The Hell of Meritocracy

Daniel Markovits

Today, meritocracy doesn’t actually challenge hierarchy but grounds it and allows for its reproduction. But liberals and leftists have different ideas about how to break the cycle.

Students enter the Admissions Building on the campus of Harvard University September 12, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Glen Cooper / Getty

Interview by
Samuel Moyn

Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite is an investigation of the sources and structure of hierarchy in the United States today, and a moral argument to undo it. According to Markovits, meritocracy no longer undoes hierarchy but grounds it and allows for its reproduction. And he provides an unprecedented national case study of how the new meritocratic system of ascendancy and subordination has come to work, with brilliant sociological detail.

Elements of Markovits’s analysis, notably his use of “middle class” to describe white-collar workers, and the potential progressive agency he ascribes to “meritocratic elites” will no doubt be thoroughly rejected by most Jacobin readers. But The Meritocracy Trap is still a provocative attempt to examine an ethos that influences much of the society in which we live.

Samuel Moyn spoke to Markovits about what led him to write this book, as an inhabitant (indeed, product) of the system he describes, and to what extent his book is relevant to the American left.

Samuel Moyn

What is the core of your analysis of meritocracy?

Daniel Markovits

Meritocracy purports to ensure that social and economic rewards track achievement rather than breeding and, in this way, to underwrite deserved advantage, squaring hierarchy with democratic fairness and squaring private gain with the public good. The book’s central charge is that this account of merit is a sham.

For one thing, meritocracy produces massive and destructive inequalities. Meritocracy does not just provide a fig-leaf to cover up breeding, or cultural capital, or racial privilege or some other familiar unjust hierarchy. This commonplace charge is not wrong — elites do prefer their own through favoritism, nepotism, and outright fraud. But these practices, while disgraceful, operate on meritocracy’s margins.

At its core, meritocracy produces a new form of hierarchy by living up to rather than departing from its ideals. Rich parents now invest unprecedented time and money in education, creating a meritocratic inheritance that enables their children to dominate competitions for admission to elite colleges and then for elite jobs — precisely because they are meritocratic. This makes familiar attacks on meritocracy not just incomplete but dangerous.

Outrage at elite self-dealing implicitly valorizes meritocratic ideals. And these ideals are themselves — when they are realized — the root cause of the massive economic inequality that plagues America today.

Samuel Moyn

In the recent scandal over purchased college admissions, then, the real scandal ought to have been the sense that in a fair system slots ought to be earned meritocratically. But your argument is deeper than the claim that the meritorious have an illusory distinction — it is that they have a type of distinction that serves the kind of society in which they are ascendant, and that this ascendancy insidiously reproduces itself while making it seem earned.

Daniel Markovits

Feedback loops connect meritocratic training and meritocratic jobs. Whereas the aristocratic elite constituted itself as a leisure class, elite schools train meritocrats to possess exceptional skills and an immense capacity for work. The rise of this superordinate working class induces innovators to invent new technologies that deploy this elite labor force, making superordinate workers enormously productive and extravagantly paid. The workers then spend their vast incomes on elaborate educations for their own children, and the wheel takes another turn.

Critically, the feedback relationship between elite schooling and elite work means that the skills that underwrite top wages are not inevitably or naturally valuable but rather possess great value only where an unequal education system has bent technology’s arc to favor these particular and peculiar skills. So even where superordinate workers are paid in proportion to their output (rather than through rent-seeking or fraud), they can produce so much only on account of antecedent economic inequality. (The skills that make someone immensely valuable to Goldman Sachs would have little value in an agrarian economy or even in the relatively more equal, not-yet-financialized economy of the United States at the middle of the last century.)

The meritocratic suggestion that hierarchy is compatible with democratic equality because elites deserve their earned advantages is circular. Notions of meritocratic desert cannot justify inequality because they depend on inequality. And merit is not a natural virtue but rather an ideological conceit, built to launder an otherwise offensive distribution of advantage. Merit — in this precise sense — is a sham.

Samuel Moyn

You end the book by updating the closing slogan of The Communist Manifesto. The children of meritocracy, you say, have a world to win. Is your book a leftist — or even a Marxist — book? How so?

