Merit in an age of income inequality

By Jonathan Mousely

In an age when plutocracy is becoming increasingly evident in employment prospects and life success, it’s time to strive again to uphold and advance meritocracy — where people are judged on their individual abilities and work ethic rather than their family connections. In a liberal and democratic society such as Canada’s, the position of parents on the socio-economic ladder should have little impact on their children’s success.

While income inequality is growing in most countries to levels not seen since the late 1800s, social mobility is declining. In fact, children of privilege have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap than ever before, while those with less privileged backgrounds are finding it harder to climb that heap.

There’s nothing wrong with income inequality (albeit within reasonable limits, I would argue) as long as there’s sufficient social mobility. But the growing inequality seen in most countries today is happening at the same time as there’s less and less upward mobility. This is a breeding ground for growing frustration and resentment among those unable to benefit by dint of hard work and ability.  We need to ensure that the full range of talents that individuals have to offer can be recognized, fostered and employed.

One example of why this is less and less the case can perhaps be seen in government and the corporate world. The cadre of front-line workers and professional managers is declining everywhere as the pressure for cost savings forces governments and companies alike to contract out many activities and shift from full-time to part-time employees. Long-term employment with one employer is also much less prevalent than in the past due to frequent downsizing. It has thus become harder for people to have their skills or talents recognized, and there are fewer opportunities for talented employees to rise up the organizational — and income — hierarchy.

The policy prescriptions necessary to encourage or restore meritocracy are difficult to conceive and even more difficult to implement owing to the complexity of our modern society. Government can do a lot–in terms of taxation and income re-distribution — to realize greater equality of outcomes. However, it’s able to do far less — attacking crony capitalism and investing in the young are perhaps the best policy prescriptions available — to realize greater equality of opportunity. Instead, together, as a society, we need to revive the practice of recognizing and rewarding merit. Wherever we are able to truly reward excellence and hard work, society is at its best and most successful. Wherever we do not, society suffers, beset by corruption and favouritism. As the ancient Chinese knew all too well, meritocracy works!

Jonathan Mousely (UCC ’86) is a candidate for Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

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