The term “meritocracy” was coined by a British sociologist who was mocking the very idea of it. In 1958, Michael Young published a book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, in which he vented his spleen at the notion of a social system designed to reward those who were already successful by dint of their lucky genes. Caustic Young’s intent may have been, but the word “meritocracy” was soon welcomed in the United States as a new name for an older idea: Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation whose citizens had formed a “natural aristocracy of talent and virtue” as opposed to the limited opportunities afforded those who lived among the hereditary aristocracies of Europe.
This understanding of the American Dream gave rise to the up-by-the-bootstraps heroes of Horatio Alger’s fiction in the 19th century and the vast motivational and entrepreneurial literature of the 20th, among other iterations.
Will it survive the 21st?
In the immediate aftermath of Operation Varsity Blues, the FBI sting operation that led to the arrest of 50 people for bribery and fraud for their efforts to get children into schools such as Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, and Yale University when they otherwise would not have been admitted, the verdict seemed clear: The college admissions game was rigged, and meritocracy is a myth.
The details revealed by the scandal did little to bolster any lingering faith in meritocratic ideals. Obsessive “snowplow” parents photoshopped their kids’ heads onto images of water-polo players and pole-vaulters to fake the athletic prowess their offspring lacked. Wealthy people spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a fake charity that used the money to hire corrupt test-takers to boost kids’ SAT scores. The scheme’s mastermind, Rick Singer, confidently told parents that for the right price, he could funnel them through a “side door” into competitive colleges—and he made good on his promises with the help of corrupt athletic coaches on several campuses.
Moderate-turned-radical labor historian Robert Reich may have sought to pin the scandal on every leftist’s favorite target by arguing that “in the age of Trump, it seems, everything is for sale,” but the corruption transcended partisan categories. Some of the parents arrested were outspoken liberals, including Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman. One of the men indicted, a private-equity-fund manager, was an advocate of ethical investing. No doubt some were also registered Republicans.
In a rare moment of ideological agreement in our polarized age, denunciations of meritocracy poured forth from both left and right. The American Conservative declared that “the myth of meritocracy may be our most pervasive and destructive belief,” while in the Guardian, socialist Nathan Robinson was blunter: “It’s simple,” he wrote, “wealth always confers greater capacity to give your children the edge over other people’s children.”
Critics such as these view meritocracy as an illegitimate process that justifies and perpetuates what they believe to be deep social inequalities and unfairness; some find even belief in the idea of meritocracy harmful. Clifton Mark, who writes about psychology, argued in Aeon that “a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical, and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.”
Is it? And if it is, then why are we not more eager to eliminate it? Maybe we will become so in the wake of this scandal, but the scandal itself reveals just how valuable and scarce the rewards of the meritocracy appear even to those who have already scaled it.
Like democracy, meritocracy has always been a confounding ideal because it is one that must be put into practice in the real world by flawed human beings. It’s an is (because we claim to live in a meritocracy) and an ought (because we want our system to reward hard work and talent) at the same time. It is something to which we aspire and something we want to describe the workings of our country at its best. And because we are fallen creatures, achieving both the is and the ought at the same time will always be corrupted by human efforts to gain advantage.
The majority of Americans still believe that talent and effort are, and should be, rewarded with success. A 2016 report on economic mobility by the Brookings Institution found that 69 percent of Americans believe that in our country, “people get rewarded for intelligence and skill,” while only 19 percent believe that “coming from a wealthy family is ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ to getting ahead.” If meritocracy is so bad, why do we still think it’s so good?
Critics of meritocracy are correct in pointing out that the current process of distributing meritocracy’s benefits in college admissions is severely compromised. Consider the many exceptions that aren’t illegal “side doors” that nevertheless give special consideration to applicants regardless of their merit: the children of alumni (legacy students), athletes, affirmative-action applicants, and the children of wealthy parents who pledge donations to the institutions where their children are applying, to name just a few. As Caitlin Flanagan wrote in the Atlantic about her experience as a college counselor at a tony private school in Los Angeles, “the system, even 25 years ago, was full of holes.”
Even those holes favor the wealthy—particularly the special consideration given to athletes who participate in sports such as sailing and water polo that only the wealthy can afford to play. It’s “affirmative action for the rich,” she writes. She also notes that savvy parents now game the system that allows students with diagnosed disabilities to have two days (rather than four hours) to take tests like the SAT, for example, and pay for expensive tutors and test-prep classes. Loopholes allow the Jared Kushners of the world to bypass standards thanks to their family’s money and so gain entrance to Harvard. On elite campuses, more students come from the top 1 percent (economically) than from the bottom 60 percent.
The impulse to keep out the riffraff isn’t new. The gatekeepers of the meritocracy have always known how to exploit their advantage. WASP elites in the early 20th century used deliberately vague standards to mask their anti-Semitic efforts to keep Jews out of the Ivy League; today, a new multicultural-minded elite plays a similar game in order to suppress the number of Asian-American students admitted (who, when judged purely on test scores and grades, consistently outperform their non-Asian peers).
