We want to believe in meritocracy. We want to believe in fairness. We want to believe that rewards follow from skill and effort.

It’s one of those ideas that sounds great in theory, one of those things where moving in its general direction is often a good thing, but which you shouldn’t hope to achieve. You’ll never get a hundred on the test.

When I think of meritocracy in practice, I mean an organizational structure in which power goes to those with merit. That is, those who earn power, those who prove they’ll use the power best. By “power”, I mean authority. The ability to make decisions for the organization.

One problem with this is that merit is subjective. We might agree on a definition of merit in order to construct a meritocracy and assign power to those who’ll use it well. But we can’t predict the future. So we don’t know who’ll use power best.

Another problem is that everybody’s looking out for number one, so we don’t actually want to give power to anyone else. Our personal incentives may not align with the incentives of the organization.

Another problem is that time goes by. Even if we can agree on a definition of merit, those with merit today may not have merit tomorrow. But if we give them power today, it’s not so easy to take it from them tomorrow.