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The dangers of meritocracy

Why the supposed cure for social inequality is making life worse for everyone – even its apparent winners.

American meritocracy stinks. It is, in Daniel Markovits’s opening shot, “a sham”. According to Markovits, the charge sheet against the once sweet-sounding idea of meritocracy is grave. Not only is it the root cause of the vast inequality that has opened up at the top of the income tree, but it has corroded democracy and civic society, and ruined education. It is stifling social mobility and provides the propulsive force for Donald Trump’s dark populism. Meritocracy has turned America into a nation on the verge of a class war, no less, between the very rich and everyone else.

And if all of that isn’t enough, meritocracy is making everybody, including its apparent winners, absolutely bloody miserable. Though we shouldn’t weep for the top 1 per cent, they are working so hard that they can’t ever get round to enjoying their loot and they only occasionally encounter their personal lives.

Markovits is not shy about giving us the evidence: his book contains statistics and charts galore. They aren’t so much an illustration, more a bombardment. But the broad story is familiar: the top 1 per cent of American earners have doubled their relative take of the total pot compared to the middle of the last century, and the top 0.1 per cent have done even better. A CEO used to earn around 60 times the amount of an average production worker, now it’s 300.

Markovits, a philosophy-trained Yale law professor, is far from the first to attack meritocracy – the idea that wealth and status, your “just deserts”, should be determined by effort, intelligence and talent. As an organising principle it seems intuitively and intellectually so much more reasonable than aristocracy – having your life chances defined by pure luck, or lack of it, from the moment of your birth. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg would, probably, struggle to defend a system that gave all the goodies to male aristocrats who inherited a decent slab of land.

And not only does meritocracy sound fair but it promises efficiency. Talented people should obviously be in charge. The bumbling offspring of aristocrats should be waved goodbye and their much cleverer replacements charged with sorting things out for the benefit of everybody. All in all, it’s an attractive organising principle. And indeed Markovits freely acknowledges meritocracy’s “charisma” in the course of this splendidly stimulating, pungent and angry attack on its current effects.

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The term “meritocracy” was given currency by the great British postwar figure Michael Young in his satire, The Rise of The Meritocracy, published more than 60 years ago. Young is only a rather grudging afterthought for Markovits but he was the first to land on the spot. His dystopian vision was of a meritocracy that would harden into a superior class, dominating politics and consigning everyone else to the margins, with the malign twist of making the losers feel worthless. It was a warning.

But Young, much to his disappointment, lived to see meritocracy taken up as a desirable creed by many progressive politicians, not least Tony Blair in full New Labour mode. Together with its close relative “equality of opportunity”, meritocracy became a political religion and now its allure spreads far beyond those who think of themselves as progressives. 

If Markovits is far from being meritocracy’s first critic, he has some surprising angles in his quest to convince us of its iniquity. Surprising because he does not believe that the very rich are just plain lucky. He does not see them as owners of too much inherited capital – he takes issue with Thomas Piketty’s view that capital is still the principal driver of inequality – nor as the undeserving, feckless characters we gawp at in celebrity magazines.

Instead he believes the top 1 per cent work much harder than the rest of us, have a brilliant set of educational credentials and are very often enormously productive. The victims of their apparent triumph are not the poor – the gap between the poor and the rest has narrowed – but the broad American middle class, which is not to be confused with the British definition of middle class. The American middle class covers huge numbers of workers – manual, clerical, semi-skilled and skilled. (Many might consider themselves working class were they in the UK.) It is the bulk of the electorate – they are not poor, but their median wages have got stuck. They are mired in “gloomy jobs”, lack a college education, are unable to move their skills to new locations, and are working much less hard (by about 20 per cent) than their predecessors. The wealthy, in contrast, may be extravagantly paid but are piling up the hours and suffering from “an epidemic of effort”.

It was not always like this. Markovits devotes a lot of space to an analysis of mid-20th century American life – in effect meritocracy’s early phase – when the country in his view was palpably more equal and more democratic than it is now. “Quite possibly for the first time in recorded history the rich and the rest lived the same lives and even had the same stuff.”  

Markovits is too good, and too liberal, not to add the rider about the maleness and whiteness of all of this, but he doesn’t really give it enough weight. He may not be naively sentimental about the “Great Compression” – a period in the 1940s when the wage gap between the rich and the middle dramatically shortened – but he clearly has strong yearnings. He uses the postwar history of a small town outside Detroit, St Clair Shores, to illustrate his argument, describing poignantly a once flourishing place with companies that paid their unionised workers decent money, and trained them. St Clair Shores provided a high-quality standard of living in other respects; it was a place with civic values and plenty of entertainment. Now “life grows slowly worse – not yet wretched, but worn down and precarious… a fortress that is both shrinking and decaying and that must fall, inevitably and soon”. The town is cut off from both prosperity and dignity. It is, no surprise, Trump territory. And, unlike the poor, middle-class America gets very little sympathy from the rich.

He compares St Clair Shores with the once similar Palo Alto, part of Silicon Valley and meritocracy’s ultimate apparent winner, with its super-incomes, super-education and super-sophisticated population. But, we are told, the Palo Alto inhabitants are not super-happy.  There is neurosis everywhere, the top high school’s suicide rate is alarming, and the brilliant, hugely well remunerated workers are burning out. 

