Meritocrats: The New Class Enemy

A Yale law professor, Daniel Markovits, has written an essay, “How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition,” attacking the structure of the current meritocracy. According to Markovits, our meritocracy is biased in favor of the rich, yet makes those who succeed miserable anyway. His solution is government intervention: deny tax deductions to private schools unless they admit mostly low income students, and regulate the economy so that work is shifted away from this class.

Markovits’ arguments are flawed. He mistakes correlation for causation, failing to reckon with the substantial evidence that admission to the high ranks of the meritocracy is based on intelligence rather than the wealth with which it is also correlated. Nor does he recognize that what has made life harder for current elites than past ones has been ubiquitous competition, which has benefited consumers. Even if meritocracy is making meritocrats unhappy (another claim for which his evidence has causation problems), it makes others better off. Targeting classes to redistribute opportunities is an ugly program that will have the same bad economic and social consequences as when tried before in socialist societies. The real sources of angst in modern society are likely moral rather than political. Many people have trouble finding meaning in the world once they discard its traditional sources: religion and the web of binding duties to family and community.

An Unsupported Claim of Causation

Markovits argues that wealth is the gateway to our elite universities, preventing social mobility. He notes that only 1 in 200 students from the poorest third achieve the median SAT score for Yale. The top one percent do much better. But intelligence is an important predictor of both wealth and scholastic achievement, and I.Q. is also at least partially inherited. Others have shown that once one corrects for I.Q., wealth is much less important to standardized test performance than intelligence. That is particularly the case as one looks slightly higher up the income scale: extreme poverty may hold people back, but riches are not a guarantor of scholastic success. Markovits is himself an example. He notes he went to a public high school but does not tell us that both his parents are university professors. I would bet on the career success of someone with that background over a random child of the parents of the richest one percent.

The centrality of I.Q. to meritocracy is not a surprise. As society makes the environment relatively more equal for everyone, inherited qualities of intelligence—along with other inherited personality characteristics like conscientiousness—become more influential in terms of entrenching social status. Intelligence was less relevant in earlier societies where people could more easily obtain and hold jobs through connections alone.

Greater Competition as a Source of Tension for Producers

Markovits tells us that the meritocratic class is unhappy despite its success. His evidence for this claim is weak. People surveyed say that they would like to work less hard. But talk is cheap and again the question of correlation is unaddressed. The kind of driven, very intelligent people who are top meritocrats may well be afflicted by  intense self-criticism and doubts about the course of their lives.

Markovits does not discuss the likeliest cause of any discontent among our meritocratic elites: they are subject to intense competition. Unlike aristocratic or even upper-middle class regimes of the past, ours is one in which where high-end professionals must prove themselves every day. Professionals have a lot less market power than they once did and that makes for a more precarious and probably less happy existence. It is particularly odd that Markovits does not discuss this point, since law provides probably the best example. Until relatively recently, once promoted, a partner remained at the same firm for life with a relatively lockstep, gradual increase in their compensation. But we now live in a much more information-rich world where new breeds of general counsel use their leverage to find the best counsel at the lowest price. As a result, partners move up and down in compensation, frequently change firms, and are even cast out of the firm if they don’t produce desired results. The loss of market power is good for consumers, but almost never pleasant for the producers who had it.

This new reality undermines Markovits’ solutions to the unhappiness of the meritocratic class. Unless we are going to wish away the trends that have undermined market power, professionals are going to continue to have deliver value to those they serve. Markovits would like to change who those professionals are by creating social structures that will allow many poorer people to rise to the top. But even if he were broadly successful, which his inattention to the role of intelligence makes doubtful, he would not be making the meritocracy any happier.

Targeting a Class

Markovits wants the government to target the current meritocratic class. Class-based economic policies have a sorry history. Since Markovits’ intrusions are milder, the results will be less dire than some of the more systematic efforts of the past, but they will still be pernicious. First, he wants to remove tax deductions from colleges and universities that do not admit mostly poorer students. This change is likely to lead to fewer donations from the rich who will not be as likely to give to schools that harshly discriminate against their children. And this decline in charity will have costs. Elite institutions, for instance, are most likely to support scientific research that saves lives and create other kinds of scientific breakthroughs that help everyone in society, including the poor.

Markovits also wants the government to regulate in favor of work by those who do not have such fancy degrees. For instance, he favors preferring by regulation small and regional banks for that reason. But government regulations imposed for redistributing opportunities will harm the efficiencies that come with free markets. They may also undermine other social values. Financial crises have often emerged from small and regional banks, as with the savings and loans crisis, and they are even more likely to do so if these banks are incentivized via regulation into doing tasks to which they are ill suited.

To be sure, government has too many occupational regulations that create barriers to entry for people with low skills. Such regulations should be removed when they serve no purpose and would advance the liberty of all. But regulations should not be imposed to promote redistribution, which, if desired, is done more efficiently through taxation.

The Centrality of Values

For the most part, Markovits’ essay, however flawed, represents an earnest and honest effort. But at one point he implies that Republicans hate the universities because of meritocracy’s connection to economic inequality. This is a silly bit of misdirection. Most Republicans like rewarding merit: they elect more successful business people to Congress than Democrats and are less in favor of redistribution than are Democrats.  But Republicans have come to dislike elite universities because they believe universities are monolithically left–wing, biased against their values and in fact discriminatory against the right. And they are not completely wrong. 96 percent of Yale University professors’ donations went to Democrats in the 2018 election cycle. Markovits teaches at a law school which over the past four decades has not been able to find center-right public lawyers worthy of tenure, and that situation is only marginally different from most top law schools.

This ideological imbalance may relate to the unhappiness of our meritocratic class. Conservative perspectives emphasizing the importance of faith and family to a flourishing social, let alone personal, life are hardly well represented on our elite college campuses. Many students instead invest in progressive politics and activism of the kind that shut down Markovits’ law school for a day during the Kavanaugh hearings. But a focus on politics is not likely to lead to happiness. Politics has no permanent victories, and one’s human agency is small in mass democracy—certainly compared to that at one’s place of worship or in one’s family.

Thus, perhaps the solution that universities could contribute to the “problem” of the unhappy meritocracy is to increase viewpoint diversity and at least occasionally embrace their own religious traditions. Such a shift might end up encouraging people to spend more time with their children, even at the expense of their career. And for elites who already put faith and family first, it will make them feel more satisfied with that choice rather than encourage them to chase an ever receding utopia. I am not confident that this program will totally cheer up our professional meritocrats, but it is more likely to be beneficial than any of the state-centric reforms Markovits suggests.