Is Meritocracy the new Aristocracy? And the 11 Tricks that Elites use to capture Politics.

December 11, 2018

     By Max Lawson     

Max Lawson

My Oxfam colleague and regular FP2P contributor Max Lawson (right) sends out a weekly summary of his reading on inequality (he leads Oxfam’s advocacy work on it). They’re great, and Max has opened his mailing list up to the anyone who’s interested – just email, with ‘subscribe’ in the subject line.

Here’s his latest effort, covering two issues: a reflection on meritocracy and a new analysis from Latin America of the 11 ways that elites use to capture politics.

‘When I was 19 on holiday from University, I worked nights in a factory. One of my fellow workers, Denzel, was 17 and he had recently been expelled from his school for violent behaviour.  We had attended different schools, but they were both public schools with a mix of students from many different backgrounds. Even at that young age he had a string of convictions for various crimes.  We became friends over that summer, and at one point he had got a new mobile phone (at that time very rare and expensive) and he called me over one night and asked me to read the instructions for him as he could not read.

This brilliant essay by Peter Adamson, who for many years’ wrote Unicef’s State of the World’s Children report, starts with a very similar story.  His argument is a powerful and interesting one.  What if meritocracy is simply another form of class oppression, and in some ways an even more dangerous one? It is an excellent, subtle yet powerfully argued paper, and I would really recommend reading the whole thing. He points out that the word meritocracy was originally conceived as negative. It was intended as a warning that the ‘re-stratification of society based on ‘intelligence + application = merit’  would produce a society of arrogant, insensitive winners, and angry desperate losers.

The philosopher john Rawls was very clear on this too: ‘meritocracy still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents.  It is therefore arbitrary from a moral perspective’.


Basically, just because you are clever why should you have more money, more wealth and a better life, any more than someone who has inherited a fortune from their parents?

Firstly we know that a huge amount of what we call merit is based on our upbringing, our parents and our home background.  Denzel had a troubled family background, I had supportive parents and a house full of books.

But secondly, we also know, although it remains contentious, that some intelligence is genetic.  It remains contentious as it is used by defenders of inequality- people are rich because they are cleverer- that genetic differences in intelligence explain why certain people are in charge.  But Adamson’s point is that even if this is true in some instances, it does not make it morally right.

He points out how in some societies, particularly rich ones, instead of the pyramid of income, there is a diamond, with some extremely rich people at the top, and then a large, relatively educated middle class.  Underneath that are a large group of poor people, who become angry at the educated elites who are not interested in their lives and blame them for their own problems.  I think many in France would recognise the power of this analysis in the face of the recent dramatic protests – the latest in the wave of popular anger erupting across the world.  He worries that politicians in democracies can now rule with the support of those at the top and at the middle, and that this is powerfully legitimised by the notion of meritocracy.

It is also internalised by those at the bottom.  At least with class or feudalism, the injustice of the system was very clear and based on obviously flimsy foundations like inherited wealth that did not stand up to scrutiny. With meritocracy, the poor are devalued because they are less clever and less able.

‘In summary, we should accept that high levels of intelligence and ability are needed to fulfil certain positions in society, but not that those who possess these abilities are more valuable as human beings.  Ultimately this is the notion that must be dethroned- the idea that the attributes of intelligence and ability are the sum and measure of human worth. Instead we should revive the idea that all people are of equal value, and that a fair society is one that opens up the possibility of life-satisfaction, in all of its varieties, to all of its members’.

Analysing how elites have influenced policy in their favour in Latin America

This week our team in Latin America and the Caribbean published a great paper, which looks at 13 instances of pro-rich tax and spending policy and political action in the region and dissects the way in which the state has been ‘captured’ by elite interests.

They break down the process of state capture into 11 different methods deployed by elites, and then look at how many of the 13 cases employed these methods.

In almost all cases, a hugely biased and concentrated media was deployed to make the case for these policy changes, as was the revolving door where those from the private sector work in government.  In the

Captured democracy: government for the few

Argentina case study, 40% of high-ranking officials in the treasury and finance ministry were former CEOs or managers in the private sector.

Most cases also involved a very rapid passage of legislation, using extraordinary extra-parliamentary powers, like executive orders. They also involved capturing the judicial process – in a quarter of cases business leaders successfully used constitutional courts to stop progressive tax measures.

In a third of cases, elites used what the paper calls a ‘technical smokescreen’, which I thought was a great concept.  Deeply political and distributive tax changes are dressed up as boring and technical, so that no one notices.  This is particularly possible with tax changes that reduce tax on the rich, as the impact on the poor is indirect.

Interestingly, outright bribes were only identified in two of the cases- but of course this is one of the hardest things to ascertain, so the actual number is probably higher.  In one case the Brazilian firm Odebrecht, which used bribes to secure government contracts all over the continent even had a designated office for bribery and corruption operations included in its organogram.

Finally, public protest was identified in two cases, where large protests were mobilised in favour of tax changes that would only benefit a very rich elite, e.g. opposing inheritance taxes in Ecuador.  This of course has echoes of the tea party in the United States.  For me this final one tips over also into the capture of ideas rather than the capture of the state. The use of resources by elites to change the way people think is perhaps the most powerful tool at their disposal.

We all can see the undue power of elites in everyday life, but this level of analysis of methods and dissection of the levers of influence is rare, and very practical if we want to change things for the better. An excellent paper, and well worth reading.’

And here (if you can read it) are the 11 ways and 13 case studies. There’s also a background paper on the methodology.

Capture mechanisms used by elites