Magazine | October 28, 2019, Issue

Meritocracy and Its Discontents

From the cover of The Meritocracy Trap (Penguin Press)
The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, by Daniel Markovits (Penguin Press, 448 pp., $30)

Is Daniel Markovits miserable? His life doesn’t sound like a nightmare. Markovits, who recently turned 50, became a professor at Yale Law School in 2001, the year after it awarded him a J.D. Before that, he got his bachelor’s degree from Yale, then spent his twenties earning graduate degrees in England: one from the London School of Economics and two more from Oxford. Markovits carries on the family profession — both his parents are University of Texas law professors — with diligence and success, having published 41 professional journal articles between 2003 and 2015, the last time he updated his publicly available curriculum vitae.

Yet for the reader who accepts the argument in The Meritocracy Trap, it defies belief that Markovits, its author, can endure a single week, much less a full academic year. An exemplar of the hyper-vetted, hyper-credentialed mandarin class he analyzes, Markovits laments that it’s ugly at the top, where “an anxious and inauthentic elite” is consumed by “a pitiless, lifelong contest to secure income and status.” For the meritocrat, “every year, from preschool through retirement, includes some contest or assessment that filters, tracks, or otherwise influences his opportunities.” And the winners’ reward? High-paid, high-status careers . . . but ones that “require elite adults to work with grinding intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their educations in order to extract a return from these investments.”

The Meritocracy Trap goes into harrowing detail about the absurd, wretched lives of America’s most affluent and accomplished. There’s the attorney whose workday sometimes starts at 7 o’clock and ends at 3:45 the following morning, “with every hour packed with in-person meetings, double-booked client telephone calls, and between fifty and one hundred new emails.” Or the investment banker who worked 155 hours one week, leaving 13 for everything else, including sleep. Or the “young professional” who “compared his income-and-work package to being paid $3 million to fight Mike Tyson.”

Such horror stories do not make up the bulk of The Meritocracy Trap but are important for its diagnosis and crucial to its remedy’s political prospects. For Markovits, the post–World War II meritocratic revolution has been a huge disappointment. That revolution saw the country’s most famous educational institutions repudiate their historic role — perpetuating a ruling class rooted in money, breeding, and connections — in favor of a new mission: identifying and training students of exceptional ability and achievement, whatever their socioeconomic background. In the 1960s, for example, meritocracy came to Yale University when its new president, Kingman Brewster, declared that he had no interest in running “a finishing school on Long Island Sound.” By 1970 the number of private-prep-school graduates admitted to Yale had fallen sharply, their places taken by unprecedented numbers of students from public high schools.

This revolution failed, Markovits believes, because after a brief interlude of increasing opportunity for many, meritocracy saddled us with a system as rigid and remorseless as the pre–World War II hierarchy. “American meritocracy has become precisely what it was invented to combat,” he charges, “a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth, privilege, and caste across generations.” In the resulting society, divided between “the rich and the rest,” people are increasingly unlikely to ascend or descend from the social class in which they were raised.

“Today,” Markovits writes, “middle-class children lose out to rich children at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work.” Because the elite graduates use their savvy and money to give their children advantages unavailable to other families, meritocracy ends up reducing rather than increasing social mobility. Markovits notes that the most eminent colleges — those in the Ivy League, as well as Chicago, Duke, MIT, and Stanford — enroll more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from those in the bottom 50 percent. At least when it really was a finishing school on Long Island Sound, Yale didn’t also preen about being accessible and democratic.

The Meritocracy Trap is the latest addition to a shelf of books that assail, from left-of-center vantage points, the perverse inequalities delivered by a meritocratic experiment launched in the name of equalizing opportunity. Previous works include The Big Test, by Nicholas Lemann (1999); Twilight of the Elites, by Christopher Hayes (2012); Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz (2014); The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, by Lani Guinier (2015); Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank (2016); and Dream Hoarders, by Richard Reeves (2017). One thing these books have in common is that their indictments of America’s meritocracy, fundamentally in agreement with one another’s, were all respectfully received. Another similarity is that they were all utterly ineffectual in catalyzing a political movement that even tried to reform, much less succeeded in reforming, our meritocratic structures. The breakthrough book that does for the anti-meritocracy cause what Silent Spring did for environmentalism, The Death and Life of Great American Cities did for the fight against urban renewal, and Losing Ground did for welfare reform has yet to be published.

