Does meritocracy lack merit? A critique from “The Meritocracy Trap”

Context: The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite is a book by Professor Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School, “attacking the false promise of meritocracy”. An insightful read – packed with elaborate arguments backed up by research & case studies. For those who are short on time, you could get the big ideas from Daniel’s sharing on the Erza Klein Show podcast, or from this article in The Atlantic.

The bold claim: merit is a counterfeit value

Merit itself has become a counterfeit value, a false idol…what it was invented to combat. A mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. A caste order that breeds rancor and division. A new aristocracy, even.

Daniel Markovits

The meritocratic ideal, i.e., “social and economic rewards should track achievement rather than breeding,” is a mainstream ideal that is often taken for granted and rarely even questioned. In his book, Daniel not only questions meritocracy, but goes one step further to challenge and critique it.

Image result for the meritocracy trap

His central, unconventional claim is meritocracy is a form of aristocracy in disguise – just like the aristocratic system it aims to replace, “merit is not a natural or universal value, but rather the upshot of prior inequalities“.

The setup: meritocracy constructs the “elite class” via meritocratic competition

Daniel argues that meritocracy constructs what is commonly referred to as “the elite class” via two ways:

“First, meritocracy transforms education into a rigorous and intense contest to join the elite.
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Second, meritocracy transforms work to create the immensely demanding and enormously lucrative jobs that sustain the elite.”

(1) The education race: the meritocratic inheritance

“Although meritocracy once opened up the elite to outsiders, the meritocratic inheritance now drives a wedge between meritocracy and opportunity.

Inheritance under the old aristocratic system is largely viewed as “unjust” – the (relatively cost-free) inheritance of capital, such as passing down money or real estate, is widely viewed as unfair birth lottery. In layman terms, it is unfair that some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth.

Proponents of meritocracy believe that “merit” is the right answer to encouraging social mobility – build an education system that selects based on merits of the students, they say, and let the truly talented make their way up the ladder.

Daniel argues the reverse:

“Education assumes the role in meritocracy that breeding played in the aristocratic regime.”

Today, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford & Yale accept more students from households in the top 1% of the income bucket than from households in the bottom 60% combined. Students with parents whose annual income exceed $200K score ~250 points higher on the SAT compared with students whose parents make $40K-$60K.

The statistics on social mobility do not show a more optimistic picture. As The Atlantic reports:

“Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor.”

In the meritocracy system, parents in the elite class pass on “inheritance” in forms other than direct capital transfer – these parents invest capital heavily into the education of their kids, at orders of magnitude that middle-class parents cannot expect to match.

When we hear educators advertise “equal opportunities to education” for children, we should pause and ask ourselves: what does the word “equal” mean here? It is not sufficient to apply the same (equal) screening criteria to applicants. The pre-requisite to equal opportunities comes from equal access to opportunities. This means the resources that a child has access to should not be constrained by the wealth of the family he or she is born into.

(2) The jobs race: “compulsive overwork” of the elites vs. “enforced idleness” of the middle class

The meritocratic competition “pervades elite life” and extends far beyond school into the professional lives of those who want to sustain their position at the top:

“Evaluations that were once quarantined to exceptional moments like college admissions season or promotion to partner or managing director now infect every step of a meritocrat’s career. Every year, from preschool through retirement, includes some contest or assessment that filters, tracks, or otherwise influences his opportunities.”

Daniel points out an interesting shift in the work paterns of the elites: the “once-leisured rich” work harder than ever before today. Along with a change in work behavior comes a change in values:

“Elite values and customs have adapted to suit these new facts (of compulsive overwork). High society has reversed course. Now it valorizes industry and despises leisure. As every rich person knows, when an acquaintance asks ‘How are you?’ the correct answer is ‘So busy.’
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Meritocracy makes effortful and industrious work – busyness – into a sign of being valued and needed, the badge of honor.

Daniel shares a “standard disciplinary joke” amongst investment bankers that “they will be lucky to get any day off besides their wedding day. Nor do the hours necessarily improve with seniority.” In a similar humorous fashion, the Wall Street Journal puts up an advertisement that reads, “People who don’t have time make time to read the Wall Street Journal.”

