The Meritocracy Trap—A Review

The Meritocracy Trap—A Review

John Staddon
John Staddon
12 min read

A review of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feed Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by Daniel Markovits, Penguin Press (September 2019) 422 pages.

Meritocracy is in trouble. Recent years have seen a flood of articles deploring inequality and blaming meritocracy for it. In the vanguard is Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits who attacked meritocracy in its home, in an address to Yale University graduates in 2015. His new book, The Meritocracy Trap,1 has just been published.

Professor Markovits is a meritocratic champ himself: “In the summer of 1987…I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and [then] attend[ed] Yale College. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at…the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees [in philosophy, econometrics, mathematics and law] along the way.”

Despite his own success in the meritocratic sweepstakes, Markovits is highly critical of what he sees as an inevitable bad outcome.

The book has nine chapters, beginning with ‘The Meritocratic Revolution’ and ending with ‘The Myth of Merit.’ The text abounds in sweeping statements (more on some of those in a moment), with (apparently) no references in support. But no, that’s wrong! In fact, half the Kindle book is taken up by notes and references, linked by a line of text (and you can get to the text from the reference, but not vice versa, which makes checking sources as you read difficult).

Given the vast amount of research material that Markovits cites, this should perhaps have been three or four books rather than one. Instead he has chosen to write one book in a deceptively non-academic way. Perhaps this is why the text is in fact incredibly repetitive. We read many sentences like the following:

Meritocracy blocks the middle class from opportunity.

[M]eritocracy concentrates these vibrant wellsprings of creativity in a narrower and narrower elite, farther and farther beyond the practical and even the imaginative horizons of the broad middle class.

Meritocracy comprehensively excludes the middle class from social and economic advantage, and at the same time conscripts its elite into a ruinous contest to preserve caste.

Rising economic inequality…principally comes not from a shift of income away from labor and toward capital but rather from a shift of income away from middle-class labor and toward superordinate labor.

The middle class is literally shrinking: the share of all households that might sensibly be called “middle class” has fallen by nearly a fifth from its peak…

We are told many, many times that the middle class is dying, and meritocracy is to blame. We get it. A shorter book, with a less redundant text and fewer, more focused references, would have been a great improvement.

There are three parts to Markovits’s argument: First the facts, some precise, many squishy. Second the diagnosis: the root causes of the malaise described in Part One. And finally: action, what should be done to remedy the situation.

The Facts

First, the facts: Yes, the proportion of Americans in the middle-income range has shrunk since the 1950s and their incomes have stagnated relative to those below them and those above—what Markovits calls “superordinate workers” in occupations like finance and tech. Yes, the income distribution has become less equal. The OECD data for 2018 show the US ranked at 34 out of 38 nations (the US Gini2 coefficient was 0.39; South Africa was the worst at 0 .62, the Slovak Republic the best at 0.241). The US figure shows a small increase, from just over 0.3 in 1979 to  0.39 in 2018. And yes, the incomes of the top one percent now exceed those in the middle and on the bottom by outrageous margins. An oft-quoted statistic is that CEO pay has increased from around 20 times that of the average worker in in the 1950s to around 360 times today—although, mercifully, only cited once by Markovits.

Another set of facts is less easy to measure: the happiness or otherwise of the different classes. Markowitz contends that everyone is unhappy, but for different reasons. “An unhappy, even disconsolate affect increasingly dominates superordinate work and elite life,” he writes, giving quotes like this as examples: ‘My Typical Day Shows Why Lawyers Are Miserable and Lonely’ (Business Insider, November 2013). Lawyers’ workloads have hugely increased in past decades, as have their incomes and their stress levels and the same for what Markovits calls other “superordinate” workers in finance, tech, and big business in general.

In other words, the elite are paid a bundle but have to work too hard. And what choice do they have? They are their own “capital” says Markovits. They can’t just collect rent, as in the good old days of the land-owning aristocracy. They must work to be rich, and society forces them to compete, so they “burn out,” even though it is hard for the rest of us to feel sorry for them. After all, why don’t they just retire when they get rich enough?

The misery of the middle is more understandable. Their wages have stagnated even though government statistics tell us that the unemployment level is historically low. Not that these numbers are totally trustworthy. They don’t account for the very large numbers of people who are no longer looking for work. Why? Are they content to live on savings? On welfare? On disability payments, where the numbers have much increased even as other health statistics, like life expectancy, have generally improved? (Social Security disability numbers in the U.S. have increased from 6.2 million in 2004 to 8.5 million in 2018.)

The main problem for the middle class, correctly identified by Markovits, is not their wages but the instability of their jobs: precarity is the ugly but fashionable term. Lifetime employment and the serious on-the-job training that led to it is now a rarity. Workers are instead selected by their educational credentials, even when a degree is unnecessary. All this, Markovits claims, is facilitated by the computerization of everything, from manufacturing to the granting of home mortgages.

