The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits - The Objective Standard

New York: Penguin, 2019
418 pp., $30 (hardcover)

This is a book about Stakhanovites. That’s a word that originated during the bleakest days of Soviet totalitarianism, when a Russian miner named Alexey Stakhanov set a record by digging more coal during one shift than had ever been mined before. Stalin’s deputies made him into an artificial folk hero by forcing workers to pretend that they were inspired by his example and to “volunteer” to work harder for socialism. But in Daniel Markovits’s telling, it is today’s capitalists who are the Stakhanovites.

Like Stalin’s victims, he says, modern corporate leaders and elite professionals are being subjected to soul-crushing enslavement, thanks to propagandistic forces that perpetuate the mass delusion called “meritocracy.” Markovits defines meritocracy as a “merger of industry and honor” and as the “myth” that “wealth and status must be earned through accomplishment” (8, 258, i). This “illusion,” he says, has become “detached from the increasingly redundant middle class and passed up the income ladder” (73, 98). As a result, “the middle class experiences its enforced idleness as insulting and even degrading,” and “the working rich commit to epidemic industry that the pursuit of mere wealth cannot rationalize. Today’s Stakhanovites are the one-percenters” (98).

As these quotes suggest, readers must be constantly on guard for the ways in which Markovits substitutes innuendo and dysphemism for argument. The phrase “epidemic industry,” for example, is meant to insinuate that the “working rich” suffer from a crippling disease of stress, generated by the fantasy that “social and economic rewards should track achievement” (ix). The phrase “enforced idleness” refers to the fact that middle-income Americans today are wealthy enough to avoid the drudgery of household labor that ground down previous generations. And the word “Stakhanovite” is perversely meant to imply that “the working rich” are somehow comparable to the slave laborers of Josef Stalin’s tyranny.

That is obviously absurd, and Markovits’s reliance on such loaded language is a good sign that his argument cannot stand—pardon the pun—on its own merits. In fact, this rhetorical tactic of loaded language pervades the entire book, transforming descriptions of the blessings of modern society into dismal images of a nation in decay. For instance, he complains that “new technologies allow a few ‘superstar’ entertainers to capture global audiences, displacing many only slightly less skilled performers who previously served local audiences by being the best entertainment within traveling range”—which, in ordinary language, means that YouTube and Spotify now enable listeners worldwide to enjoy the world’s finest music instead of having to settle for whoever is playing at the local tavern (178). True, this means new performers must up their game if they want to become famous—but modern technology also makes it easier than ever before for them to develop a fan base.

Or consider Markovits’s dire description of “the skill fetish” that “dominates the labor market” and encourages “the elite” to “spend its enormous incomes on exceptional educations for its children, whose own skills induce further skill-biased innovations” (254). This means that people who work hard and admire competence will teach those values to their children, in hopes of giving them the best opportunities for a rewarding life. “Skill fetish” is Markovits’s sourpuss term for the value people put on know-how, just as “capturing audiences” is a spurious synonym for “attracting admirers.”

Cleansed of this rhetoric, however, Markovits’s observations contain some truths. He argues, for instance, that smart, driven people sometimes find themselves overworked and unsatisfied, whereas others who are less well-off often suffer from a sense that their contributions are underappreciated. This observation is not novel, of course—Henry David Thoreau said the same thing in Walden—but it is valid. The assumption that a degree from a top university and a high-paying office job constitute the fast track to happiness has probably caused much dissatisfaction. But the opposite is also true: Many people love the life of “epidemic industry” and flourish when enabled to put their ambitions to the test. Simply put, some people are happier as carpenters than corporate executives, and vice versa—and some only learn this after spending half their lives on the wrong path. The road to happiness is something each person must discover for himself.

If Markovits had confined himself to urging people to consider their life choices carefully, his book would have some value. But he cannot offer new insights on this enduring human dilemma, thanks to a basic equivocation in his analysis. At times, he uses the word “meritocracy” to mean the social pressures that can distract people from careers and pursuits they would find fulfilling. In this sense, the word refers to the self-destructive lust for wealth and status that is inimical to the good life. At other times, he uses the term to mean the social ideal that people should earn their fortunes through their own hard work—a principle rooted in individualism and the rational valuing of persistence and expertise that is a foundation stone of the good life. In this sense, “meritocracy” is why we applaud virtuoso musicians, give gold medals to superlative athletes, and write biographies about great geniuses.1

Using the word both ways leads Markovits to alternate between criticizing those who chase after illusory values (and who suffer “shallow ambitions and deep and pervasive fears of failure”), and those who devote themselves to work they love and whose virtues of diligence and ambition he derides as the “sham” notion that “industry constitutes honor” (154, 268, 157). Such fallacious thinking is evident when he concludes that “innovation increasingly divides work into what might be called gloomy and glossy jobs: gloomy because they offer neither immediate reward nor hope for promotion, and glossy because the shine comes from income and status rather than meaningful work” (12). He leaves little room for those who devote themselves to excellence, achieve it, and live happy and satisfying lives while improving the standard of living for everyone.

This equivocation also enables Markovits to wed his indictment of “meritocracy” to an argument against “inequality,” even though those two positions are contradictory. He objects to institutions that hinder social mobility—claiming, for example, that “children from poor or even middle-class households simply cannot compete in the battle for places at elite universities with rich children”—but if competition and achievement are as destructive as he claims, there can be no reason to protest if poor children are spared from the dire fate of workaholism by being denied admittance to Yale (26). Likewise, he objects that “meritocratic countries . . . concentrate both education and commerce in a narrow elite, which closes ranks as ownership castes always do,” but he cannot condemn this while also rejecting the proposition that people should earn what they get (or, more precisely, get what they earn), which is just what he scorns as “meritocracy” (257). To condemn both “caste” and “meritocracy” is to commit the stolen concept fallacy.

