In 1958, British sociologist Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” in his satirical novel, called “The Rise of the Meritocracy.” Its point was simple: When intelligence and effort are selected by any society as the basis for success or failure, those with such merit begin to comprise their own class.

That class hardens into an elite that brooks no dissent and stratifies society. As Young would say in 2001, “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

This general point has become the basis for illiberal thinkers, both on the Left and on the Right. Philosopher Michael Sandel, in his latest book, “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” argues that the very notion of a meritocracy carries with it an unescapable and unsustainably selfish moral judgment. According to Sandel, “The ideal itself is flawed. Meritocracy has a dark side. And the dark side is that meritocracy is corrosive of the common good. It encourages the successful to believe that their success is their own doing and that they therefore deserve the bounty that the market heaps upon them ... it generates hubris among the winners. They also believe, implicitly at least, that those who struggle must deserve their fate as well.”

This argument can be marshalled on behalf of both Right-wing and Left-wing critiques of the current capitalist order. On the Right, the argument is that capitalism — rewarding, as it generally does, intelligence and hard work — undermines important social institutions.

David Brooks argues in The New York Times that meritocracy destroys “civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.” On the Left, the argument is that meritocracy justifies existing imbalances of economic and social power.

The debate over meritocracy, however, depends on a crucial failure to distinguish between economic merit and moral merit. The term meritocracy itself does a great disservice in smudging this distinction — that is, in fact, why Young coined the term that way. Instead of linking “merit,” with all of its moral implications, with intelligence and hard work, we ought to instead use the term “skillsocracy.”

Any economic system that rewards skills produces positive externalities. A person who works hard, who innovates — who creates better products and services and trades those products and services with someone else — enriches not only those involved in the voluntary trade, but also the society at large by raising the bar on the products and services that will eventually become available to everyone. Every innovation is quickly followed by competition, by the spread of that innovation to a broader and broader market.

By contrast, any economic system that prizes an alternative set of values has negative externalities. Should we adjudicate economic distribution by race? Creed? Religion? Simple ethical preference? Disincentivize risk-taking, guarantee incomes by “moral occupation,” and watch as misallocation of labor destroys economic progress entirely; watch as society breaks down as those who produce less for their fellow man are rewarded more.

This does not mean that those who are most dexterous should “run society.” To create such a system would, in fact, undermine the skillsocracy itself, since it would allow the centralized will of some to undermine the innovative efforts of all. Economic mobility must remain predicated on skill, or the skillsocracy is undermined.

This also does not mean that the skillsocracy actually acts as a measure of moral good. Intelligence is largely inborn, and thus not a moral attribute per se; propensity for hard work may be partially genetic but can be cultivated.

This means that a skillsocracy ought not be at odds with a virtuous society. Far from it. The so-called “meritocracy” need not devolve into a moral measure of intelligence and hard work; indeed, in a healthy society, it must not. But by the same token, we must never destroy the skillsocracy as a supposedly expedient way to revive moral living. That effort would be both unsuccessful and wildly counterproductive.

In other news

I’ve been saying that inflation is on its way since April of this year. Well, it’s here, and it’s going to get worse. On Nov. 10, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the consumer price index summary, revealing what most American’s already know. Prices are skyrocketing.

What value is there in a college education today? Where can a student go today for higher education that isn’t laced with left-wing propaganda such as Critical Race Theory? Nebraska’s state’s colleges and universities are now devolving at an alarming rate.

LINCOLN — For nearly two years, the pandemic has disrupted daily life, taking a toll on the well-being of families. As a result, hundreds of thousands of kids could be struggling with hunger.

NORFOLK — The 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy — will soon be upon us. At 7:55 a.m. Hawaiian time on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

OMAHA — Nebraskans For Peace supports the plan developed by the “Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity” task force that will work to make UNL an inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome. The plan has not yet been implemented. Normally, our thoughts would be, “OK great. Now put …

I dare you to look, with a clear and unfiltered lens, at the bloody nightmare we once called the United States of America.