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The Marxist Case Against Meritocracy Has No Merit

A new book criticizing the modern economy makes no allowance for personal agency or responsibility.
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The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, by Daniel Markovits, Penguin Press, 448 pages

One way to tell the history of the last millennium or so—the way Alexis de Tocqueville did—is to describe a transition from aristocracy to democracy. In the old days, some people had the goods, some didn’t, and that was that; you were born into a class, and nothing you could do would get you out of it. But gradually we entered a new regime, in which people were freed from caste and custom to do what they wanted. Freedom, equality, the opportunity to succeed through hard work—these sound not too bad. As Tocqueville saw, however, this world altogether new would have costs as well as benefits. So how has our regime of meritocracy, in which effort and ability rather than lineage rule the day, worked out?

According to Daniel Markovits, terribly. In his book The Meritocracy Trap, he sets out to reveal, as the subtitle puts it, “how America’s foundational myth feeds inequality, dismantles the middle class, and devours the elite.” Markovits, a law professor at Yale, seeks to show how a system that rewards skill and grit, and that seems to give each his due, produces not the just society we might have expected, but rather a new form of servitude.

Though meritocracy might sound like an ideal worthy of our aspirations—surely the best applicant, not the one with the right connections, ought to get the job?—Markovits argues that it is in fact the cause of many of our greatest maladies. It has turned our economy into a winner-take-all tournament, with a few “glossy” jobs at the top, many “gloomy” jobs at the bottom, and little in between. Upward mobility is down, inequality is up, and now we don’t even have an excuse for our failures; the highly skilled and educated worked their way to the top and we didn’t.

Criticism of how the little man fares in the modern economy is nothing new. But Markovits’ contribution is novel in two respects. First, he insists that the problems we face result from meritocracy itself, rather than its absence. As he puts it, “The central tragedy of the age reflects meritocracy’s triumph. Meritocracy—not by betraying its ideals but rather by realizing them—imposes a caste order that equality’s champions should condemn.” This is a bold claim. Unlike, say, Richard Reeves’ Dream Hoarders, a particularly good contribution to the genre, The Meritocracy Trap insists that the greatest problems we face stem not from abuses of the system, but from the system itself. There are no two ways around it: “each according to his means” just can’t create a prosperous society for all.

Or even for some, in Markovits’s telling. Even more provocatively, unlike other critics, Markovits insists that meritocracy is not working out even for the winners. You might think the poor have it bad. But in this story, it’s the elites who are the truly wretched. Caught in a grueling fight-to-the-death competition, from a selective pre-school to prep school to an Ivy League to a lucrative but demanding job to an even worse promotion, these victors are too exhausted ever to enjoy their spoils. Make even one misstep—one failed course, one botched internship—and they will fall from their thrones, condemned to misery among the proles.

In his attempt to stand up for the big man, Markovits alternates between a Marxist-Freudian diagnosis, a barrage of statistics, and harrowing tales of the elites’ plight. Talk of alienation from one’s labor, inauthenticity, and the lumpenproletariat abounds. The elites are too busy and stressed to become their true selves: “A person whose wealth and status depend almost entirely on her human capital simply cannot afford to consult her own interests or passions in choosing her job—far too much rides on training and work to indulge curiosity or pursue a calling or vocation.” Say what you want about the unemployed, at least they have time for their hobbies.

Coming down from high theory, Markovits unleashes a deluge of statistics. He illustrates how human capital and education have become more important in this economy, with “skills-biased technological change” greatly rewarding those who “learn to code” (or consult or invest). The Meritocracy Trap is full of economic facts one forgets immediately upon reading—for example, “only about one worker in fifty from the bottom half of the educational distribution makes more than the median worker from the top tenth”—with even more in the enormous endnotes section. Providing some welcome relief are anecdotes about the elite’s obsession with work and the ways it wrecks them. Stories of 20-hour workdays and parents allocating 10 minutes for their children daily are certainly alarming, although these are surely the worst cases Markovits could find rather than the norm.

Amid this intimidating brew of psychoanalysis, statistics, and horror stories, Markovits rightly emphasizes how novel our current situation is. When Thorstein Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, work and busyness were antithetical to elite life. But “The social order that Veblen discerned, which had been stable across a millennium, has within a century been turned on its head: aristocrats yield to meritocrats, and the leisured elite gives way to the superordinate working class.” One question on this point that Markovits might have broached is what meritocracy means for the arts. If leisure is, as philosopher Josef Pieper wrote, “the basis of culture,” then a society without leisure must be one without culture. Does Markovits think we are producing great artists and writers today? We don’t know.

But perhaps it’s just as well that this question doesn’t come up, as the diagnosis is already too long, with an unfortunate amount of repetition. Nevertheless, it eventually comes time for the prescription. What’s to be done?

In the final pages, Markovits makes two major proposals: removing tax-exempt status from private colleges and universities unless at least half of their students come from families in the bottom two thirds of the income distribution, and encouraging through additional public spending colleges and universities to expand enrollments. Coming after a wholesale indictment of our society, these suggestions are bewildering. Shoveling yet more money into universities and getting a few more poor kids into Harvard will right the ship of state? If Markovits’ dramatic premise is correct—that our entire regime rests on the worship of a false god—then tinkering around the edges like this, whatever merit it might have in principle, is worthless. Forget fiddling with the tax code; it’s time to storm the Bastille!

Happily, we can put away the guillotines, because his premise is not correct. The elites may imagine they’re trapped in their C-Suite cages, but there’s no lock on the door. The consultants, investment bankers, and, one might add, Ivy League professors, who work so hard and are paid so well, do not deserve our sympathy, for the simple reason that if they don’t enjoy their jobs, they can quit. This possibility never seems to occur to Markovits. True to his Marxist affinities, he does not have any place in his story for individual agency: “Highlighting individual actions ignores the deeper structures within which people act.” This is a convenient way to get off the hook, but outside the deeper structures of elite higher education, personal responsibility remains widely recognized as an important virtue. If an overworked CEO steps down to spend more time with his family, kudos to him; if he does not, a poor personal life is his own fault.

Markovits’ book does pose an important question: what are we to make of these members of the bourgeois whose “lives [are] devoid of everything but work”? But if the crisis of our age is as great as he says, it deserves a more penetrating assessment than he can provide. Markovits never escapes the dilemma he sets for himself: any society must allocate scarce resources, be they material goods or intangibles like honor, somehow, and if it does not do so according to merit, it must do so according to something else. But what? A book that managed to make a convincing case for something new, beyond aristocracy and meritocracy alike—now that would be evidence of merit.

Robert Bellafiore is a congressional staffer. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal.