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The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Greetings everyone & Happy New Year!

As the year kicks off, I hope everyone had a wonderful 2022 and are gearing up for success and blessings in 2023 and beyond. One our writers has submitted a wonderful post prior to this one that's a quick but powerful read. Thanks again Mark!

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Back to regular scheduled programming, today's post will feature a book I read back in June of this year and took almost two months to finish, wow (hate taking more than 3-4 weeks to finish a book). The book spanned to 418 pages; however, the readable content ends at 286, which is the final page in the conclusion chapter. Published in 2019, Yale law professor, Daniel Markovits delivers some much-needed information in his novel. Some information that I am excited to delve into for you all today.

So, I'm not sure what phobia or bias that prevents me from wanting to highlight my books right after starting, aside from wanting them to stay new and fresh lol. The book on hand today is filled with ink circles on pages numbers and yellow stretches of highlight starting in the introduction. The book is 9 chapters, which doesn't seem like much, but they were deep.

Now to dive into the yellow skids in the introduction of my copy of this book. The very first sentence, unmarked by me, simply states: "Merit is a sham", to which I must concur. In other words, the ones who make the money, makes the rules and if there are any changes to those rules, they must continue to benefit the rule makers. One would like to believe that "advantages" are earned by way of ability, efforts and accomplishments versus nepotism and caste.

The old adage of "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" is apt at this juncture as well. The middle class is becoming obsolete and it looks to be only the rich versus the poor in the near future. Interestingly enough, Markovits poses that meritocracy is harming the elite as well. For one, schooling rich children costs millions of dollars and thousands of hours. "Meritocracy entices an anxious and inauthentic elite into a pitiless, lifelong contest to secure income and status through its own excessive industry" (x). If I am to paraphrase or interpret this into my own words: money does not always make one happy or solve all problems. I'm sure the rich edition of keeping up with the Jones's is exhausting and possibly depressing at times.

The following paragraph speaks to an ideal I would confirm as fair game. "Finally, meritocracy divides the elite from the middle class. It drives the middle class to resent the establishment and seduces the elite to cling to the corrupt prerogatives of caste. Meritocracy ensnares the society that both classes must share in a maelstrom of recrimination, disrespect, and dysfunction" (x). This statement rings true for my personal beliefs. The first few sets of paragraphs of the book set a nice tone for what lies ahead. I feel that the final paragraph of the introduction's first section the is noteworthy, as well as a reflection of what the reality of today's global landscape reflects. "Merit itself has become a counterfeit virtue, a false idol. And meritocracy--formerly benevolent and just--has become what it was invented to combat. A mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege of across generations. A caste order that breeds rancor and division. A new aristocracy, even" (x). Wealth and power have been transferred through generations for hundreds of years for hundreds of years and a caste system will have sides that oppose each other. The author does admit to being a meritocrat and that his collegiate education and affiliations has earned his prosperity and status.

The elite have their hands in just about everything. If they're not using the metaphorical strong arm, then it is likely through influence. "Elites increasingly monopolize not just income, wealth and power, but also industry, public honor, and private esteem. Meritocracy comprehensively excludes the middle class from social and economic advantage, and at the same time conscripts its elite into a ruinous contest to preserve caste" (xiii). I would add politics to the sphere that the elite would prefer to remain exclusive as well. Meritocracy ostracizes the middle class and eliminates them from the social and economic realms of distinction, honor and wealth. In years past, meritocracy is transforming into a private club for elites only, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Ivy League institutions are separate and exclusive spheres that takes some serious connections to get into.

Markovits argues that meritocracy does not really serve the elite as it used to, and their privileges have changed. Seeing as though I am not amongst that class or ranks, I have no idea lol. It is, however, much easier to argue that meritocracy still is pivotal in the battle of the rich versus the others. "Meritocracy thereby draws the elite and the middle class--the rich and the rest--into a close but hostile embrace. Meritocratic inequality inspires the hostility, entwining the classes in misunderstanding, friction, discord and even open warfare. Meritocracy that is, nourishes a systematic class conflict that deforms social and political life" (xvi). My best quote analysis is: see the previous sentence, please. The introduction of the book has been chocked full of gems and I am trying to make it out into the book lol.