Can The Meritocracy Trap succeed where its predecessors have failed? If so, it will be because Markovits’s account of the punishing lives led by elite professionals strikes a chord. Enlisting people who feel that their prospects, and their children’s, have been diminished by meritocracy is the easier task. It’s harder, but also essential, to forge a coalition that includes those who have come out on top. Precisely because meritocracy’s beneficiaries dominate so many institutions — including ones, such as higher education and journalism, that shape the national discourse and agenda — reforms to which our meritocratic elites are opposed or even indifferent are gestural rather than practical.

It’s imperative, therefore, for Markovits to insist that our prevailing meritocracy is a lose-lose arrangement, in order to promise that recasting it will be a win-win. “Emancipation from meritocracy,” as he terms it, would restore the middle class, “now cut off from dignity and prosperity, to full participation in social and economic life.” At the same time, it would “invite the elite, now entangled in strained self-exploitation, to trade a diminution in wealth and status that it can easily afford in exchange for a precious increase in leisure and liberty, a reclaiming of an authentic self.”

Unfortunately, neither The Meritocracy Trap’s diagnosis, nor its prescription, nor the coalition it seeks to forge sounds especially convincing. Is life in the meritocracy’s highest echelons really as ghastly as Markovits describes? It’s hard to believe that his extreme examples are also representative ones.

Even to the extent that his account is accurate, the problems he describes should be self-correcting rather than requiring comprehensive institutional reforms. After all, few axioms have held up better than Herb Stein’s: If something can’t go on forever, it won’t. People can’t go on, indefinitely, working longer and harder. And even those who do sustain 155-hour workweeks, for a time, cannot be surprised when their children, with whom they are scarcely acquainted, reject rather than emulate their career and life choices.

Why do our mandarins work so furiously? Chiefly because they bear what Markovits calls “the burden of human capital.” After you and your parents have invested two decades in grooming you for a high-status career, it becomes impossible to stop competing, and unthinkable to settle for a more humble station and humane pace of life. You have become the bundle of skills you cultivated, and the opportunity cost of exploiting those skills less than frantically is enormous. As a result, Markovits writes, “elite workplaces are filled with people who would rather be doing something else but whose human capital has become too valuable (too essential to income and status) to squander on indulging personal ambitions.”

Moreover, the meritocrat’s excellence, his merit, is a contrivance. The meritocratic elite keeps arranging the social and economic world so that the particular skills its members have spent their lives admiring and acquiring become increasingly important to the way the country runs. There is nothing inevitable or necessarily optimal about this process, Markovits argues. Rather, our enterprises might well be more successful, and our economy more prosperous, with markedly different arrangements, ones that deemphasized the training and heroic exertions of the extremely skilled and expanded opportunities for the mid-skilled, as Markovits calls them.

Comparing America and Germany, the only two nations of more than 50 million people with per capita GDPs in excess of $50,000, Markovits finds German practices superior to ours. He believes that their educational system is geared to cultivating a much wider range of skills in a much larger number of people, and that their firms prosper through “wage compression and falling returns to skill,” while America’s grow through “wage dispersion and rising returns to skill.” He neglects to mention, however, that America’s per capita GDP (in 2017) was 18 percent higher than Germany’s. America’s experience of duplicating the German model, in other words, would be indistinguishable from engineering a severe economic contraction.

In any case, if merit really is spurious, and radically different educational and economic arrangements would make us happier and more prosperous, this should also be a self-correcting problem. Markovits writes hopefully of experiments in which nurse practitioners do routine medical work presently performed by doctors, and “mid-skilled special-purpose legal technicians” replace attorneys. If such experiments succeed — if the organizations that follow these practices give their clients better service, lower costs, or both — the organizations will flourish, and competitors stuck in the meritocratic mindset will either change or wither away. The fact that such experiments have not yet succeeded does not prove that they won’t or can’t, but it does suggest that the meritocracy we’ve fashioned may well possess strengths and serve purposes that are legitimate, not contrived by the winners so that they, their children, and their caste may solidify their eminence endlessly.

