a continuously and dynamically present dialectic is at work. Certainly, as goes the adage, “Genius is 99% sweat and 1% sheer talent.” Even if one is born with great talents genetically, or with much advantage environmentally, without a great effort to make that talent actual, to bring out its potentialities, nothing substantial is ever produced.
Thus, both the publicly recognizable dimension of merit and that which gives justice to an internal, freely willed effort are ever interacting with each other and building each other up. Without effort, talent cannot be burnished nor teased out and developed according to its potential. On the other hand, without some talent present, no matter how minute, there will be nothing one’s will can act on to be able to produce anything of any value at all.
The Meritocratic state must extol publicly recognizable merit where it finds it, primarily so that the populace and its citizens will have great exemplars to inspire and guide any other work of merit that is being contemplated. This will allow others’ relative merit to be measured more accurately, as well.
How would these necessary conditions of publicly recognizable merit be met? It’s important to understand that without the state recognizing meritorious individuals (and their acts), merit would have almost no societal meaning. It’s true that someone could personally know what her/his contribution is, and that this might fulfill a certain type of individual. However, merit that is effectively anonymous would not have much practical import in society. Hence, publicly recognizing merit with acclaim and appropriate rewards is essential to giving societal meaning to merit.
Public acclaim in the press and media is critical. Nonetheless, this is not the only reward a meritorious person should receive from the state. Praise in the media would ring hollow without a substantive monetary reward. In other words, something should be given to the individual with which s/he can fulfill other pleasures or desires.
In addition to this, the individual who has shown merit in a certain field will be given an opportunity by the Meritocratic state to advance therein by means of a job or position. If this were not proffered, then that meritorious person would be hindered from developing her/his talents further, and hence from providing great practical good by working on related developments of merit in that field.
How would the Meritocratic state determine practically who is meritorious in a given field? Well, it would start with those geniuses who have been foundational to a given field’s progress — without whom that field would not even have been possible in its present form. These foundational geniuses would constitute the “gold standards”, the ultimate benchmarks by which to judge any other meritorious contribution in that field, whether artistic, scientific, cultural, or of any other nature.
Beyond this obvious level of foundational geniuses, there will be other meritorious persons (perhaps in some cases even geniuses in their own right) who will have been able to develop a given field further from where the founders had started it. The original contribution of such meritorious individuals will be seen in how much more they were able logically to extend the observations and results of the foundational geniuses. To illustrate, we could cite Leibniz, arguably the foundational genius of calculus. The later mathematician Gauss clearly was able to extend the use of differential calculus significantly, especially as it relates to curvature in space. Gauss can be seen as a greatly meritorious individual, since he has significantly extended what the foundational genius Leibniz had started with the field of calculus.
These sorts of further contributions of great merit, like the ones made by Gauss (who aren’t the foundational geniuses themselves) will be used by the Meritocratic state as further and more articulated benchmarks for what constitutes merit in a given field. Any individual can be judged publicly as meritorious by a favorable comparison of her/his contribution to these already established benchmarks.
At the same time, a fair and well established Meritocracy will also give proper acknowledgment to those who have expended enormous amounts of effort to better themselves, even when they were born with little genetic advantage. Those who have given their all, but have little to show for it, ought to be recognized. This will encourage all citizens and all members of society to reach for ever greater growth and achievement at all levels. This effectual encouragement can do nothing but strengthen a Meritocratic state for all its citizens.
How would those who have expended great internal effort actually be recognized — especially when their contributions are not publicly visible? Aside from rewarding children who show merit in school by means of appropriate school-based praise and encouragement, others (children and adults who may not necessarily be in school) could be recognized by their local communities. That is, the Meritocratic state at the local level of administration could empower certain individuals — certain local officials whose job would entail this — to make public mention of any great effort someone has expended in a given field, even when no clear public result is present. This could be done locally, by means of public press releases, with honor roll calls in the local media, or with those public officials setting up yearly public ceremonies to that effect.
Also, more state resources can be allocated by these local officials to internally meritorious individuals to encourage and facilitate greater development by those individuals in that field of endeavor. There are many ways recognition of internal merit can be implemented; the important thing is to do this clearly and in proper venues, mostly local, since in these cases we will not be dealing with publicly recognizable exemplars who would be critical as exemplars in a given field. Nonetheless, the detailed times and manners to recognize internal merit can be worked out more exactly by the Meritocratic state and its local structures.
Any local public officials empowered to examine and reward internal merit will have crucial need of reliable ways to measure it. To this end, skilled and meritorious psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists should be made available by the state. With keen awareness and proper follow-up, such experts of the mind and of societal relations should be able to elucidate valid metrics that will allow society to give due to both the internally willed effort and the externally evident aspects of merit.
The Meritocratic state needs to articulate societal structures and venues — at both the local and more centralized levels — that recognize and encourage merit of all kinds. Only by building up merit internally and externally, and by doing so practically with the right people and resources, can Meritocracy have any real meaning as a system of governance distinguished from other systems.