I think concluding with this quote would be the perfect venture into the opening chapter. "Elites desperately fear losing caste, and their anxiety naturally isolates them and breeds condescension toward the middle class. Moreover, elites know that meritocracy favors their caste and they suspect that although they cannot explain how the same forces that burnish the gloss on the elite spread a pall of gloom over the middle class. No matter how pure their motives and how scrupulous their victories, meritocratic elites are implicated, including through achievements that they admire, in equalities that they deplore" (xviii). If I was rich, I think I would prefer to not lose everything I worked considering I was not born into wealth.

Since the dawn of human time, the poor worked hard and long hours while the rich enjoyed leisure and luxury. Low wages offered from the elites will always hamper one from quickly rising economically, which could be an intentional act, depending on how one views it. However, following World War II, workers were allowed to work their way into middle class societies and lifestyles. "Both the rich and the rest owed their circumstances to accidents of birth rather than choices or accomplishments" (4). Being said, it is likely easy to notice the names and brands all over related to rich families. Such as the Waltons with Wal-Mart, Paris Hilton with their heirloom of hotels, and many other examples. In today's world, social and economic arrangements are reversing what we thought meritocracy was.

Middle class jobs are becoming more automated, eliminating the cashier at places like said Wal-Mart, Target, all the supermarkets, and drug stores, and everywhere else. Places that are becoming more automated and technologically advanced now have the need for super skilled and elite labor. Because of this, Markovits points to the idea of the elite having to work harder than the rest of society now. As we know and are currently experiencing that inflation drives costs up, therefore people need to earn more, and the rich earn more quicker than most. " Meritocracy's two components, having developed together, now interact as expression of a single, integrated whole. Elaborate elite education produces superordinate workers, who possess a powerful work ethic and exceptional skills. These workers then induce a transformation in the labor market that favors their own elite skills, and at the same time dominate the lucrative new jobs that the transformation creates. Together these two transformations idle mid-skilled workers and engage the new elite, making it both enormously productive and extravagantly paid" (12-13). Meritocracy has seemed to create more problems than it solves in America.

The top one percent of homes in America captures about a fifth of total income and the top one-tenth of the one percenters captures about a tenth of total income. This was at the time of this writing, so these figures could have very well changed. The mathematics translates to the richest household out of every hundred captures as much income as twenty average earners combined and the richest out of every thousand gains as much income as a hundred average earners combined.

According to the author the academic gap between rich and poor now exceeds the gap of race in schools during 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education. Educational inequality separates the rich from poor but also just as distanced from the middle class. A poor or middle-class child faces taller odds climbing the income ladder in the USA than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. The odds that a middle-class child will out-earn his parents have declined by more than half since mid-century and the drop is greater with the middle class than the poor. There's a continuous process that favors the elite. The rich college graduates monopolize the best jobs while simultaneously inventing new technologies that privilege super skilled workers. There's a quote that sums up how meritocracy is forming into a new phase: "As the larger meritocratic world moves forward, it loses respect for the town's democratic order and middle-class values" (29). Daniel was referring to a town in Michigan with this quote, but it is apt for what was said previously.

Here's more on the following page: "The two-pronged meritocratic assault on income and status unravels the middle class. When communities lose middle-class manufacturing jobs, for example, not just earnings but also marriages and fertility rates fall, and mortality rates (especially among middle-class men) rise. Families break apart: women with a high school education or less bear more than half of their children outside of marriage (compared with just 3 percent for women with a college degree or more). Children struggle in school. And adults strain simply to survive" (30). Sounds like the typical black family in America. However, the next paragraph the author alludes to a 2 year "streak" where midlife mortality has risen in America and life expectancy has fallen, particularly for middle class whites. Under normal circumstances only large wars, economic collapse or epidemic disease to cause sudden spikes in population's mortality rate.

I am in no way, shape or form, rich in money but I do feel the rich live in a win or be eaten lifestyle, which is not a lifestyle I would enjoy living in that economical atmosphere. "Meritocracy traps elites in all-encompassing, never-ending struggle. Every colleague is a competitor. At every stage, the alternative to victory is elimination" (35). While I aspire to reach certain levels of monetary gain, this will never be a mindset of mine at any point of life.

For the sake of me not being able to say this any better and will completely agree to the likelihood. "Aristocratic elites typically segregated themselves from the rest of the societies over which they ruled. Aristocrats traditionally owned things, performed rituals, and even wore clothes and ate foods that distinguished them from the masses. In some cases, laws (known as sumptuary codes) even mandated the distinctions, by forbidding non-aristocrats from owning or consuming aristocratic things" (46). I always tell people in conversation that I like to think primitively, about how things were that cause or preceded what we have and see today. That is vaguely speaking but that was also the intent.

The rich and everyone else interact, eat, read, socialize, parent, marry, exercise and worship differently now as well. A quarter of American marriages today consist of two college graduates compared to 3% in 1960. Fitness is a status symbol. "The rich and the rest worship different gods, or at least congregate in different religions: High Church Protestants, Jews, and Hindus are unusually rich and educated, and only Catholics mirror all of society. The rich and the rest also inhabit different worlds online. An exhaustive analysis recently studied by Google data on searches initiated in both the most and least prosperous counties in the country (ranked according to an index that includes income and education). The study revealed that the searches correlated with prosperity include digital cameras, baby joggers, Skype, and foreign travel. By contrast, the searches more correlated with deprivation included health problems; weight loss; guns; video games; and the Antichrist, hell and the Rapture" (48). Really telling what data shows and what indication it has, in addition to, the contrasting similarities in the online searches.

It may be fair to suggest that capitalism inadvertently creates a caste system. "Borrowing from the Victorian politician and thinker Benjamin Disraeli (who described another, admittingly different caste system), one might even say that, in the United States today, the rich and the rest compromise "'two nations; between whom there is no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws" (50). Not sure there is much to analyze or piggyback on after this, if you are not a part of the elite and/or rich classes.

Feels as if governments are their own separate business entities in the globalized capitalistic world. One can certainly spot some similarities. "Meritocracy undermines democratic politics not only at wholesale, when laws are made, but also at retail, when they are applied to particular people. Meritocracy has created a new class of super-skilled bankers, accountants, lawyers, and other professionals who seek favorable personalized treatment from government--concerning regulatory requirements, for example, or tax shelters--on behalf of individual clients. These professional services dwarf campaign contributions, lobbying and political philanthropy, even combined......All these professions empower the rich to resist regulation and thereby disempower the rest from subjecting wealth to law" (54). Money coupled with power makes things fairly simple for those in that position. The rich have worked the system so "well" that if they are caught red handed there will be no repercussions. "In all these ways, at wholesale and at retail, meritocracy empowers the elite to dominate politics. Rather than responding to citizens '"considered as political equals,'" government dictates to the middle class and defers to the meritocratic elite. Meritocracy undermines democracy, elevating the working rich into a ruling class" (59). Once again money is synonymous with power. Meritocracy has become what it was intended to combat: a process that fairly controlled the transmission of wealth, privilege and caste across generations. As elites get wealthier and wealthier, governments take smaller portions of their wealth.

Venturing onto the ivy league and prestigious college campuses, the setting would show a favorable tide of the rich and their children. "A 2004 study of the most selective private universities, for example, found more freshman whose fathers were medical doctors alone than whose fathers were hourly workers, teachers, clergy, farmers, and soldiers combined" (137). The origin and purposes of meritocracy is likely unknown however it makes college a rich person's affair.

Workplace training has taken a backseat to university-based training in many office professions and many similar places. "Workplace training once carried the democratic impulses that early meritocrats bought to education into adulthood, allowing workers to advance through a firm's hierarchy regardless of their background. Meritocracy's subsequent history, however, has betrayed these impulses, and today meritocracy displaces workplace training in favor of university-based training education. Elite graduate and professional schools now both extend the massive excess investments in rich students' human capital deep into adult life and concentrate these investments on an almost unimaginably exclusive socioeconomic elite--at once increasing and narrowing the meritocratic inheritance. They draw the concentration of training and education in the United States today to a spiky-fine point"(144). Speaking from personal experience and from reading, I notice that workplace training is almost non-existent and/or managed very poorly. While it also seems that training does not last long, if there is any, which can be correlated with manpower and financial responsibilities devoted to training. The rich will re-invest in and with their fellow constituents before anyone else. In addition to, going as deeply as they can go for their children which is fine by me, but sometimes the nepotism stew boils too strong. "The economic and social transformation from a society led by a hereditary leisured elite to a society led by the working rich rationalizes these practices. The meritocratic inheritance--the immense excess investments that rich parents make in their children's human capital, over and above what middle-class children receive--dominates dynastic succession in a meritocratic world. Elite education brokers the dynastic transfer. Elite labor income pays out the value of the meritocratic inheritance that education builds"(147). Seems kind of difficult for any "outsiders" to break this mold, no?

