Mike Grimshaw argues our much vaunted ‘egalitarianism’ might actually be more the tall-poppy scything of intelligence and ability

Meritocracy – the belief that a society succeeds when people achieve and get ahead due to their own talents, efforts and achievements – has been receiving a lot of debate and critique. Does such a belief actually harm everyone, not just the less successful?

Even those who defend meritocracy as allied to the success of modern, liberal society and liberal values argue for a rethought and more nuanced and equitable version. New Zealand has often promoted itself as a meritocratic society, yet even seemingly meritocratic groups such as the Law Society and public health researchers have noted its limitations.

But perhaps the issue in New Zealand is more complex than elsewhere because of the type of society we were – and still are. What if we actually continue to experience the problems of lacking a proper, thoughtful, nuanced meritocracy?

The term ‘meritocracy’ arose from the work of the British sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033. A satire of the possible outcome of a shift to privileging intelligence and merit as social goods, Young predicted the rise of a dystopian society. The old social division of class would be replaced by a new division of those who believed they had achieved wealth, power and status by their own merits, governing over those of less merit who were held to be responsible for their limitations. As a socialist, Young warned that an aristocracy of birth would turn into an aristocracy of talent and those who ascended the ladder by talent would pull the ladder up after them, limiting further social mobility.

Yet while meant to be an ironic warning, ‘meritocracy’ came to be widely adopted and applied as a positive term and concept. One reason was it signalled a clear break from the old establishment who achieved by class and birth (and often ethnicity and gender).

Meritocracy was and is seen as recognising talent, ambition and hard work, but it does tend to have a significant blind spot concerning the societal inequities that contributed to their advantage while keeping others disadvantaged. But without meritocracy as a concept of regarding talent on its own merits, are we stuck with either a pre-modern aristocracy of birth or a society of mediocracy? Perhaps the question is how we seek to facilitate and extend meritocratic possibilities?

In New Zealand, an early, important engagement with Young’s meritocracy was undertaken by the noted historian of political thought, J.G.A. Pocock.

He did so in a new ‘liberal catholic’ quarterly review of political and social concerns, Comment, edited by historian W.H. Oliver. Pocock wrote a detailed review essay in vol. 2 of Comment (Summer 1960) under the provocative title Meritocracy and Mediocracy. He situates meritocracy in the context of two questions first raised by Aristotle: “What are the goods of society and according to what principles are they to be distributed: in what respect are men equal to one another, and to which (if any) of the goods of society may they claim an equal rights?” The issue in contemporary society is balancing a proposed equality of opportunity with the inequality of reward.

Pocock identifies a new ruling class – what he notes is in America called the power elite – of administrators, scientists, educators and technologists who have triumphed in a scientific society by displaying the sought-after qualities of “intellectual energy and administrative efficiency”; these being in the main, “qualities of the mind and personality.” Pocock then turns to discuss meritocracy in the context of New Zealand. He warns that “this brilliant satire … will probably be profoundly misunderstood in New Zealand; for we are not well placed to see the point of it at all. It satirizes any society which sacrifices all to educational specialization and makes its intellectuals a privileged class, and we will probably see in it nothing but confirmation of favorite prejudices – that however little specialization we have, we want less of it and that the intellect itself is a species of unwarranted privilege.”

Pocock cautions that the expanding economy meritocracy arose and expanded within was likely to become the dominant one of the late 20th Century, requiring “a complex and variously efficient managerial class”. He asks if New Zealand is a meritocracy. His answer is not yet; and in fact, we suffered the opposite issue wherein “one sometimes suspects a mediocracy is holding back specialization as ruthlessly as meritocracy promotes it”. If the “meritocracy sacrifices everything to intelligence” then “the mediocracy, unchecked, sacrifices intelligence to everything else”.

The question for us, more than 60 years later, is whether New Zealand is still largely a mediocracy: “a society and economy conducted without a governing elite selected for high education and/or intelligence”? Have we ended up in a situation whereby “the members of the administrative structure are recruited without reference to their possession of distinctive qualities of any kind whatever; or has it an elite of mediocrats, in the sense that the governors are selected for their possession only of average qualities and charged to see only these qualities are regarded or respected in the making of policy – an elite of the non-elite”?

Much of the current dissatisfaction with government and bureaucracy (at national and local levels) would suggest that many New Zealanders feel we suffer under a mediocracy. Pocock traces the issue back to the prevalence of mediocracy vales in our educational system, asking what is the social function of such education and what society will eventuate if it continues.

He does note there are issues with a meritocracy whereby one can be promoted into an elite and there will be social and political inequality. Yet just as problematic is mediocracy which perpetuates a society that does not want or value the best. In a follow up short article (Comment, Autumn 1960) Pocock provides some more context. His concern with a mediocracy is that we lack a diverse economy and so he feels we have little encouragement for the development of an elite in what was “an under-diversified dependent economy”. The result is a far less dynamic economy than was already being experienced in Australia, warning “it seems to me that we shall be enormously tempted to keep trying to have our industries on the cheap, our universities on the cheap and our elites undertrained”.

In considering the universities, even in 1960 Pocock warned of “a constant flow of students far too many of whom have neither the training not the ambition for any but the most mediocre of university work”, a situation many would say has only increased with the rapid expansion of the universities from the 1990s, creating the contemporary version of the mediocracy society. The problem for the universities, then and now, is that “the schools send the universities far few students with the training or the ambition to do better than an undistinguished pass”. The core problem is that our society does not seek to educate or reward people for doing more than the bare pass, again the sign of a mediocracy society. As he states, “I do not know any better expression of mediocrity values than that a concern for excellence should be condemned as a restrictive practice”.

We must ask, in considering Pocock’s’ critique, if New Zealand actually suffers from an inverse problem to much of the rest of the Western world: not too much meritocracy but actually, not enough? Is our much vaunted ‘egalitarianism’ actually far more the tall-poppy scything of intelligence and ability? What does it mean if sport is the one arena of New Zealand life where meritocracy seems to be championed when the rest of society tends to privilege mediocrity? If we consider the ongoing concerns of the Productivity Commission regarding the need to create a diverse and dynamic economy for greater social and economic good , perhaps it is time to remember Pocock’s warning of where a society of mediocracy could lead.

Mike Grimshaw is Associate Professor in Sociology at University of Canterbury.

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