The merit system is the process of promoting and hiring government employees based on their ability to perform a job, rather than on their political connections. It is the opposite of the spoils system.
The earliest known example of a merit system dates to the Qin and Han dynasties. To maintain power over a large, sprawling empire, the government maintained a complex network of officials. Prospective officials could come from a rural background and government positions were not restricted to the nobility. Rank was determined by merit, through the civil service examinations, and education became the key for social mobility. After the fall of the Han Dynasty, the nine-rank system was established during the Three Kingdoms period. The concept of a merit system spread from China to British India during the 17th century, and then into continental Europe.
The United States civil service began to run on the spoils system in 1829 when Andrew Jackson became president. The assassination of United States President James A. Garfield by a disappointed office seeker in 1881 proved its dangers. Two years later, the system of appointments to the United States federal bureaucracy was revamped by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which made the merit system common practice. The fitness of the candidate is determined by the ability to pass a written competitive examination, given by a commission of examiners. The answers submitted by candidates must be unsigned, so as to obviate the possibility of favoritism on the part of the examiners. A list is made of the successful candidates, arranged in the order of their merit as shown by the results of the examination. Appointments must be made from this eligible list in the order of rank unless good cause can be shown why one of higher rank should be set aside for one standing lower on the list. A common objection to the merit system is that it does not provide a comprehensive method of judging a candidate's abilities or predicting their future performance. This flaw often eliminates the most competent candidate for selection. Proponents of the system admit that the system does not always lead to the choice of most competent candidate but is effective in eliminating those most incompetent. In addition the possible exclusion of most competent candidate is outweighed by the system's benefits such as limiting the ability of nepotism and political favoritism. The power of appointment being vested in the president of the United States by the United States Constitution, it is not within the power of the United States Congress to fetter the president's action by the enactment of laws restricting the exercise of the power of appointments. Thus, in the United States, the merit system has been extensively applied by the voluntary action of the president following self-imposed rules. It has been judicially determined that the civil-service rules promulgated by the president of the United States do not have the force of general law, and confer upon members of the civil service no right to invoke the aid of the courts to protect them against violation thereof. They are the president's laws, and the president alone can enforce them. The civil service system of Kentucky is named "the Merit System".
- Burbank and Cooper (2010), 51.
- Kazin, Edwards, and Rothman (2010), 142.
- "Civil-Service Reform". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Gilman, D. C.; Thurston, H. T.; Moore, F., eds. (1905). "Merit System, The". New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
- "Civil Service". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
- Burbank, Jane and Cooper, Frederick. (2010). Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12708-5.
- Kazin, Michael, Edwards, Rebecca, and Rothman, Adam. (2010). The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History Volume 2. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12971-1.