The Meritocracy Trap
Daniel Markovits, the Guido Calabresi Professor of Law
Even in the midst of economic inequality and dangerous social division, it remains an axiom of modern life that meritocracy reigns supreme and promises to open opportunity to all.
The idea that reward should follow ability and effort is so entrenched in our psyche that, even as society divides itself at almost every turn, all sides can be heard repeating meritocratic notions. Meritocracy cuts to the heart of who we think we are.
But what if, the author asks, both up and down the social ladder, meritocracy is a sham? Today, he contends, meritocracy has become exactly what it was conceived to resist: a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Upward mobility has become a fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite. At the same time, meritocracy now ensnares even those who manage to claw their way to the top, requiring rich adults to work with crushing intensity, exploiting their expensive educations in order to extract a return. All this, Markovits contends, is not the result of deviations or retreats from meritocracy but rather stems directly from meritocracy’s successes.