Continuing with the dynastic theme, with the rare exception of the "lucky" or extremely talented kid without rich parents that break into the educated elites, they are still disadvantaged outside of their natural and personal abilities. "The increasing monopoly that elite families exercise over pathways to income and status, and the increasing exclusion of not just poor but also middle-class children from elite training and thus also work, realize rather than retreat from meritocratic values: the dynastic character of privilege does not reflect the corruption so much as the consummation of the meritocratic regime" (151). Once again this feels like an exclusive member only club.

Management, Working Glossy & Gloomy Jobs

Managers appeared in American workforce later than expected because of the relationships between workers and firms. There are a number of sectors that operate their business very similar to finance. Management in the American workforce has followed the financing business methodology. "Management has followed finance's lead. Whereas midcentury management was strikingly democratic, management has become meritocratic today: both managerial work and its rewards, once widely shared, are now concentrated in an increasingly narrow elite. New technologies have transformed how American firm are run, partitioning the mass of midcentury middle-class organization men into many subordinate production workers doing gloomy jobs and a few superordinate executives doing glossy one" (169). I work at a job currently where the company's decision makers informed direct management to never leave their office and help the workers. That sounds, looks, and feels meritocratic.

Another personal set of experiences is most certainly felt and recognized. The powers wielded by this access by this access directly and indirectly creates authoritarian figures in management, business, and politics. "At the end of midcentury, the technological wheel took another turn. The late 1970s and especially the 1980s inaugurated a third age of American management, in which firms returned to the nineteenth century model, but updated it in light of twenty-first-century technologies. Today, technological advances in measurement, surveillance, communication, and data analysis, give top managers immense and unprecedented powers of observation and command" (172). Data coupled with analytics and algorithms are creating massive A.I. systems that are not totally beneficial in all areas.

The increasing powers of technology and power at the smallest levels of management can erode comradery along with the subordinate worker's chance at keeping a job. Where the money the company accumulates is syphoned off to the management where less is allotted for those outside of management. "Finally, the technological advances that concentrate management in a narrow elite also inflate the elite's economic value. As top executives monopolize the management function, and firms come to depend on them for internal coordination, they capture virtually all of management's economic returns. Income streams that were at midcentury shared widely across all of the firm's middle-class managers become concentrated in elite executives. The status and income that CEOs and other elite managers--including at McDonald's--now command places them right next to financiers in meritocratic inequality's pantheon" (176). Rather disturbing to know that the CEO of a fast-food company with cheap food prices is in the same tier as a banking CEO. Then to trickle down to the actual employees at the locations are working two to three jobs at a time to make ends meet, while the company piles up millions. If the methods of shaking up these corporate organizations were to simplify life for all involved in these companies, there is certainly another outcome. "The corporate reorganizations that decimated the middle-class therefore did not simply improve American business, encouraging management to shape up, and become lean and fit. Instead, they reconstituted firms, inserting new forms of hierarchy that have made American management, in a memorable phrase, fat and mean" (176). My place of employment is one of the most poorly managed places I have witnessed, yet they continue to alter the power of said management.

Still riding with the workplace environments, in the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would eliminate long human work and labor for the masses. However, if one has had any job that is not in a cubicle can likely attest to this still not being reality. With shorter work weeks, it seems plausible that everyone would benefit by gaining more leisure time. Of course, this polarized labor market does sizable damage to the middle class as well. "Meritocratic inequality prosecutes a pervasive, two-pronged attack on the middle class, as new economic facts deprive the middle class of industry and new norms deprive it of honor. Meritocracy's essential logic concentrates advantage and then frames disadvantage in terms of individual defects of skill and effort, as a failure to measure up. This explains the otherwise mysterious anger and contempt that increasingly overwhelm society: the populism that engulfs politics, even during an economic expansion, and the self-inflected deaths (from addiction, overdose, and suicide) that increase overall mortality, even without plague and war. Both upheavals are concentrated in people with middle-class incomes but without college degrees--precisely the group that meritocratic inequality condemns as redundant" (187-188). On the other end, a meritocrat cannot really succeed by beating 99/100 competitors, because that person may have beaten the previous 99/100, which creates insecurity. According to the text, to regain leisure, one must completely abandon superordinate work, and the income and status coupled with that work and exit the elite.