Markovits attempts to avoid this contradiction by arguing that society should abandon the idea of “merit” entirely. In his view, the idea that individuals should be rewarded for their own qualities and character is an illusion—a social convention, in fact, fashioned during the Enlightenment as a reaction against aristocratic culture, which distributed riches and status according to birth instead of effort. Overthrowing that culture was praiseworthy, but today, says Markovits, the “meritocratic virtues” cause more problems than they cure. They are “artifacts of economic inequality in just the fashion in which the pitching virtues [would be] artifacts of baseball” in a world in which that sport was extinct (264).

This is not true. Economic inequality is a metaphysical given, not a matter of mere convention like baseball. That is why people have prized individual merit since ancient times. The Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Ojibwe tales of Nanabozho celebrated clever thinkers and great warriors, not as a protest against economic hierarchy, but because humans have good reason to admire those who do well in the battle for life against the forces of nature and hostile enemies. As Dierdre McCloskey has explained (in The Bourgeois Virtues), modern capitalism largely came to life when the virtues celebrated in these ancient stories morphed into a more “bourgeois” form of ethics whereby, for instance, courage was supplemented by prudence. Cultural developments such as these caused the economic change, not the other way around.

It also makes no sense to blame “meritocracy” for inequality while at the same time accusing it of obstructing “the avenues that once carried people from modest circumstances into the American elite” (xiv). “Meritocracy” cannot simultaneously be the source of class divisions, the result of class divisions, a weapon against class divisions, and a device for reinforcing class divisions—unless the word means whatever Markovits wants it to mean.

As with his observations about workaholics, Markovits’s complaints about certain forms of “privilege” have some validity, but these observations, too, are frequently trivial and rarely substantiate his argument. It is true, for example, that American culture sometimes celebrates people and institutions that do not deserve it, whereas hardworking geniuses are overlooked. More troubling, some traditions and laws obstruct social mobility and reward things other than merit. These include sexism, race-conscious hiring and college-admission practices, and economic regulations that make it hard for newcomers to enter an industry while giving advantages to existing businesses whose managers are privy to government favors. To his credit, Markovits occasionally acknowledges that government control over the economy actually worsens the problems of “caste”—writing, for instance, that “elaborate administrative procedures increase the influence that the rich have over the regulatory outcomes that the procedures produce” (281). But what makes such phenomena objectionable is precisely that they contradict the principles of individual merit that he assails.

In the end, Markovits prefers to abandon ambition instead of making people’s goals more attainable. Rather than arguing for a freer economy or the abolition of practices such as affirmative action or legacy admissions at universities, so as to ensure that good students and enterprising individuals are rewarded for their virtues, he offers two recommendations aimed at dismantling the very idea of merit. First, colleges should become more “open and inclusive” by making admissions policies “less competitive” and “training less all-consuming, even at the best schools” (275). Second, government should prioritize “mid-skilled production” over excellence by—among other things—giving a $150 billion annual handout to employers who hire fewer experts and more mediocrities (280). Of course, Markovits does not put it that way. In his euphemistic phraseology, “employment subsidies” would help “rebalance production away from superordinate and toward middle-class labor” (279).

What would happen to workers whose livelihoods depend on the creativity of managers, or patients whose lives depend on highly trained doctors? No answer. Who would pay for these subsidies? The rich, of course, who “can easily afford” it (286). After reading this, it comes as little surprise that Markovits ends his book by paraphrasing the closing lines of the Communist Manifesto.

In the Soviet Union of the 1930s, members of the Stakhanovite movement often aroused violent resentment among their coworkers, who saw their assiduousness as antisocialist and a threat to their own status. Markovits likewise directs his argument not against the unjust laws or other institutions that sometimes frustrate the desires of hardworking people, but at the admirable desire to work hard and prevail. Instead of arguing for a freer economy with more social mobility, where entrepreneurs could more easily put their skills to work and enjoy the fruits of their labors, he calls for government policies aimed at “a virtuous cycle of self-reinforcing equality” (284). And instead of encouraging readers to reflect more deeply on the idea of merit—to ask themselves what they consider worthy and why—he condemns the desire for achievement as “self-exploitation” (194).

Many of the problems Markovits writes about are real ones. But rather than addressing private choices and public policies that would expand opportunity for advancement and improve life even for those whose dreams do not direct them to the heights of the corporate ladder, Markovits’s prescription is for a society in which government will reward “uncompetitive mediocrity” instead of individual initiative, and mankind’s noblest quality—the love of excellence—is regarded as a menace (242).

In #TheMeritocracyTrap, @DSMarkovits’s reliance on loaded language is a good sign that his argument cannot stand—pardon the pun—on its own merits.
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1. Given that the suffix “ocracy” means “rule by,” the literal meaning of “meritocracy” is rule by those of merit. As Ayn Rand pointed out in her 1973 article “An Untitled Letter,” “meritocracy” is a package deal; “By means of nothing more than its last five letters, that word obliterates the difference between mind and force: it equates the men of ability with political rulers, and the power of their creative achievements with political power.” See “An Untitled Letter” in Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984).

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