What is fair?

Is meritocracy fair?

Nick Samoylov


Competition in sports is a noisy affair. Everybody shouts, roots for somebody, congratulates the winner, dreaming of becoming like him or her — the best!

Same in business and in many other areas of life. Everyone wants to be better than others — wealthier, luckier — and nobody doubts that that is the right thing to wish and it is good for society, so everybody would work harder and produce more by trying to catch up with the best.

If the competition is fair, of course, without performance enhancement drugs, bribery, and corruption. That the cornerstones of the world view in the USA and essentially in every economically advanced country.

But after close inspection, this glorification of the “fair” competition and the unwavering belief in the social value of its results look increasingly suspicious to me. Even if we set aside the corruption, monopolistic market manipulation, and similar illegal practices, there is still inequality of the starting conditions: difference in the family, in the social standing, in the opportunities for education, cultural, and even genetic differences.

It is not a secret anymore, for example, that the highest achievements in sports are made by the special kind of folks — special already at the moment of their birth. I was a sportsman too, trained myself hard every day for many years, and set many regional records. But soon afterward a guy showed up and broke all of my records easily. And he was training much less than I. It turns out that hard work is rewarded not as much as talent. That’s why the leading sports coaches travel across the country in search of young talent. I was told that they need just a few minutes and a couple of tests to identify one.

Or, another example, I was among the best students in high school and was accepted by the top university, only to discover that I was not the most prepared or the brightest kid anymore. It quickly became apparent that many of my university classmates are so far ahead of me that I had no chance to catch up.

And that was in the USSR when the society was built around the idea of equality and the same opportunities for everyone. As for the US, everybody was on his own from the very beginning. Americans so used to it that get easily spooked even by a shadow of socialism.

Nevertheless, Americans like to call their country “the country of equal opportunities, based on meritocracy.” This implies that everyone is guilty of his or her lack of achievements. It creates enormous pressure on the majority of citizens, while those at the top do whatever they like to do with the country. They maintain that their accomplishments are based on their personal abilities primarily with a bit of help from the family money (sometimes) and some luck. In reality, they use their muscles not always fairly (if not illegally) to stay unchallenged, but Americans tolerate it for the chance to become super-rich too, even at the risk of an insecure retirement. Around this chance — the American Dream — the whole ideology is constructed that justifies ever-increasing inequality. Many Americans play Powerball too. And Las-Vegas makes a lot of money on the gullible.

But even if all the illegal and unfair practices are removed and the material success depends on the personal abilities only, there remains genetic difference. Some people are born able to run faster, others are more beautiful, yet others are brighter, and a few are faster, more beautiful, and brighter altogether. Many people cannot achieve much even if they work hard.

Is it fair?

That’s what makes me suspicious — the emphasis and the encouragement of the competition. It is based on unfairness. Even when modern technologies decrease the genetic difference (and people start looking like the eggs in the basket), many differences will remain: in the social standing of the family, in cultural differences, in the opportunities of education, and others.

It looks to me that the competition — in sports and in other areas of life — comes down to the demonstration of the inequality.

Why then we feel proud while winning?

Why we encourage such behavior?



Nick Samoylov

Born in Moscow, lived in Crimea, now lives in the US. Used to be physicist and rock climber, now programmer and writer.