But critics intent on radically reforming (or entirely dismantling) meritocracy face significant challenges of their own. A few years ago, Lani Guinier (a tenured Harvard Law School professor) criticized the existence of the system she herself had successfully summitted in a book titled The Tyranny of the Meritocracy. She argues for the replacement of what she awkwardly called the “testocratic merit” system (one reliant on standardized testing) with a “democratic merit” system that emphasized contributing to the “good of society”—a concept she does not thoroughly define.
Her solution at least retains some ideal of merit, but it introduces a new “side door”: a process even more amenable to manipulation than the current system by substituting vague sentiments for imperfect but nevertheless measurable things such as standardized test scores. Who decides what the “good of society” is, and how do they use that as a standard for selecting which 17- and 18-year-olds are likely to achieve it?
Similarly, socialists like Robinson who reject the very idea of meritocracy because, they argue, meritocracy is merely a lie the wealthy tell themselves to justify their privilege, have a misguided understanding of the zeitgeist. “The main function of the concept is to assure elites that they deserve their position in life,” he writes. “It eases the ‘anxiety of affluence,’ that nagging feeling that they might be the beneficiaries of the arbitrary ‘birth lottery’ rather than the products of their own individual ingenuity and hard work.”
But that’s not quite right. Indicted mom and Full House actress Lori Loughlin and her ilk clearly have anxiety, but it isn’t about their affluence, which they are happy to flaunt and spend; they are anxious lest their children fail to achieve the kind of respectable social status they believe a college degree would give them.
And yet, despite that anxiety, Loughlin ended up raising a daughter, Olivia Jade, who preferred to be an Instagram influencer who made makeup tutorials and did not seek to be a USC student climbing the ladder of the meritocracy. As we know from her videos, she grudgingly agreed to attend college so she could have the growth experience of attending sorority parties and tailgates. Olivia spent the first week of her ill-gotten college experience live-streaming her vacation in Fiji, and who can blame her? She doesn’t want to run the world; she wants to be a social-media star with her own makeup line at Sephora—and in true meritocratic fashion, she had achieved her aim at a startlingly young age, even without having set foot on a college campus.
However vapid Olivia Jade’s Instagram performances are, you can’t fault her entrepreneurial instincts. We live in a world that made Kylie Jenner a billionaire by the age of 21. People go to college marketing classes and attend two years of business school to figure out how to do what Olivia Jade had mastered without any of that before her 18th birthday.
Our culture might demand Stakhanovite work habits from the children of the elite who want to mimic their parents’ success by getting into Harvard; but it also makes popular heroes of (and lots of money for) YouTubers, reality-television stars, and the Insta-famous. What’s interesting is that Lori Loughlin did not respect her daughter’s undeniable entrepreneurial achievement because it did not fit in with the meritocratic ideal—an ideal Loughlin herself bypassed as a teenager when the success of her own modeling and acting career led her to forswear college altogether.
If you embrace the cynicism of those who argue that we should just admit that the whole system is rigged and start over, then you must still devise an alternative, one that recognizes the practical and cultural challenges of sorting and ranking our fellow citizens. How do we determine eligibility for college admission? Should social-justice concerns or economic hardship replace merit as an ideal? How, in this new and improved system, do we apportion praise for individual successes or assign blame for failures? It’s not an easy needle to thread. Recall that the same president (Barack Obama) whose educational program was called “Race to the Top” also told the people who had made it there as business owners, “You didn’t build that.”
If we abandon the ideal of meritocracy, what’s left are well-intentioned but mushy theories like Guinier’s, or top-down sorting by whatever self-appointed mandarin class has the most political power. The latter is the preferred solution of the progressive and socialist left. Complaining recently about the media’s tendency to label candidates like Democratic presidential aspirant Pete Buttigieg “smart,” Liza Featherstone of the socialist magazine Jacobin argued, “This notion of ‘smart’ allows elites to recast inequality as meritocracy. In this narrative, you’re rich because you did well in high school and went to Princeton, not because capitalism has taken something from someone else and given it to you.” She called for an end to “fetishizing” such “conventional manifestations” of merit as it “undermines the genuinely emancipatory politics of collective action.” Other American socialists agree. “If we wanted anything resembling a ‘meritocracy,’” Nathan Robinson writes, “we would probably have to start by instituting full egalitarian communism.”
As Tocqueville observed, “among democratic nations, new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition.” It’s a flawed and messy process, which is why the deserving don’t always receive their fair reward and the undeserving sometimes rise. Meritocracy is corruptible and sometimes counterproductive. It might even be, as Clifton Mark argues, “the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles.” But like democracy, which has also been accused of all these things, it’s still better than the alternatives.