The Merits of Meritocracy, the Credulousness of Credentialism

The Prevalence of the "Degree for the Degree's Sake" Diminishes Actual Talent

Thanks much to the American Thinker for running this piece. You can visit the website at

Until quite recently – in the context of the entire course of human history the equivalent of last Thursday, in fact – saying that people should be proud of being good at something was rather uncontroversial.

There was an inherent value to having a skill that differentiated you from another person and being rewarded for that skill was deemed appropriate.  In other words, there was merit in merit.

But according to a new strain of thought, society has been wrong about that since, well, forever.

The concept of meritocracy has come under significant attack of late.  It has been deemed socially unacceptable because, the argument goes, that being better (let alone being better compensated for it) at something than someone else could make that someone else feel bad.

Meritocracy, according to a sadly growing number of academic papers, leads directly to a whole host of cultural woes.  It is discriminatory.  It is selfish.  It is competitive.  It traps people in “demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions.”  And, because the cultural systems that reward merit are racist, meritocracy in and of itself is racist as well.

And, since being better at something than someone else is (as the argument goes) a mere matter of luck, genetic predisposition, social background, and the ability to spend the time other people cannot spare to hone a skill, it cannot be said to be in any way fair to others and, therefore, be a benefit to society.

Ironically, the anti-merit movement has been growing alongside another societal change – credentialism. 

Credentialism essentially argues that you must have the proper, pre-approved training, the right degree, the right certification to be taken at all seriously in your field of choice.  And that those pieces of paper must be constantly reviewed by other credentialists so as to be able to stay up-to-date with the current zeitgeist of any particular endeavor.  And that people without the right letters after their name and/or job title can be dismissed out of hand.

Not really surprisingly, credentialism does necessarily entail merit or skill – it’s just about checking the right boxes.

This concept does have a reasonable origin.  Degrees and credentials can make a world of difference in many pursuits – think doctors and med school, truckers and commercial licenses, welders and master status and the list goes on and on.  But credentialism, as it stands today, sees value in the credential itself while ignoring the underlying ability.

Take for example education degrees.  In almost all cases little more than academic doorstops – and in many case quite literally paid for with little or no proof of competence or work – graduate degrees in education are often obtained for primarily for three reasons – first, to satisfy one’s vanity because you can call yourself  “Doctor,” second, to get the automatic pay raise that comes with one in public school systems, and third to signal to other people with the same degree that you are a member of the club.

Outside of education, the merely credentialed tend to prowl the halls of lower-upper middle management, wearing their absurdly long and barely comprehensible job titles as badges of honor and as proof of their innate worth (side note – anyone who is an “assistant to the senior deputy undersecretary” of anything means that they are daily performing tasks that do not need to be done).

Far too often, credentialism has almost no relation to actual talent but it does have a relation – no matter how lamprey-like – to the idea of meritocracy.

Credentialism seeks to take the trappings and therefore the advantages of excelling within a merit-based system without proving a skill or talent beyond the ability to sit still in a classroom while someone else is talking.

It is when the merely credentialed begin to think of themselves as members of a true meritocracy – and when observers improperly conflate the two ideas – that things get tricky.  Since a credential can too often act as a mask of merit, it can appear that the very concept of meritocracy actually does not hold water as a true meritocracy would not reward – let alone tolerate – such interlopers, therefore other factors must be at play.

The attack of meritocracy often refers to it as a never-ending competition designed to make other people miserable.  But this fails – utterly and purposefully – to take into account that everyone has different skills and talents and drives and personalities and that meritocracy not only accounts for those differences but encourages and nurtures them at the most basic – and most equal - level.

The opponents of meritocracy seem to believe that – instead of being competitive – our entire existence would be better if it mimicked an eternal, no scorekeeping, “everyone’s a winner” kindergarten soccer game. 

What they forget is that every one of those kids know exactly who won.  They keep score in their heads.

As do we all.