Meritocracy

by alex_gaynor

Let's start with a definition, a meritocracy is a group where leadership or authority is derived from merit (merit being skills or ability), and particularly objective merit. I think adding the word objective is important, but not often explicitly stated.

A lot of people like to say open source is a meritocracy, the people who are the top of projects are there because they have the most merit. I'd like to examine this idea. What if I told you the United States Congress was a meritocracy? You might say "gee, how could that be, they're really terrible at their jobs, the government isn't even operational!?!". To which I might respond "that's evidence that they aren't good at their jobs, it doesn't prove that they aren't the best of the available candidates". You'd probably tell me that "surely someone, somewhere, is better qualified to do their jobs", and I'd say "we have an open, democratic process, if there was someone better, they'd run for office and get elected".

Did you see what I did there? It was subtle, a lot of people miss it. I begged the question. Begging the question is the act of responding to a hypothesis with a conclusion that's premised on exactly the question the hypothesis asks.

So what if you told me that Open Source was meritocracy? Projects gain recognition because they're the best, people become maintainers of libraries because they're the best.

And those of us involved in open source love this explanation, why wouldn't we? This explanation says that the reason I'm a core developer of Django and PyPy because I'm so gosh-darned awesome. And who doesn't like to think they're awesome? And if I can have a philosophy that leads to myself being awesome, all the better!

Unfortunately, it's not a valid conclusion. The problem with stating that a group is meritocratic is that it's not a falsifiable hypothesis.

We don't have a definition of objective merit. As a result of which there's no piece of evidence that I can show you to prove that a group isn't in fact meritocratic. And a central tenant of any sort of rigorous inquisitive process is that we need to be able to construct a formal opposing argument. I can test whether a society is democratic, do the people vote, is the result of the vote respected? I can't test if a society is meritocratic.

It's unhealthy when we consider or groups, or cultures, or our societies as being meritocratic. It makes us ignore questions about who our leaders are, how they got there, who isn't represented. The best we can say is that maybe our organizations are (perceptions of subjective merit)-ocracies, which is profoundly different from what we mean when we say meritocracy.

I'd like to encourage groups that self-identify as being meritocratic (such as The Gnome Foundation, The Apache Software Foundation, Mozilla, The Document Foundation, and The Django Software Foundation) to reconsider this. Aspiring to meritocracy is a reasonable goal, it makes sense to want for the people who are best capable of doing so to lead us, but it's not something we can ever say we've achieved.


Hi, I'm Alex. I'm a software engineer at Mozilla, working on Firefox security. Before that I was a software engineer with the U.S. Digital Service. I'm an avid open source contributor and live in Washington, DC.