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John F. Kennedy School of Government graduates celebrate during Harvard University commencement in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 30, 2019.
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How meritocracy harms everyone — even the winners

A new book challenges one of our most persistent illusions.

The belief that we live in a meritocracy is one of our oldest and most persistent illusions.

It justifies the gaping inequalities in our society by attributing them to the skill and hard work of successful people and the incompetence and shortcomings of unsuccessful people. But this has always been a fantasy, a way of glossing over how the world actually works.

A new book by Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap, is a fascinating attempt to poke holes in our conventional understanding of meritocracy and, in the process, make the case for something better.

We typically think of meritocracy as a system that rewards the best and brightest. For Markovits, it is merely “a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage.”

Graduates in 2010 wait for the procession to begin for commencement at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
Jessica Hill/AP

Here’s a clarifying stat: At two Ivy League schools that Markovits surveyed, “the share of students from households in the top quintile of the income distribution exceeds the share from the bottom two quintiles combined by a ratio of about three and a half to one.” The point: Meritocracy is a mechanism for transferring wealth from one generation to the next. Call that what you want, but you can’t call it fair or impartial.

What makes Markovits’s book so interesting is that he doesn’t just condemn meritocracy as unfair for non-elites; he argues that it’s actually bad for the people benefiting from it. The “trap” of meritocracy ensnares all of us, he says, in ways that make life less satisfying for everyone.

I spoke to Markovits about how meritocracy works, what it’s doing to us, and what a post-meritocratic society might look like. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What is a “meritocracy,” and do we actually live in one?

Daniel Markovits

Meritocracy is the idea that people get ahead based on their own accomplishments rather than, for example, on their parents’ social class. And the moral intuition behind meritocracy is that it creates an elite that is capable and effective and that it gives everybody a fair chance at success.

Do we live in a meritocracy? Well, maybe the best we can hope for is to live in an imperfect meritocracy. The problem, of course, is that elites cheat and they game the system and they engage in all kinds of self-dealing in order to get ahead.

On a purely descriptive level, though, I think we do live in something like a meritocracy. That is to say, the bulk of the reason why certain people have gotten ahead is that they have genuinely accomplished things. On the other hand, the moral intuition behind meritocracy is not at all realized. This system does not give everybody a fair chance at success and it hasn’t been particularly good for society as a whole. And it hasn’t even been good for the elite.

Sean Illing

We’ll get to that last point, but first I want to be very precise about the claim you’re making here. There’s a simple critique of meritocracy that says the so-called “elites” aren’t really elite; instead, they’re beneficiaries of a rigged system.

I don’t think you dispute this, but you make a deeper claim, which is that the problem is the kind of society we’ve built, a society that favors the sort of skills meritocrats are uniquely equipped to have. Can you say a bit about that?

Daniel Markovits

Let’s just separate those two things out. And maybe the recent college admission scandal is a good way to illustrate this concretely. In that scandal, some rich and famous people paid bribes to get their kids into college.

Now, I’m not saying the scandal wasn’t wrong — it absolutely was scandalous. But the bulk of the reason why our colleges, particularly our elite colleges, are filled with kids of rich parents isn’t that. Instead, it’s that rich parents spend enormous sums of money not on bribing anybody but on educating their children, on getting their children into prestigious kindergartens and high schools, on coaches and tutors and music teachers, and this means the children of rich people simply do better on the merits.

And so the big problem that we face isn’t merely that the rich cheat, it’s that the meritocracy favors the rich even when everybody plays by the rules.

A view of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California on March 12, 2019. The school was part of an infamous college admissions fraud scheme along with several other Ivy League schools.
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Sean Illing

So you’re saying that a world in which meritocracy works is, by definition, a bad world, a world that engineers and reproduces inequalities.

Daniel Markovits

Yes, it exacerbates and reproduces inequalities, so that one thing that’s happened is that because the rich can afford to educate their children in a way nobody else can, when it comes time to evaluate people on the merits, rich kids just do better.

Sean Illing

Is the meritocratic system itself the greatest impediment to a fair society, which is to say a society in which equality of opportunity is a real thing?

Daniel Markovits

I wouldn’t want to argue about whether meritocracy or racism, for example, is the greatest impediment to equality of opportunity.

But I’ll say this: the SAT and the College Board reported data in 2016 from which you can figure out how many kids there were that year in the US who took SAT who scored 750 or above, which is roughly the Ivy League median, and whose parents had a graduate degree. And the answer is about 15,000.

You can also figure out how many kids there were who scored 750 or above whose parents had not graduated high school, much less earned graduate degrees. And the numbers are so small, the tail is so thin, that the statistical techniques become unreliable. But if you just grind out the math, the answer, I think, was 32.

So that’s a case in which effectively what degrees your parents have determines whether you’re going to get a high-enough SAT score to get into the Ivy League. And that’s meritocratic in a way but it’s an incredible block to equality of opportunity.

Sean Illing

Is there any way to organize a competitive society that doesn’t inevitably tend toward these sorts of excesses?

Daniel Markovits

I think it’s possible, yes. So one distinction I draw is between excellent education and superior education. Excellent education is education that makes a person good at something that’s worth doing, and superior education is education that makes somebody better than other people at something, regardless of whether it’s worth doing or not.

You can imagine a society which has widespread, excellent education and invests in training people to be good at all the tasks that the society needs and fills up its jobs with people who are excellent at them. And that would be a kind of a meritocratic society that structures its education and work so that once you’re excellent, being a little bit better doesn’t make that much of a difference.

Germany, I think, is a pretty good model for that kind of society. But our society focuses on superior education: It gives huge advantages to people who are better than somebody else or than everybody else in all sorts of things that probably aren’t worth doing, like being great at high-tech finance, which most economists think has almost no social value.

