Literally, rule by those with merit, merit being intelligence plus effort; a society in which social position is determined exclusively by ability and hard work.

Given the liberal state’s stress on individualism, the next principle of a liberal state is that political power should be exercised only by those who show themselves worthy of it. In other words, government should be conducted by individuals who, through their own efforts and talents, have won the trust of the governed. Consequently, there is no guarantee that such responsibility will be conferred upon the descendants of those who govern — unless they, too, can demonstrate competence and integrity.

In this respect, the meritocratic liberal state again stands in contrast to the traditional state. In pre-Enlightenment regimes, power was largely hereditary and aristocratic, with circumstances of birth trumping individual ability. As Thomas Paine (1737–1809) remarked, when justifying the French Revolution’s overthrow of the nobility in 1789, hereditary rule was ‘beyond equity, beyond reason and most certainly beyond wisdom’. Aristocracy thus had no place in the meritocratic liberal state commended by Locke, Mill and other liberal thinkers.

However, whereas classical liberals have endorsed strict meritocracy, on grounds of both fairness (some people deserve to be better off than others) and incentives, modern liberals are inclined to believe that equality of opportunity can only be ensured if material inequalities are relatively narrow.