Culture & Society

Is America Really a Meritocracy?

Yes, but even many of our society’s biggest winners recognize that the U.S. is far from fully living up to its meritocratic aspirations

Luck and Pluck. The title page of Horatio Alger’s 1874 bestselling book exemplifies the view of meritocracy in 19th century America. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a story that’s often told about America. It makes some people cry, some people laugh and some people barf. It usually involves an immigrant, and it always involves a dream. The dream is the American dream: the idea that if any American works hard enough, he can go as far as his talents will take him.

In the 1950s, in a book called “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” the British sociologist Michael Young told a different story about a different country. The country was the United Kingdom—a future version of the United Kingdom—and the story was about what happens when citizens are destined to go as far as their talents will take them (spoiler alert: what happens is not very good). In Young’s society, each person’s merit is calculated by combining their IQ and their “effort,” and people are sorted into classes based on how much merit they have. The result is a smug, paranoid elite ruling over a powerless, disenfranchised mass. Basically, meritocracy sucks for almost everyone.

In the years that followed the release of Young’s book, the term “meritocracy” spread across the world, but it wasn’t attached to its origin story. Young had coined the word to warn against a possible dystopia, but it was adopted by a set of politicians who saw it as the road to a better, fairer society and thus were determined to shape the future in a meritocratic image. These politicians spanned countries, and political parties within those countries, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in Britain, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in America, as well as Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic and Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore. Indeed, the Singaporean government even included the word in their official guiding principles for public policy formulation. All of these meritocratic champions used phrases like “individual freedom,” “self-determination,” and “equality of opportunity,” which themselves became stand-ins for meritocracy. Thatcher’s words capture the general mood: “I don’t care two hoots what your background is,” she said in a 1983 interview. “What I am concerned with is whatever your background, you have a chance to climb to the top.”

Today, this attitude has sunk deep into Anglo-American culture. We respect it when someone climbs to the top, even though our definition of “climb” is mighty arbitrary. If someone is hired because of nepotism, that’s considered distasteful. If someone is hired through a college connection, that’s perfectly fine. If someone is selected for college on the basis of a test score, that’s thought to be legitimate. If someone is selected for a college because of her gender, skin color or family income, that’s sometimes worthy of a lawsuit. I say sometimes, because we do allow for exceptions: we encourage—albeit with significant contest—positive discrimination for certain groups with the aim of helping to counter the effects of discrimination. But these exceptions are all considered to be provisional: we assume that when the bigotries of sex, race, class and caste are gone, we will have reached a perfectly just society, since everyone will be judged by qualities that are intrinsic to who they are.

Questioning Meritocratic Assumptions

Of course, it was only a matter of time before these assumptions about meritocracy were questioned—and at the moment, everyone seems to be doing so. Different versions of Young’s story have made a resurgence over the past few years: both among liberals, such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Sandel and Daniel Markovits, and conservatives, including Ross Douthat, David Brooks and Patrick Deneen. Their general charge is that meritocracy is nothing but an American form of aristocracy; it perpetuates a rigid class system led by a self-serving elite and blames everyone else for their all too apparent failures.

Let’s begin by separating the criticisms of meritocracy in two. The first accusation—what I’ll call the economic accusation—is that meritocracy is deeply unfair: a set of lucky winners dominate the global ladder, where they form the connections and learn to speak the vocabulary that will allow them to lock in that privilege for their children. Meanwhile, large swathes of the population are cut off from prosperity entirely. The second charge—the ethical charge—is that meritocracy is morally pernicious. The elite serve their own interests while feeling mighty good about themselves—both because they feel like they earned their place at the top of the pile, and because they are taught to feel like they have done something valuable in order to earn that place. These smug illusions of grandeur help to perpetuate illusions of failure: society is taught to condemn those who do not climb to the top, even though their lack of achievement may not be their fault. Thanks to nature, some of us might not be as smart as others. Thanks to nurture, some of us may not grow up with good role models. Appiah goes as far as to argue that none of us selects the genes that dictate how hard we will work, so there is no reason why our moral or social standing should be correlated even to effort.

These two criticisms fall nicely in line with the two types of advantages meritocracy is often said to provide. The first advantage—let’s call it the economic advantage—relates to efficiency. In the words of Adrian Wooldridge, political editor of The Economist, meritocracy is “a machine that can be used by democracies to make themselves rich.” Funneling the most talented and hardworking people into positions where they are uniquely positioned to excel is a guaranteed path to economic dynamism. And at a time when countries such as China, India and Singapore are creating their own forms of meritocracy, abandoning the ideal would put the United States and other Western countries at a huge disadvantage.

