Should We Abandon the Concept of Merit?

Here we go again—yet another book denouncing merit and meritocracy.

Merit is such a useful idea that it is hard to think that a society could do without it, and probably none does. That, however, hasn’t restrained a burgeoning industry of people who are fed up with the whole idea. “Abolish merit!” they thunder. “It is so unfair!” Or, “Abolish meritocracy! It oppresses me.”

Meritocracy was popularized by a British socialist, Michael Young, in 1958, who propelled it into common use in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy.

Young’s book describes a British future (the year 2034) in which society is split between the talented and educated class on the one hand and the rest of the population on the other hand. Whether Young thought this an entirely bad idea is difficult to say. He plainly didn’t think it was a recipe for a perfect society. His imagined meritocracy replaced older class divisions with new kinds of inequality. Young devoted much of his life to building Britain’s post-war welfare state, and he hated the British class system. But he harbored the suspicion that human hierarchy would never simply disappear. Rather, it would sneak into new institutional arrangements. In his imaginary world of 2034, the formula “IQ + effort = merit” had solidified the rule of a new aristocracy.

[The Garden of College Excellence Is Growing Weeds]

The book was an accurate prophecy in some ways. Young foresaw that “nearly all parents are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring.” He was way ahead of the FBI’s “Varsity Blues” investigation and Felicity Huffman’s fortnight in the slammer. He was ahead, too, of the “learning disability” extra-time-on-tests scam; the diversity-points dodge; and legacy admissions hustle.

The arguments about meritocracy have intensified in the last decade. During the Obama years, some leftist writers forecast that the meritocracy was over. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes published Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (2012) declaring that the diversification of the elites that run our institutions had resulted in a cohort of minorities and women buying into the corrupt old ways of the white male elites, and thus somehow creating an even greater chasm between the privileged and the unprivileged. For Hayes, the apparent solution was to jettison the whole idea of merit in favor of some phantasmagoric effort to “reconstruct and reinvent our politics and society.”

But the campaign to eradicate “merit” really didn’t take off until the approach of the 2016 election. My rough count is that we have had eight books in the last four years denouncing The Tyranny of Meritocracy. That’s the title of Lani Guinier’s 2016 book, subtitled Democratizing Higher Education in America. “Democratizing,” it turns out, is one of the cures for “meritocracy,” because in a democracy, says Guinier, everyone gets to set his own standards. (My standard is to stick with the old pronouns.) Meritocracy oppresses because one set of people (presumably old white cis-gendered men) get to define what counts as “merit.”

[The Final Corruption of the SAT’s]

Now there is something to this. The idea of “merit” implies a common yardstick. If your idea of merit is to be rewarded for your law-abiding, peaceable ways with a life of tranquility and order, and my idea of merit is to acquire points by successful head-hunting raids on neighboring tribes, we are destined to disagree. At least until I have added your scalp to my collection. Merit means setting some rules that all sides agree are more or less fair.

At some level, we simply know that some people have greater skills and perform better at some difficult challenges than others. They merit their victories and the acclaim that follows.

But can a complex society run that way? The books that have been piling up say no. Robert Frank said no in 2016 in Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. James Bloodworth the same year said no in The Myth of Meritocracy: Why Working-Class Kids Still Get Working-Class Jobs.  Jo Littler said no in 2017 in Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility. Richard V. Reeves said no that year in Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. In 2018, Stephen J. McNamee said no in The Meritocracy Myth.

In case we haven’t gotten the message, Daniel Markovits has just said no in The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite.

Markovits is a professor of law at Yale, and while he paints a much broader canvas of American inequality, he is especially alert to the role of elite colleges and universities in elevating “merit” to its seemingly decisive role in our social order. The book is partially about the replacement of the genteel old order of an elite that replicated itself generation upon quiet generation at Ivy League colleges.

[Whatever Happened to Reading?]

Starting in the 1960s (roughly), these institutions decided to admit, by preference, the kids who excelled on exams, regardless of their social origins. Exponents of the old order were furious but unable to mount an effective defense. A new test-o-cratic elite was under construction, though oddly, this development coincided with an opposite effort to recruit members of minority groups for whom high grades on standardized tests were a rarity.

