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The Fall of the Meritocracy

Ultra-educated, highly paid, overworked elites are not partners in the struggle to reform an unequal system.

In 1958, sociologist Michael Young wrote a dark satire called The Rise of the Meritocracy. The term “meritocracy” was Young’s own coining, and he chose it to denote a new aristocracy based on expertise and test-taking instead of breeding and titles. In Young’s book, set in 2034, Britain is forced to evolve by international economic competition. The elevation of IQ over birth first serves as a democratizing force championed by socialists, but ultimately results in a rigid caste system. The state uses universal testing to identify and elevate meritocrats, leaving most of England’s citizens poor and demoralized, without even a legitimate grievance, since, after all, who could argue that the wise should not rule? Eventually, a populist movement emerges. The story ends in bloody revolt and the assassination of the fictional author before he can review his page proofs.

Penguin Press, 448pp., $30.00

In 2001, Young would take to The Guardian to declare his disappointment that Tony Blair, alongside politicians in the United States, had adopted the term without irony. The New Labour government now talked of “breaking down the barriers to success” and declared that “the Britain of the elite is over. The new Britain is a meritocracy.” Blair’s Cabinet, like George W. Bush’s and then Obama’s, was packed with graduates of the most elite educational institutions in the world. Young’s vision of IQ testing may have been a little off, but elite education had become the prerequisite for power. “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit,” Young wrote. “It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

Sixty years on from Young’s book, a pure product of meritocratic training has emerged to write what he hopes will be the epitaph for his class. Daniel Markovits—a professor at Yale Law School, who has earned a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford, a master’s in econometrics at the London School of Economics, and a B.A. at Yale—believes that today’s highly educated, hyper-industrious elites have taken too large a share of the pie for themselves, and left over too little for the majority of Americans, who increasingly struggle to make ends meet from precarious and uninteresting work. If things continue this way, he worries, voters may “repudiate meritocracy wholesale and erect something considerably darker in its stead.”

This focus on meritocratic elites is apt at a time when those in charge of finance, tech, and politics have been widely discredited and disavowed by the electorate. Markovits’s dissection of elite culture and behavior (obsession with Ivy League credentials, competitive workaholism, exceptional wealth) is precise and unsparing. But perhaps just as revealing are his book’s weaknesses, not least its innocence of the realities of class struggle in the United States today—and of which fights will make society fairer and more equal.

In Markovits’s telling, the rise of the meritocracy is a story of unintended consequences. In the 1960s, more people were attending college than ever before. At the same time, new leaders in higher education opened up their institutions’ aristocratic gates, shedding a portion of academically mediocre bluebloods in favor of scrappier kids with impressive test scores. Companies suddenly had a much more educated workforce to draw on. This new labor pool drove a “skills revolution,” a sort of arms race in which education became highly valued, and therefore highly competitive, which produced even more elite workers, capable of “tasks of unprecedented complexity.”

In today’s world of what Markovits calls “meritocratic inequality,” these highly skilled workers are not merely productive and desirable employees; they have come to dominate the rest of society from their perches in finance, tech, medicine, the law. (He calls them “superordinate workers,” as in, not subordinate—Young isn’t the only one who can invent words!) They work constantly and earn very high salaries. In fact, they make so much money that some of them rank alongside capitalists—those who own the means of production in companies and factories. This is no leisured elite, but the first hyperindustrious one.

The innovations of superordinate workers, he argues, have created a huge divide between them and everyone else, hollowing out the middle class. At a tech company like Uber, for example, a handful of elite knowledge and managerial workers run the organization and create its technology, while the vast majority of workers labor as precarious drivers without benefits. There is no path from being a driver, up through nonexistent middle management, to participate in running the company. You’re either an innovator or a peon. A quarter of the economy’s midskilled jobs have disappeared since the 1980s. In the coming decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted, the fastest-shrinking job categories will be those that are midskilled, and the fastest-growing will all be either low- or super-skilled.

There is very little room for movement in this new order, as the rich and highly skilled prepare their children exceptionally well for the meritocratic race, reproducing what has become a caste of rich super-skilled people. The test score gap between rich and poor students has grown 40 to 50 percent over the last 25 years. The SAT gaps are also egregious: Kids from families earning above $200,000 score 388 points higher on average than those from families earning less than $20,000 per year. It will come as no surprise that the most elite universities are largely made up of rich kids. According to one study, more students at Ivy League schools, the University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke “come from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half.” America’s class system is reverting to being as blood-based as ever.