The second advantage—call it the psychological advantage—comes down to incentives. There are many countries in which there is no benefit to working hard in high school, because places on the top rungs of the ladder are controlled by corruption and nepotism. This leads kids to feel helpless and unappreciated, discouraging them from working hard and pursuing their ambitions. Meritocracy helps people believe they have something to work towards and gives them a way to feel like those efforts say something positive about their character.

The first thing that becomes clear from examining these arguments is that America is hardly close to being a true meritocracy. There are plenty of kids (particularly poor kids) across the U.S. who justifiably feel like there is no benefit to working hard in school. Indeed, the meritocratic phrase “climb to the top” implies that there should be paths from the bottom of the ladder to the top, and that these paths must be accessible to everyone. Traditionally, this social mobility has been seen as the responsibility of higher education, and while college does enable social mobility—the difference in earnings between college graduates and high school graduates is over 20%—it scarcely threatens the meritocratic elite. According to the Harvard economist Raj Chetty, the Ivy Plus colleges take more than two-thirds of their students from the nation’s top income quintile, but take less than 5% from the bottom one. The top of America’s meritocratic ladder is surrounded by barbed wire.

At the same time, America is far more meritocratic than it has been in the past. I was born in the United Kingdom, and I became a student at Harvard. I went to a state school, but I come from a middle-class family. I probably would not have tried hard in school if I did not imagine that doing so would improve my chances of getting into a good university. However, I do not think the fact that I won a place means that I “deserved” it. I was lucky. I had two loving parents who made me feel like I was capable of anything. I had countless supportive relatives who’d come to watch me act in school plays and compete in tennis tournaments. And I had good friends, including one who convinced me to apply to college outside the country.

Yet America was the country that turned my lucky circumstances into good fortune, because, for all its faults, America is a more meritocratic country than most others. I am now in the process of starting a company, and there was never a question that I would decide to incorporate it in the U.S. It is a question of tax laws, but it is also a matter of culture: there are simply more places in the United States where the norm is to try something ambitious than there are anywhere else, and more investors who are willing to take a chance on seemingly crazy pursuits.

Meritocracy Amongst the Meritocrats

It’s very easy to me to heap praise on the meritocratic ideal, because that ideal has already significantly benefitted me. But I do think that many of the recent attacks on meritocracy are actually attacks on our failures to live up to meritocracy in its truest sense. Merit can certainly be used as a justification for some people to display a snobbish sense of superiority, but there are many others who take their good fortune as a sign that they ought to multiply their commitment to the rest of society, to give others who are not as lucky as they were a chance to mount and climb that ladder, and do so without expecting anything in return.

This need not always be through philanthropy or charity. Indeed, there are plenty of business owners for whom the best way they can help make meritocracy fairer is simply by growing their business, employing a wider range of people for a larger number of jobs. There are plenty of ways for multi-millionaires and billionaires to improve the world—and if they’re being applauded in every corner of society, then they’re probably doing something extraordinarily conventional. There’s always a danger that something considered “socially good” for society is merely seen as good. At same time, there’s a danger that turning our backs on merit will simply provide an excuse for the rich to absolve themselves of social responsibility.

Today’s hand-wringing about meritocracy often strikes me as remarkably distant from the social problems it seeks to address. Tackling America’s insane levels of inequality isn’t a matter of gesturing towards a utopia where everyone—no matter their level of success—is somehow given the same level of respect. Nor is it a matter of adjusting the admissions policies at elite schools such that the tiny crop of CEOs and consultants come from a wider set of backgrounds. Instead, we might begin with political and economic power: adopting a fairer tax policy, instituting universal healthcare and experimenting with a basic income. Each of these is sure to result in problems of its own, but at least they would bring conversation away from circular debates and towards practical policies aimed at reducing inequality.

I don’t think a white man from Des Moines who went to Iowa State, works an industrial job and hates the liberal elite is disenfranchised because meritocracy has let him down. I think he’s disenfranchised because he thinks the elite are infantilizing minorities who can’t hold down a job like he can. In other words, he doesn’t believe that he’s had a fair chance at meritocracy. Perhaps, then, it is hardly a surprise that white men from the Midwest do not make up most of today’s anti-meritocratic chorus. It is largely elites who have begun to ring the alarm bells about meritocracy—those who have had a fair chance at the meritocratic rewards, but feel their place beginning to slip.

Why? To begin with, since 2001, working hours for the upper middle-class knowledge workers have continued to increase, while the rewards have stagnated. Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut famously termed this phenomenon an “overproduction of elites:” there has been a surplus of intelligent kids pursuing admission to a tiny list of elite colleges, and it’s no longer possible to prevent conflict between those overachievers.

Meritocracy amongst the meritocrats might result in the ultimate zero-sum game, when the over-credentialed turn their anxiety upon one another. It’s easier to question the concept of meritocracy when you’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that you might not keep winning.

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter