In 2015, Daniel Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, delivered a commencement address to that year’s graduating class in which he attacked the idea of meritocracy. It was, he said, a gilded cage that imprisons the elite and leaves the rest feeling excluded and undervalued. For Markovits to make these remarks at one of the cathedrals of the meritocratic church — students at Yale typically score above the 99th percentile in the nationwide Law School Admissions Test — was a kind of heresy and it attracted enough attention for him to secure a book deal. Four years later, The Meritocracy Trap is the result.
It is essentially a fleshing out of the argument he made in 2015, although he says in the acknowledgments that he’s been thinking about the subject for two decades. For Markovits, meritocracy didn’t begin with the Northcote-Trevelyan Report in 1854, which made entry into the Civil Service dependent on competitive examinations, but is a more recent phenomenon. At least it is in the United States, which is the focus of this book.
To hear Markovits tell it, meritocracy is the serpent that ruined the pastoral idyll that was America in the middle of the last century. Not that everything was rosy in the garden. He’s careful to note that racial prejudice was widespread in the 1950s — he describes racism as America’s ‘original sin’ — as was discrimination based on ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. But among the white, church-going masses, class differences were minimal and, for the most part, the nation was infused with an air of democratic equality that created a sense of mutual belonging.
Back then, economic inequality was low-end rather than high-end; that is, the gulf between the middle class and the poor was greater than that between the middle class and the rich. And, as the ‘American Century’ rolled on, a ‘War on Poverty’ (1964) was declared and the problem of persistent, inter-generational deprivation was much reduced, if not eliminated. Poverty is now at between a half and a sixth of its midcentury level, depending on how you measure it.
Unfortunately, the introduction of meritocratic admissions policies at Yale and other elite universities in the 1960s — and the concomitant growth of graduate schools, particularly in medicine, business and the law — led to the emergence of a wealthy, meritocratic elite which now constitutes a modern-day aristocracy. And that is nothing short of a catastrophe, according to Markovits.
Today, the top 1 percent of American households now earn about 20 percent of the total income and the top 0.1 percent earns about 10 percent. That’s double the share earned by the top 1 percent in the period between 1950 and 1970 and triple the share earned by the top 0.1 percent. But as the salaries of those at the top have skyrocketed, median incomes have remained largely stagnant, creating a yawning chasm between the highest earners and the rest. 2015 marked the first year since John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society (1958) in which a majority of Americans could no longer call themselves middle class.
Markovits lays nearly all of America’s contemporary problems at meritocracy’s door, from the rising suicide rate among middle-aged white men to the fact that women with a high-school education or less have more than half of their children out of wedlock (compared with just 3 percent of women with a college degree). And he’s adamant that there are no compensating benefits, such as an increase in social mobility. As far as that’s concerned, meritocracy has been an abject failure. ‘At Harvard and Yale, more students come from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half,’ he writes.
Gaining admission to the best universities and graduate schools is a racket, according to Markovits. The meritocratic elite have become masters at passing on their privilege to their children, not via tax-efficient trust funds, but through expenditure on education. Whether it’s paying for ‘education consultants’ to help get their four-year-olds into New York pre-schools that charge upwards of $50,000 a year, raising money to build lavish new facilities at exclusive high schools in affluent suburbs, or shelling out $100,000 on private tutors, the super-rich will do whatever they can to purchase a competitive advantage for their children. In total, he estimates that America’s status-obsessed overlords spend around $10 million more on education per child than the average middle-class family.
But the most striking part of Markovits’s argument is the misery he claims this system inflicts on its supposed beneficiaries. In 1962, the American Bar Association declared that there were 1,300 billable hours per year available to the normal lawyer. Today, at a top law firm, employees on the partner track are expected to bill 2,400 hours a year. ‘Billing 2,400 hours requires working from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., six days a week, without vacation or sick days, every week of the year,’ he writes. Some law firms require associates, even partners, to work 100 hours a week and one analyst at an investment bank claimed to have worked 155 hours in a single week, leaving him with just 13 hours for everything else, including sleep. Needless to say, these poor drudges are afflicted with a long list of ailments, from anxiety and depression to a lack of Vitamin D.
The weakest part of the book is the final chapter, entitled ‘What should we do?’ Having concluded this blistering polemic against meritocracy — ‘unprecedented resentment’, ‘near-universal harm’, ‘two faces of a single calamity’ — Markovits then makes two rather anaemic proposals. The solution to this pestilence, apparently, is to remove the tax breaks from private schools and colleges unless they admit half their students from families in the bottom two thirds of the income distribution, and to reform payroll taxes so employers have an incentive to create more middle-class jobs. Not sure that will be enough to slay the beast.
The Meritocracy Trap is an entertaining read, full of useful facts, and contains some penetrating insights into the shortcomings of what amounts to a secular religion, not just in America but across the West. As a critique of the concept, it’s not quite up there with The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), my father’s book in which he coined the word, but will force apologists like me to think hard about how best to defend it. It won’t be easy.