Political Animal


April 02, 2013 5:14 PM Meritocracy and “Merit”

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Mimikatz on April 02, 2013 5:35 PM:

    Princeton Mom and other meritocratic elitists make two even more fundamental mistakes. First, like the Puritans, they mistake material success for evidence of God's favor. Because the elect were supposed to prosper, Puritans came to falsely associate material success with holiness. And of course that is the second error. Material success beyond a basic level does not correlate with either happiness or moral superiority, and indeed it may be incompatible with both.

  • Mimikatz on April 02, 2013 5:40 PM:

    I am speaking of great material success, and especially of "getting to the top", not just a reasonably comfortable standard of middle or upper middle class life.

  • Larry on April 02, 2013 5:47 PM:

    Thank you. This is the clearest and most elegant statement of something I have been trying to formulate for a long time. Meritocracy does not mean total surrender to a culture of work related achievement. So much of anyone's achievement is rooted in socially generated value, influences, and capital.

  • c u n d gulag on April 02, 2013 6:14 PM:

    What's the point of being born "better" than others, or striving to climb higher, if you can't "trickle-down" your once previously precious bodily fluids down on those beneath you.

    Where's the fun?!?!?!?!

    THAT, is the very heart of Modern Conservatism!

  • vermontdave on April 02, 2013 7:16 PM:

    Well said Ed. Thanks

  • Florida on April 02, 2013 8:38 PM:

    Ed, thank you for this post. I would just add that meritocrats often end up getting access to rewards not available to other hard-workers. The student who works hard to get straight 'A's and get into an Ivy league school then often gets easy access to the business network and job opportunities that the Ivy league degree bestows. So that Ivy grad does not have to work as hard as the excellent student from Podunk State to get her foot in the door and get good job offers.

  • weirdnoise on April 02, 2013 9:07 PM:

    There is so much shear luck involved in "success" (starting with the parents one happens to be born to) that believing that achievement is 100% based on some ineffable quality called "merit" is delusional. There are many chains of events that fold into our formation, all springing from events beyond our control. Our own efforts can bring a fortuitous constellation of attributes forward into this thing we call "success," but it's beyond hubris to take full credit for the circumstances that form us.

  • dugs on April 02, 2013 11:30 PM:

    thanks for the post, Ed--I'm with weirdnoise on this--while I respect people who come from nowhere, work hard and become successful (whatever your definition), I have as much or more respect for people who come from nowhere, work hard, GET nowhere, and work hard because they have to.

    Because the former, no matter how hard they work, were given a gift, which INCLUDES the ability to take what you have and run with it. THAT didn't come from nowhere, and no, "they didn't build that" either.

    I appreciate the clarity of the post and the responses. My favorite saying about this is, if hard work was all it took to succeed, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.

  • dp on April 03, 2013 12:47 AM:

    As someone who has a facility for performing well on standardized tests -- and has learned over a half-century on this planet that standardized test performance ain't all that -- the celebration of "meritocracy" by elites of dubious merit is truly annoying.

    Of course, doing well on standardized tests is, overall, much closer to "merit" than simply being born properly!

  • Frank Wilhoit on April 03, 2013 7:24 AM:

    Your last graf is excellent (one minor quibble: for "equal worth", read "equal potential"), but no one is listening.

    Human society has been based on social dominance at all times and in all places, with only a few parentheses; but those parentheses never commanded a true consensus and they have all now closed. Social dominance has reasserted its emotional grip and it is impossible to see how it can ever be challenged again, as the language with which it might be challenged has been subverted. The war is over, we lost, and all we can do now is try to locally optimize some outcomes within the system of social dominance.

  • elmo on April 03, 2013 8:30 AM:

    I read PA every day, never comment, but I had to delurk for this post because it's hard to hide while clapping and cheering at my desk. THIS. SO MUCH THIS.

    I'm the first person in my family to graduate from college. My father was a high school dropout, my mother a high school graduate, and I graduated from Harvard with honors. Likewise law school. Yeah, I worked hard, dreamed big, and now I'm successful. Go me.

    But you know who worked harder than me? My partner, who went into the Army right after high school because nobody believed she could and she wanted to prove herself. She became a single mother in the Army, and then was honorably discharged with a lifelong disability. THAT's hard work. And in our meritocracy, my hard work and effort somehow "count" more than hers, even though she was serving her country and raising a beautiful, kind, intelligent, and emotionally honest young woman.

    I'm happy to have the success I have, but let's not kid ourselves. I was lucky. If it was all about hard work, my partner would be supporting me wtih her riches.

  • c u n d gulag on April 03, 2013 8:42 AM:

    WELL SAID!!!

    And please, won't you come back and share some more?

  • Shane Taylor on April 03, 2013 9:28 AM:

    These are the "ethics" of absolute competition. As Frank Knight said, it is in terms of power "that competitive economics and the competitive view of life for which it must be largely accountable are to be justified. Whether we are to regard them as justified at all depends on whether we are willing to accept an ethics of power as the basis of our world view." As might creates right, success creates merit.

    A competitive success can then condemn all contrary morality as the vindictive envy of sore losers. Hence, in part, the appeal of Atlas Shrugged. It was not enough to be a creative genius. Before a member of the visionary elite could join the strike by John Galt, they had to complete their "moral" instruction. Before they could inherit the earth, the superior producers had to repudiate the norms that constrained them as a conspiracy by their parasitic inferiors. To deny this was to betray reason and deny objective reality. So said Galt:

    "The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains. Such is the nature of the 'competition' between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of 'exploitation' for which you have damned the strong."

    So, who is John Galt? He is the egoist who conflates his minor contributions to the greater commonwealth with everything he has withdrawn from it, mistaking the wealth he commands for the measure of his genius.

  • esaud on April 03, 2013 10:03 AM:

    I remember some of those moving testimonials at the last Democratic Convention about how ruthlessly Romney's Bain Capital treated workers. I said to myself, if making lots of money entails screwing people out of their pension fund, then count me out. I wouldn't dream of doing something so horrible.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 03, 2013 10:58 AM:

    Praise to you, Ed!!!

    I've always just hated how people equate material success or wealth to personal worth. If wealth and success were absolutely tied to work efforts a lot of really wealthy people would be dead broke and a lot minimum-wage shift workers would be ridiculously rich.

    FWIW, I've reconciled myself to the belief that bad things happen to good people, and--whether we like to admit it or not--great things happen to otherwise crummy people. Good and bad luck is quite indiscriminate.

    But it's all part of our sad tradition of stigmatizing poverty and anything else that doesn't generate a six-figure income. A tradition that encourages society to assume that if someone doesn't have the usual arbitrarily decided outward signs of success, then they're as good as useless. Some of the most worthwhile people--to their friends, family, and community--are those who can't boast of ivy league degrees or million-dollar cash flows.

    As the Ghost of Christmas Present says: "It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."

  • Foster Boondoggle on April 03, 2013 12:32 PM:

    This post and commentary completely miss the point of Susan Patton's original "open letter". She is not making some claim about abstract merit or the betterment of society. She is making a strictly personal claim about what will make her target readers (Princeton women) happier in the long run. That is, (1) that they will be happier if they get hitched to a comparably smart guy and (2) that they're in the best position they'll ever be to find one.

    You may think that either of these claims is wrong, but neither the post nor most of the comments are addressing this. (dp and elmo possibly excepted.) Everyone seems to be concerned with some other -- unmade -- claim about "merit".

    You might also thing this kind of assortative mating is bad for society. (The post hints vaguely in this direction.) But that would pit individual freedom against social welfare in a way that I don't think most progressives would be comfortable with.