Meritocracy (merit, from Latin mereō, and -cracy, from Ancient Greek κράτος kratos 'strength, power') is a political system in which economic goods and/or political power are vested in individual people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than wealth or social class. Advancement in such a system is based on performance, as measured through examination or demonstrated achievement. Although the concept of meritocracy has existed for centuries, the term itself was coined in 1958 by the sociologist Michael Dunlop Young in his dystopian political and satirical book The Rise of the Meritocracy.
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The "most common definition of meritocracy conceptualizes merit in terms of tested competency and ability, and most likely, as measured by IQ or standardized achievement tests." In government and other administrative systems, "meritocracy" refers to a system under which advancement within the system turns on "merits", like performance, intelligence, credentials, and education. These are often determined through evaluations or examinations.
In a more general sense, meritocracy can refer to any form of evaluation based on achievement. Like "utilitarian" and "pragmatic", the word "meritocratic" has also developed a broader connotation, and is sometimes used to refer to any government run by "a ruling or influential class of educated or able people".
This is in contrast to the original, condemnatory use of the term in 1958 by Michael Dunlop Young in his work "The Rise of the Meritocracy", who was satirizing the ostensibly merit-based Tripartite System of education practiced in the United Kingdom at the time; he claimed that, in the Tripartite System, "merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications."
In rhetoric, the demonstration of one's merit regarding mastery of a particular subject is an essential task most directly related to the Aristotelian term Ethos. The equivalent Aristotelian conception of meritocracy is based upon aristocratic or oligarchic structures, rather than in the context of the modern state.
More recent definitions
In the United States, the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 prompted the replacement of the American Spoils System with a meritocracy. In 1883, The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed, stipulating government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit through competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation.
The most common form of meritocratic screening found today is the college degree. Higher education is an imperfect meritocratic screening system for various reasons, such as lack of uniform standards worldwide, lack of scope (not all occupations and processes are included), and lack of access (some talented people never have an opportunity to participate because of the expense, most especially in developing countries). Nonetheless, academic degrees serve some amount of meritocratic screening purpose in the absence of a more refined methodology. Education alone, however, does not constitute a complete system, as meritocracy must automatically confer power and authority, which a degree does not accomplish independently.
Although the concept has existed for centuries, the term "meritocracy" is relatively new. It was used pejoratively by British politician and sociologist Michael Dunlop Young in his 1958 satirical essay. The Rise of the Meritocracy, which pictured the United Kingdom under the rule of a government favouring intelligence and aptitude (merit) above all else, being the combination of the root of Latin origin "merit" (from "mereō" meaning "earn") and the Ancient Greek suffix "-cracy" (meaning "power", "rule"). [The purely Greek word is axiocracy (αξιοκρατία), from axios (αξιος, worthy) + "-cracy" (-κρατία, power).] In this book the term had distinctly negative connotations as Young questioned both the legitimacy of the selection process used to become a member of this elite and the outcomes of being ruled by such a narrowly defined group. The essay, written in the first person by a fictional historical narrator in 2034, interweaves history from the politics of pre- and post-war Britain with those of fictional future events in the short (1960 onward) and long term (2020 onward).
The essay was based upon the tendency of the then-current governments, in their striving toward intelligence, to ignore shortcomings and upon the failure of education systems to utilize correctly the gifted and talented members within their societies.
Young's fictional narrator explains that, on the one hand, the greatest contributor to society is not the "stolid mass" or majority, but the "creative minority" or members of the "restless elite". On the other hand, he claims that there are casualties of progress whose influence is underestimated and that, from such stolid adherence to natural science and intelligence, arises arrogance and complacency. This problem is encapsulated in the phrase "Every selection of one is a rejection of many".
It was also used by Hannah Arendt in her essay "Crisis in Education", which was written in 1958 and refers to the use of meritocracy in the English educational system. She too uses the term pejoratively. It was not until 1972 that Daniel Bell used the term positively.
Ancient times: China
According to scholarly consensus, the earliest example of an administrative meritocracy, based on civil service examinations, dates back to Ancient China. The concept originates, at least by the sixth century BC, when it was advocated by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who "invented the notion that those who govern should do so because of merit, not of inherited status. This sets in motion the creation of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies open only to those who passed tests."
As the Qin and Han dynasties developed a meritocratic system in order to maintain power over a large, sprawling empire, it became necessary for the government to maintain a complex network of officials. Prospective officials could come from a rural background and government positions were not restricted to the nobility. Rank was determined by merit, through the civil service examinations, and education became the key for social mobility. After the fall of the Han Dynasty, the nine-rank system was established during the Three Kingdoms period.
One of the oldest examples of a merit-based civil service system existed in the imperial bureaucracy of China. Tracing back to 200 B.C., the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as the basis of its political philosophy and structure, which included the revolutionary idea of replacing nobility of blood with one of virtue and honesty, and thereby calling for administrative appointments to be based solely on merit. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position that would bring wealth and honor to the whole family. In part due to Chinese influence, the first European civil service did not originate in Europe, but rather in India by the British-run East India Company... company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism.
17th century: spread to Europe
The concept of meritocracy spread from China to British India during the seventeenth century, and then into continental Europe and the United States. With the translation of Confucian texts during the Age of Enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional Ancien Régime of Europe's venal office. Voltaire and François Quesnay wrote favourably of the idea, with Voltaire claiming that the Chinese had "perfected moral science" and Quesnay advocating an economic and political system modeled after that of the Chinese.
The first European power to implement a successful meritocratic civil service was the British Empire, in their administration of India: "company managers hired and promoted employees based on competitive examinations in order to prevent corruption and favoritism." British colonial administrators advocated the spread of the system to the rest of the Commonwealth, the most "persistent" of which was Thomas Taylor Meadows, Britain's consul in Guangzhou, China. Meadows successfully argued in his Desultory Notes on the Government and People of China, published in 1847, that "the long duration of the Chinese empire is solely and altogether owing to the good government which consists in the advancement of men of talent and merit only," and that the British must reform their civil service by making the institution meritocratic. This practice later was adopted in the late nineteenth century by the British mainland, inspired by the "Chinese mandarin system".
The British philosopher and polymath John Stuart Mill advocated meritocracy in his book, Considerations on Representative Government. His model was to give more votes to the more educated voter. His views are explained in Estlund (2003:57–58):
Mill's proposal of plural voting has two motives. One is to prevent one group or class of people from being able to control the political process even without having to give reasons in order to gain sufficient support. He calls this the problem of class legislation. Since the most numerous class is also at a lower level of education and social rank, this could be partly remedied by giving those at the higher ranks plural votes. A second, and equally prominent motive for plural voting is to avoid giving equal influence to each person without regard to their merit, intelligence, etc. He thinks that it is fundamentally important that political institutions embody, in their spirit, the recognition that some opinions are worth more than others. He does not say that this is a route to producing better political decisions, but it is hard to understand his argument, based on this second motive, in any other way.
So, if Aristotle is right that the deliberation is best if participants are numerous (and assuming for simplicity that the voters are the deliberators) then this is a reason for giving all or many citizens a vote, but this does not yet show that the wiser subset should not have, say, two or three; in that way something would be given both to the value of the diverse perspectives, and to the value of the greater wisdom of the few. This combination of the Platonic and Aristotelian points is part of what I think is so formidable about Mill's proposal of plural voting. It is also an advantage of his view that he proposes to privilege not the wise, but the educated. Even if we agreed that the wise should rule, there is a serious problem about how to identify them. This becomes especially important if a successful political justification must be generally acceptable to the ruled. In that case, privileging the wise would require not only their being so wise as to be better rulers, but also, and more demandingly, that their wisdom be something that can be agreed to by all reasonable citizens. I turn to this conception of justification below.
Mill's position has great plausibility: good education promotes the ability of citizens to rule more wisely. So, how can we deny that the educated subset would rule more wisely than others? But then why shouldn't they have more votes?
Estlund goes on to criticize Mill's education-based meritocracy on various grounds.
18th century; West Africa
In the United States, the federal bureaucracy used the Spoils System from 1828 until the assassination of United States President James A. Garfield by a disappointed office seeker in 1881 proved its dangers. Two years later in 1883, the system of appointments to the United States Federal Bureaucracy was revamped by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, partially based on the British meritocratic civil service that had been established years earlier. The act stipulated that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit, through competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation. It also made it illegal to fire or demote government employees for political reasons.
To enforce the merit system and the judicial system, the law also created the United States Civil Service Commission. In the modern American meritocracy, the president may hand out only a certain number of jobs, which must be approved by the United States Senate.
Australia began establishing public universities in the 1850s with the goal of promoting meritocracy by providing advanced training and credentials. The educational system was set up to service urban males of middle-class background, but of diverse social and religious origins. It was increasingly extended to all graduates of the public school system, those of rural and regional background, and then to women and finally to ethnic minorities. Both the middle classes and the working classes have promoted the ideal of meritocracy within a strong commitment to "mate-ship" and political equality.
20th century to today
Singapore describes meritocracy as one of its official guiding principles for domestic public policy formulation, placing emphasis on academic credentials as objective measures of merit.
There is criticism that, under this system, Singaporean society is being increasingly stratified and that an elite class is being created from a narrow segment of the population. Singapore has a growing level of tutoring for children, and top tutors are often paid better than school teachers. Defenders of this system recall the ancient Chinese proverb "Wealth does not pass beyond three generations" (Chinese: 富不过三代), suggesting that the nepotism or cronyism of elitists eventually will be, and often are, replaced by those lower down the hierarchy.
Singaporean academics are continuously re-examining the application of meritocracy as an ideological tool and how it's stretched to encompass the ruling party's objectives. Professor Kenneth Paul Tan at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy asserts that "Meritocracy, in trying to 'isolate' merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination."
How meritocracy in the Singaporean context relates to the application of pragmatism as an ideological device, which combines strict adherence to market principles without any aversion to social engineering and little propensity for classical social welfarism, is further illustrated by Kenneth Paul Tan in subsequent articles:
There is a strong ideological quality in Singapore's pragmatism, and a strongly pragmatic quality in ideological negotiations within the dynamics of hegemony. In this complex relationship, the combination of ideological and pragmatic maneuvering over the decades has resulted in the historical dominance of government by the PAP in partnership with global capital whose interests have been advanced without much reservation.
With similar objections, John Rawls rejects the ideal of meritocracy as well.
Modern meritocratic movements
The Meritocracy Party
In 2007 an anonymous British group called The Meritocracy Party published its first manifesto, to which they have now added more than two million words on the subject (discussing Hegel, Rousseau, Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, and various other philosophers, scientists, reformers, and revolutionaries). In summary, The Meritocracy Party wants to achieve the following:
- A world in which every child gets an equal chance to succeed in life.
- The abolishment of party politics.
- Only those with a relevant education and work experience should be allowed to vote, rather than just anyone who has reached the age of 18 or 21.
- The introduction of 100% inheritance tax, so that the super-rich can no longer pass on their wealth to a select few (their privileged children). This would mean the end of the elite dynasties and hereditary monarchy.
- A radically reformed educational system, based on the MBTI personality types, and insights from radical innovators such as Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori.
- To replace free market capitalism with social capitalism and to replace democracy with a fully transparent meritocratic republic, under a meritocratic constitution.
- The end of nepotism, cronyism, discrimination, privilege and unequal chances.
On their website The Meritocracy Party lists five meritocratic principles and thirteen primary aims. The Meritocracy International is the host of all meritocratic political parties in the world and the place where these may be found by country of origin.
The Meritocracy Trap
The "meritocracy trap", a concept introduced by Daniel Markovits in his eponymous book, criticizes the aspirational view of meritocracy as being the cause of all problems associated with this matter: it is meritocracy itself that creates radical inequality and causes so many people in society, including those who are supposed to benefit from the situation, to be worse off. The accelerating inequality has been evolving under meritocracy’s own conditions. However, the author does not reject the whole idea of meritocracy; he tries to look for different and more suitable approaches to the matter. While many critics support the idea that the inequality that has been increasing since the middle of twentieth century is actually a result of inadequate meritocracy, based on the analysis of its indicators Markovits finds that increasing inequality is actually a result of meritocracy itself.
The author points out the shift from the last five, six, seven decades, when the elite “leisure class” worked only rarely and spent days enjoying their fortune, while hard working people stayed poor for their whole lives. But lately, an important change occurred: according to a Harvard Business survey, members of the elite social circles are working more and harder than ever before. More than 60% of individuals with high income work circa 50 hours per week, around 30% of them work more than 60 hours per week and the last 10% spend over 80 hours per week occupied with their work responsibilities. Also, by having access to the best possible education available since starting school, members from the top 1% of households prevail in the world leading universities around the world. The interaction of these elements creates unusual and never-seen-before living situation for members of the elite circles: by hard work, higher amount of hours spent at work and performing with higher skills obtained from the best universities, they gain respect and position of the “superordinate” working class while losing their unflattering label of "leisure class". As the author implies in his calculations, the income of a typical elite household is now from three quarters made up of earnings from labor instead of ancestors' heritage.