On the flip side, just as much as the elite class today take pride in being busy, they also look down on idleness & leisure. Daniel notes bankers often compain about the “outside (non-elite) world,” where “people leave work at five, six p.m.” and “take one hour lunch breaks”. These people are perceived as “just are not motivated in the same way” as they are.

The compulsive overwork of elites is “the same alienation that Karl Marx diagnosed in exploited proletarian labor” with “an added twist”, in the words of Daniel: “The elite, acting now as rentiers of their own human capital, exploit themselves, becoming not just victims but also agents of their own alienation.” Daniel believes the “busy” elite who takes pride in never creating time for one’s true self “places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others – he uses himself up”.

An analogy is made with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard:

“The ancient orchard that gives the play its name yields its greatest rents by being cut down to make way for holiday villas – which is to say through its own absolute destruction and the destruction of the way of life that it once sustained.”

It is hard for elites to break out of this cycle of overwork, as long hours often is one of the reasons used to justify the (extremely) high pay of those at the top:

“As a dean of Stanford Law School recently observed in a letter to graduates, elite lawyers are caught in an intensifying ratchet: higher salaries require more billable hours to support them, longer hours require higher yet salaries to justify them, and each increase generates another in a seemingly endless cycle. Whose interests does this serve? He lamented. Does anyone actually want it?”

Goldman Sachs has renamed its personnal department “Human Capital Management” – the irony is not lost that the human labor itself today is one of the most exploited forms of capital:

“Unlike land or factories, human capital can produce income – at least using current technologies – only by being mixed with its owners’ own contemporaneous labor.”

While elites are stuck in compulsive overwork, the middle class are idled. Note that the middle class are not idle by active choice, as in “reluctant to work”. Rather, they are idled as a passive outcome, as in “denied opportunities to work.” Daniel attributes this to “technological transformation” that “shift(s) the center of production away from mid-skilled and toward super-skilled labor”.

As an example, Daniel says the middle-tier manager has gradually faded out from the labor market, replaced by a much smaller number of top executives (the overworked elite class with higher pay) and a large number of lower-end workers (the squeezed middle class with lower pay):

“The managerial control stripped away from production workers and middle managers has been concentrated in a narrow cadre of elite executives, who are separated from production workers by differences of kind rather than degree. The technologies that underwrite such concentrated managerial power – not just the information systems that monitor organizations and gather & manipulate data, but also the ideas and analytic frameworks employed to make sense of the data – are enormously complex. Only intensively trained managers can possibly acquire the sophistication needed.”

The result is the labor market is divided into “glossy jobs” of the elites vs. “gloomy jobs” of the middle class. Glossy refers to jobs whose ” outer shine masks inner distress”, whereas gloomy refers to jobs that “offer neither immediate reward nor hope for promotion.”

The product of meritocracy: Nativism & Populism in the middle class

Daniel argues meritocracy is the culprit behind nativism. Take white privilege as an example, he thinks the mere idea of white privilege itself irritates whites out of the elite class, because “they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand. You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it.”

“The meritocratic suggestion that a white man who cannot get ahead must be in some way deficient (i.e., lack of merit) stokes this anger…and the meritocratic fixation on diversity and inclusion channels the anger into nativist, sexist identity politics.”

Nativism allows the “native” group to blame all their problems on the “foreign” group. This finger-pointing on “aliens” is a mask for the insecurity of “natives” – sense of guilt even – that they themselves are the reason to blame: they are not good enough, they do not have enough merits, and hence they are behind where they would like to be in this (supposedly) “meritocratic” system. The “natives” seem to be on guard against the “aliens”, but what they are really pushing back against is their own sense of inferiority.

Daniel goes on to argue meritocracy is also at the root of populism: “a deep and pervasive mistrust of expertise and institutions.”

“Class resentments in America aim at the professional classes rather than at the entrepreneurial or even hereditary super-rich: not at oligarchs but rather at the doctors, bankers, lawyers, and scientists that working and middle-class Americans feel…’are more educated’ and ‘are often looking down on them.'”

Daniel makes the interesting comparison of Obama vs. Trump: Obama (and also Hillary Clinton) as “a superordinate product of elite production”, i.e., someone who rose and triumphed in meritocracy, and Trump as “a ‘blue-collar billionaire'” who rejects the meritocratic elites – the group that Obama & Clinton are both members of.