A Comprehensive Divide

If I speak in terms of caste systems, one can expect the different levels to interact amongst each other differently or if at all. "Today, meritocratic inequality determines virtually all aspects of the lives of the citizens who live under it. The rich and the rest now work, live, marry and reproduce, and shop, eat, play and pray differently and in largely separate social worlds. Inequality produces an internally cohesive and externally insulated elite class, whose lived experience is constructed by its meritocratic eliteness. Today, the rich and the rest each lead lives that the other could hardly recognize and cannot understand. Economic inequality comprehensively organizes both castes through patterns, practices, and worldviews that rarely intersect, interact only thinly and instrumentally, and grow increasingly distant, uncomprehending, and unsympathetic" (202). There are countless neighborhoods in America that you cannot access without gate privileges, which are the most common places that the rich dwell in. Sounds pretty exclusive, no? Interestingly enough, the elite make sure that their children are unlikely candidates for the military. "But today military attracts virtually no one from the educated elite" (204). Another way to stay exclusive.

The most impactful yet simple way to say this is: the one with the gold makes the rules. Considering this metaphor, I mean this quite literally and figuratively. "For the elite, the central marital question of the age concerns the same-sex marriage. The rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage constitutes a triumph that foretells a bright future (although tempered, perhaps, by surprise at non-elite Americans' willingness to accept marriage equality even while retaining traditionalist views on other matters of sexual morality, including most notably abortion" (210). I brought this quote along solely for its mention of abortion and how it drastically changed in America in 2022. I personally believe that women should have the choice over their own body and men for that matter as well. Driving the point home of the ruling class and their rules lol, and they know the ramifications of this luxury. Markovits alludes to the idea of politics becoming more segregated by caste. I am alluding to the idea that even the children of the rich know these things! There was an example in the book of an interview with a high schooler in New Hampshire from an elite prestigious prep school, where he acknowledges that his morals rests with the democrats but his wallet says he is republican. What more can I say about the youth of America?

While the two subjects of religion and politics are provocative and get the people going at times, the former is a big reason why I have refrained on writing on any of the books I have read that oppose that ideology. I will paraphrase these two highlighted phrases from my book, on how the rich and the rest are so culturally divided with the two aforementioned topics. Religions in the USA are segregated by income and education. Hindus, Anglicans/Episcopalians and Jews are just about twice as likely as the national average to have a college degree and households with incomes north of $100,000. You can bet they have the smaller number of high school dropouts as well. Presbyterians are only slightly less educated and rich. On the other hand, Jehovah Witnesses, National Baptists, and congregates of the Church of God in Christ are less than half as likely as the national average to hold a college degree or have households greater than $100,000 and are roughly one and a half as likely to have dropped out of high school or have household income less than $30,000.

Another area of stark division would be consumption, that could include services and goods. Services such as concierge doctors and dentists that may accept "trades" in exchange for their services. While the elites can likely dodge insurance payments and fees in these affairs as well. The goods that elite households purchase regularly are distinctive and more healthy (whole grains, fruits, legumes, vegetables, fish, and nuts. "All these goods and services are consumed almost exclusively by the rich and indeed as a self-conscious performance of eliteness though consumption. If elites view consuming them as responsible (fruits and vegetables), necessary (medical care), or even virtuous (education), then this just shows how fully meritocratic ideals have colonized the idea of luxury" (222). Sure, one in this caste would feel this is just basic and simple rights.

The word meritocracy was coined by the British sociologist Michael Young in 1958. Here we are 65 years later, and the practices of the word has evolved quickly into what Young believed it would. He imagined that meritocracy would create accurate and early tests that ruthlessly sort people into schools, universities and eventually jobs. To finally wrap this post up with one last quote that is one that speaks volumes on its own on what can clearly be recognized in today's society. "Meritocratic inequality is wrong on account of meritocracy itself--even and indeed especially when fully realized--and the concept of merit is the taproot of wrong. What is conventionally called merit is actually ideological conceit, constructed to launder a fundamentally unjust allocation of advantage. Meritocracy is merely the most recent instance of the iron law of the oligarchy" (268-269). The last sentence in that quote pretty much sums up my opinion on what governments are today.

If you made it this far, I truly hope you enjoyed what you read and gained some insightful thoughts and notes to research on your own.

Thank you!

Peace. Love. Blessings


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