Maybe, but there is something a bit sweeping about Markovits’s demolition job.  Those suicides might just as well be about, say, social media than meritocratic pressure.

And he uses the word “meritocracy” as an umbrella term to describe pretty well all American discontents. It has, he argues, given the country the wrong politics, the wrong economy, and killed the idea of a common purpose. All sorts of bits and pieces are thrown in to ram home the attack. In a book largely about America he contrasts Rafa Nadal’s manically intensive training regime with the apparently leisurely practice schedule of John McEnroe to help convince us about the revolution in elite working habits. And the rates of spine curvature of the hard-working high school students in Seoul are deployed to warn us of the impact of too much competitive effort.

For all the statistics there is some fuzziness in his argument. Much of the time Markovits’s anger with meritocracy centres around the creation and eye-watering remuneration of what he calls “super-ordinate workers” – the elite bankers, hedge fund managers, lawyers, management consultants and tech billionaires who constitute the top 0.1 per cent. Consequently, in his ledger of meritocracy’s losers he places teachers and professors, middle managers, engineers, government workers, journalists and “even doctors in general practice”.

Elsewhere he looks at America’s divisions differently – and so that these self-same professionals become part of the problem from the perspective of the middle class, who resent these professionals’ education and feel they are being looking down on.

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In fact, what emerges, and not for the first time, is the difference that seems to come from, or at the very least be reflected by, a college education. Trump, Markovits reminds us, beat Hillary Clinton among white voters without degrees by a whopping 39 percentage points. America’s culture war and its politics are better understood through this prism than through his forays into the undoubted distortions of reward at the apex of economic life.

And Markovits’s number one culprit in the creation of “the meritocracy trap” is indeed the education system – from the insane competition to get children into an elite kindergarten all the way through to graduate school. In the bad old days corrupt admissions systems allowed the dim but well-bred access to Ivy League universities where academic work was neither required nor even thought of as desirable. Meritocracy changed all that, starting from the late 1960s.  Now a place is secured as a result of a battery of test scores that appear to validate achievement. The elite universities are no longer posh finishing schools but provide a brilliant and rigorous education. And since women were allowed in, students can meet their spouse-to-be and consolidate their advantage – giving us the charmless, but not meaningless, phrase “assortative mating”.

So the superordinate workers plough their hard-earned money above all into coaching their offspring to win the nerve-shredding meritocratic battle to get into the nation’s best universities, which prepare them for the top jobs. All of this costs money – a lot of it. And Markovits is not frightened to calculate a figure for the inherited educational advantage received by a child of the richest caste: $10m.

Those in the UK who think the top American universities have a more economically diverse student body will be dislocated by Markovits’s belief that on this score Oxbridge is doing better. Whatever the truth, it is distressingly clear that the accumulated gap in education spend in the US and UK between those who get to the elite institutions and those who don’t is very large. “Economic inequality today,” Markovits writes, “produces greater educational in-equality than American apartheid once did.”

For Markovits there are no real villains in the story. He does not like the “moralists”, whom he accuses of “trivialising” the problem, although along the way he is very rude about some of America’s best-known businesses. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, in particular, will not like the descriptions of his corporate culture. 

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Markovits claims his general approach is to look at the structural causes of meritocracy’s deformity, but he is not that much interested in the politics of how meritocracy works. He has some things to say about political funding, the rise of lobbying and the increasingly unfair nature of the US tax system but there is no fine-grained analysis of when and how this came about. He seems to believe the superordinate rich, as a caste, are in some way responsible, but this feels a bit half-baked.

He offers solutions, and they are radical. First, the current education admissions system should be destroyed. There needs to be less competition. The top schools and universities should educate the “broad public” and admit half of their students from the bottom two thirds of society (measured by income), for which they will need to become much bigger institutions. Otherwise, their tax status as charities should be lost. These measures have the benefit of clarity and concreteness whether you like them or not.

But his other main solution – to reform work – seems very hard to translate into policy. He wants to “rebalance production away from superordinate and towards middle-class, or mid-skilled, labour”. Employers taking on the right kind of worker would be subsidised. Here is an example of his approach: “Health care can be delivered by a few specialist doctors who deploy high-tech machines and deskilled technicians, or by a mass of mid-skilled GPs and nurse-practitioners.” At this point I fear Markovits’s deeply felt fury with the status quo has run away from reality. Who on earth will do the categorising of jobs to direct the subsidies? And which patient will volunteer to do without the specialist?

But Markovits has done plenty by pointing out so vividly the dynastic aspects of educational achievement. The left, in particular, can’t get away with meritocracy as its leitmotif. It is unquestionably worthwhile to try to equalise life chances, but we are very far away from arriving at that destination. In the meantime, a very long meantime, the left’s task is to find a language, and create workable policies, that bear down on equality in a way that does not ignore wealth creation or deride individual responsibility. And that is very hard work.

Mark Damazer is a former controller of BBC Radio 4 and master of St Peter’s College, Oxford

The Meritocracy Trap  
Daniel Markovits
Allen Lane, 464pp, £25

This article appears in the 06 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war