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At its most general level, merit is a value system that delineates qualities that are recognized and rewarded by societies. The most specific and significant reward under consideration in this system is the selection for public office on the basis of ability and character, rather than on the basis of class, caste, patronage, patrimony, ideology, or wealth. Such reward has profound implications for the structure of society and for the functioning of polities.
The essential meaning of merit is generally underdefined, raising continuing questions about its content. In most political and administrative literature, merit is frequently discussed primarily in terms of its implementing mechanisms. Principles of merit are reasonably well documented and understood to include competitive examinations, protection from political influence, equal opportunity to compete for appointment, and fairness and equity in the treatment of civil servants.
In some recent literature, the term meritocracy is used as a synonym for the broader merit concept in its instrumental social and political connotations. Meritocracy was originally a pejorative term coined by Michael Young (1915–2002) in 1958 as a satirical indictment of a utopian system of rule governed by test results and devoid of human political impulse. More recently, the term has entered common discourse to denote any public or private employment system that makes job-related decisions on some calculation of character, ability, and potential.
A universal definition of merit is complicated by its apparent dependence on the mores, values, and accepted ethical standards in differing temporal, social, political, and cultural settings (Riccucci 1991, p. 88). Despite the relativistic argument, an approach to a universal definition may be found in the literature of philosophy, where merit is dually associated with concepts of ethics, morality, and justice, as well as with judgments regarding competent performance.
In the moral and ethical aspects of merit, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) emphasized the importance of moral goodness, as stated in his lectures on ethics in 1793 and 1794: “[To] make myself worthy of honor … the dutifulness of action must be supplemented by moral goodness.… Toward men we realize more morality than is incumbent on us, and in this, therefore, lies at the same time the merit of our actions” (quoted in Guyer 2000, p. 328). This formulation gives no hint as to how moral goodness is to be measured as a basis for societal reward. The answer, deriving from Plato’s Republic (c. 400 BCE) and practiced in many civil service systems throughout the world, has been through careful and comprehensive education and indoctrination in the regime values of the polity. This answer, however, raises questions regarding the eligibility of individuals from all strata of society. John Rawls (1921–2002) relates merit to justice only if every member of society has the opportunity and means to attain the requisite knowledge and abilities (1999, pp. 91-93).
Gregory Vlastos (1907–1991) identifies merit as a grading concept with judgment based on the measurement of valued qualities and performances (1969). The introduction of measurement and grading sharpens the definition. Vlastos, however, offers no help in defining the qualities and performances. Nor does he speculate on how measurement could be achieved. The conventional answer to this last question is found in the development and implementation of testing and performance appraisal processes; however, these processes raise serious questions as to their validity and effects (Cronbach 1980; Lemann 1999; Riccucci 1991).
A significant differentiation between two forms of merit has been provided by Amartya Sen. He identifies an internal conflict within the concept of merit, described as the tension between: “(1) the inclination to see merit in fixed and absolute terms, and (2) the ultimately instrumental character of merit—its dependence on the concept of ‘the good’ in the relevant society” (2000, p. 5). This differentiation is echoed by Hugh Heclo in his analysis of “substantive” and “instrumental” merit (2000).
The instrumental “good” is defined within every society primarily by historical and intellectual influences as interpreted and reinforced by the elite opinion makers of the society. The fixed and absolute idea of merit can be a subversive influence on established patterns of social and political hierarchy and status. The substantive concept of merit logically leads to the advocacy of an open society and some degree of democratic governance; however, it must be recognized that merit is not in itself a democratic concept. Its base is aristocratic in the Jeffersonian sense of being grounded in virtue and talent. The connection to democracy applies by linkage to the substantive, moral aspect of merit. Conversely, instrumental merit is a useful tool for achieving competence in government regardless of type of regime.
Societal definitions of merit through much of recorded history have been restrictive in terms of class and status and thus inimical to social movement. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, this has led to an antagonistic relationship of equal opportunity to merit-based employment systems because such systems are frequently viewed as discriminating against less-advantaged segments of society. If such discrimination does occur, then the opportunity that is implicit in merit theory is in fact not equal (Roemer 2000).
Nonetheless, the basic philosophical premise of merit is recognition of ability wherever found in the society. This is potentially regime changing and socially revolutionary as demonstrated by the development of meritbased systems in the United States, Great Britain, and France in the nineteenth century, and in Japan in the early twentieth century. The socially restrictive aspects of meritbased systems are due not to the basic premise of merit but, rather, to the hierarchical structure of societies and the rigidity and exclusionary nature of the implementing mechanisms.
