Meritocracy and “Merit”

This afternoon I stumbled on a piece at New York by Maureen O’Connor, who has been writing critically about the viral utterances of a “Princeton Mom” who encouraged Ivy League women not to even think about graduating without finding an Ivy Husband.

Said Princeton Mom has been getting some heat for sexism, but as O’Conner notes, even if she’s innocent of that disease, she reflects a vice that too many non-sexists and non-racists (some of them self-identified as “progressive”) fully embrace: meritocratic elitism.

Ivy League elitists tend to fit one of two archetypes. There’s the classic silver-spoon elitist who clings to privilege because it is all he has. His greatest accomplishment is the happenstance of his birth; he feels entitled because he is accustomed to getting what he wants. The inverse is the meritocratic elitist. She worked to achieve her status; she studied nonstop for the SATs, turned in extra-credit assignments, cultivated extracurricular interests, beat out competitors. She revels in her status because she is acutely aware of its value — even overestimates its value, to justify the sacrifices she made to acquire it. She feels entitled because she believes she deserves to get what she wants so badly and has worked so hard to win. Because she made it to the top, she assumes anyone of similar skill level can. Those unwilling or unable to rise up, she concludes, are inferior….

Calling out the elitism of meritocracy can be confusing. Merit — unlike the happenstance of birth — is worthy of pride. Those who ascend to the top of the meritocracy have achieved the American dream. Their elitism, however, is still obnoxious. Because the system is fluid, the meritocrat is in a constant state of proving herself. Her elitism is high-strung and hyperanxious. When boastful, she is unapologetic: She mistakes her snobbery for a victory lap, something she earned.

This is a very basic issue in modern life, but one that often gets brushed over: just because one has worked hard for elite status, and therefore has a superior moral claim to someone who inherited it, that does not mean a “meritocratic system” reflects or confers actual merit, or a superior claim to life’s material rewards. All sorts of factors, many beyond the control of the hard-working and self-congratulatory meritocrat, are involved in achieving success–or for that matter, in failing to achieve it. And the very capacity to take advantage of opportunity is not something that is typically willed individually by the virtuous striver.

To put it another way: there are plenty of sound reasons for supporting a “meritocratic” society that distributes some–though not all–material rewards to those who exhibit socially desirable talents and are willing and able to cultivate them. That is not at all the same as encouraging successful people to consider themselves a natural aristocracy who should intermarry and form a meritocratic caste.

I don’t care how hard you work–and I’ve worked pretty bloody hard in my own lifetime–it’s actually true you didn’t build that, and that confusing earned rewards with actual merit or moral value is dubious and potentially evil. The concept of equal worth that is at the center of America’s moral traditions, not to mention those of most major religions, means that none of us can ever look at a fellow human being and confidently say: I’m better than you are. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a better person than others, or to improve one’s self. But anyone who thinks he or she has arrived at a morally superior place that should be celebrated, entrenched, and extended for generations at the expense of “lesser” breeds is in danger of the same horrible vices common to racists and sexists–and ultimately of hellfire.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.