The United States has had one constant story about itself: That it is, above all else, a land of opportunity. A true meritocracy.
Anyone, regardless of where you come from, has the same opportunity to climb the metaphorical social ladder through hard work, talent, and merit. While meritocracy may seem noble and just, its proponents miss the implicit insult: That if you are not successful, at least in the way capitalism defines success, it is your fault. Regardless of the circumstances, you weren’t smart enough or didn't work hard enough. How we view our supposed meritocratic hierarchy and our role within it has far-reaching social and political implications.
It begs the question: Is a true meritocracy achievable, and if so, is it desirable?
In the early 2010s, Stanford University conducted a psychological experiment in which 100 pairs of strangers were brought together to play a game of Monopoly. For those unfamiliar, Monopoly is a board game invented by a socialist to convey the flaws of capitalism. In this experiment, a coin was flipped to determine which player was given a few distinct advantages. The rich player was given more money to start with, allowed to roll two dice instead of one, and received double the payout every time they passed GO. As you can imagine, it didn't take long for this game to become a massacre.
What was most interesting about this is how the rich player began to behave. The player became more boastful, both verbally and nonverbally. They smacked their piece louder on the board, talked trash more frequently and generally became less empathetic to the poor player. They even took more pretzels from the communal bowl. After the game was over, the people conducting the experiment asked the rich player why they won. Rather than pointing to the obvious, the random coin flip that granted them the in-game advantage, players spoke about shrewd moves they made, the property they'd bought, and spots they landed on or avoided at the right time. They pointed, in short, to themselves.
This experiment not only showed the ill effects financial success can have on our psyche, but it is also a great example of our need to justify our success as a product of our merit. To explain the inequality within our neoliberal society, those at the top need to reaffirm their position at the top of the hierarchy. Their position isn't the result of privilege or luck but is proof of their merit.
Take for example the college admission scandal from a few years back. Rich and famous parents were caught buying their children’s way into prestigious universities. This ranged from buying guaranteed high test scores to faking athletic achievements for scholarships. Why were these parents doing this? University degrees can be useful for preventing downward mobility, but if you have $500,000 to spend on fake athletic records, is economic anxiety the motivating factor? Probably not. The deeper reason these parents were willing to commit fraud is the idea of buying into the meritocracy. The notion that society may look at their children and say they didn't earn what they have is so awful these parents would commit a felony to prevent it. Upholding our bad-faith meritocracy was that important to these wealthy families.
The focus on higher education as the arbiter of merit obscures a few simple truths about our society. One, education itself is not meritocratic – not even close. Good grades, high test scores, and extracurricular achievements are as much a measure of opportunity as an outcome. Access to tutors, good primary education, and supportive home life are in themselves privileges not everyone has access to. The emphasis on a four-year degree as the key to a successful life, “what you learn is what you earn” as neoliberal truther Bill Clinton put it, implies that those without a degree are undeserving of a successful life.
Two-thirds of Americans don't have a college degree. An economic system that tells two-thirds of a populace that they aren’t “worthy” is untenable. It also happens to breed the kind of deep-seated resentment that has fueled class dealignment over the past decade.
Within our capitalist system, meritocracy supposedly plays out in the “free market.” Proponents of this system argue that the invisible hand of the market will reward the ideas and products that have the most societal benefit. It doesn't take much digging to see this is a lie. One only has to look at the difference in salary for teachers compared to hedge fund managers. Capitalism, in its purest form, values profit at the cost of human well being. We are only valuable insofar as our ability to contribute to the capitalist system. That’s why not being able to contribute is a death sentence.
This way of evaluating human merit misses so much of what it is to be human. We are more than our careers or the material possessions we’re able to buy. We are individuals. We value relationships and have different passions and interests. We evolve to have different values and priorities over time. Most of this is immeasurable in terms of goods and services or profitability, but it is at the heart of being human. The bad faith of American meritocracy tells us to measure our worth in how much we earn or what we buy rather than the positive impact we have on those around us.
