Meritocracy: the sources of a myth

What is the founding principle of modern societies?? Vincent Bourdeau analyzes the notion of merit, in the light of the thought of XIXe century and the figure of Lon Walras.

Merit in a republican political economy

Each community has its own myths, cornerstones of social and political order. If today speaking of the exploits of Zeus or Odin has lost its original meaning, we must recognize that other narratives now accomplish the task of uniting the body politic: such is the case with the concept of merit. In his book, based on his doctoral thesis, Vincent Bourdeau goes back to the sources of this myth by tracing its genealogy in an exploration that takes the reader to early France. XIXe century and dialoguing with the literature on the notion of merit. This bookas the author writes, is intended to be a contribution to the criticism of this exhausted model, an attempt to widen, with others, the cracks which have spread to the myth in order to contribute to enabling our societies, as we say in common parlance, to move on to something else. (p. 8).

By reading the concept of meritocracy as a myth, Bourdeau therefore aims to explain how modern societies have been structured around the idea of ​​a self-regulating market, of a fair market because mritocratic (p. 8). Social relations are thus regulated by the meritocratic ideal, the foundation of the social order. After the seminal work of Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracyin recent years several authors have analyzed and problematized the meritocratic structure of modern societies, notably Michael Sandel (The Tyranny of Merit), Daniel Markovits (The Meritocracy Trap), or Annabelle Allouch (Mrite) and Pierre-Michel Menger (Difference, competition and disproportion) in the French context. For his part, Bourdeau contributes to these studies with a historical reconstruction, by describing the origin of the concept of meritocracy with the economist Lon Walras (1834-1910), in his dialogue with contemporary authors.

Bourdeau shows how Walras is one of the heroes who shapes the myth of meritocracy in XIXe century. In France resulting from the revolution of 1848, falls into the Empire of Napoleon III and looking at the revolutionary experience from afar, a certain number of thinkers aim to rebuild society thanks to republican ideals, thus emphasizing the equality of individuals before the law and their participation in political life. Walras is among these thinkers Republicans. It is particularly through the articulation of economic liberalism and republican values ​​that Bourdeau sees this myth of meritocracy emerging in Walras. The different functions that Walras attributes to the earth as a common good and to the talents of individuals are the two elements on which the myth is built. Bourdeau thus defines Walras’s thought by the expression republican political economythereby contributing not only to studies on Walras, but also those on republicanism.

An economy that is anything but neutral

Studying this myth from top to bottom produces various effects. One of these effects, among the most fruitful contributions of the book, is to show that the economy is far from neutral. Since XIXe century, different economists Walras being no exception seek to build the economy on scientific principles. For Walras, however, this does not imply that the economy must be neutral. If Walras theorises his pure economy with the aim of making economics a rigorous science, he nevertheless ensures a place for normative principles within economics, within the framework of what he calls applied economics, as Bourdeau explains (p. 272). However, the claim for the scientific status of economic discourse leads in the long term to the idea that economics is neutral from an axiological point of view. In this conception, the economy would therefore not produce judgments, but a discourse exempt from the principles of morality or justice. Given that this vision is still very widespread in our time, Bourdeau’s genealogical study allows us to understand that it is not an incontestable characteristic, but rather a certain way of representing the economy.

The desire to assert the scientific status of economics is particularly evident within the group which meets around the Journal of Economistsfrom 1841. Bourdeau offers a reconstruction of the positions of these authors, for example Frdric Bastiat, or Charles Coquelin; his careful historical reconstruction of the intellectual context in which Walras’ work takes place is one of the book’s main contributions to studies of this author. The principles of economists are well represented in their Dictionary of political economy (1852-1853), a work which aimed to provide a guide for non-specialists, in order to enable everyone to understand modern society in the light of the laws of economics. Thus, as Bourdeau writes, the group of economists offers a scholarly discourse on society based on the observation of a natural order of the economy (p. 46). The chips are down, economics is dressed as a hard science: the laws of economics are laws of nature, and economics is the science that describes them.

