In Favor of Real Meritocracy

The meritocracy has come in for a lot of criticism recently, basically in the form of two arguments. 

There’s a book by Daniel Markovits called The Meritocracy Trap that basically argues that meritocracy makes everyone miserable and unequal by creating this horrific grind to get into the most elite colleges and then, after you get your elite degree, to grind away working 60 – 100 hours to maintain your position at the top of the corporate hierarchy. 

There was also a very interesting column by Ross Douthat that makes a separate but related point. According to Douthat, the WASP-y elite that dominated American society up until the early 20th century decided to “dissolve their own aristocracy” in favor of a meritocracy, but the meritocracy didn’t work out as planned because it sucks talent away from small locales (killing off the diverse regional cultures that we used to have) and because:

the meritocratic elite inevitably tends back toward aristocracy, because any definition of “merit” you choose will be easier for the children of these self-segregated meritocrats to achieve.

What Markovits and Douthat both admit without really admitting it is one simple fact: the meritocracy isn’t meritocratic.

Just to be clear, I’ll adopt Wikipedia’s definition of a meritocracy for this post:

Meritocracy is a political system in which economic goods and/or political power are vested in individual people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than wealth or social class. Advancement in such a system is based on performance, as measured through examination or demonstrated achievement.

When people talk about meritocracy today, they’re almost always referring to the Ivy League and then–working forward and backward–to the kinds of feeder schools and programs that prepare kids to make it into the Ivy League and the types of high-powered jobs (and the culture surrounding them) that Ivy League students go onto after they graduate. 

My basic point is a pretty simple one: there’s nothing meritocratic about the Ivy League. The old WASP-y elite did not, as Douthat put it, “dissolve”. It just went into hiding. Americans like to pretend that we’re a classless society, but it’s a fiction. We do have class. And the nexus for class in the United States is the Ivy League. 

If Ivy League admission were really meritocratic, it would be based as much as possible on objective admission criteria. This is hard to do, because even when you pick something that is in a sense objective–like SAT scores–you can’t overcome the fact that wealthy parents can and will hire tutors to train their kids to artificially inflate their scores relative to the scores an equally bright, hard-working lower-class student can attain without all expensive tutoring and practice tests. 

Still, that’s nothing compared to the way that everything else that goes into college admissions–especially the litany of awards, clubs, and activities–tilts the game in favor of kids with parents who (1) know the unspoken rules of the game and (2) have cash to burn playing it. An expression I’ve heard before is that the Ivy League is basically privilege laundering racket. It has a facade of being meritocratic, but the game is rigged so that all it really does is perpetuate social class. “Legacy” admissions are just the tip of the iceberg in that regard.

What’s even more outrageous than the fiction of meritocratic admission to the Ivy League (or other elite, private schools) is the equally absurd fiction that students with Ivy League degrees have learned some objectively quantifiable skillset that students from, say, state schools have not. There’s no evidence for this. 

So students from outside the social elite face double discrimination: first, because they don’t have an equal chance to get into the Ivy Leagues and second, because then they can’t compete with Ivy League graduates on the job market. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you learn, your Statue U degree is never going to stand out on a resume the way Harvard or Yale does.

There’s nothing meritocratic about that. And that’s the point. The Ivy League-based meritocracy is a lie.

So I empathize with criticisms of American meritocracy, but it’s not actually a meritocracy they’re criticizing. It’s a sham meritocracy that is, in fact, just a covert class system. 

The problem is that if we blame the meritocracy and seek to circumvent it, we’re actually going to make things worse. I saw a WaPo headline that said “No one likes the SAT. It’s still the fairest thing about admissions.” And that’s basically what I’m saying: “objective” scores can be gamed, but not nearly as much as the qualitative stuff. If you got rid of the SAT on college admissions you would make it less meritocratic and also less fair. At least with the SAT someone from outside the elite social classes has a chance to compete. Without that? Forget it.

Ideally, we should work to make our system a little more meritocratic by downplaying prestige signals like Ivy League degrees and emphasizing objective measurements more. But we’re never going to eradicate class entirely, and we shouldn’t go to radical measures to attempt it. Pretty soon, the medicine ends up worse than the disease if we go that route. That’s why you end up with absurd, totalitarian arguments that parents shouldn’t read to their children and that having an intact, loving, biological family is cheating. That way lies madness.

We should also stop pretending that our society is fully meritocratic. It’s not. And the denial is perverse. This is where Douthat was right on target:

[E]ven as it restratifies society, the meritocratic order also insists that everything its high-achievers have is justly earned… This spirit discourages inherited responsibility and cultural stewardship; it brushes away the disciplines of duty; it makes the past seem irrelevant, because everyone is supposed to come from the same nowhere and rule based on technique alone. As a consequence, meritocrats are often educated to be bad leaders, and bad people…

Like Douthat, I’m not calling for a return to WASP-y domination. (Also like Douthat, I’d be excluded from that club.) A diverse elite is better than a monocultural elite. But there’s one vital thing that the WASPy elite had going for it that any elite (and there’s always an elite) should reclaim:

the WASPs had at least one clear advantage over their presently-floundering successors: They knew who and what they were.

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