Meritocracy: The Secret Ingredient of Successful States

By: Malik Ahmad Jalal

“We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State”.

In this speech, inaugurating Pakistan’s independence, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah laid the foundation of an enabling society that creates equal opportunities for all. In these two simple, yet profound sentences the Quaid shared the blueprint for what we have failed to realize — the benefit of a nation state based on meritocracy. This principle is the underpinning of a successful nation state as it can create shared values and aspirations that unite all factions to lift Pakistan in the League of Nations.

While merit is an individual characteristic, meritocracy is a characteristic of societies. A system which allows citizens equality and progression based on their character and effort, hence distributing wealth and power more widely and justly. A society should find a natural equilibrium towards a meritocratic system of governance because of the strong linkage between merit with justice and justice with peace.

Meritocracy and Economic and Political Inclusiveness

The industrial revolution facilitated the transition from tribes and clans to nation-states based on supply of two ingredients, labor and capital. The industrial revolution broke the subservient relationship between landlord-and-labor and empowered a type of labor called entrepreneur, who, for the first time could accumulate capital and hence power in a society. As a result, power shifted to self-starting entrepreneurs from a concentrated minority of hereditary landowners and thus authority was distributed more widely. This gave birth to an egalitarian system based on entrepreneurial effort. In doing so, it unleashed creativity of the previously dispossessed; leading to a period of not only the largest wealth accumulation but also of wealth dispersion.

History has witnessed aristocratic governing systems, where power was maintained by a privileged nobility through exercise of force or patronage. Such systems proved to be unsustainable for two reasons; the reduction of patronage immediately unraveled the system. It also meant that no clear succession plan was devised, and people’s roles in society were not matched with their capabilities; preventing able people from holding positions of power and influence. This governance form is known as Plutocracy and diverged from the ancient Greek concept of “Aristocracy of Talent” or rule by the best; first explored by the philosopher Plato. Plutocracy is a society ruled by a handful of its wealthiest citizens, who consider it their right bestowed by birth rather than being earned.

Western societies formed at the advent of industrialization experienced an evolution from plutocracy to a form of aristocracy of talent. More popularly referred to as democracy; or rule of the people, for the people, and by the people. Thereby creating a system that awarded power on the basis of performance, as deemed fit by a majority of citizens, through one-person one–vote principle. This form of aristocracy of talent enabled citizens who previously did not belong to the nobility to hold governing office or wealth. Hence allowing the most suitable leaders to ascend in a society. Abe Lincoln is one such example; he came from a humble background and rose to become the most transformational president of America.

Meritocracy and State-Building

A nation state is formed on principles of shared values, where regardless of differences in caste, ethnicity or language, the citizens have a common identity and strive towards mutual goals. It is a state with equal opportunity for upward social mobility, without divisions of lineage or tribe; a state with distribution of governance to the most deserving. It is a state of meritocracy. Examining some of the most successful nations like Norway, Sweden, and Germany, we see that the rationale of their success is a system of meritocracy and level playing field with equal opportunity for growth.

In non-industrialized societies, tribalism operates under the guise of democracy. In such tribalistic-democratic systems, position in society is determined by family connections, and even the electoral mechanism is rigged to re-enforce advantages of lineage and inheritance creating a perpetual ruling elite of electables.

Francis Fukuyama, author and intellectual in his book “The Origins of a Political Order” makes the case for a transparent system that ensures protection and promotion of everyone on the basis of merit. He advocates a system which breaks the bond of tribalism and kinship and replaces them with a sense of collectivism elicited by trust in the system to reward their hard work. Tribalism is highly sub-optimal as it causes citizens to supersede tribal loyalties over state interests. Fear and lack of trust in the system is compensated for by tribal and personal affiliations to give a sense of safety and security. On the other hand, a meritocratic society allows movement towards mutual goals — ultimately a nation state, instead of a series of tribes and kinship held together within a geographical boundary. Fukuyama supports the viewpoint of Alexandere Kojeve; a French Philosopher, that the progress of history must lead toward the establishment of a “universal and homogenous” nation state, incorporating elements of a meritocratic democracy.

Islam, A Meritocracy in Tribal Arabia

All successful self-sustaining states of the past and the present have one thing in common; they have, at their core, a strong element of meritocracy and upward socio-economic mobility of wealth and power. The early Islamic States of Medina and Mecca are an example of a meritocratic system which empowered women, slaves and immigrants alike. Islam is a religion, whose very basis is a just and meritocratic society, and the Prophet’s (PBUH) message called for equality and accountability of All before God.

Taqwa is a fundamental principle of Islam and is mentioned over 100 times in the Quran. It implies God consciousness in avoiding misdeeds that earn His displeasure. It is stated that a believer who practices Taqwa is one closest to God. Hidden within the most fundamental principle of Taqwa, is concept of meritocracy and equality of all — good deeds alone will determine closeness to God, and that is accessible to all. Therefore, Islam propagates that every individual is created equal and has an equal opportunity to rise in the eyes of God through his/her deeds only. Our religion laid the foundation of equality and upward social mobility of the ordinary, elevating their social, political, and economic position, irrespective of their color or creed. It is no coincidence that the first adherents of Islam were a woman, a boy and a slave — all marginalized underclass of the society at that time. They were emancipated by Islam.

Meritocracy and Pakistan’s Struggle for Nation State

Pakistan was created as a Muslim nation state with protection and rights for minorities; the green and white flag depicts a commitment to all citizens irrespective of lineage, tribe or religion. We were meant to be a nation state based on the framework of meritocracy; a notion that we have drifted away from. Today, we have an eroding sense of national identity, scarred by tribalism, ethnicity, religious and linguistic schisms. Ranking the second worst country in the world for gender equality, the State is nearly functioning as a collection of tribes and ethnicities; not as a congruent, united or cohesive State.

For a country or a nation to flourish, it is imperative to elevate itself from tribal and hereditary systems and promote meritocracy. Taking examples from thriving modern societies, it becomes evident that the source of their success has been rewarding people based on their character and effort. Few policy recommendations for infusing such a meritocratic culture are:

1) Promoting genuine entrepreneurship (versus rent-seeking) , as it enables upward social mobility and visible demonstration of flow of rewards with effort

2) A sound publically funded school and university system so that education is available to all. This creates a level playing field

3) Create a strong, independent judiciary so that citizens have recourse to justice and trust that their rewards and rights will not be usurped

A modern meritocratic democratic system is one which rewards positive character and effort rather than tribal, social or linguistic connections. This is exactly the same in Islam, which has given us the fundamental privilege that all individuals have equal opportunity to be close to God and that they will be rewarded only on their deeds. The elements of equality and meritocracy we need to inculcate within our society and the governing system, to become a nation state that realizes it’s potential.


Malik Ahmad Jalal is an economic development expert with an interest in security and economics . He tweets at: @ahmadjalal_1

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