Secondly, Markovits introduces the idea of "snowball inequality", which is basically an ongoing cycle of widening gap between elite workers and members of the middle class. While the high-profile individuals obtain exclusive positions thanks to higher level of their skills, they occupy jobs and oust middle class workers from the core of economic events. After that, the elites take advantage of their high earnings by securing the best education for their own offspring so that they obtain the highest qualification and are desired by the market for their great skills. Hence the gap between elite and middle class members is widening with every generation, inequality extensively triumphing over social mobility and forming a "time divide" – with long hours working high-profile individuals on one side, and substantially inactive middle class workers that are less and less required on the other side.
One side of the coin is in this case a clear loser: the middle class, which is unwillingly being excluded from economic prosperity, social benefit and the long desired ideal of American Dream. While it is impossible to measure the exact effects on the middle class, the side effects are more obvious: opioid epidemic, dramatic raise in "deaths of despair" (suicides, mental health and alcoholism), and lowering level of life expectancy in these societies are just some of them. Quite surprisingly however, the high-profile member of society is being harmed by meritocracy as well: they have to pay a significant price for their hectic working life. Many of them admit suffering from physical and mental health issues, inability to sustain a good quality personal life and lack of time spent with their families. What is of even higher importance is that meritocracy causes a continuous "competitive trap" within the elite social circles as its members are from a very early age basically contestants of a meritocratic marathon that starts in their exclusive preschools, continues at colleges and universities and finally moves its second half to the work environment. They are truly trapped in this vicious race where they are compelled to constantly compete with others and, most importantly, with themselves. In this matter, the author encounters the basic weakness of the aspirational lifestyle, which promotes the idea of meritocracy as a means for fair evaluation of the most skilled, gifted and hard-working.
Markovits proposes a different approach to meritocracy, one where socioeconomic life conveniences are freely distributed to the people who are sufficiently successful at the things they are doing rather than creating an environment of ongoing competition. He promotes the idea that striving for being the best and brightest is a road to personal destruction and we should be more open to the idea of just being good enough. Restructuring of economic roles, organizations and institutions is desirable in order to include a wider population and hence narrow the increasing inequality gap by questioning the social hegemony of high-profile workers, and intervening with redistribution of earnings, working hours and social identity on behalf of middle class workers.
The term "meritocracy" was originally intended as a negative concept. One of the primary concerns with meritocracy is the unclear definition of "merit". What is considered as meritorious can differ with opinions as on which qualities are considered the most worthy, raising the question of which "merit" is the highest—or, in other words, which standard is the "best" standard. As the supposed effectiveness of a meritocracy is based on the supposed competence of its officials, this standard of merit cannot be arbitrary and has to also reflect the competencies required for their roles.
The reliability of the authority and system that assesses each individual's merit is another point of concern. As a meritocratic system relies on a standard of merit to measure and compare people against, the system by which this is done has to be reliable to ensure that their assessed merit accurately reflects their potential capabilities. Standardized testing, which reflects the meritocratic sorting process, has come under criticism for being rigid and unable to accurately assess many valuable qualities and potentials of students. Education theorist Bill Ayers, commenting on the limitations of standardized testing, writes that "Standardized tests can't measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning." Merit determined through the opinionated evaluations of teachers, while being able to assess the valuable qualities that cannot be assessed by standardized testing, are unreliable as the opinions, insights, biases, and standards of the teachers vary greatly. If the system of evaluation is corrupt, non-transparent, opinionated or misguided, decisions regarding who has the highest merit can be highly fallible.
The level of education required in order to become competitive in a meritocracy may also be costly, effectively limiting candidacy for a position of power to those with the means necessary to become educated. An example of this was Chinese student self-declared messiah, Hong Xiuquan, who despite ranking first in a preliminary, nationwide imperial examination, was unable to afford further education. As such, although he did try to study in private, Hong was ultimately noncompetitive in later examinations and unable to become a bureaucrat. This economic aspect of meritocracies has been said to continue nowadays in countries without free educations, with the Supreme Court of the United States, for example, consisting only of justices who attended Harvard or Yale and generally only considering clerkship candidates who attended a top-five university, while in the 1950s the two universities only accounted for around one fifth of the justices. Even if free education were provided, the resources that the parents of a student are able to provide outside of the curriculum, such as tutoring, exam preparation, and financial support for living costs during higher education will influence the education the student attains and the student's social position in a meritocratic society. This limits the fairness and justness of any meritocratic system. Similarly, feminist critics have noted that many hierarchical organisations actually favour individuals who have received disproportionate support of an informal kind (e.g. mentorship, word-of-mouth opportunities, and so on), such that only those who benefit from such supports are likely to understand these organisations as meritocratic.
