We Can’t Let Meritocratic “Winners” Evade Responsibility for the System They Sustain

by Joseph Shieber

One of the masterful conceits of Socrates’s discussion of tyranny in Plato’s Republic is a surprising claim that Socrates makes at the outset of the dialogues, and one that serves as a guiding thread throughout. You would expect that if someone is going to criticize tyranny, they would do so because of the harms done to the victims of tyranny. But Socrates claims that he can show that tyranny actually harms the tyrant himself. In fact, Socrates even claims that the harms to the tyrant are greater than those done to his victims.

I thought of this brilliant rhetorical strategy as I read Daniel Markovits’s recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “Meritocracy’s Miserable Winners”.

Markovits deploys the Socratic maneuver from The Republic in service of a critique of meritocracy. The one side of the critique, that meritocracy harms those that it excludes from its gifts, is the one that you might expect. But the other side of the critique, that meritocracy harms its beneficiaries, those who reap enormous wealth and status from meritocratic institutions, is the one that might surprise you.

I want to get to the more original aspect of Markovits’s critique of meritocracy – his claim that it harms its beneficiaries – in a moment. But I first want to consider his critique of meritocracy on the basis of its harms to those excluded from its rewards.

You can see this – more predictable – indictment of meritocracy as a driver of inequality, for example, in this passage:

Today’s meritocrats still claim to get ahead through talent and effort, using means open to anyone. In practice, however, meritocracy now excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale collectively enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from households in the bottom 60 percent. Legacy preferences, nepotism, and outright fraud continue to give rich applicants corrupt advantages. But the dominant causes of this skew toward wealth can be traced to meritocracy. On average, children whose parents make more than $200,000 a year score about 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000. Only about one in 200 children from the poorest third of households achieves SAT scores at Yale’s median. Meanwhile, the top banks and law firms, along with other high-paying employers, recruit almost exclusively from a few elite colleges.

Before discussing this critique further, however, there’s a bit more work that needs to be done. Here’s why.

There’s much confusion in Markovits’s essay about what he means by “meritocracy”. In fact, I counted at least three distinct notions that he seems to conflate under the rubric, the first two of which are evident in the previous quote.

At many points in the essay, Markovits seems to be limiting his discussion to graduates of traditionally elite colleges and universities. He cites his own pedigree – Yale College, London School of Economics, Oxford, and Yale Law School. (I’m tired just typing all of that!) He mentions a few other elite institutions: Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago.

At other points, Markovits seems to be discussing the class of workaholic professionals. He singles out lawyers, bankers, and managers for most of his discussion. Sometimes, he seems not to be considering the professional class as a whole. Instead, he seems to be focusing in particular on those lawyers, bankers, and managers who are concentrated in relatively few metropolitan areas in the United States – those lawyers, bankers, and managers who work for “high-paying employers”, recruited from those same “few elite colleges” that Markovits lists.

At still other points, Markovits seems to be referring simply to “the rich”, as when he asks, “what, exactly, have the rich won? Even meritocracy’s beneficiaries now suffer on account of its demands. It ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest …”

Strikingly, given the fact that the uniqueness of Markovits’s discussion stems from his pointing out the way that meritocracy harms the meritocrats themselves, all of Markovits’s solutions focus more on ways to help the have-nots, rather than the haves.

Markovits suggests two specific solutions:

1. Expanding educational access to elite institutions, and

2. Opening mid-level technical opportunities to workers without professional degrees (nurse practitioners or physicians’ assistants, rather than doctors, for example, or “legal technicians” rather than lawyers with J.D. degrees.)

These solutions seem fine, as far as they go, but it is doubtful that they go nearly far enough.

For example, think about the first suggestion. In particular, think about the first sense of “meritocracy” that Markovits sometimes has in mind. In this sense, meritocrats are alumni of a few select institutions – Harvard, Princeton, Yale and a handful of others.

The alumni of such institutions make up a vanishingly small percentage of the total number of college and university graduates in the United States. Even if all of the places at such institutions were converted into spaces for applicants from the lowest economic quintile, that would not affect a significant number of such students, relative to the overall population. (For some perspective, it is expected that colleges and universities will award approximately 2 million undergraduate degrees in 2019-20. Even if we expand Markovits’s list, those elite institutions will account for only a few percent of that total.)

This is not to say that such elite institutions shouldn’t do a better job of increasing access to lower- – and even middle- – income students. But it would be far more effective to reverse the decreases in funding at public institutions of higher education across the country, and to increase support for students interested in taking courses at community colleges. Indeed, a recent study suggests that even students who only take a few college courses – and, significantly, leave without gaining any credential – nevertheless reap economic and employment benefits from their experience.

Most significantly of all, though, Markovits’s suggestions do virtually nothing to address the vast gulf that now exists between the wealthy and the rest of the country – the third sense of “meritocracy” that Markovits sometimes employs. And it is doubtful that any notion of merit can justify current levels of inequality. In the face of such a staggering imbalance, Markovits’s suggestion that meritocracy’s winners succeed by dint of “extracting their human capital” rings hollow at a time when, as Robert Reich put it in a recent essay, “Just to catch up to what their CEO made in 2018 alone, it would take the typical worker 158 years.”

So much, then, for the less original element of Markovits’s critique of meritocracy. He’s right that meritocracy fails the system’s “losers”. However, his solutions seem strangely inadequate for dealing with the problem, and his way of describing the system’s “winners” seems to underemphasize to the ways in which they owe those winnings to entrenched advantages, connections, and luck.

What of the more original component of Markovits’s critique? Is he correct that meritocratic systems harm the winners, as well as the losers? I’m not convinced.

In fact, I’m worried that this component, though it distinguishes Markovits’s work from the many other contemporary indictments of meritocracy, merely serves to absolve the winners – those invested in the survival of the meritocratic systems in which they thrive – of responsibility for perpetuating those regimes.

It seems to me that Markovits’s strategy of seeing the winners of meritocratic social structures as just so many more victims is one more example of Baudelaire’s bon diable. In other words, the greatest trick the meritocrats could effect would be to convince us that they are the losers of the meritocracy.

I’m not the only one who is troubled by the ways that meritocratic winners might seek to absolve themselves of responsibility by, in essence, disguising their complicity in maintaining existing power structures. In a striking essay, recent Yale grad Natasha Dashan put the point this way:

If you were the ruler while everything was burning around you, and you didn’t know what to do, what would you do? You would deny that you are in charge. And you would recuperate the growing discontented masses into your own power base, so things stay comfortable for you.

Conor Friedersdorf, echoing Dashan, cites Yuval Levin, who argues that

Many of today’s faux rebels, however, actually do have power, they just pretend they don’t to avoid being constrained by responsibility even as they deploy that power. This distorts their power, and corrupts the social space in which it should be exercised.

Friedersdorf doesn’t link to the source essay, which is here. In it, Levin decries the ways, that, in institutions on the Right and the Left,

… the people in charge still manage to just behave like outsiders and complain about their own institutions as if they were someone else’s responsibility.

I found this same evasion of responsibility in Markovits’s analysis of the ways in which the winners supposedly suffer from meritocracy’s effects. Although Markovits briefly mentions “nepotism and other disgraceful forms of elite advantage-taking”, he focuses far more on the ways in which meritocrats and their children expend enormous effort to maintain their position and status.

The implication the reader is intended to draw is that meritocracy’s winners earn their achievements; the price they pay is just too high. Markovits’s tone is admiring, if pitying. He romanticizes what he sees as meritocratic self-sacrifice.

For example, when discussing the meritocratic lawyers, bankers, and managers, Markovits decries their tireless working hours:

In 1962, when many elite lawyers earned roughly a third of what they do today, the American Bar Association could confidently declare, “There are … approximately 1,300 fee-earning hours per year” available to the normal lawyer. In 2000, by contrast, a major law firm pronounced with equal confidence that a quota of 2,400 billable hours, “if properly managed,” was “not unreasonable,” which is a euphemism for “necessary for having a hope of making partner.” Because not all the hours a lawyer works are billable, billing 2,400 hours could easily require working from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. six days a week, every week of the year, without vacation or sick days. In finance, “bankers’ hours”—originally named for the 10-to-3 business day fixed by banks from the 19th century through the mid-20th century and later used to refer more generally to any light work—have given way to the ironically named “banker 9-to-5,” which begins at 9 a.m. on one day and runs through 5 a.m. on the next. Elite managers were once “organization men,” cocooned by lifelong employment in a corporate hierarchy that rewarded seniority above performance. Today, the higher a person climbs on the org chart, the harder she is expected to work.

Not romanticized enough for you? There’s this – is it Kafkaesque? – imagery of the meritocratic elite consuming themselves:

A person who extracts income and status from his own human capital places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others—he uses himself up.

And there’s the fear that all of this sacrifice is at the altar of false idols:

Meritocracy traps entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry but never finding, or even knowing, the right food.

Yup, Kafkaesque, definitely. The meritocrat as hunger artist.

At the outset of her essay, Natasha Dashan tells the story of meeting a friend of hers outside of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, Yale’s gothic-architectured homage to the ideal of mens sana in corpore sano:

When I hugged him, he felt skeletal. I asked if he had eaten today. He assured me that his earthly requirements were limited—no need for anything other than alcohol and cigarettes. “I can buy you a sandwich.” He refused. I insisted. A nice one. Bacon and egg. Or steak and cheese. …

He turned his face towards me, warm with friendliness—and with one sentence, he changed our relationship forever.

“You know I’m rich, right?”


“You know I have a trust fund, right? I can buy my own sandwich if I wanted it.”

This is the moment when after three years of friendship, Marcus sat down and told me his life story. His cottages in Norway. Sneaking into the family study. Learning about the cost of hardwoods and hearing his boorish, critical father sulk in 5-star hotel rooms.

Marcus did not act this way out of anxiety, grief, stress, or because he had nobody to tell him his habits will kill him. He lived as a starving writer not out of necessity, but for the aesthetic.

Dashan excuses her friend too readily at the end of that passage. His pose is not aesthetic – or not merely aesthetic. By affecting poverty, he’s disguising the extent to which he is invested in maintaining the status quo, in which trust fund kids have the luxury of playing at being down-and-out.

In fact, for all of the hand-wringing in Markovits’s essay about how bad the victors of our meritocratic system have it, I couldn’t take their plight all that seriously. All of their activity, the applications to ten different preschools, the after-school activities for the kids, the late nights at the office, the business trips, it’s all just more types of luxury goods or experiences to distinguish themselves from the “losers”.

Whereas the plight of meritocracy’s victims involves real suffering, and the solutions to that plight involve political struggle and systemic change, the answer to the “plight” of meritocracy’s winners is surprisingly easy, if never explicitly stated by Markovits. Just. Stop.

[Note: the image at the heading of this essay is an illustration by Andrzey Plosky for Kafka’s Ein Hungerkünstler.]