Even though The Meritocracy Trap is overwrought and unconvincing, there is another sense in which meritocracy raises more fundamental questions than Markovits allows. Democratic life presents a permanent tension between equality and liberty, including the liberty that facilitates and honors excellence. This tension makes social mobility a grave challenge. The president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953, James Bryant Conant, thought that the test- and education-based meritocracy he helped establish in America would “reorder the ‘haves and have-nots’ every generation to give flux to our social order.”

But such fluidity has never existed anywhere, and it’s highly doubtful that it could or that we would like it if it did. In such a society, the deck would be continuously and completely shuffled. Those raised in the top decile (whether measured by household income, net worth, or socioeconomic status) would have a 10 percent chance to wind up in the same decile as their parents when they reached maturity, a 10 percent chance to occupy the second decile, the third, and so forth. Those raised in the bottom decile would also have a 10 percent chance of occupying each of the ten rungs on the ladder. And so would those raised in each of the eight deciles between the top and the bottom.

If social mobility means absolute progress — a higher income or larger net worth than your parents — steady economic growth should make this a realistic hope for most people. But relative social mobility is a zero-sum game. The top decile always has precisely 10 percent of the population. Any and every increase in upward mobility requires a corresponding increase, of the exact same magnitude, in downward mobility. To endorse policies and practices that maximized relative social mobility would require parents in the middle of the social order to accept that each of their children is as likely to wind up worse off as he is to become better off. And it requires parents at the top of the socioeconomic order, those who have been the most successful, savvy, and determined, to acquiesce in the virtual certainty that all their children will be worse off in adulthood than in childhood. Good citizens in this brave new world are required to be bad parents, no more committed to their own offspring than to anyone else’s. Such a social order is neither plausible nor attractive.

In his introduction, Markovits expresses the hope that meritocracy might “recover its original democratic promise and refashion an open, fair society” (emphasis added). This language implies that our present meritocratic order was not destined to turn out as it did, but departed from its founding ideals somewhere along the way. If so, the challenge is to identify and correct meritocracy’s fatal flaw, in order to resume our journey on the democratic path it started to build.

The Meritocracy Trap offers an elaborate, ambitious argument, supported by an imposing body of empirical evidence, yet never answers or even pursues this initial question, although it is obviously crucial. If, as Markovits’s subsequent silence on the topic suggests, there was no identifiable point when meritocracy took a wrong turn, then we have to suspect that the perverse results he deplores were basically foreordained. It was inevitable that the most ambitious and intelligent would figure out, for their sake and their children’s, how to game the new sorting regime of Scholastic Aptitude Test results and college-application files. And even if, against long odds, the country implements all the reforms to meritocracy that Markovits endorses and inspires, the same people will figure out new ways to game the new system, and we’ll once more end up in about the same place we started. As Helen Andrews has written, “unless families are abolished, successful parents will always pass on advantages to their children, which will compound with each generation.”

Perhaps the mistake lies in trying to resolve the tension between equality and liberty, and then in being dismayed when, time and again, human partiality scrambles our ingenious designs. And perhaps a better approach is to let fraternity — which, as the name implies, originates within the family but then extends beyond it — help mediate equality and liberty.

Before upper-middle-class reformers used ostensibly objective measures of merit against their social betters in the 20th century, they had deployed them against their social inferiors in the 19th century. This is how civil-service exams were raised as a great improvement on, and weapon against, Tammany Hall–style cronyism. Political machines were aristocracies for non-aristocrats, in which knowing the right people, making the right impression on them, and getting along with them successfully and shrewdly were all more important than the kind of intelligence that aces either civil-service exams or the LSAT. The machines’ get-along, go-along principles were, in turn, crucial to such mediating structures as churches and fraternal organizations.

We won’t, and shouldn’t, bring back big-city machines, any more than we will see Yale revert to being a finishing school for tycoons’ great-great-grandchildren. But the connectedness that animated both institutions was capable of bestowing important benefits as well as unfair advantages. Any plans to improve meritocracy, to finally get it right, that treat this basic human aptitude and desire as an impediment rather than a resource are doomed to failure.

William Voegeli — Mr. Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books.

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