Winners almost always start the game with huge advantages

While theoretically open to the best possible candidates, the competition for elite jobs is actually rigged.

Illustrative stock photoIllustrative stock photo(Source: AP/TASR)

Aristocracy, plutocracy and kleptocracy are widely condemned as methods for organising society. But what about meritocracy?

On the surface, predicating success on effort and perceived merit looks like the best possible way to organise society. But it is actually driving many of the world’s most fundamental problems, Yale law professor Daniel Markovits argues in a new book, “The Meritocracy Trap”.

As Markovits notes, more so than any time in history the best jobs (and the best pay) are now obtained through open competition. While the rich used to pass wealth down to their children through dynastic succession, and aristocrats hardly ever worked, as Markovits points out, today the rich and powerful almost all have jobs. In fact, many bankers, lawyers at global firms and CEOs work insane hours. They also increasingly earn huge hourly pay, and the combination of the two increasingly differentiating a new ruling class from the middle class.

While theoretically open to the best possible candidates, the competition for these jobs is actually rigged. Anybody is welcome to enter the competition, but the winners almost always start the game with huge advantages. Admission to top universities in the United States, to take one example, is partially determined by results on the supposedly objective SAT exam. But wealthy kids often have taken special courses or hire tutors to prepare — something not possible for a poor kid. It’s the equivalent of an Olympic 100 meter dash that allows some runners to openly use steroids while insisting that losers lost a fair contest.

Once in motion, the meritocratic cycle accelerates. Once in the elite school, students further distance themselves from their counterparts. Elite education translates into an elite job that then allows you to pay for those test preparation classes for your kids. In an elite workplace, they justify their inflated salaries and sense of importance as the result of hard work. At some point, no amount of effort can close the gap or allow an outside entrance to this elite status.

“To be middle class in a mature meritocracy is to be not just old-fashioned but backwards-looking,” Markovits writes.

While most of Markovits’s argument centres on the United States, where economic inequality is generally worse than in Europe, the pattern holds elsewhere. The Bulgarian thinker Ivan Krastev has written about meritocracy breeding resentment for the European Union, where multinational teams of experts set policies for everybody else. Meanwhile, international corporations shuttle managers from country to country. Krastev compares the movement of this elite class to the transfer of football players, like a French striker equally comfortable playing in Madrid, Munich or Manchester.

“But what happens when these teams start to lose or the economy slows down? Their fans abandon them,” he writes. “That’s because there’s no relationship connecting the ‘players’ and their fans beyond celebrating victories. They are not from the same neighbourhood. They don’t have mutual friends or shared memories.”

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