The Meritocracy Trap

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Meritocracy Trap” is a work in the line of Thorstein Veblen ’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” (1899), John Kenneth Galbraith ’s “The Affluent Society” (1958) and Michael Harrington ’s “The Other America” (1962). Combining economics and sociology, two less than promising fields of intellectual endeavor, these books attempted to describe an underlying reality of American life that at the time was not fully understood by Americans themselves. How the rich live, the disparities between wealth in the nation’s private sector and poverty in its public sector, the shockingly large number of Americans living in poverty, such were the themes of these earlier books. “The Meritocracy Trap” takes for its theme another less than fully understood reality in American life: the advance of an elite class causing the submergence of the middle class, and the dispiriting effect of this on the life of the nation.

The author, Daniel Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, resides, so to say, in the center of his subject. The breeding grounds for the meritocracy, he contends, has been a clutch of elite universities, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford chief among them, but also notably including the University of Chicago, Duke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Markovits allows that he owes his own “prosperity and my caste to elite institutions and to the training and employment that they confer.” After graduating from a public high school in Austin, Texas, he went off to Yale College and thence to the London School of Economics, Oxford, Harvard and Yale Law School. The religion of the Jews, it has been said, is diplomas, but not, as “The Meritocracy Trap” makes clear, of the Jews alone.

Education is the linchpin of the meritocracy Mr. Markovits describes. The trick is to get into one of the elite schools yourself, and then arrange, from preschool on through university and postgraduate institutions, for your children to do the same. I have myself seen this from the middle distance during the summer my granddaughter went to New Trier High School on Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. I noted her classmates, lacrosse sticks protruding from what looked to be 80-pound backpacks, perhaps going off after class to work with nonbinary lepers (a good curriculum vitae entry), all part of what I learned these kids called Preparation H, or preparing for acceptance to Harvard.

Once through the brutal education tournament, with its crushing admissions tests and big-ticket school fees, meritocrats are lured to work in finance, management, law and specialized medicine. The elite universities feed into these jobs. The great choice confronting graduates of the leading business schools, Mr. Markovits reports, is “Investment Banking vs. Consulting.” Elite jobs pay what Mr. Markovits calls “superordinate workers” impressively high salaries.

. . . .

What can be wrong with that? Better this, surely, than the earlier system, approximating European aristocracy, whereby the children of the wealthy were admitted by heredity into the best schools and lived out leisurely lives on the profits earned by the land and businesses passed on to them by parents. Meritocracy—advancement and wealth acquired strictly on merit—is democracy played out to the highest power, an ideal realized.

Except, according to Mr. Markovits, it turns out to be neither defensible nor democratic, and, far from ideal, it is a disaster for the country at large. The argument at the center of “The Meritocracy Trap” holds that this new meritocracy concentrates “creativity in a narrower and narrower elite, farther and farther beyond the practical and even imaginative horizons of the broad middle class.” Mini-dynasties are formed within the families of the elite, who live lives unattainable by the rest of the country, and meritocracy itself creates “a caste system.”

The cockroach in the caviar, Mr. Markovits contends, is that whatever financial dividends the elite achieve, these do not compensate for their work-driven, otherwise barren lives.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

1 thought on “The Meritocracy Trap”

  1. The book’s author also goes on point out that the investment banks, management consultants, and law firms that the new elite who qualify through this gamed boot-camp go on to join, are then expected to earn billables which mean standard working days of 8am-8pm six days a week. Which tips a good few of them into an early grave through stress-related nasties.

    Or to put it another way, even when you win the rat race, you’re still a &^%%^ rat.

    There’s another fairly interesting review of The Meritocracy Trap over at the UK edition of the Specy …

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