Why merit can’t end social inequality

It’s Tempting To Think A Society Governed By Merit Is Fairer, But It Creates New Class Distinctions, And The Elite Corner All The Respect And Rewards

New elite: Easy access to college helps poor people raise their social status, but later, they become like the old upper classes, always trying to keep others down. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Don’t you wish your country were a meritocracy, a society in which power and privilege are earned, not inherited? Nepotism would end. Political dynasties would disappear. Maybe not, Michael Young, the British ‘practical sociologist’ who coined the term ‘meritocracy’, cautioned years ago.

Young said a meritocracy would create its own social classes, discrimination and no-go zones, just like the class structures of British society, and India’s caste system. Time has proved him right.

Consider what happened in the US and the UK towards the end of WWII. The working-class life improved with shorter work hours and better healthcare. The biggest change was that workers could afford college. Soon, “one of the main indicators of class was increasingly whether you had been to university,” writes philosopher and novelist Kwame Anthony Appiah in The New York Review of Books.

Factory workers’ children could become engineers and doctors, professors and bankers. At last, there was class mobility. “For a couple of generations afterward, these efforts at social reform both protected members of the working classes and allowed more of their children to make the move up the hierarchy of occupations and of income, and so, to some degree, of status.”

But only for a couple of generations. Your grandfather was a coal miner, your father worked in a mill, and you became a professor. Then you married a professor. Your social circle now includes other professors, doctors, lawyers, researchers, but no coal miners or mill workers. Because you didn’t get your position through family position or connections, you also have a huge sense of entitlement.

In a meritocracy, merit means “IQ + effort”. Since society has acknowledged your merit, you believe your success is a “just reward”, and there’s no limit to what you deserve. “So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.” Meanwhile, those who have been failing in exams are by now convinced of their lack of worth.

See, how ‘merit’ has created two new social classes? One gets all the social respect, dignity and loads of money. The other is poor and looked down upon. And what do the new elite do? They use their wealth and connections to advance their children. Nepotism is back.

As Yale law professor Daniel Markovits says, American meritocracy has “become precisely what it was invented to combat: a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations.” Top US universities “take more students from the top 1% of the income distribution than from the bottom 60%,” writes Appiah. The “mechanisms of mobility have become fortresses of privilege.”

Perhaps, you think, there is a defect in the type of meritocracy we have created. It needs improvement. No, said Young, the problem is not with the distribution of the rewards of merit, but the rewards themselves. “The ideal of meritocracy, Young understood, confuses two different concerns. One is a matter of efficiency; the other is a question of human worth.”

For example, we need a test of merit to identify who will make a better doctor, because seats in medical colleges are few. But those who qualify are not worthier humans than those who don’t. We need merit for efficiency, but it should not breed “contempt for those who are disfavoured by the ethic of effortful competition.”

For more: The New York Review of Books