Another concern regards the principle of incompetence, or the "Peter Principle". As people rise in a meritocratic society through the social hierarchy through their demonstrated merit, they eventually reach, and become stuck, at a level too difficult for them to perform effectively; they are promoted to incompetence. This reduces the effectiveness of a meritocratic system, the supposed main practical benefit of which is the competence of those who run the society.
In his book Meritocratic Education and Social Worthlessness (Palgrave, 2012), the philosopher Khen Lampert argued that educational meritocracy is nothing but a post-modern version of Social Darwinism. Its proponents argue that the theory justifies social inequality as being meritocratic. This social theory holds that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is a model, not only for the development of biological traits in a population, but also as an application for human social institutions—the existing social institutions being implicitly declared as normative. Social Darwinism shares its roots with early progressivism, and was most popular from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II. Darwin only ventured to propound his theories in a biological sense, and it is other thinkers and theorists who have applied Darwin's model normatively to unequal endowments of human ambitions.
Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in his latest book makes a case against meritocracy, calling it a "tyranny". Ongoing stalled social mobility and increasing inequality are laying bare the crass delusion of the American Dream, and the promise "you can make it if you want and try". The latter, according to Sandel, is the main culprit of the anger and frustration which brought some Western countries towards populism.
Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank rejects meritocracy in his Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. He describes how chance plays a significant role in deciding who gets what that is not objectively based on merit. He does not discount the importance of hard work, but, using psychological studies, mathematical formulae, and examples, demonstrates that among groups of people performing at a high level, chance (luck) plays an enormous role in an individual's success.
- This is the history of the meritocracy in the technical sense. The vaguer definition of a meritocracy as a "rule by intelligence" has been applied to many ancient Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Jewish thinkers and statesmen. For example, the Sanhedrin, the legislature of Ancient Israel and Kingdom of Judah, is sometimes called as an "intellectual meritocracy", in the sense that its members were drawn from religious scribes and not the aristocracy. Appointment was self-perpetuating, however, and new members were chosen personally by existing members. These are not meritocracies in the administrative sense, in which merit is determined objectively as a "tested competency or ability."
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The Sanhedrin were appointed by those who were members when there was a vacancy
- Levinson, David; Cookson, Peter W.; Sadovnik, lan R. (2002). Education and sociology: an encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 436.
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most common definition of meritocracy conceptualizes merit in terms tested competency and power, and most likely as measured by IQ or standardized achievement tests.
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- Kazin, Edwards, and Rothman (2010), 142. One of the oldest examples of a merit-based civil service system existed in the imperial bureaucracy of China.
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China not only produced the world's first "bureaucracy", but also the world's first "meritocracy"
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China is the world's oldest meritocracy
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To staff these institutions, they created the oldest meritocracy in the world, in which government appointments were based on civil service examinations that drew on the values of the Confucian Classics
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Confucius invented the notion that those who govern should so because of merit and not inherited status, setting in motion the creation of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies open only to those who passed tests.
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- See Estlund (2003) for a summary and discussion.
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- Sandel, Michael The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2020. ISBN 9780374289980.
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|Library resources about |
- Burbank, Jane and Cooper, Frederick. (2010). Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12708-5.
- Kazin, Michael, Edwards, Rebecca, and Rothman, Adam. (2010). The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History Volume 2. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12971-1.
- Kett, Joseph F. Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal From the American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0801451225
- Lampert, Khen. Meritocratic Education and Social Worthlessness, Palgrave-Macmillan, UK, 24 December 2012; ISBN 1137324880
- Mulligan, Thomas. (2018). Justice and the Meritocratic State. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781138283800.
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- Ieva, Lorenzo. (2018). Fondamenti di meritocrazia. Rome: Europa edizioni. ISBN 978-88-9384-875-6.
- Sandel, Michael. The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2020. ISBN 9780374289980.
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- The Meritocracy Party: Equal Opportunity for Every Child, organizes volunteers to bootstrap meritocracies in communities across the world.
- Quinion, Michael (21 July 2001). "World Wide Words: Meritocracy". World Wide Words. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
- Bent, Nick. "Time for a more inclusive and progressive definition of meritocracy". Progress Online. Archived from the original on 5 June 2008. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
- Markovits, Daniel (19 August 2019). "How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition". The Atlantic. Retrieved 26 August 2019.