Meritocracy tends to confuse a very practical sense of merit with a more abstract and moral one. An individual may deserve a high-paying job or admission to a selective college because they are productive or qualified. However, in a moral sense, individuals do not merit the skills and abilities they are born with, nor do they merit the environments they were born into that allowed them to develop those skills.
Many of the things that are most valuable in life are not things that can be traded on the market. Love, friendship, the respect of your peers, and a sense of belonging are all incredibly important parts of life, and they’re also impossible to incorporate into economic analysis. Now, since they’re not economic goods, it normally wouldn’t be a problem that they aren’t subject to economic analysis. Unfortunately, economists have not been content to restrict themselves to economic goods, but instead attempt to provide analysis of public policy choices using economic methods.
The formalizing of self-interest as an economic principle was largely the work of Francis Edgeworth. It is sometimes wrongly traced back to the work of Adam Smith. While Smith wrote about self-interest, he actually had a much, much more nuanced view of both when people would behave out of self-interest and when self-interested behavior could be good for society then he is usually given credit for. (He most certainly did not claim either that individuals are always self-interested or that self-interest always leads to optimal outcomes, and cited limits to self-interest in both Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations; see here, here, and here for more on the misinterpretation of Smith.
Adam Smith is largely responsible for starting the field of economics as an academic subject. His magnum opus The Wealth of Nations is considered the first work of modern economics, and Smith is sometimes referred to as “the father of modern economics.” I tell you this because I think Smith would be at least mildly ashamed of his academic progeny. Smith is perhaps best known for his famous statement on mutually beneficial trade:
Imagine you are going over to a friend’s house for a nice dinner. You want to show appreciation for the lovely meal they’ve prepared for you, and you have a few options. You can offer to have them over for dinner in the future. You can bring a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer. You can simply say thank you and tell them what a lovely evening you have had.
Michael Sandel’s new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is a well-timed critique not of capitalist economics, but of the spread of economic thinking well beyond the boundaries of traditional economic issues like trading, inflation, prices, wages, etc. I just started a microeconomics course in preparation for graduate school in the fall and the textbook simply defined economics as “the study of choice.” Sandel’s thesis is relatively simple: “…we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.