“I’ve long thought that ‘meritocracy’ is the opium of the technocrats.”*
In his recent book, Twilight of the Elites, journalist and author Chris Hayes explores one of the most prevalent but most farcical myths that has pervaded the American ethos for the past two centuries: the meritocracy.
Meritocracy. That’s the most basic component of the American Dream, isn’t it? The idea that anyone, if he or she works hard enough and is competent enough, is able to climb the socioeconomic ladder to a point that is desirable enough to live a comfortable and easily fulfilling life. It is that on which our country’s entire historical self-image is based; we are supposed to be the melting pot of hard work and opportunity for all.
But even if the meritocracy was more than just an idea in America (and it was not) — especially during the latter years of the industrial revolution, a period of which immigration from Europe and bootstrap-style rising up the ranks has been permanently romanticized — if we think about it in today’s context, it is almost impossible that any semblance of meritocracy as we conceive of existing a hundred years ago should have lasted until now. It defies what Hayes calls “The Iron Law of Meritocracy.”
The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility.Those who are able to climb up the latter will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy.”
So if a true meritocracy ever existed in America, it would have evaporated long ago as the original winners of the game made themselves at home at the top of the food chain. That makes complete sense if we read between the lines of today’s meritocratic rhetoric. Rarely do we hear of today’s business elite and top politicians speak of their struggle to the top. It always goes something like, “My grandfather was a hard-working [insert traditional blue-collar job] in [insert obscure blue-collar town] who, through grit and perseverance, struggled his way to the top to make a better life for himself and his family. If he can do it, anybody can do it.”
Putting aside the history of gender inequality that that statement blatantly ignores, with all due respect to Mr. Suit’s grandfather, that’s not how the system works anymore, partially because it never worked like that and partially because people like his grandfather unwittingly rigged away whatever meritocracy ever actually existed in it. We almost never hear the moralistic patronizing from elites who actually started at the bottom and made it to the top in today’s America (see The Other Wes Moore) because, more likely than not, they know that they got lucky, that they got a shot to use their talents in a society that systematically prevents people like them from making it big in a respectable way.
There are countless examples of sectors within American society that embody this model of empty meritocracy. Hayes specifically points to education. Before the invention of the SAT, WASPy bums with “C” averages were making it into the country’s elite colleges because of their parents’ money and alumni connections. With the establishment of the educational meritocracy, hard-working European Jews and Catholics “began to flow into the Ivy League, and the newcomers permanently transformed the makeup of the American elite.” But before the social scene in the U.S. could catch up to make higher education almost completely merit-based, the Iron Law of Meritocracy brought the system full circle. SAT prep is now a multi-million dollar industry, and rich kids can even be tutored to success in the standardized tests that are being used in admissions decisions for high-quality “merit-based” middle and high schools, leaving the poor to the misery that is non-affluent American public education and few options for higher ed.
Although education is the keystone to the meritocracy farce, business, too, is seeing concrete manifestations of elitism and aristocracy. Networking in business education has become all the rage, and business professors are unapologetically preaching the mantra, “It’s who you know, not what you know.” They are the graduates from a select few top business schools who get the most sought-after and well-compensated finance and accounting jobs, and it is not only because of the quality of their education. They are also given the proper connections, and the people already at the top of the business world are willing to selectively lower the ladder for their protégés at so-and-so university.
Thus, as the Iron Law of Meritocracy has worked its magic, and the popular American ethos has done little to adapt to the reality, an aristocracy of elites that disguises itself as the group of winners of a fair meritocracy has formed and ingrained itself into the permanent American social structure. It is an elitocracy, and it projects its control onto the American consent. It may receive its fair share of flak from enlightened dissenters and the jealous, but by-and-large, in the unwritten history books of popular American morality, the elitocracy wins materially and in the hearts and minds of the people, leaving the poor without material, chided and reproached, the sore losers of a game they didn’t actually have a chance to play.
*Wise words from my mentor, Dr. Eugene McCarraher of the Villanova University Humanities Department.