But if you’re really good at it you can make millions and millions of dollars a year, and to get really good at it you have to master all sorts of difficult skills and you have to get degrees at the top of your class in the very best universities in the country. And that’s the kind of system that we have now.

Sean Illing

I want to circle back to something you alluded to earlier, which is that meritocracy is toxic even for those who profit from it. That will strike many readers as counterintuitive. Can you explain what you mean?

Daniel Markovits

It takes enormous effort to win and keep winning in this competition, so elite schooling has become enormously more intensive than it was 20 or 50 years ago. And elite jobs have become enormously more intensive. The toll that this takes is quite heavy and I think it’s destructive of human well-being.

Meritocrats are constantly struggling and being evaluated and tested, and they constantly have to shape and manipulate themselves in order to pass the test. And in a way, it’s like they’re portfolio managers whose assets include just themselves, and they have kind of an instrumental and alienated attitude toward their own lives because they have to treat their life that way.

Sean Illing

You teach at Yale Law. You’re surrounded by elites. Do you find that most — or any — of them feel like they’re suffering on account of their privilege? Because my sense is that the people with the most to lose from reordering society are usually the most committed to keeping the world the world the way it is. The idea that weary meritocrats will suddenly wake up and find solidarity with the besieged middle class seems a little quixotic to me.

Daniel Markovits

It’s nuts, right? I can just give you some of my own anecdotes. There was a survey of the mental health climate at Yale Law School done last year or the year before, and something like 70 percent of respondents said that they felt the need to use and consult mental health services. And there are similar data from other elite institutions that show elite students are not happy, are not doing well.

Twenty years ago when I started teaching here, my students were feeling very good about themselves. They felt like they won the golden ticket. Today, that’s just not the case. They feel as though they’ve run a gauntlet to get here, and they recognize that when they get out to the workforce, they’re just going to have to run another gauntlet that’s just like the one they ran. And they don’t want that.

And they also increasingly recognize that their advantages are very closely intertwined with the exclusion of others, and they object to that morally. So I don’t think that at the moment this is a student body that is thriving. It’s got great career prospects, but the rest of its life as a whole is not going well and I think my students recognize that.

Sean Illing

And what is the price that non-elites are paying for the system? How are those marginalized by meritocracy suffering?

Daniel Markovitz

I think there are at least three kinds of prices. First, they can’t compete and their children can’t compete. What a poor or middle-class family is able to spend on education is absolutely dwarfed by what a wealthy family is able to spend.

A second harm is what elites have done to the labor market. They’ve remade jobs in a way that destroys the middle class by eliminating the high-paying positions for people who lack technocratic expertise. Think of a company like Kodak, which, at its peak, employed 140,000 people with good, secure jobs. Now that part of the economy is occupied by a company like Instagram, which had 13 employees when it was bought for a $1 billion by Facebook — and those were all super-skilled elite workers.

And then finally meritocracy adds a kind of a moral insult to this economic exclusion because it frames what is in fact structural inequality and structural exclusion as an individual failure to measure up, and then tells you if you’re in the middle class, the reason you can’t get the great high-paying job is because you’re not good enough and the reason that your kids can’t get into Harvard is that they’re not good enough, which is complete nonsense. But that’s what the ideology tells you.

People are led on a tour in 2012 on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Elise Amendola/AP

Sean Illing

I take all your points and don’t disagree, I just wonder what it would take to move beyond the meritocratic model. Are we not, after all, talking about a complete shift in how we think about political economy and morality?

Daniel Markovits

I think that’s probably right. Look, one way to think about this is that if you take a longer historical view, meritocracy in its deeper origins came to the English-speaking world around 1833, which is the date in which the administrative division of the British East India Company entrance and promotion based on social class was replaced with entrance and promotion based on competitive examinations.

And so it took from 1833 to 1980 or so, 150 years, for the whole society and economy to be remade on this model. And that involved changes in institutions, in technology, in government, in policy. And it will take generations and imaginative changes to undo this thing or to get into the next phase of our collective existence.

So I know it sounds like I’m asking for something unobtainable, but the reality is that the current setup is increasingly unsustainable. There are going to be fundamental shifts in how we think about our ambitions, our lives, our institutions, and our production and consumption. And the trick in the face of that is to come up with a compelling critique of where we are and charismatic ideas of where we might go.

Sean Illing

The sort of change you’re after will, for lack of a better word, demand a revolution of individual consciousness. Ultimately, people are going to have to want different things, fear different things, aspire to different things.

Daniel Markovits

People have to realize that the things that they want right now are not making them well. They have to recognize the sources of their dissatisfaction and the sources of their children’s dissatisfaction and then they have to start finding alternatives.

And the job of policymakers is to try to create alternatives that will serve the needs of those who grab onto them. That’s why, for example, one of the policy recommendations in the book is to massively expand enrollments in elite education. The trick is to get many, many more kids from non-rich families into not just the Ivy League, but elite private universities, elite private high schools, and elite private elementary schools, and to do it in a way that does not require excluding any currently rich kids, so that the schools themselves become genuine avenues of opportunity again.

Sean Illing

I’ll close with a somewhat ominous question: If we don’t unravel the meritocracy, if society continues to hum along as it is, if the inequalities persist, what will happen?

Daniel Markovits

I don’t have a confident view about the particulars, but we know that societies that succumb to this level of concentrated wealth and privilege generally don’t unwind it except through losing a foreign war or an internal revolution. And something like that is in the offing for us. I don’t know when or how or what the details are, but that’s the kind of fear that one should take very, very seriously.

This story was originally published on October 21, 2019.

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