If merit and virtue are measured in material success, it reinforces the notion that the downtrodden are deserving of their place and are without merit. After all, if you worked for everything you have, why should you feel bad for those who are too lazy to do the same? This false meritocracy, steeped in the bad faith of a make-believe reality of the deserving and the undeserving, has the effect of making the people at the top of our social hierarchy less empathetic to the unwashed masses. It can also make those masses believe cultural and intellectual elites look down on them. Because, well, a lot of them do.
This opens the door for bad-faith right-wing “populists” to weaponize this discontent and appear to be fighting for the lower classes, as Donald Trump – a billionaire casino magnate who had everything given to him by his nazi-adoring father – has done for the past eight years with astounding success. But Americans have internalized the idea of meritocracy. It's part of our national DNA. This is why Trump is viewed by many as the meritocratic ideal. After all, he's rich, so he must be smart, and he pretends to fight those very same societal elites from which he came. This dogmatic relationship to meritocracy hurts solidarity and contributes to further polarization, especially among working class and middle class voters.
How To Reject Meritocracy
How do we fight this bad-faith American meritocracy? How do we prevent our worth being measured solely by our ability to contribute to the unfeeling, ever-churning Capitalist Machine? In The Tyranny of Merit, political philosophy professor Michael Sandel argues we “need to rethink three aspects of our civil life: the role of college, the dignity of work, and the meaning of success.” Rather than higher education being a requirement for a decent life, education should be the avenue to pursue one’s passions. Instead of pushing kids to get degrees with a high return on investment, give them the freedom to learn what interests them. A free college option would alleviate the financial strain that is so often the largest barrier to entry, and the resulting debt the ten-ton anchor around the necks of well-meaning young Americans.
We need to understand that not everyone is going to get a four-year degree. Most people aren't. So we need to put more value on the blue-collar and service jobs that allow our country to thrive. The sanitation workers, nurses, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, and delivery drivers. All those people we called “essential” during the Covid-19 Pandemic, then discarded soon after. We need to build an economy that values all contributions to society and believes everyone is deserving of a life of dignity. A society that gives “average” people the ability to succeed has a stronger foundation and is better for everyone. Building an economy in which all labor is valued will improve solidarity and will help stem the rising tide of Fascism. By showing those on the bottom of the economic ladder that they are an important part of a larger mutual project, we can prevent faux right wing “populists” from blaming all societal ills on the most marginalized amongst us. The inability of ineffectual neoliberal governance of the last forty years to properly improve the lives of most Americans has created fertile ground for bad-faith far right scapegoating.
Finally, we need to reevaluate how we view success. Rather than buying into the idea that a successful life can be measured simply by a person’s career or how nice their house is, we need to broaden the scope of how we value life. Success is measured in the relationships we forge, the people we help, and the passions we pursue. It is the impact we have on the world around us and in trying to leave it a better place than we found it.
Most of all, we need to recognize the role luck plays in our life. I don't mean this to belittle hard work, or to imply that people born into privilege should feel guilty. Instead of internalizing guilt, recognizing this should externalize empathy. Understanding that luck plays a huge role in our life will lead to more compassion for those less fortunate, less envy for those more fortunate and hopefully help you be a little kinder to yourself.
More than building a kinder, more dignified society we need to question the very foundations of our so-called meritocracy. We need to reclaim from capitalists the moral judgment of what does and does not constitute valuable contributions to society.
No longer should we judge each other, or ourselves, based solely on our career or how nice our house is. We need to reject the capitalist ideal that life is a zero-sum competition, a destructive little game that makes life miserable for untold millions, and that those in poverty are a necessary byproduct of a meritocratic society. If we want to prevent America from becoming a dystopian fascist hellscape, we have to reinforce the idea that everyone – no matter their background, no matter their politics – is deserving of a dignified life.
Follow Anthony Reimer on Twitter at @mrmeseeksff.