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Overcoming the Evils of Meritocracy

The word “meritocracy” was invented as a term of satire by British sociologist Michael Young in his 1959 novel The Rise of the Meritocracy to denote a society rigidly organized in a hierarchy based on IQ scores. The phenomenon that the word literally describes, however—a social order in which people are enabled, even encouraged, to rise in income, status, and influence thanks to their own talents and hard work, rather than having their position permanently fixed by their parents’ political and social rank—has lain at the core of American aspiration since at least the Founding era (with Benjamin Franklin its noteworthy original model). Nonetheless, Yale law professor (and professed meritocrat) Daniel Markovits, in The Meritocracy Trap, dismisses the very idea of merit as a “sham,” indeed the “taproot” of “wrong,” since under our contemporary meritocratic system, “middle-class children lose out to rich children at school,” just as their adult peers “lose out to elite graduates at work.” While meritocracy “blocks the middle class from opportunity,” it then “blames” them for losing out in a “competition for income and status” that “only the rich can win.” Moreover, it “harms the elite as well” by compelling them “to invest thousands of hours and millions of dollars” in their children’s education, and to work “with grinding intensity” “to extract a return” from that investment. It thus lures the elite into “inauthentic” lives marked by “excessive industry” that deprives parents even of face-time with their own children.

As Markovits’ use of the language of authenticity and “alienation” indicates, his diatribe, despite 92 pages of closely-spaced notes, is rooted less in empirical demonstration than in an outlook reminiscent of Erich Fromm’s “humanistic” Marxian psychology of the 1950s (he even compares today’s alienated elite to Marx’s oppressed proletariat). It also recalls such pop-sociology bestsellers of that era as Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers. But today’s meritocratic order is much more harmful according to Markovits than the system depicted by Packard because of its “ruthless” competitiveness. Since the 1950s, America’s leading academic institutions have based their admissions on genuine student achievement and potential (as measured by high school grades and the newly created Scholastic Aptitude Test), instead of social class (as reflected by applicants’ merely having graduated from prominent prep schools), and have also discarded the quotas that limited the admission of high-performing Jewish applicants. Markovits acknowledges such reforms but argues that the ultimate result was to engender a new, more oppressive hierarchy.

The Limits and Costs of Meritocratic Success

To Markovits’ credit, unlike other social critics who question whether highly-recompensed CEOs, investment bankers, and lawyers do much to earn their money, he recognizes the effort and long hours that their jobs entail. He also observes that today’s middle- and working-class Americans “are wealthier than ever before,” even as their work “has become almost incomparably less physically strenuous and less dangerous” than in the past. He even acknowledges that in present-day America, in principle “anyone can succeed,” given not only merit-based admissions to the most exclusive schools and colleges, but also the openness of prestigious careers to persons of merit and effort, in place of outmoded “chauvinisms.” But it is hard to take seriously the complaints he attributes to members of the overworked elite that their jobs are as painful as enduring “the Bataan Death March,” slavery, and the Holocaust. To state the obvious, nobody and nothing literally compel high-powered executives to persevere at unbearably oppressive work. And the very comparison to such evils exhibits a shamefully confused moral compass. But such exaggerations have not prevented The Meritocracy Trap from receiving blurbs from such authorities as Jerry “Governor Moonbeam” Brown, Harvard’s resident ethicist Michael Sandel, and, surprisingly, NYU’s Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Markovits’ critique of meritocracy depends in part on a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, whereby he alternates between, on the one hand, acknowledging the opportunity for advancement to high positions that America’s existing system provides to sufficiently talented and industrious individuals from all economic classes (thanks not only to nondiscrimination but to generous college financial aid, even or especially at the top institutions) and, on the other hand, claiming that the system enables only “the rich” to win, at the expense of the middle class. The two claims are incompatible.

Markovits endeavors to bridge the gap by emphasizing how much more money and (allegedly) effort meritocrats put into the education of their offspring than the middle class can provide—as if, despite nondiscriminatory policies and financial aid, entry to Harvard and its peers were simply closed to the non-rich, while graduating from a costly prep school still guaranteed admission to such institutions. In turn, degrees from leading institutions (including graduate programs like the one in which the author teaches) supposedly guarantee a life of high status and wealth—albeit at the cost of working one’s tail off, lacking even much time to spend with one’s offspring, for whose sake the meritocrat is slaving just to guarantee them a place in the meritocratic prison.

Yet, despite the miseries of meritocratic life, it causes today’s middle class—apparently unaware of the lifelong suffering that their upper-crust brethren endure—to resent their privilege since the system supposedly denies middle-class individuals a “credible” opportunity for “real advantage,” even as it “press-gangs” the elite “into an excessively intense pursuit of fruitless gain” that forecloses “true flourishing.” Remarkably, the present system makes it possible for a “thirty-five-year-old meritocrat to still be in school”—as the author himself, who spent nearly 15 years studying at various universities, apparently was. That experience evidently did not deny him the opportunity to flourish. But the “meritocratic inequality” from which he benefited generated the middle-class resentment that he maintains enabled the “dark vision” of Donald Trump to triumph.

