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The Meritocracy Trap:
How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite

by daniel markovits
penguin, 448 pages, $30

The system hasn’t failed; it has succeeded too well. Patrick Deneen said this about liberalism. Now Daniel Markovits is saying it about meritocracy. Markovits, a professor of law at Yale, argues that a system that once promoted social mobility has created a self-perpetuating class of elites. His new book offers an excellent account of the harms caused by meritocracy, an interesting but incomplete account of how elite workers convey economic productivity to their own children, and an untenable political proposal to address the problem.

Markovits’s analysis responds to two striking facts: Elite workers outearn middle-class workers at a much higher rate than was true at mid-­century, and workers paid in the top 1 percent are disproportionately likely to come from wealthy families. Many critics would say this shows that meritocratic ideals have not been pursued aggressively enough, and that the children of the wealthy hold high-paying jobs simply because they’re well-connected. Markovits counters that the individuals who hold these jobs typically are compensated for the economic value they provide. The problem is that super-productive workers are produced by super-intensive educations. Through the time and money their parents invest in their educations, they inherit the capacity to “merit.”

The dynamic is not hard to understand. Those who succeed in the meritocracy amass the resources needed to raise the next generation of meritocrats: their kids. The super-successful invest in their children through intensive parental attention and expensive education, in private schools or in public schools in rich suburbs where home prices have school costs built in. Markovits recounts research showing that, whether through direct parental spending or through access to well-funded or well-endowed schools, the children of the rich receive a more expensive education. He estimates that if the child from a household in the top 1 percent could forgo the above-­average educational spending he enjoys throughout his life and his parents instead invested that money in the stock market, he would inherit at the time of their deaths roughly an extra $10 million. Given these educational advantages, Markovits says we shouldn’t be surprised when the children of the well-to-do are really the most qualified for admission to elite universities.

Meritocracy is pernicious: Like aristocracy, it prevents upward social mobility. But unlike aristocracy, it claims that everyone gets the social position he deserves. The claim that the people at the top have “earned” their status is bad for the middle, who, thanks to technological and economic changes, are often underemployed, and whom many elites regard with contempt rather than noblesse oblige. They end up in the “basket of deplorables” and live in “flyover country.” Markovits argues that the “imaginative burden” of meritocracy—the sense that one’s class reflects one’s worth, that elite life is meaningful and middle-class life mediocre—explains the resentment that enabled Donald Trump’s election. He further claims that the recent increase in midlife morbidity resulting from the opioid crisis and other “deaths of despair” is caused, at least in part, by the meritocratic conceit that everybody gets what he deserves.

Meritocracy isn’t all that good for elites, either. Because elite work is very competitive, the rich now work more hours per week than anyone else. In fact, they typically spend more time working than they would like to. ­Unlike the rich of yore, who collected rents on the assets they inherited, the rich of today inherit an expensive education, which they can parlay into wealth and status only by exploiting themselves. They are hardly the primary victims of this system, but it takes a toll on them as well. Markovits points to the high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide at hyper-elite institutions.

The Meritocracy Trap is not despairing. Markovits urges the rich and the rest to form a coalition based on their common interest in bridling the meritocratic regime. He wants to allow the 1 percent some leisure, give the 99 percent some dignity, restore the prospect of social mobility, and recover a sense of democratic equality. To this end, he proposes making elite educational institutions more accessible. We should tax them, he says, unless they significantly increase their size and the proportion of non-wealthy students they admit. He also proposes intentionally structuring our tax laws to incentivize the creation of more middle-class jobs.

These ideas share a common problem: Markovits’s idea about a coalition is unrealistic. If these policies are a real threat to meritocracy, elites will oppose them.

On Markovits’s view, elites should reject the meritocracy because it has economically trapped them. They must work insane hours, or imperil their children’s futures by losing the ability to pay for a fancy education. But many elites are not economically trapped: They have the option of moving to smaller cities and working fewer hours without losing the ability to send their children to the best private school in town. (Indeed, their children might do better in the college admissions process because they are applying from a slightly less competitive environment.) They have the option of making their own lives less competitive, but they are not taking it. So it’s not clear why they would ­support policies that make life less competitive.

“Enslaved elites” work too hard not because they are forced to but because they value extreme effort. They have been told throughout their lives that they are the anointed, the best and the brightest, cut out to do great things; unsurprisingly, this becomes a central part of their identity. For them, work is not merely a way of supporting their families; it is also their vocation, the way they perform their identity. Because competition is the mechanism that allows elites to distinguish themselves as superordinate workers, they will not support any policies that make elite life less competitive and productive, or that make productivity less prestigious.

It’s tempting to suppose that we simply need to make this elite, prestigious life accessible to more people, and one of the complaints of The Meritocracy Trap is that meritocracy has harmed social mobility. ­Unfortunately, it’s not clear that there’s any way to sustain long-term social mobility. If merit is heritable, whether genetically or through parenting, any perfectly meritocratic society will, after a few generations, become nearly as static as an aristocratic regime. If you start with a society where social class is not a function of “merit,” and suddenly allow meritocratic social mobility, you should expect to see a lot of social movement. But if social class is already a function of “merit,” you should expect to see social movement decrease to a slow trickle driven by the variance of heritability. Sometimes two really successful parents will have unsuccessful kids, and vice versa, but not usually. Markovits is right that rich parents spend more on their children’s education, and that these ­children perform better in school, but he is wrong to imply that this spending is necessarily the chief mechanism of inheritance. If “merit” were conveyed merely through the transfer of wealth, it would be easier to disrupt. If it’s conveyed by DNA and parental values, it’s a lot more difficult.

Of course, the real story is more complicated. Our system is not entirely meritocratic, and various pockets of society—particularly poor children in failing schools—are prevented from competing altogether. We should remedy this injustice by providing poor children with better schools and support. However, even this wouldn’t solve the core problem: After a period of social mobility, we should expect to have a new, mostly rigid class system where the rich are, on average, smarter and more productive than everybody else.

Markovits may be right that productivity and money should be redistributed in our society, but real flourishing will be impossible as long as dignity, glory, and relevance hinge on economic productivity and potential. Indeed, any system that allows social mobility on the basis of productivity will cultivate the sense that productivity is the most important thing. Because we are sorted by our economic productivity and potential, we find ourselves in communities that are homogeneous along these axes. How can we avoid putting “merit” at the center of our lives if losing it will cause us to lose the respect of our peers?

Resisting meritocracy requires a more radical solution: either an entirely different set of values (such as Christianity or Marxism), or a political program designed to prevent people from being sorted on the ­basis of merit. Instead of frictionless social mobility, we may need more friction. The question of how (and where) to cultivate more friction is a difficult and complicated one, but we shouldn’t be optimistic about a plan to bridle the meritocracy unless it ­explicitly upholds forms of constraint that don’t arise from the market and that can’t be appreciated in its terms.

Audrey Pollnow writes from New Haven, Connecticut.

Photo by Bryan Y. W. Shin via Creative Commons.