Trumpism – and Trump’s own rise – exposes the incumbent elite’s meritocratic contempt for ordinary citizens and its own disenchanted weakness…When Hillary Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters a ‘basket of deplorables,’ she said aloud what the broad elite, regardless of party, had long thought in private. Indeed, Trump’s rise not only reconfirmed but redoubled the condescension that elites feel toward the Americans whom meritocracy excludes.

The philosopher’s angle: Meritocracy and individual rights

According to philosopher Ayn Rand, the fundamental right of the individual, which is the pre-requisite & root of all other rights, is one’s right to his own life:

“There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life…which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

By Rand’s definition, in the meritocratic system we live in today, neither the middle class nor the elite class have fully realized the fundamental right to one’s own life – neither is free to pursue their happiness. The curse of the meritocratic competition – starting from education all the way throughout one’s professional life – enslaves the poor & the rich alike: the former locked in their class with little hope of upward social mobility, the latter willingly enslaving themselves in work with brutal hours that they derive little pleasure from.

“A worker can quit his job. A slave cannot.” This is the curse fallen on the elites, who deceive themselves into believing they owe it to their expensive education to hold high-paying jobs with long hours, even those that they have little interest in.

“Man cannot be forced to devote his life to the happiness of another man nor of any number of other men.” This is the curse fallen on the middle class, who see themselves as producing for the consumption of the elites, whereas not moving up the social ladder themselves.

The collective illusion: Why it’s hard to critique meritocracy

Although the middle class and the elite class alike are harmed by meritocracy, both groups blame each other rather than critiquing the meritocratic system itself:

Fragile elites disdain middle-class habits and values as a defense mechanism to ward off self-doubt. Meritocrats lionize achievement, or even just distinction, and disparage ordinariness as a bulwark against rising insecurity. They cling to any attitudes and practices – ranging from the absurd (food snobbery) to the callous (corporate rightsizing) – that might confirm their merit and validate their advantage, to others and, above all, to themselves.”

It leads one to wonder: why have we heard so little critique of the meritocratic system itself? Here is Daniel’s explanation:

“Mankiw sums this up when he observes, ‘When people can see with their own eyes that a talented person made a great fortune fair and square, they tend not to resent it.‘”
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“The meritocratic transformation entails, bluntly put, that equality’s champions must justify redistribution that takes from a more industrious elite in order to give to a less industrious middle class. This makes meritocratic inequality difficult to resist.”

The success of a few in the meritocratic system has been used as the poster child to justify the merit of the system itself. The real danger of meritocracy lies not in it being unequal, but in it being justly unequal. It is white-washed to such an extent that those enslaved by meritocracy believe the way out is via the meritocratic system itself – the middle class believe in realizing the “American dream” via “meritocratic education” despite not even competing in the same arena as the elites; the elites cling to their high-paying jobs attained via “meritocratic job selection” despite physical fatigue and emotional voidness for work they feel little attachment to.

We are blindfolded, and yet we believe the way to see is to put more blinds over our eyes. Such is the irony. Such is the power of the meritocratic illusion – it not only makes us not see, it makes us refuse to see. This has to be the most ingenious form of slavery.

The way out: How should we fix the problems?

Daniel suggests we should go back to tackle meritocracy at its two major forms of manifestation, i.e., education & jobs.

For education, he suggests: ” Private schools and universities should lose their tax-exempt status unless at least half of their students come from families in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. And public subsidies should encourage schools to meet this requirement by expanding enrollment.”

For the job market, he suggests: “favoring goods and services produced by workers who do not have elaborate training or fancy degrees. For example, the health-care system should emphasize public health, preventive care, and other measures that can be overseen primarily by nurse practitioners, rather than high-tech treatments that require specialist doctors.”

As Daniel admits, change will not come easy: “Any victory will be long-fought and hard-won.” The key first step is acknowledging the problems of meritocracy, and the need of a united force to tackle them. I leave you with the last sentence from the book:

To update an old slogan: the workers of the world—now both middle-class and superordinate—should unite. They have nothing to lose but their chains, and a whole world to win.

Daniel Markovits