The Meritocratic Roots of Trumpism

Markovits portrays the miseries of both today’s meritocratic elite and middle class with a broad brush, the limitations of which should be recognized by anyone reasonably familiar with the realities of American life. While top executives, bankers, and white-shoe attorneys undoubtedly work long hours, aside from the various perks their jobs entail, many seem to find the work rewarding—despite Markovits’s dismissal of the rewards as superficial “gloss” on their ”alienating” labors. More strikingly, Markovits disparages the motive that most frequently animates such work—the desire to provide the best possible environment and future for one’s children—as the product of a desperate quest to see that offspring maintain the family’s “status,” as if industrious parents are driven by the same concerns as hereditary aristocrats. He seems incapable of understanding expenditures on such benefits as private schools (or living in neighborhoods that provide superior public schools) as motivated by genuine parental love, rather than concern for one’s own status.

Additionally, contrary to the impression Markovits offers of hyper-competitiveness in private schools, many once-distinguished prep schools have “gone soft,” reducing homework for the sake of “work-life balance,” while adding conscience-salving “diversity” programs. As for the world of higher education, one might recall the reduction of standard course loads from five to four per semester at most colleges in the 1960s, followed by a shortening of semesters from 15 weeks of classes to some 13 weeks. The anxieties of today’s college youth do not result chiefly from overwork.

Even the tendency of today’s “elite” couples to enjoy stable marriages and lead conservative (rather than showy) personal lives while devoting “intense personal attention” to childrearing comes in for a knock from Markovits. In reporting that female executives resist employers’ offers to finance freezing their eggs—a proposal intended to delay childbearing in favor of serving the company longer (just how common can such offers be?)—he explains their refusals as motivated by obedience to the “imperatives of dynastic succession,” rather than by the intrinsic rewards of parental love. Meanwhile, the support given by many of today’s super-rich to charitable endeavors aimed at elevating the lot of the poor—as in the Walton Foundation’s having “subsidized an entire charter school system” in the nation’s capital, providing half of the city’s public-school students with a superior alternative to Washington’s wretched regular schools—is disparaged as an instance of how “money openly buys policy.” While warning of the growing risks of class resentment, Markovits himself encourages such resentment.

Meanwhile, Markovits contrasts the lamentable situation of today’s middle class, supposedly consumed by envy of the meritocratic elite’s wealth and status, with an idyllic portrait of life in a middle-sized Michigan town in the 1950s, when disparities in wealth (and, supposedly, cultural tastes) between the rich and middle class were considerably smaller than at present. Of course, Markovits loads the dice by contrasting life in Middle America (then) with that of elites who typically inhabit coastal metropolises today. Did the lives of middle-class Michiganders at midcentury really have more in common with those of the elite inhabitants of New York, Washington, and Hollywood than they do now?

The foregoing, implausible endeavor to explain why many middle-class and blue-collar families voted for Trump ignores the crucial role that non-economic issues such as illegal immigration and the political elite’s endeavor to impose its preferred social norms (e.g., gay marriage or compelling nuns to finance abortions) played in the 2016 election. Being dismissed as “deplorables,” and previously as yahoos who “clung to their guns and their religion” and disliked candidates who “looked different from them” had something to do with their abandonment of the Democrats as well. But it serves as Markovits’s justification for a grab-bag of redistributive policies in the name of “a new politics of democratic equality.”

The Cure for Meritocracy?

Highlights of Markovits’ anti-meritocratic program include the following. First, democratize all private schools and colleges by eliminating their tax-exempt status “unless they draw at least half of their students from the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution,” a goal they should be encouraged to meet by expanding their enrollments by 50 or 100 percent. Such reforms, Markovits promises, “would exchange meritocracy’s exclusive, narrow, and profligately educated elite for an inclusive, broad, and yet still well-educated replacement.” And they will benefit elites as well, by rescuing their offspring from the rigors of the “increasingly unbearable” “grinding and dehumanizing admissions tournament,” in which “no child, no matter how elite her parents, is safe from elimination.” (So parental riches don’t guarantee admissions to the top schools after all!) But given the limited number of top-rated schools and colleges, wouldn’t their graduates, even if admissions are doubled, still constitute a relatively small, if not quite so well-qualified, elite? Why should competition for spaces in leading institutions be any less “grinding” than it is now?

Beyond rendering elite education more inclusive, Markovits would also “rebalance production away from superordinate and toward middle-class labor” by “promot[ing] ways of making goods that favor mid-skilled workers.” Further, by eliminating the income cap on Social Security taxes, the government could derive some $150-$200 billion to pay for new “mid-skill jobs,” adding wage subsidies, and funding “the expansion of private school and university student bodies.” These reforms would encourage innovators to develop technologies that “favor middle-class workers” (i.e., that require fewer skills), who will now be in greater supply. (So the expanded pool of elite-college graduates may still not be all that well-educated, especially since the top graduates, whom employers are still most likely to favor, may find their education watered down by the expansion. Won’t this situation rather encourage innovators who aim at genuinely path-breaking and consumer-satisfying discoveries to hire more foreign graduates or move their enterprises abroad?)

Even when it comes to medical care, Markovits observes, we can all do our part by foregoing overreliance on “specialist doctors who deploy high-tech machines” in favor of “a mass of mid-skilled GP’s and nurse-practitioners,” since “even when health is at stake,” “democratic equality through mid-skilled work matters. . . just as much” as the quality of care. (Does Markovits adopt this policy regarding his own family’s health?)

Markovits concludes by “updat[ing] an old [Marxist] slogan,” exhorting “the workers of the world—now both middle-class and superordinate” (what happened to the poor?)—to unite, having nothing to lose but their chains, and “a world to win,” simply by following his guidance about “what their true interests are and what political movements they have reason to join.” If this is the best that meritocratic legal study can produce, perhaps it is indeed overrated.

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