Daniel Markovits

The book has both a liberal and a more radical face. The book’s liberal argument demonstrates that although meritocracy was conceived as the handmaiden to equality of opportunity, and for a while did in fact help to open a hereditary and sclerotic elite to outsiders, meritocracy has developed to present the greatest obstacle to equality of opportunity in America today.

Parents who themselves became elite by meritocratic means have both the skill and inclination to train their children, and they do in fact train with a vengeance. This training allows the rich to dominate meritocratic competition, even when everyone plays by the rules.

Children whose parents make over $200,000 per year, for example, score on average 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make between $40,000 and $60,000 per year. And Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale now collectively enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half. Meanwhile, the most elite employers recruit at only these (and a few other similarly elite) schools. More broadly, only about one in seventy-five Americans without a high school degree, just one in forty with a high school education only, and only one in six with no education beyond a BA will enjoy lifetime earnings equal to the median professional school graduate.

These observations teach a general lesson. When inequality of outcomes grows large enough, equality of opportunity becomes impossible. Equality’s champions should therefore resist the idea that a fair competition — with careers open to talents, in the memorable liberal phrase — can launder unequal outcomes. This insight has concrete consequences. It entails, for example, that elite schools and universities cannot become meaningfully fair by growing more open. Instead, they must become less elite.

Samuel Moyn

And the radical argument?

Daniel Markovits

The book’s radical argument analyzes the inner logics of economic production under meritocratic inequality — that is, under the system in which the human capital of free workers is the greatest economic asset and human capital is enormously unequally distributed. This system has two central features. First, the exclusion of mid-skilled, middle-class workers from income and status is framed not in structural terms but rather as an individual failure to measure up. Second, elites — who operate as rentiers of their own human capital — can sustain their income and status only by mixing their accumulated training and skill with their own exploited labor. They must work with grinding intensity, at tasks chosen not according to their own tastes and values but rather to suit the market.

In this way, my critique of meritocracy — or human capitalism — reprises the classical Marxist analysis of the ills of conventional capitalism, just shifted up the class system. The middle class becomes the new Lumpenproletariat, prevented by the meritocratic idea of individual failure from coming to a class-consciousness of the grounds of its exclusion. And alienated labor comes home to roost in the elite — now reconstructed as a superordinate working class.

Samuel Moyn

But how do you address arguments that what you call the middle class, whatever the history of meritocracy, is not the nineteenth-century industrial proletariat Marx knew but nonetheless still works in conditions of precarity and exploitation, not merely hierarchy and subordination in a new meritocratic order? Even in portraying something you openly call a class struggle, do you explain what progressives generally take to the be the main objectionable features of contemporary “middle class” existence?

Daniel Markovits

The middle class’s struggles — including both precarity and stagnation — are real. And no morally serious person can deny that middle-class life in America today involves genuine hardship and not just come caricatured combination of entitlement and envy. Workers are increasingly deprived of discretion and security in their jobs and subjected to degradingly comprehensive and intrusive monitoring and control, so that work has become hours of tedium punctuated by moments of panic.

At the same time, the middle-class wage is increasingly inadequate to paying for basic human needs, including especially health care and good schooling for children. Finally, absolute economic mobility has declined dramatically. The share of middle-class children who will earn more than their parents has fallen by more than half in the past fifty years, and the decline is greater for the middle class than for either the poor or the rich. This makes the future a source of fear, not hope.

But the extent and, most important, the rightness of middle-class anger over current conditions is hard to explain without reference to the explosion of elite income and the hierarchy and subordination that meritocratic inequality produces. If the elite did not exist, and if meritocracy did not marginalize the middle class and frame exclusion and subordination as a personal failure, then the politics of stagnation would be entirely different — and properly so. Conditions that would be difficult and frustrating in any event become intolerably wrong when produced by exclusion and oppression. And that is what meritocratic inequality (rather than just middle-class precarity) involves.

Samuel Moyn

The book occasionally struck me as less Marxist than Rousseauean, since its story is focused much more on — and as an author you situate yourself as a member and teacher of — elites and their travails. It sometimes seems like your gripe with meritocracy is less that it is unjust by whatever standards as that it is a form of elite formation and preservation that is bad for elites themselves.

