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  • Ryan

A System in Unregulated Excess

What is a meritocracy? It is typically defined as a class of people that have earned their status by merit, often through academic or scholarly means. Such an echelon of society first emerged in China with the creation of the civil service examinations around the Sui Dynasty (581-618 C.E.), where civilians could attain bureaucratic positions within the empire by taking the test, composed primarily of Confucian written works. Once qualified, though depending on their performance, the individual could join the ranks of the high educated class, which exerted great influence over many parts of China. Though success was in favor of those students who could afford to study dutifully, even a peasant's son could ascend to bureaucratic status if he proved himself capable on the examinations(1).

This was the world's first meritocracy, albeit not without its disparaging faults. Women and girls were all but banned from deriving an education to be able to take the test. The amount of studying required to succeed on the examination served as a barrier to entry for all but the most privileged of students, undermining the initial impartial base of merit. Even then, since the test was the only determining factor to become a bureaucrat, any skills not revealed by the knowledge of Confucian works were discarded, somewhat limiting the abilities of the bureaucrats produced by this system. Nevertheless, this non-hereditary base of merit would eventually spread to the rest of East Asia over the next millennium, with Korea, Japan, and Vietnam adapting the Chinese civil service examinations to varying degrees.

For being such an effective system to keep governing productive, meritocracy saw almost no use outside this region until the industrial era. The precedent to this new and independently developed form of meritocracy came during the early stages of the European Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which oversaw the advent of the constitutional form of government and the freedom of thought and action. Though these were not meritocratic as the definition might put it, they paved the way for the system to arise in the following centuries.

These Enlightenment-era values culminated in the formation of the United States of America, which adopted a constitution, the separation of branches of government, a republican form of government, and the guarantee of natural rights. Disregarding the imperfections of the upholding of these principles, the country would set the stage for another type of meritocracy to form - one characterized by success achieved both inside and outside of government. What makes this particular form of meritocracy so noteworthy was that it marked the international shift from agrarian, forced to cater to absolutism by biological and technological limits, to industrial, free to consider better societal and governance alternatives having secured basic survival. This is especially so for the United States, having served in the past as the first ever model for the world of a large-scale site for democracy and new age values for its people. In this environment, freed from a hereditary aristocracy hostile to change in the status quo, the citizens of the country were free to pursue their own interests.

Though no traditional social hierarchy existed in America, an influx of skilled and unskilled labor from abroad and the strengthening of local institutions and corporations made it so that the creation of a different hierarchy would be inevitable - one based upon socioeconomic status in a society where individual talent and money, a metric of this capability, would determine one's placement in such hierarchy.

As America expanded throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this new meritocracy would continue to expand in different ways. Technically, it wouldn't truly become a hierarchy until America's institutions fully matured in the aftermath of World War II, but precedents to this, such as the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed families to claim land they had lived on for five years, or the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which allowed the federal government to take legal action against presumed corporate monopolies, accelerated the pace at which a meritocracy would form in the following years.

One of the most prolific cases of this type of meritocracy would manifest in education. As early as 1636, when Harvard, the oldest school of tertiary learning in the United States, was first established, the prevalence of such a level of education would eventually give rise to an educational meritocracy that, in the past 30 years, has created a class of educated intellectuals, bureaucrats, and financial savants that have come to rule over the institutions that run America. After Harvard would follow the other Ivy Leagues, a coalition of prestigious universities that although were known primarily for their sports(2) through the nineteenth and early twentieth century, have transformed to symbolize the competitiveness of the country they reside in now.

The consequences of this overarching meritocracy in America has had mixed repercussions. On one hand, the nature of a meritocracy to combat nepotism in favor of talent, representative of America's longtime economic system, capitalism, has come to produce a country filled with great minds putting their capabilities to work developing digital technologies, commanding massive corporations, and solving the mysteries of the world, all while constantly cultivating more of these savants in the advanced parts of its education system. On the other hand, however, the drive of meritocracy has made it harder for those not in the so-called "elite's" path to push towards upward social mobility via a supplementary education, as increased immigration to America starting from President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Immigration Act has made it so that ordinary Americans are now essentially competing not only with their peers, but with the best of what the world has to offer.

To say here that meritocracy doesn't work would be incorrect, though. It does indeed work as a system (albeit with some flaws regarding nepotism inevitable for any human system) for its purpose, but the issue is that it works too well. For the matter of success and a drive for improvement as a country, the more intense the competition the better. But that is not what America has been made of. It is a country that was founded on the premise that all its citizens would see each other as equal brethren, that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" would be granted to all of them. As the intellectual competition has stiffened in America, there has grown a cultural chasm between the survivors of this competition and everyone else.

This is exemplified by the electoral map of the United States each election since 1992. Since then, the more meritocratic left has become increasingly concentrated in coastal states filled with urban centers and modernist values, while the conservative right has kept its strongholds in the so-called "flyover" states more inland, which reflect more of the small-town or rural American of old. The difference has become more defined and more polarized since that map made three decades ago, and it promises no good for America. With its leaders no longer representative of the people they are supposed to serve and with its domestic unity nearing life support, America is not in a good social state right now. Eventually, with enough repeating generations of meritocrats from the same families (assuming America is still extant by then) and with the same current social conditions prevailing, there exists a minuscule chance of a de facto aristocracy forming, completely isolated from the people, living in their world, and transforming America into the typical limited-freedoms country of old, possibly precipitating the collapse of the civilization.

As ominous as this might sound (and as implausible as it might be that this is what causes the collapse of America), I do not believe it will be the case, at least for your or my lifetime. Something else, like nuclear war or an asteroid or a disease deadly and foreign to this world, could kill off America in the next few years, and something like a severe disillusionment in governance or somehow tyrannical governance could bring the country down in the next decade or two, but I am sure the meritocracy that built this country will persist to elevate it further into the future.

Nevertheless, I believe that the existence of the geographically distributed political divide in contemporary America is testament to how the current meritocracy is slowly but surely creating a distinct class of Americans akin in social positioning to old European nobility, as in being in their own world, over-educated, and find little points with which they can relate with the small-town American.

While I don't at all advocate for the abolition of this system and while I don't it heading in the exact same direction it is now, I feel there needs to be established a balance, a balance between development and unity. Some things that the Founding Fathers said, like a policy of self-interest without involvement overseas, have been tossed aside long ago. But America cannot forego its primary principles detailed in its founding documents and as unwritten codes and still remain as itself. Unity without regard to anything but being under the star-spangled banner in addition to individual freedoms and liberties and satisfaction are what made the American experiment work in its early years, all the way to the present, and by having ushered the world into the 21st century, hopefully into the future. Those values seem to have been diminished in favor of intellectual improvement, of financial improvement, of technological improvement, but alas lacking an American essence. That has taken us the world of mentally isolated meritocrats who see little towards their country, and so that is what I feel should be mitigated. Keep the educated on par with the ordinary in rights, have a billionaire be able to sit next to a blue collar worker for lunch, and above all, have the meritocracy keep the knowledge they are still Americans.


1: Columbia University, Living in the Chinese Cosmos, Weatherhead East Asia Institute, 2015 

2: Encyclopedia Britannica, Ivy League | American football | Britannica,

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