Lost in translation: British ‘meritocracy’ in Italy

In a guest post, Lorenza Antonucci looks at the adoption of the British concept of ‘meritocracy’ by the left in Italy – and argues that this is a backward step.

Cover of 'Meritocrazia'European concepts often fly from one country to another, at times repeating a policy solution, at other times losing their original meaning. We can see this today for the notion of meritocracy – extensively used by New Labour and then exported, 10 years later, to countries such as Italy. Indeed, contemporary criticism of the political and social system by the Italian centre-left is now built around the lack of meritocracy.  But what can the Anglo-Saxon notion of meritocracy add to the Italian debate on inequality?  It is here argued that the Italian debate relies on a limited and weak interpretation of meritocracy, which misses the later evolution of the meritocratic movement in the UK towards issues of redistribution.

Italian meritocracy

The current use of meritocracy in Italy is associated with the Italian website on Meritocrazia by Roger Abravanel and its related Facebook group.  They define meritocracy as a system of values which emphasises excellence, regardless of origins – by which Abravanel means that the different social backgrounds of young talented people are not taken into account by the system. In his book, the ex-McKinsey Abravanel proposes policies based on transparency, measurement, ranking, a task force of young talented professionals (modelled on the delivery unit of Tony Blair) and a cultural emphasis on merit.

Italy today is criticised for its system based on nepotism and on a giant State machine which pursues equality without emphasizing the “excellence”.  This assumes that, in a meritocratic society, the State does not need to intervene and guarantee the same opportunities, because the fact that the “best” will succeed would be guaranteed by the competitive system itself.

The problems of meritocracy

This interpretation of meritocracy simply does not address the trade-off between guaranteeing the “best for the best” and the “best for all”, instead assuming (without justification) that the promotion of élites will bring wealth for the entire society. Moreover, Italian meritocracy focuses on evaluating merit ‘regardless of origins’ – but does not address the need to guarantee an equal starting point. Indeed, the education system might be fair and transparent, but the “excellence” is increasingly built around paid extra-school activities (language courses, summer schools) to which low-income families have less access.

Michael YoungThis type of criticism was already present in the British debate during the early 2000s, revolving around the third-way interpretation of meritocracy which inspires the Italian movement. Michael Young himself – who coined the term meritocracy in 1958 – expressed in 2001 his disappointment with the misuse of the term meritocracy by Tony Blair, and the way it had become a “business meritocracy”:


If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get”.

According to Young, the random selection of leaders has been replaced by selection via education, in an education system which is accessible mainly to the élites, generating increasing inequality during the “meritocratic” Blair years. Young was pessimistic that the élites could solve the issue of social mobility: “So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves”.

Moreover, the idea that meritocracy comes from mass access to higher education flies in the face of the most recent evidences form the UK.  For example, Furlong and Cartmel (2010) have shown how young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have a more problematic experience of both higher education and the transition to employment compared to their middle-class peers.


One of Young’s most direct criticisms of “business meritocracy” was that redistribution was necessary :

Can anything be done about this more polarised meritocratic society? It would help if Mr Blair would drop the word from his public vocabulary, or at least admit to the downside. It would help still more if he and Mr Brown would mark their distance from the new meritocracy by increasing income taxes on the rich […].

Similarly, the unequal system of taxation in Italy, characterised by tax avoidance by high-earners and high taxation for workers, has often been referred to as a massive source of inequality. However, the original sin of Italian society, namely the high social polarisation (between north and south, between classes, now even between Italians and migrants) is not directly addressed in a meritocratic system based on market efficiency. The presence of an inefficient and untransparent bureaucracy, often affected by ‘private interests’ over the ‘public interest’, paradoxically justifies the shift to market-based services and monitoring to guarantee merit.

While in Italy the left is fascinated by this limited interpretation of meritocracy, the debate seems to have moved on in the UK. In “Unjust rewards” by Toynbee and Walker, a highly debated book on inequality after Blair, the policy solutions are similarly to Young’s proposals: the creation of a pro-tax and anti-avoidance culture, the minimization of the tax gap, active policies to increase women’s (unequal) pay, the rise of tax credits and applying  property taxes to increase inter-generational wealth and social mobility. These ideas have more recently rejuvenated the debate in the Labour party and have culminated with what could appear as a shift from third-way politics, represented by the election of Ed Milliband, a candidate that opposed directly higher fees in higher education.

If Michael Young called himself “sadly disappointed” by the misuse of his notion by Tony Blair, one wonders what he would have thought about how this concept has been used in Italy.  Young’s original search for merit seemed to be more linked to equality of opportunities and redistribution than its Italian political movement seems to recognise. If the Italian debate on meritocracy relies, on the British formulation and policy solutions, it would be useful to consider the evidence on the impact of the “meritocratic” policies in the UK.  In search for a European notion of meritocracy, aren’t we losing something in translation?

3 responses to “Lost in translation: British ‘meritocracy’ in Italy”

  1. […] The politics of inequality – while Americans implicitly support a more equal distribution of income, this doesn’t seem to be reflected in their political preferences.  A fascinating experiment showed that this might because  we simply don’t know how much other people earn – and when we do, we become more opposed to inequality. Such a lack of informed public debate is going to be a recurring theme on the blog. Brendan has argued that discussions of US state finances suffer from a chronic lack of honesty and information.  Meanwhile in Italy, Lorenza Antonucci is highly critical of the use of the recent buzzword of ‘meritocracy’. […]

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