Thanks to Morris Abram we at last know what the meritocracy is. Abram is the vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a longtime foe of both affirmative action and quotas and therefore a champion of earning your way by merit. He got two of his son's friends jobs on the civil rights commission.

This is the way you and I always knew the meritocracy works. It explains why the sons of alumni become, after four short years, alumni themselves, or, if you prefer, how a bunch of rich men in California, with a tip here and some advice there, made Ronald Reagan into yet another rich man in California. In the meritocracy as in the garment business, one hand washes the other.

In Abram's case, he recommended two of his son's friends for jobs with the civil rights commission. In nine months, one of the son's friends zoomed four salary grades, and in 13 months the other went five grades. Abram denied having anything at all to do with the promotions, and indeed, there is no evidence that he did. In fact, no one has even suggested that the two employees, friends of the boss's son though they might be, are not also qualified for their jobs.

And that, of course, is the nub of the argument both for and against affirmative action. At the same time its critics are blasting it as un-American, discriminatory or -- the words Abram himself used to describe set-asides -- "blatant tokenism," most of the world realized long ago that its proclaimed alternative, the meritocracy, is a mere ideal. You almost never see the real thing.

Take the case of the two civil rights commission staff aides. Probably, they are qualified for their jobs. Probably, they are bright and industrious and, you would think, examples of the meritocracy at ts best. But they also know the boss's son. And it was the boss's recommendation that secured them the jobs. There is the chance -- just the chance -- that if Abram were at the Commerce Department, the two men would now be working there.

Blacks and other minority groups usually don't have such connections. Having been for years excluded from both government and commerce, they are in fact excluded from both government and commerce. They do not know an Abram. They do not know his son. They do not, by and large, go to Columbia -- and some of those who do do so because of affirmative action programs of one sort or another. When they say that meritocracy is yet another name for racial barriers, you can see what they are talking about. They're talking about Abram, his son and his friends.

Years ago I wrote a column about Alan Bakke, the medical student whose suit struck down an affirmative action program based on quotas at the University of California at Davis. It was one of the hardest columns I ever had to write. Iwas, as the jargon goes, conflicted -- torn between a desire to recognize the special needs of minorities and the plight of Bakke himself. After all, there was no getting around the fact that he would have been the innocent victim of racial discrimination -- excluded from medical school because he was white.

Since then the issue has become no easier. Always, preferential treatment of any kind -- goals, quotas, call it what you want -- means that someone gets excluded. Bakke was originally rejected from medical school because he is white, but people are rejected or selected all the time because they are northerners or southerners, athletes or actors, foreign or American and -- often very important -- the child of an alumnus or big giver. If all things being (more or less) equal, the child of an alumnus gets the nod, then why is it so wrong also to take race into account? After all, there is merit in attempting to overcome the effects of racial discrimination

Life is a vast game of musical chairs in which winning and losing should be decided only by merit. Often, though, it is not. Sometimes you win because you're fast on your feet. Sometimes you win because someone holds a chair for you. Abram himself, the son of an immigrant Russian Jew who settled in Fitzgerald, Ga., is an example of both. He made it on his own. But having made it, he most certainly helped his son and, now, his son's friends. That meritocracy is like anything else. If you want to make it work, you need connections.