Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity builds on Formal Equality of Opportunity’s opposition to formal and arbitrary discrimination. Meritocracy requires that positions and goods be distributed solely in accordance with individual merit. This idea is most familiar from the allocation of jobs, with respect to which most would agree that the applicant who would do best in the job should be appointed. Since whether someone is the best or most meritorious applicant need not depend on arbitrary factors, such as race and gender, Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity is opposed to arbitrary discrimination.
While moves away from arbitrary discrimination are welcome, Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity has well-known limitations, especially with respect to children. For instance, judging by merit may be misplaced in the case of education since education is supposed to cultivate merit, in the form of skills and qualifications. To illustrate a second limitation, imagine that all the top university places are awarded to members of the upper class and that some progressive new government is elected into power and enforces Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity. After generations of consolidating superior education, jobs and wealth at the expense of the poor, the upper-classes are in a far better place, particularly if private schooling is available, to ensure that their children end up being the most meritorious, preserving vast social inequalities between members of different classes. Although some opportunities are open to all equally, opportunities to develop ‘merit’ are not distributed equally. It is this inadequacy of Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity that motivates the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity.
Finally, it has been argued that meritocracy goes too far, in that it overrides an individual business owner’s rights to select employees based on criteria other than their ability to do the job. A business owner may wish to keep his business in his community, for example if he owns an Italian restaurant he may wish to hire Italian staff, or else he may wish to hire staff who are systematically disadvantaged already or people who he thinks are morally virtuous. Some will argue that meritocracy, by insisting that the best person for the job be selected, does not give sufficient room for discretion by business owners. Others claim that merit is a placeholder for other values and without a clarification of those values no account of merit can be justified.