Solomon Medintz: The tyranny of meritocracy is all around us

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 5:02pm

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Almost every time I ask someone how they are doing during this gloomy, midterm-filled week, they respond with “tired.” This response bothers me because it is hard to respond to and it is often said to prove how hard people are working. I am sympathetic because hard work has become a tool not only for individuals to satisfy their own guilt and anxieties, but also because it is a prerequisite for high social status in the pseudo-meritocracy we are being groomed to join. However, blame for this toxic culture does not fall onto the individuals that feed it. Rather, it is the fault of the narratives of meritocracy and equal opportunity that serve to reinforce social hierarchies. 

This type of anti-overwork thinking is in right now. One of the most anticipated social science books this year was Daniel Markovits’ “The Meritocracy Trap.” In it, Markovits argues the illusion of contemporary meritocracy makes the extreme levels of inequality and societal hierarchies we experience today more sustainable. He points out that this meritocratic justification is fundamentally different than the arguments used to sustain inequality in the past. In the 1800s, the wealthy worked far less than the poor; it was obvious that social status was undeserved. The rich were true capitalists, just sitting on their slowly growing wealth and land. However, this blatant inequity made anti-elitist movements easy to get behind. Today, the landscape has shifted. Instead of physical capital to solidify their social status, the wealthy now have human capital, and importantly, the ability to work longer hours. Leisure used to be a sign of privilege and esteem, but it is now looked down upon as lazy. The wealthy work as much as they want to, while the poor struggle to find work. This system creates the illusion that the wealthy deserve their elevated social standing because they work hard, protecting themselves from criticism. 

Though the arguments made to justify social hierarchy have changed dramatically, the people making the arguments have stayed the same, revealing that the difference between the two is actually quite small. Not only does the United States’ enormous wealth gap obliterate the possibility of equal opportunity before birth, but research shows that there is a strong relationship between parent and child income. 

Meritocracy has been co-opted by inherited wealth to sustain itself, creating a more sustainable version of gross inequality while attacking class consciousness. One example is the arguments often made by the white-working class against affirmative action. According to “The Hidden Injuries of Class,” a famous sociological study, the white-working class often say there is enough equal opportunity in the United States such that everyone should be able to support themselves without assistance. But this viewpoint supports the inequality and social hierarchies that have themselves decimated rural populations by implicitly saying that they do not deserve the opportunities they do not have. 

Even efforts to attack the meritocracy subtly sustain it. For example, effective altruism — a philosophy which advocates for the rich to give all their money beyond what they need to survive to the most needy — attacks the meritocracy by saying that individuals should give their money away to those who need it more. Implicit in this ideology is that people with money do not necessarily deserve their money or are obligated to give it away. But this philosophy sneakily supports the idea that individuals are the best decision-makers for their money and fails to bring about systemic changes in the way wealth is distributed beyond individual altruism. Another example is the revitalized academic focus on working less. While externally these efforts attack the meritocracy, most of these writers (myself included) are white men, implying that our efforts may just be the facade for white economic anxiety over a diversifying America and the #MeToo era. 

Markovits acknowledges that one interpretation of his argument is that elites should not have to work as hard as they do to attain their social status. While Markovits does not ask readers to sympathize with the rich, he argues that the rich too are hurt by the meritocracy, which means that there is an opportunity for it to change. But even if the rich suffer from overwork, they are actually benefiting from the meritocracy because it legitimizes their social status. 

I should perhaps not be writing this because I fall victim to these same trends. I consistently overschedule myself, I am in more than three active Slack channels and I feel the need to take as many credits as I can — even this article was finished days after the original due date. But I find that though I have thought about these issues for a long time and believe we should be doing less, I cannot bring myself to actually do it. I think it is because overwork is a collective action problem. It is hard for any one person to unilaterally work less within a culture that glorifies work like we do. And yet, it is also true that some people do not perform their work and need to be pushing themselves as much as possible for any myriad of reasons. It comes from a remarkable place of privilege to be able to work or not work as much as I want to based on my philosophical inclinations. 

And yet, I feel compelled to write about this because I and those whom I love are victims to this culture on a smaller scale. We conceive our value based on the systems in which we exist — grades, scholarships, whether we get the next leadership position — but so often these systems are false meritocracies.

The psychology seems similar to the way Americans think about school systems. When parents are polled on perceived quality of American schools, they consistently think the education system is terrible, but their children’s schools are great. 

That is similarly true for illusions of meritocracy. Americans are increasingly worried about inequality of opportunity on a country-scale, yet we continue to believe in our local institutions and systems. The two cannot both be true, so we should apply our scrutiny of false meritocracies consistently. We should tone down our high-level criticism over larger issues of false meritocracy, and recommit to identifying those right around us.

Solomon Medintz can be reached at smedintz@umich.edu.