Markovits proposes that in order to understand this system—and work toward dismantling it—you have to understand an entirely novel class dynamic, one that so far only he has perceived at work in American life. One of his key arguments throughout the book is that the widening inequality that has made life so much harder for subordinate workers is not the result of a traditional conflict between labor and capital. The driver of today’s great disparities in wealth, he proposes, is not a set of “idle elites” getting inordinately rich by exploiting other people’s labor. That is because, he writes, today’s richest people became wealthy mostly by “selling their own labor.” He notes that

eight of the ten richest Americans today owe their wealth not to inheritance or to returns on inherited capital but rather to compensation earned through entrepreneurial or managerial labor, paid in the form of founder’s stock or partnership shares.

In his view, these wealthy Americans are workers, not capital. This analysis is idiosyncratic, to say the least (he politely refers to Marx’s “classic” analysis and “canonical” recent work by Thomas Piketty only to dismiss them as outdated). And it leads him to the conclusion that at the heart of inequality today is a conflict between elite labor and non-elite labor, between those who manage to get into Yale and those who don’t, but not between bosses and workers.

What this means, for Markovits, is that if the lot of non-elites is to improve, they need to focus their efforts not on their traditional antagonists, whom they’ve taken on in earlier eras through labor unions and class warfare. Instead, they need to look for ways to reform the meritocratic class, to reduce its power, and redistribute the advantages that it has hoarded for so many years.

The elite has to change, but Markovits is eager to avoid an outright overthrow of the meritocrats, about whom he remains ambivalent, and even admiring. Throughout the book, he vacillates between the idea that meritocracy is a thin ideological veneer protecting a new aristocracy—and the idea that those who succeed at the race really are special, if overcompensated. The first sentence of the book states: “Merit is a sham.” He adds, “merit itself is not a genuine excellence but rather—like the false virtues that aristocrats trumpeted in the ancien régime—a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage.” But later, he slams meritocratic inequality’s “befuddled” progressive critics, who “instead of attacking meritocrats ... attack the idea of merit itself.” But he cautions against the “sanctimonious anger wielded by inequality’s critics,” because inequality “cannot be resolved by identifying villains.”

Ultimately he decides that meritocracy is so burdensome that even the elites who benefit from it would gladly throw it off. In the meritocratic experience, he locates a lifelong salt mine for elites. From birth, an elite child is conditioned for success in the knowledge economy. Life begins with competitive preschools, enrichment instead of play, and risk-averse parents who make sure their kids do plenty of test prep with expensive tutors and play with other elite children. (At one elite elementary school, fifth-grade students were given a new problem to solve each day but no allotted time to work on it, so that they could learn “to snatch a few extra minutes of work time by multitasking or by sacrificing recess.”) While most parents don’t shell out money for fake test scores or bribe sailing coaches, they do engage their kids in assisted striving from day one.

The striving only intensifies in adulthood, when elites work exceptionally hard in order to compete. Bankers hours used to mean a 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. business day. Today, “banker 9-to-5” means working from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. the next day. “One young professional,” Markovits writes, “recently compared his income-and-work package to being paid $3 million to fight Mike Tyson.” The elites, Markovits argues, accrue enviable privileges through these exertions, but at the cost of their time and their souls. As far as he can see, no one is benefiting from the current system—neither the underpaid, underemployed subordinates, nor the frazzled, overworked top tier.

His solution to skyrocketing inequality then is this: a political alliance between the overworked elite and the underemployed middle class to bring us back to, essentially, the Keynesian compromise of midcentury, when merit mattered but education and work were not extreme sports. He envisions a coalition of superordinate and subordinate workers, which would demand that government direct innovation toward creating middle-class jobs, and that universities be transformed from small and competitive to large and egalitarian. He has faith that superordinate workers will be willing to set aside some wealth and prestige in order to slow down their rat race, and the rest of us, of course, would like to stop losing.

It would be nice if the neat wave of a technocratic wand—a few policy initiatives here, a little innovation there—could close the widening gap between rich and poor. But, unfortunately, Markovits’s attempt to reimagine class struggle, while neatly omitting capitalists from his story, doesn’t quite hold.

Let’s think for a second about class within twenty-first–century capitalism. On the one hand, many people are being pushed into precarious, de-skilled work. Manufacturing jobs shed during the 2008 recession have largely been replaced with poorly paid, nonunionized service-sector jobs. Vast capital invested in technology blows up the taxi industry, turning it from a bastion of solid-ish working-class jobs into an app-driven hell with one billionaire atop a vast precariat. A Marxist might call this proletarianization—people who formerly held comfortable jobs become downwardly mobile, often through technological innovations, while capitalists gain money and power. Obviously capitalists—investors and owners of companies—stand to gain from this, and they have.

Then there’s a third group of people who are trickier to categorize: people who work for a living but are as rich as some of the capitalists. On the one hand, these are certainly workers, in that they are paid for labor. On the other hand, it would be absurd to think of members of the one percent or five percent as working class. In order to do so, Markovits gets creative with the definition of labor income. For example, he categorizes Mark Zuckerberg’s founder’s shares in Facebook as labor income, because Mark Zuckerberg did the work of founding Facebook. This analysis is particular to Markovits, because, to many analysts, founder’s stock and partnership shares fall squarely into the category of capital income, whether or not their recipients work. Cornelius Vanderbilt worked hard, too, and no one would have said this disqualified him from being a capitalist, or meant that his railroad stock should be treated as labor income.

Other cases appear less clear-cut. There is immense blurriness these days at the top of the economic hierarchy. CEOs work for a living, under the oversight of a board, but they’ve long been paid partly in shares. Are they capitalists or workers? In the end, it helps to think in terms of allegiance. CEOs are paid in stock for a reason—it aligns their interests with those of the company. Zuckerberg owes his wealth to Facebook’s continued performance as a company, not just his own labor. Recently, Matt Yglesias, a political writer and co-founder of Vox, tweeted that while, as a writer, he was in Vox’s union, he still held founder’s shares in Vox and therefore had stayed off the bargaining committee. Presumably he was concerned that his advocacy would be compromised.

Similarly, there have now been decades of theorizing over whether elite professionals are so rich and powerful that they’re some new kind of class unto themselves. Again, it helps to think in terms of allegiances. In a section called “The Income Defense Industry,” Markovits allows people richer than the superordinate workers to make a rare and ghostly appearance. “Meritocratic inequality creates incentives for the most skilled workers to grow rich by devoting themselves to defending still richer people’s fortunes against government encroachment.” By and large, the interests of those at the top of the economic hierarchy are as aligned as ever.

This is reinforced later in the book when Markovits shows just how classically awful this meritocratic elite is. It turns out that elites may have more liberal social views than the rest of the population, but the richer you are, the more economically conservative you are, meritocracy or no. The richest fifth, he tells us, citing a study, “are much more hostile than the bottom four-fifths to progressive taxation, economic regulation, and social welfare spending.” The top one percent are even more conservative, and “the extremely rich are extremely economically conservative.” Further, he says, citing a study of Yale Law students, they are “much more efficiency-minded and much, much less equality-minded than typical Americans.” Despite surveys that show that the majority of workers would trade some money for some time, meritocrats are not exactly poised to join the proletarianized masses in demanding equality. This sounds like a classic, capital-aligned elite, not likely to make common cause with the downtrodden workers of America anytime soon.

Throughout the book, Markovits dips into research he did in St. Clair Shores, Michigan—a town that once benefited from the excellent wages of the Detroit auto industry—to quote people telling him about a gentler, less stratified middle-class life when you didn’t have to go to a fancy school to live well. Implicit in these portraits, and explicit by the end of the book, is a plea for the restoration of this good, middle-class, 1950s sort of life, when the gap between rich and middle class was smaller, and college admissions less competitive. Everyone, it seems, would be happier.

It’s an appealing idea, and one that belies any sense of history. The relative equality of midcentury was the result of a brutal struggle between capital and labor, one that, due to labor’s strength, resulted for a time in a decent postwar life for working-class people. Detroit was a prominent site of struggle. Everyone enjoyed a relatively robust welfare state and not-totally gutted labor law. The residents of St. Clair Shores weren’t beneficiaries of a kinder elite, but of a bloody labor struggle that had temporarily triumphed. Inflation benefited working people by making debt cheap and essentially transferred money from bondholders by depreciating financial assets. The revolt of capital following this period kicked off the transition to neoliberalism, a system in which the welfare state is pared back, privatizing risk, even as it remains active in the protection of markets.

The only successful assaults on inequality at midcentury, and the only successful ones of late, have been driven by populists. The very idea of the one percent, which Markovits uses throughout his book, was promoted by a populist movement widely decried by meritocrats who were frustrated that the protests lacked sophisticated policy solutions. And the desires of these populist movements have repeatedly been thwarted by the investment of mega-capitalists in politics, whether fomenting AstroTurfed anti-tax rebellions, or giving generously to politicians. Elite professionals know which side their bread is buttered on, and make huge salaries serving the interests of capital. It’s not impossible to imagine some of these elites coming over to the populist side, as happened during the New Deal, but if and when they do, it’ll be a measure of popular power, not because they’ve decided to sacrifice money and influence for vacation days.

In the end, Markovits has an oddly optimistic view of the elite that he is part of and that he trains at Yale. The compromise he proposes depends on it. “These hopes” of a great compromise, he writes, “invoke virtues—clarity of mind and the capacity to convert understanding into effective action—that are themselves commonly associated with meritocracy. And there is no contradiction in thinking that meritocracy might solve its own problem, unlock its own trap, to recover its original democratic promise and refashion an open, fair society whose elite does well by promoting the public good.” Markovits might have been well-served by paying more attention to Michael Young’s original satire of meritocracy, in which the elites, so sure of their own enlightenment, fail to see the revolt coming until it’s too late.