The reader might even be forgiven for detecting a certain nostalgia for aristocratic cultures of indolence before meritocratic hell engulfed the contemporary elite. Unlike Marx, then, but very much like Rousseau, the victims of meritocracy in your account prominently include the winners in the system, such that they have a common interest with the losers in overthrowing it. You are aware that elites are unlikely objects of sympathy. Why focus on their plight?

Daniel Markovits

Meritocratic inequality harms both those whom meritocracy excludes and also (unexpectedly) the very elite that meritocracy appears to privilege. On the one hand, meritocracy subjects those whom it excludes from the elite to a moral insult alongside economic injury. “It is,” as Michael Young once observed, “hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.”

On the other hand, meritocracy ensnares even those who manage to claw their way to the top, requiring rich children to run a gauntlet of competitive and grindingly intense schooling and rich adults to work with crushing industry, exploiting their expensive educations in order to extract a return. Meritocrats may be wealthy, but they are not well.

Of course, elites do not deserve and should not expect sympathy, as the book makes plain. Moreover, even a dispassionate account of meritocracy’s discontents views the plight of the middle class as much greater, and morally much more pressing, than the plight of the elite. The consequences of middle-class discontent are also more grievous and include (the book argues) both the “deaths of despair” that Anne Case and Angus Deaton show are now depressing middle-class life expectancy and the wave of populism and nativism that have produced the Trump presidency. Nothing that is happening to the elite compares to this, or even comes close.

At the same time, elite discontent over meritocracy is real (and not just one of luxury’s disappointments). It is also extremely important. Most important, the burdens that meritocracy imposes on the elite entail that unwinding meritocratic inequality is not — as liberals have traditionally thought — a zero- or even negative-sum game, but rather a project that would benefit everyone. Realizing this is essential for any hope of finding a way out of present predicament.

Samuel Moyn

It sounds like you are saying we must rely at least in part on meritocratic elites to realize the hellishness of their situation and relinquish their own ascendancy. Could you conclude by saying a bit more about how, concretely, you might envision a cooperative and cross-class movement to overthrow meritocracy?

Daniel Markovits

To succeed, such a movement must develop a politics and policies that reinforce each other — so that they jointly drive home the mutual benefit that unwinding meritocratic inequality would bring. The trick is for every particular intervention to reprise, in microcosm, the model of mutual benefit from escaping the logics of human capitalism that stands behind the movement as a whole.

One example is using the tax system to encourage elite private schools and universities to diversify the economic backgrounds of their student bodies, by doubling enrollments and taking virtually all of the additional students from outside of the economic elite. This would obviously benefit middle-class Americans, by reopening pathways of social and economic mobility that meritocratic inequality has closed off. But it would also (equally surely, if less obviously) benefit the elite, as expanded enrollments will inevitably also allow more rich children to be admitted. Even a modest increase in slots for the rich will provide relief from the severity of the academic competition that now dominates elite childhood.

A second example, also addressed in the book, involves labor market policies that promote mid-skilled jobs and reduce the economy’s reliance on super-skilled labor. Once again, this obviously benefits the middle-class workers who would do the new jobs. And once again (although again less obviously) it also benefits elites.

To be sure, superordinate workers will earn a little less. But they will also work less hard and — more importantly — gain release from the tyrannical wage hierarchy that now dominates their working lives. Today only a few jobs, in a narrow range of fields (finance, management, law, and medicine) pay the wages needed to buy houses in elite neighborhoods and pay tuition at elite schools. A more democratic labor market would free elites to pursue their interests, and treat work as a vocation, without sacrificing their — and their children’s — caste. It would provide relief from the alienated labor that now dominates elite adulthood.

In each case, a practicable policy gives concrete expression to ideals that can inspire a broad political coalition to seek economic democracy. The middle class gains income and status from more open and inclusive social and economic arrangements (rather than, as populists now propose, by excluding others who are presently worse off still). And elites trade modest diminutions to income and status that they can easily afford for a precious return of their authentic freedom — set against the backdrop of the fact that it is simply impossible for a person to dominate others on account of his human capital without also damaging himself.