Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out.
Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity. According to one study, only one out of every 100 children born into the poorest fifth of households, and fewer than one out of every 50 children born into the middle fifth, will join the top 5 percent. Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor. Meritocracy frames this exclusion as a failure to measure up, adding a moral insult to economic injury.
Do people who believe in "personal responsibility" (typically code for "you're-on-your-own"ism
a society where only a small percentage can succeed, and the rest flame out or live (or die) in poverty?
The problem isn't meritocracy per se
; it's a combination of:
- most of what is called "meritocratic" actually isn't
- there are multiple dimensions of merit, and most "meritocracy" only looks at a few of them
- the bar keeps being raised on what level of merit is adequate in order to live reasonably well (basically, society moving the goalposts)
We are accustomed to thinking that reducing inequality requires burdening the rich. But because meritocratic inequality does not in fact serve anyone well, escaping meritocracy’s trap would benefit virtually everyone.
A rat race isn't fun for anyone, even those in the lead.