There was a very interesting piece in Vox recently, and yes, I do mean that. Andrew Granato, a recent graduate of Stanford University, writes that top universities are creating an aristocratic class of highly educated graduates from elite universities. They cluster together and pass on the benefits of their station to their children, who in turn find it relatively easy to gain admission to a prestigious university, perpetuating the cycle. “The new ‘meritocracy,’” says Granato, “means we have replaced direct familial bloodline as an entry point to elite status with meritocratic achievement, albeit which, with a lifetime of nurturing from the best money can buy, just so happens to be highly correlated with direct familial bloodline.”
It’s hard to fully disagree with this analysis of America’s elite, which is persuasive and well-written. Yes, the graduates of our most prestigious universities are clustering together into a class that is increasingly distinct, geographically and culturally, from the rest of America. Yes, this is pernicious. But is Granato really critiquing meritocracy? His roster of proposed solutions — anti-discrimination laws, property-tax reform to boost local schools, occupational-licensing reform, universal health coverage — suggests otherwise. These policies, he claims, “would form at least the beginning of an attack on the false god of ‘meritocracy’ and the beginnings of a society in which being or not being a member of elite communities would not affect your life outcomes so grotesquely.”
Notice the turn here. Granato shifts from criticizing the basis on which elite status is conferred in America — our education system — to criticizing the allocation of resources in the current system. What Granato really wants is a society where “being or not being a member of elite communities would not affect your life outcomes” as it does now. The clear implication is that his ideal society would boast the same elite as today’s America, merely offering a better life to those outside that elite. Where Granato spends the earlier part of the essay criticizing what he terms meritocracy, he spends the latter part of the essay criticizing the supposed regime wherein those left behind by the “meritocratic” system are denied outcomes he favors. That’s not a criticism of meritocracy.
More to the point, the “meritocracy” Granato purports to criticize isn’t really a meritocracy. His piece is typical of a certain liberal argument that the American system excessively rewards accidents of birth and access to high-quality education, and that the solution is a regime that would redistribute benefits to the unlucky souls who can’t reap those rewards. But as the blogger Scott Alexander points out at Slate Star Codex, such criticisms of meritocracy are actually criticisms of our existing system of qualifications. Critics of meritocracy such as Granato’s, Alexander notes, are “using a different definition of meritocracy” entailing “rule by well-educated people with prestigious credentials.” We should reject this definition, Alexander argues, and reclaim the meaning of “meritocracy” as “positions going to those who are best at them and can best use them to help others.”
I agree with Alexander’s sentiment, but would argue for a slightly more expansive definition of meritocracy: a system where one is held to deserve his place in society if he has the skills and qualities that allow him to do his job well. This might seem anodyne, but it is actually quite controversial. Meritocracy says that a firm should not give preference to the children or relatives of those it currently employs, nor should it be obligated to employ local workers if there are better applicants elsewhere in the country. It says that seniority at a company should not protect those who cannot do their jobs well, whether through tenure or a generous, union-negotiated collective-bargaining agreement. These are uncomfortable propositions for many. But they are also crucial to allowing talented individuals across America the chance to rise to their full potential, regardless of the circumstances into which they were born.
This is a peculiarly American social order. It rejects the relatively static social structures of Europe — the way that the British elite is largely determined by attendance at prestigious boarding schools like Eton and Harrow, the entrenched civil service and empowered unions of France, the post-war European push to preserve failing industries at all costs. It is instead consonant with America’s distinctive culture, which is heavily individualistic, stressing the importance of personal work ethic over government assistance and maintaining that success is largely within our control.
It’s worth noting that Americans are quite happy with this system. By a 23-point margin, they prefer the “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference” to a system where the state guarantees that “nobody is in need,” and they overwhelmingly believe that success in life is determined by factors under their own control. It’s also worth noting that America has done quite well, comparatively speaking. Incomes here are higher than in most of Europe — on average, about $8,000 higher than in Germany and Sweden, $16,000 higher than in France and the United Kingdom, and $20,000 higher than in Italy. Danish-Americans, Swedish-Americans, and Finnish-Americans have far higher living standards than Danes in Denmark, Swedes in Sweden, and Finns in Finland. Of the top 25 universities in the world, 13 are in the United States versus just two in continental Europe, even though continental Europe has about twice as many people. Of the 50 largest firms in the world, 21 are headquartered in the United States, compared with 13 in Europe. To the extent that America has collectively sacrificed some measure of government-provided security for entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity, we have profited enormously from it.
But this does not mean we cannot improve our system. Indeed, many supposed critics of meritocracy point to meritocratic solutions! Granato mentions reforms to occupational licensing, which is inimical to meritocracy since it favors established firms over upstart competitors. The widespread insistence on bachelor’s degrees as a filtering mechanism for middle-income jobs that shouldn’t require them makes upward mobility more difficult for millions of talented Americans, and should motivate a revamping of the American education system toward trade schools. Credentialism in general has more in common with the ossified European regimes of old than with the competitive American spirit. There is no shortage of plausible policy changes that could help improve the American system. But these changes should be aimed at perfecting our meritocracy, rather than doing away with it. After all, it’s served us pretty well so far.