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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.

Reader Discussion

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on September 05, 2019 at 06:50:43 am

Just so: “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.“

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Mark Pulliam
on September 05, 2019 at 08:03:48 am

[…] wonders whether the most successful people in the market are happy, but is government the answer? Meritocrats: The New Class Enemy syndicated from […]

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Meritocrats: The New Class Enemy | Best Legal Services
on September 05, 2019 at 15:32:45 pm

Well, if one walks around with his (or her) belt loops several inches below obne's rectum, it is rather unlikely that one will do well no matter how much distributive ethics we are prepared to dole out!

Culture, my boys, culture!

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gargamel rules smurfs
on September 06, 2019 at 10:03:10 am

Daniel Markovits wants to eliminate meritocracy. It would be helpful if he give it a try and told me how it works out for him. Markovits should use only doctors, dentists, and plumbers who got their jobs through a low income qualification quota versus merit exams.

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Soguin
on September 06, 2019 at 16:29:05 pm

Both authors appear to share the assumption that high test scores equal merit. Given the increasing incivility, corruption, and reckless arrogance exhibited by those anointed under our new "meritocracy", I think challenging that assumption may be useful. For example, is it true that a person's success at test taking equals potential value to others or society at large? Do linear testing regimes, imbued with human error and bias, favor linear thinkers who have the ability to memorize data over creative thinkers with the vision to see what is meaningful in that data? How would an Aristotle, Aquinas, Edison, or Einstein fare in our test-taking "meritocracy"?

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Fahagen
on September 06, 2019 at 16:47:44 pm

Hmmm, an observation: Meritocracy (as implied in essay) locates the ground of merit clearly and narrowly in intellectual aptitude. Indeed, in the totality of human efforts to define and judge the human potential, modern meritocracy sets a record for narrowness of vision. Perhaps, there is no view as new class enemy but rather an idea that, as implied in essay, meritocracy is rule by the "best and the brightest" (where best has no meaning other than bright).

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Anthony
on September 08, 2019 at 15:37:13 pm

How narrowly or expansively one defines "merit" is of key importance here. For all their decades long talk of opening up opportunities to the less privileged, I- a first generation college student with parents who themselves grew up in households where English was a Second Language- got to see first-hand liberal Democratic members of Congress' overwhelming preference for the well-heeled in the 1980s. Representative Lee Hamilton, as just one example, offered me- a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford possessing a prestigious undergraduate research award and recommendations galore- an unpaid internship in DC, whereas 2 Republican Congressmen magnanimously gave the son and grandson of lifelong Democrats (i.e., me) paid positions, which enabled me to intern in Washington, DC.
It was Ronald Reagan who not only talked about leveling the playing field, but actually did much to expand the size of that field for everyone willing to work hard and accept primary responsibility for the trajectory of his or her own life in America. The Kennedy family members, in stark contrast, talked a great talk about getting the government to expand equal opportunities while being among the chief beneficiaries of the pernicious system they constantly attacked and yet willingly perpetuated. Legacy admissions gone wild are nothing new; it's the attitude that almost everyone nowadays is a victim entitled to governmental interventions that's singularly absurd. I call this phenomenon "Cake News" and wonder about the implications of someday being forced by our federal government to pay reparations to myself for my earlier exploitation of myself when I was young! But I digress...

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David J. Cedor
on September 08, 2019 at 15:41:50 pm

Did you censure my earlier comment after deeming it to be a diatribe?

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DAVID
on September 09, 2019 at 15:12:34 pm

Haven’t read the essay, so I restrict my remarks to McGinnis’s remarks.

1. On standardized testing

[O]nce one corrects for I.Q., wealth is much less important to standardized test performance than intelligence.

How much do IQ tests differ from “standardized tests”? I suspect they overlap a lot. And thus, I can’t express surprise that the results would overlap a lot. “News flash: X correlates with X—Who would have guessed?”

2. On charitable deductions

[H]e 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.

I also want to remove tax deductions from colleges and universities that do not admit mostly poorer students—because I want to remove tax deductions generally.

If society wants more financing of research and development, let government raise and appropriate the funds directly. I do not embrace the argument that we should have lower taxes so that the rich can dictate how research funds are allocated for the benefit of society. Let rich and poor allocate their charitable giving as they like, but leave the public purse out of it.

3. On meritocracy

What does McGinnis mean by meritocracy—and what makes it valuable?

Let’s assume that McGinnis correctly claims that intelligence is heritable, that it correlates with both educational attainment and wealth, and that our economy will increasingly value intelligence and educational attainment. Query: Where does this lead?

McGinnis links to an American Enterprise Institute essay noting that kids raised in stable (i.e., relatively affluent) households will learn more “grit” than kids raised in less stable (i.e., relatively poor) households, and that these are real differences of “merit.” The essay neglects to note how this dynamic creates a self-perpetuating class system.

Someday someone will write a book called The Road to Serfdom—only this time it will address the REAL threat of serfdom, and how libertarianism paves the way.

I wonder if the populist support of Donald Trump and Brexit reflect a kind of rebellion against the meritocracy. Today the rebellion has a right-wing cast. Tomorrow it may support Bernie Sanders. Movements that are driven by the hunt for scapegoats seem to have a similar feel.