Two new kinds of inequality were coming into play at the same moment and were destined to clash: intellectual merit and what might be called diversity merit. Those who have put themselves on the side of diversity merit eventually decided that the word “merit” itself is part of the problem and have gone down the road of Lani Guinier. Markovits sets foot on that road in his first sentence: “Merit is a sham.”

He admits in the next sentence that it is a hard road to take: “An entire civilization resists this conclusion.” Well, yes. It resists that conclusion because it is a mistake and because it is the kind of mistake that leads to disastrous consequences. We can agree that a meritocracy is vulnerable to a great many forms of mischief (e.g. Felicity Huffman) and to many cases of abuse (e.g. MacArthur “genius” awards), but these are endemic problems in any social order, not reasons to burn the system down.

Those who, like Markovits, are concerned with persistent “inequality” in American society, have the problem that the institutions they have shaped over the last fifty years to combat inequality have somehow failed. To blame that failure on a combination of excessive emphasis on intellectual merit, the ability of wealthy and privileged parents to game the system, and the irrelevance of meritocratic ideals is to turn a blind eye to more profound problems.

Markovits calls for a “new politics of democratic equality.” But he is silent on the massive disincentives that the cultural left has built it into American education over the last half-century. These include the disincentives to independent thought in favor of group conformity; the disincentives to academic achievement in favor of racial and other victim-group preferences; and the disincentives to self-discipline and orderly behavior built into the “child-centered” and therapeutic school culture. Merit is not a sham, and it is not our root problem. It is, however, increasingly the obsession of those whose social ideal is the elimination of “inequality,” no matter the social cost.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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9 thoughts on “Should We Abandon the Concept of Merit?

  1. Let us all agree: we are unequal.

    Born unequal. We arrive unequally in the unequal lives our unequal parents unequally built. That each one of us is unequal to the Other (save before God & the Law) has never been a question.

    The real question is: so what? What’s next? What will we do, each one of us, with these unequal lives we have unequally been given? And, with Master Copperfield, we might speculate: “Whether we shall turn out to be the heroes of our own lives, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” And so they do, for each one of us.

    The process by which this all occurs, our pilgrim’s progress from birth to death, is merit. It is the constant, endless filtering of wheat from chaff, good from bad from better & best. And it changes. Our value – our merit – varies by market. It varies as we grow…as we learn….as we improve. It varies by who is choosing and how they’re filtering and what they see. But always we look for merit. We seek to develop it; we seek to earn it; we seek to hire it and apply it. Heck, we even seek to marry it.

    It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a team of cardiac surgeons…..or someone to play the Celtics….or a group of engineers destined to build a bridge that 10M people will safely cross: we always want ‘the best’. We want those individuals who have, over time, proven themselves to be – in ways that matter to us – better than the competition.

    And that is merit.
    Not only is it not a sham…it is really, the only thing that matters.

    And do we really need to explain to the Guinier’s and Markovitz’s and Hayes’s of the world that the only reason we have even heard of their wrong-headed efforts to destroy and denigrate the very thing which makes us human (our ability and desire and drive to be more than the sum total of our biology) is because someone somewhere, evidently quite wrongly, decided their particular works had MERIT above and beyond that displayed by their peers?

    Or perhaps we should ask them, when their heart stops and emergency medical teams rush to restart it, whether they wish that team filled with those who have been selected for that position via “democratic equality”….or…would they rather choose those who aced the MCats, got their medical degree from Harvard, and are now working Emergency Medicine because they’re just that damned good?

    Of course if it’s all a sham, it really doesn’t matter now does it?

  2. The attack on “merit” is not about the content of the standards but about who creates them, makes them determinative, makes them authoritative, makes them consequential. The standards that go by the name “merit” were created, made determinative etc. by individual persons who lived in their individualities and were persons of some intelligence with a desire to improve things. But they were also mostly white heterosexual men. Their individualities, their individual characters, credentials, accomplishments, motivations, count for nothing in the current evaluations of those standards. Only their accidental qualities count, and those alone are sufficient to indict the standards. The oceans of digital and real ink wasted in recent years on books and articles denouncing the standards that go by the name “merit” are truly wasted, as the argument in every case reduces to the petulance and resentment incidental on being held to a standard established and enforced by someone who “doesn’t look like you.”

    Take the standards for interaction between the sexes that, roughly, go by the names “affirmative consent” and “#MeToo.” There is very little to distinguish the essence of these standards from their Victorian antecedents. The difference is that they have been created and are being enforced by hyperfeminist women; that, and not their content, is the reason they are being so militantly asserted and applied by the left.

    Non-left intellectuals, academics and commentators continue to sink their time and energy into searching out and scrutinizing the reasons and the reasoning of all the attacks on every standard and institution of society by the left today, and continue to be nonplussed when they find time and again that said reasons and reasoning are weak and unpersuasive. The attacks are matters of the will only; that is their sole explanation and their sole justification.

    1. “… a standard established and enforced by someone who “doesn’t look like you.”

      No. The humanities, the true humanities, speak to the human condition and hence transcend the politics of identity. The Enlightenment, which was based in Judeo/Christian values but transcends them, is based on the concept that we are all unique individuals and hence there is no one who “looks like you.”

      Conversely, the Cuttings have been here since something like 1644 and none of us ever went to Harvard. The “doesn’t look like you” is nothing more than a vile Ad Hominem, and ought to be recognized as such. The concept is actually quite racist.

      After all, Bill Cosby, Barack Obama, and Allen West are all Black men — but they are all individuals and quite different from each other.

      1. Yes, your remarks are precisely my point. The “doesn’t look like you” test is absurd on its face, yet in its name education and other institutions are being radically refashioned. Hence my conclusion that it is pointless to scrutinize the reasoning of today’s Left because their program is grounded solely in will, not reason.

    2. Ridiculous. Standards are often set by the laws of nature. Did we get to the moon, or did the Saturn V blow up on the pad? THAT is what determined quality of performance of the engineers.

  3. “Starting in the 1960s (roughly), these institutions decided to admit, by preference, the kids who excelled on exams, regardless of their social origins.”

    I’d argue that it was more them deciding to recruit on a national/international basis as opposed to locally as they historically had. John Lederlie (UM President 1960-70) told me that one reason why UMass had to expand was that the Massachusetts kids who traditionally would have gone to places like Harvard no longer could because of this shift in admissions focus.

    Remember that in addition to institutions such as Princeton opening their doors to the Army during WW-I, Harvard started using the SAT in 1933 to recruit academically gifted applicants who did not come from the traditional New England prep schools. And then Post-War Patriotism and the GI Bill led to some 2.2 million veterans attending colleges they’d never dreamed of being able to attend.

    While social origins mattered, I’d argue that they didn’t matter as much as the Social Justice crowd would have us believe. After all, WEB DuBois graduated from Harvard in 1890.

  4. “the “learning disability” extra-time-on-tests scam”

    While it is wildly abused, at it’s base, it really isn’t a scam.
    First, if you give *everyone* extra time, as some professors have done, the students without learning disabilities really won’t do any better. (A few might do better, but that’s usually because they have learning disabilities that they don’t know about.)

    Second, the “extra-time-on-tests” is often a bureaucrat doing “something” rather than the correct thing, or even knowing what that might be. The fact that most of the people running these purported disability services offices are largely coming out of the field of social justice and not pedagogy should speak volumes to how badly the process is flawed.

    Above and beyond that, the entire Special Education (SPED) field is oriented toward children in K-12 who are below the median ability level. In a less sensitive era we used the word “retarded” and then “developmentally delayed”, I forget what term we’re using this week, but we’re not talking about people like Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.

    Take something like Dyslexia which is not only the intermittent inability to distinguish between ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, & ‘q’ but sometimes missing a word in a sentence — or worse, inserting some from a different paragraph. If the misread sentence is grammatically correct, the only way for the student to confirm that he has read it correctly is to read it again, possibly upside down (seriously).

    This is what the extra time is legitimately for — not unlike permitting those of middle age to use reading glasses — and in both cases, the person either comprehends the material or the person doesn’t….

    Now the “scam” is much like the “companion animals” on airlines. Horses, pigs, peacocks, pythons, and pit bulls — the fact that it is being badly abused doesn’t negate the fact that a properly-trained dog is very helpful to a vet with PTSD (dogs sense emotions).

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