In addition, Bourdeau also highlights the other side of this representation of economics as scientific knowledge. As the author states, the descriptive function of the economy is seems moral to the extent that the natural order it seeks to understand is at the same time an intrinsically good order (p. 51). It must be added: the act of representing the economy as neutral is not neutral. THE economists aim to define the economy in terms that justify their vision of what society should be, thus setting foot in the sphere of values. For example, in their definition of the economy, they excluded socialist perspectives, socialism being after 1848 the favored adversary of most liberals. They therefore pass off this exclusion as emanating from a so-called scientific reality. Bourdeau’s analysis then shows that any so-called scientific construction of economic discourse firstly has a political objective.

As far as Walras is concerned, the question is both similar and different: similar, because Walras also sees the urgency of establishing political economy as an objective science.; different, to the extent that Walras’ solution is opposed to that of economists. If, for the latter, social relations were focused on individual responsibility and foreign to the economic domain, Walras emphasizes the conditions which make the establishment of social justice possible in his economic analysis. He achieves this by reconsidering the concept of property in its links with the land and by giving the state the function of administering the distribution of wealth resulting from the latter.

Land and talents

What is the role played by land in Walras’s conception of social justice?? In contrast to the economists, Walras considers the land not as a free gift of nature, but as wealth (or in his terms a useful and rare thing). Ownership of the land belongs to the entire community and must therefore be, according to Walras, administered by the state. Walras’ republican ideals play a major role in this conception. Land understood first of all as what everyone has in common is the property of all members of the body politic as citizens. Earthwrites Bourdeau, is considered by Walras as the object which materializes the community (p. 243). The state ensures the equality of individuals by managing these common resources, according to the principles of commutative justice, within the framework of what Walras perceives as a legitimate monopoly.

However, this is only the first side of the medal. If on the one hand the common property of the earth ensures the conditions of equality for all people, on the other hand this property is the condition for admitting the existence of inequalities within this same society. It is then not a question of equality, but of equity. If all individuals have an immediate right to income from land, distributed by the state, by virtue of their status as citizens, individual property goes beyond this. The latter depends on the talents of each person. Every individual must receive what is due to them, according to the principle of distributive justice. This result is ensured, in the eyes of Walras, by free competition in the market, a field on which individuals freely showcase their talents. The myth of meritocracy, understood as a narrative that makes it possible to articulate the competitive market and republican ideals of justice, thus sees the light of day. The beginning of Walras’ mythological tale describes an initial equality, guaranteed by the common ownership of the earth in the hands of the state. Ultimately, this equality transforms into inequality, which nevertheless meets a principle of justice, because it reflects the different efforts and talents of individuals.

By listening to the myth of meritocracy told by Walras, at least in Bourdeau’s words, the reader realizes once again how economic principles are not neutral, especially when economists present them as such. This is also the case for the principle of competition and the rules of exchange at Walras, where free competition is called play the role of moral criterion (p. 274). Competition can only play this role under certain conditions, that is to say in balanced conditions, which see supply and demand converge thanks to the tendency of actors to satisfy their needs. A market regulated by free competition and in conditions of general equilibrium, without the obstacles posed by private monopolies, is a market in which exchanges respect the criteria of distributive justice. In this type of market, the distribution of wealth between individuals depends on the different talents of the participants in the exchange, without market mechanisms distorting the final results. Exchange is represented as a neutral filter, economic balance becomes at the same time a social balance.

A society of individuals: Walras and the modern dilemma

Bourdeau’s book is an excellent tool for those who wish to understand Walras’s thinking in its intellectual context. The work could perhaps have benefited from a more thorough revision, as the typical style of the thesis (long quotations, repetitions of the same concepts) is still evident. Nevertheless, the book poses broad questions, capable of interest any reader by questioning modern political thought.

One question in particular runs throughout the book: how is it possible, in a modern society, to hold the community and individuals together, without sacrificing either?? In other words, how can we achieve both the common good and that of individuals?? The importance of this question for modern political thought is clear. This question runs through the thoughts of all the actors of Walras’s era analyzed by Bourdeau, who presents the different answers effectively. According to Walras, to give a single example, these two entities are represented by the land (the community) and by the competitive market (individuals). The articulation of these two levels allows Walras to respond to the dilemma of modernity concerning how to ensure at the same time the well-being of society and the individuals who compose it. The myth of meritocracy can thus be read as a way of answering this question. Those who listen to the advice also have the possibility of imagining other solutions, if this one appears more satisfactory, and that we come to desire, as Bourdeau writes, move on to something else (p. 8).