The Perils of Meritocracy

It’s one of the most loved ideas in American life. Perhaps, though, it should be one of the most resented.

The Breal's Silver Cup was presented to the winner of the marathon of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. (Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters)

American culture nurtures many myths about the moral value of hard work. The phrase “by the bootstraps,” still widely used to describe those Americans who have found success through a combination of dogged work and stubborn will, rose from a mis-remembering of The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen: In it, the eponymous aristocrat pulls himself from a swamp—not by his bootstraps, but by his hair. And Horatio Alger’s stories, as well, while often remembered collectively as the prototypical tale of American rags to American riches, romanticized not just the social and economic power of hard work, but also the power of old-fashioned good luck. (Ragged Dick, in the Alger story named for him: “I’d like it if some rich man would adopt me, and give me plenty to eat and drink and wear, without my havin’ to look so sharp after it.”)

The myths live on, though, for the same reason myths often will: They ratify a deeply held value in American culture. They allow us denizens of the current moment to hold onto one of the most beloved ideas that has animated Americans’ conception of themselves—ourselves—as a culture, over the decades and centuries: that we live in a meritocracy. That our widely imitated and yet idiosyncratic take on democracy has been built, and continues to rest, on a system that ensures that talent and hard work will be rewarded. That the American dream is real, and enduring.

Current events, however—and Americans’ ability to share their experiences with each other, via new technological platforms—have helped to reveal the notion of meritocracy to be what it always was: yet another myth. And: a myth that is particularly pernicious, when it comes to Americans’ sense of what we owe to each other. During a discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, NPR’s Michele Norris talked with Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, and Jeff Raikes, the co-founder of the Raikes Foundation. The trio, in their discussion, emphasized the tensions between how we talk about the American dream and how people live it.

“As Americans, we want to believe that you can get on that mobility escalator and ride it as far as you want,” Walker said, “but that no one rides it faster than anyone else.” We want to believe that talent will triumph, and that hard work will be the tool of that success. Which is to say: We want to believe that opportunity is evenly distributed.

But, of course, that great escalator is far faster for some than it is for others. It is harder for some to get to in the first place than it is for others. And it’s been that way from the beginning: This country, as Walker put it, “was constructed on a racialized hierarchy.” It’s a hierarchy that remains today—one that is evident, in ways both obvious and insidious, across American culture, across the American education system, across the American housing system, across the American economy.

And yet our stories, and our myths, tend to belie that reality. The logic of meritocracy, as a concept—“a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement,” per Merriam-Webster, but also, per, “an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth”—endorses a world in which economic success carries a moral valence, and in which, as a consequence, the lack of such success implies a kind of moral failing.

It’s a tension playing out, at the moment, with the negotiations taking place in Congress, about the future of the American healthcare system. Many of those debates, my colleague Vann Newkirk pointed out, have adopted the pernicious logic of the prosperity gospel—the idea that success, and wealth, and indeed health itself, are signs of God’s favor. But it’s a tension, too, that has long inflected conversations about social assistance programs—a tension that has, in general, long defined how Americans think about what they owe to each other, as people and as fellow citizens.

“Meritocracy” takes as its core assumption, essentially, an equality that does not exist in America. It is romantic rather than realistic. “To successful people,” Walker said, “to interrogate their success requires that they acknowledge the injustice that is baked into our systems. And that’s really, really hard to do, because we’re patriots. We believe in our country. We believe that there is something that makes it possible for people like me, and Jeff, and you”—he was talking to Norris—“to be where we are today.”

That something is, in the Algerian sense, the American dream. That something is “an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent” as a myth and a cultural ideal. As concepts, they claim to speak to the best of who we are; in practice, however, they can serve as a justification of the worst. They can allow us to be complacent about the world rather than interrogate it. After all, as Norris summed things up: In America, “we are the land of the brave and the home of amnesia.”