Origins and Evolution of the Merit Concept
The origin of the concept of merit in both Eastern and Western culture has ancient roots, preceding its dynamic emergence in the nineteenth century as a significant political and social force. In Asia, the origin of the merit concept is found in the Analects of Confucius (c. 551–479 BCE), and the subsequent interpretation of Confucian doctrine through centuries of dynastic change in China. Merit became institutionalized in traditional Chinese and Korean political cultures by the creation and implementation of rigorous examination processes for the selection of entrants into official positions; however, in practice, success in the examinations was almost entirely limited to upper-class candidates. Since 1950, the Peoples Republic of China has alternatively weakened and then strengthened the use of examinations for appointment to office. The turmoil has fostered a greater degree of political influence and greater inclusion of individuals with worker and peasant backgrounds in the appointment process (Klitgaard 1986, pp. 10–32).
In Tokugawa, Japan (1603–1868), the Confucian merit concept was recognized, but access to official positions was confined to the samurai class. Within a few years after the Meiji restoration in 1868, the merit principle was instituted as the basis for office, and access to a competitive process was substantially broadened (Koh 1989). The erosion of social and economic barriers was a necessary component of Japan’s successful impulse to modernization and industrialization.
In Western culture, the origin of the merit concept is found in pre-Socratic Greece with the early identification of valued virtues and excellences (arete) (Adkins 1960). The ideal of merit found expression in, among other texts, the funeral oration of the statesman Pericles (c. 495–429 BCE) as related by Thucydides (d. c. 401 BCE), in Plato’s Republic and Gorgias, and in Aristotle’s (384–322 BCE) Politics. The normative power of the concept was assumed by the Roman Republic and ultimately defined by Cicero (106–43 BCE) in his De Officiis, ironically as the republic was dissolving in chaos.
After the fall of the Roman Republic, merit as a primary political value declined and virtually disappeared for seventeen centuries. The values that predominated for government service became those of servitude and obedience to the ruler, as outlined by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) in The Prince (1513, chap. 22) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) in Leviathan (1651, chap. 23). To be sure, ability remained a factor, but subservient to obedience. For example, Oliver Cromwell’s (1599–1658) brief English Republic (1649–1660) did not change the royal practice of awarding office on the basis of the “unholy three P’s—Patrimony, Patronage, and Purchase” (Aylmer 1973, p. 61). This practice continued in Britain until the mid-nineteenth century.
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the merit concept reemerged and developed both as a moral imperative and as a practical necessity. The philosophy of the Enlightenment and the new production systems of the Industrial Revolution demanded rationalism in the staffing of governmental enterprise by demonstrably competent people. No longer would nepotism and patronage suffice. The endorsement and application of merit as a primary value in staffing governmental positions became a necessary condition for national modernization and commercial and social progress. By the mid-twentieth century, the merit concept, with its implementing processes, was dominant in developed societies around the world.
In recent years, the definition of merit has changed to meet current societal and political trends. In a new time of postmodernism and postindustrialism, the established value and practices of merit have been altered as political leadership in democracies around the world has attempted to secure greater control over public bureaucracies through politicization of the appointment process (Peters and Pierre 2004). In many ways, this is a regression to earlier formulations of the primacy of political obedience over the rationality and morality that is inherent in the concept of merit-based civil service. Once again, responsiveness and obedience have become primary values. Merit practices have remained viable in their instrumental meaning as continuing emphasis is placed on performance measurement; however, substantive merit is in decline (Heclo 2000; Lane and Woodard 2001). In the long view, these developments are not unprecedented, nor do they alter the fact that the merit concept is an enduring value grounded in the very origins of both Eastern and Western civilization.
- Adkins, Arthur W. 1960. Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values. London: Clarendon.
- Aylmer, E. 1973. The State’s Servants: The Civil Service of the English Republic 1649–1660 London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Cronbach, Lee 1980. Selection Theory for a Political World. Public Personnel Management 9: 37–50.
- Guyer, P 2000. Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Heclo, H 2000. The Future of Merit. In The Future of Merit: Twenty Years After the Civil Service Reform Act, eds. James P. Pfiffner and Douglas A Brook, 226–237. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
- Klitgaard, Rober 1986. Elitism and Meritocracy in Developing Countries: Selection Policies for Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Koh, C. 1989. Japan’s Administrative Elite. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Lane, Larry , and Colleen Woodard. 2001. Merit without the System: An Emergent Model for Public Sector HRM. In Radical Reform of the Civil Service, eds. Stephen E. Condrey and Robert Maranto, 127–149. Lanham, MD: Lexington.
- Lemann, N 1999. The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
- Peters, Guy, and Jon Pierre, eds. 2004. Politicization of the Civil Service in Comparative Perspective: The Quest for Control. London: Routledge.
- Rawls, J  1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
- Riccucci, Norma 1991. Merit, Equity, and Test Validity: A New Look at an Old Problem. Administration and Society 23 (1): 74–93.
- Roemer, John 2000. Equality of Opportunity. In Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, eds. Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles, and Steven Durlauf, 17–32. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Sen, Amar 2000. Merit and Justice. In Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, eds. Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles, and Steven Durlauf, 5–16. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Vlastos, Gregory. Human Worth, Merit, and Equality. In Moral Concepts, ed. Joel Feinberg, 141–152. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Young, M 1958. The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033: An Essay on Education and Equality. London: Thames and Hudson.
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