I also value meritocracy—but also fear the coming serfdom predicted by Caplan among others. Thus, I feel sympathy for Markovits’s impetus for structuring the economy to shift some benefits further down the social ladder. As, indeed, the US has done since its founding (at least, for the benefit of poor people of European dissent). So, for me, the issue is not whether we should or shouldn’t have such policies. The issue is how much of such policies to have, and how best to structure them.

4. On remedies

[R]egulations should not be imposed to promote redistribution, which, if desired, is done more efficiently through taxation.

I concur that we should generally structure regulation to address market failures—and pursue redistribution via other means. If cigarettes cause $X/pack in social harms, I favor a Pagouvian tax of $X/pack. And if this tax falls disproportionately on poor people, find some other means to help poor people than lowering the tax on cigarettes.

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….

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…. 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 … 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.

McGinnis notes that meritocracy’s increasing focus on competition means that people who do not compete successfully face harsh penalties—and then exhorts people to spend more time with their kids at the expense of their careers. And I see no conflict in those statements. But we should put them adjoining each other, so as to make the message clear.

Unlike the past, we increasingly live in a world of “tournament economics,” where enormous wealth flows to the most elite performers who put in long hours. The richest households are not the ones where mom and dad each work 45 hrs/week; they’re the ones where dad is available to his employer 24/7, and highly-educated mom raises the kids and supports dad. In short, there are enormous penalties for elite people who do anything “at the expense of their career.” And yet, some people might be happier, even if they bear those penalties.

That said, this addresses the concerns of the elite. What about everyone else—the growing class of serfs? Is offering religion, the “opiate of the masses,” all we can do? No. But it might be part of a larger package of remedies. As I’ve suggested in the past, I expect a world with decreasing demand for labor, and the sense of value and belonging that employment brings. Thus, the greatest innovator may not be the person who creates the next iPod, but the person who creates the anti-Protestant-Work-Ethic message that we can derive a sense of self-worth in some measure that doesn’t involve participation in the paid workforce.

This needn’t be an anti-meritocracy message. Indeed, C.S. Lewis talked up the idea of Christian humility as not about denying your strengths, but denying that the strengths you have belong to you and instead acknowledging that they belong to your Creator and are merely entrusted to you; our job it to do best employ society’s strengths to do the Creator’s will. C.S. Lewis believed in meritocracy, but not in pride. (I don’t know his views on progressive taxation.)

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nobody.really
on September 09, 2019 at 15:57:20 pm

I- a first generation college student with parents who themselves grew up in households where English was a Second Language- got to see first-hand liberal Democratic members of Congress’ overwhelming preference for the well-heeled in the 1980s. Representative Lee Hamilton, as just one example, offered me- a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford possessing a prestigious undergraduate research award and recommendations galore- an unpaid internship in DC, whereas 2 Republican Congressmen magnanimously gave the son and grandson of lifelong Democrats (i.e., me) paid positions, which enabled me to intern in Washington, DC.

Dare I ask, did any of this Stanford education involve economics?

What would determine how much an employer pays an employee? Conventionally, salary reflects supply and demand in the labor market. If a congressman offered no compensation, that suggests that the expected return on a marginal intern is $0. Perhaps the congressman has found that interns don’t provide much value. Perhaps the congressman has found that he can secure a sufficient supply of interns without paying compensation. You seem to imply that the amount of compensation should reflect what is convenient for your needs, rather than the congressman’s needs.

Why would Republican congressmen pay more? Maybe they have found a marginal intern to provide more value, and that they are unable to secure a sufficient supply of interns without paying for them. Maybe you provided some attributes that were peculiarly valuable to those congressmen (and their committee assignments). Or maybe they just liked you and decided to provide a kind of above-market-rate compensation (a/k/a subsidy) to you.

In sum, you have informed us that (1) of all the people in the world who might require a subsidy, one congressman declined to bestow a subsidy on a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford possessing a prestigious undergraduate research award and recommendations galore, and (2) the graduate has carried a grudge about this for 30 years. This account provides me with some insights—but not about the congressman.

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nobody.really
on September 09, 2019 at 16:07:32 pm

Have you heard of Justin Bieber, DMX, Eminem, Ice Cube, Jay-Z, Chris Kilpatrick, Nelly, Plies, Snoop Dog, Soulja Boy, etc? They seem to be doing reasonably well.

Different cultures, my boys, different cultures!

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nobody.really
on September 11, 2019 at 13:08:56 pm

To remember something from the past as a salient point which supports the main idea of my post isn't reflective of any grudge I hold. You might want to revisit a lesson or two related to identifying the main idea in a text. Then again, you may choose to react (better: respond without reading for comprehension) and make incorrect assumptions after not allowing yourself further "think time." By the way, I feel blessed because my teacher-mentors encouraged the development of a character trait I'll call perseverance. I am not a victim of the pernicious system (opinion). Moreover, I did study economics- both macro and micro (fact). The ability to distinguish between facts and opinions is considered a 5th grade standard in the USA. That clearly doesn't mean that everyone in our society has "mastered" this skill, does it?

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DAVID
on September 16, 2019 at 10:57:44 am

The points you make are valid ones. They do not really allow us to avoid the uncomfortable fact that agreeing upon what constitutes "merit" is the first step in having a productive discussion of this topic. The declining civility in America is horrendous and should be of concern to anyone willing to distinguish between facts and opinions. Thanks for your excellent contribution to this discussion! It's much appreciated.

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David J Cedor

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