The Diagnosis

Meritocracy, in the form of a college degree, particularly a degree from an elite college, is the problem, says Markovits. Elite colleges have become more competitive; they accept a smaller proportion of applicants than they did decades ago—although it is not clear to what extent this depends on the base application rate. Are prospective students applying to more colleges now than they used to? In which case the acceptance rate of colleges just reflects an increase in the denominator, not necessarily an increase in their selectivity. Markovits argues for the latter and gives in support some statistics on the elevated SAT (Scholastic Admissions Test) levels now required of matriculants.

The process seems to operate like this. As more kids go to college, a degree has mutated from a bonus to a necessity. As elite credentials became increasingly essential for career advancement, elite schools came under increased scrutiny for their non-meritocratic admissions of “legacy” students and the children of the rich and powerful (e.g., politicians and potential donors). In a strange metamorphosis, college education for the many elevated the value of elite education for the few.

Elite admissions officers now are explicitly concerned about the effect of their policies on social mobility.3 Increasing reliance on “objective” measures like the SAT and the ACT (American College Testing) was the first response. Next came affirmative action and the obsession with “diversity.” These two moves seemed at first to defuse attacks on elitism: if the campus is suitably multicolored and most applicants have passed a high test bar, what’s the problem?

The problem, says Markovits, is that the rich can coach their children, from kindergarten to high school, to beat the tests, thus maintaining  an effectively hereditary ruling caste, albeit a generally unhappy and overworked one: “modern meritocracy operates not through more and more accurate testing for natural talent, deployed earlier and earlier, but rather through more and more intensive cultivation of nurtured talent, extending longer and longer [emphasis added].” Sensitive to this critique, several elite colleges have recently made the SAT and ACT optional. In response to the potential loss of business, in May 2019, the College Board came up with a sort of diversity test, the Adversity Index.3 It was widely criticized and abandoned in August. Where this process will go in the future is uncertain.

Michael Young, who originated the term in a brilliant 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, predicted much of what Markovits laments: the rise of an IQ-meritocratic ruling class. Young deplored what he predicted, but Markovits isn’t having any of it: “Young’s satire missed its mark by a mile,” he writes. Markovits’s criticism is that Young failed to see that the meritocratic process itself creates a society—highly automated, dominated by finance and high-tech—that sustains the meritocracy itself. “Meritocracy has built a world that makes itself—in all its facets, including meritocratic inequality—seem practically and even morally necessary,” the writes.  What this seems to mean is that all those technical innovations, in automation and fintech and elsewhere, that give the meritocrats their high-paid positions, would not have been created without meritocracy itself: “The feedback loops between exclusive education and skill-based innovation entrench and expand the elite’s privilege and shrink and marginalize the middle class.” Without the rise of the meritocracy, the world would be a simpler 1950-ish sort of place, with stable jobs and a thriving middle class.

The contrary view, of course, is that technology and science evolve through the curiosity and talent of scientists and engineers interacting with the laws of nature. In modern Western society, unlike, say, ancient China, innovation promotes more innovation. Society imposes some direction, but it is often hard to detect. The invention of the digital computer, for example, arose from Alan Turing’s 1936 mathematical paper on computable numbers. But social factors influenced the construction of actual computers to aid decoding efforts in WW II. Turing was clever, of course (first-class honours and all that), but his discoveries were because of his brilliance not the fact that he was a member of an elite (he was middle class) or because anyone saw the meritocratic benefits of close attention to the Entscheidungsproblem. The fact that modern technology supports an elite class is surely more an effect of the technology itself than of self-sustaining positive feedbacks, as Markovits claims. The elite exploit the technology because it is there; they didn’t invent it to prolong their existence.

Individual Differences

The phrase “individual differences” doesn’t occur in the book. The phrase “natural talent” appears only once, as criticism. Markovits really does seem to believe that nurture is all and nature nothing. It’s worth noting that if there is no such thing as natural talent, if nurture really is everything, then the only fair way to assign privilege, to assure “equality of results,” is to admit students to prestigious places like Harvard and Yale by lottery, something which was seriously proposed by recent commentator. Markovits does mention the “birthright lottery,” by which he means not the genetic allocation of talent but the assortative selection of privileged parents. But he thinks that lottery is unfair.

Hence, says Markovits, if a meritocratic elite exists, it is because of unfair advantages, with no contribution from natural talent. But natural talent exists and can clearly succeed without the high-cost filter of elite colleges. Michael Young pointed out that in pre-meritocratic Britain, people of great ability were to be found in the uneducated classes. Clement Attlee’s post-war cabinet contained  people like Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, neither college educated. In contrast, the cabinet of Tony Blair was “largely filled…with members of the meritocracy.” The British leadership of 1945 was quite different from, but surely no worse than, the leadership of 2001.

Young also saw that when smart people marry, they tend to have smart children. Twin studies have shown that the smarts of the kids are partly inherited. Coaching and expensive schools can help, but some privileged kids still don’t make it, as the efforts of the fraudulent parents in the Varsity Blues scandal shows. There is such a thing as “natural talent.” So, as Young predicted, a meritocratic elite is to some extent an hereditary elite. There seems to be no way for a meritocracy to avoid this.

Markovits’s other mistake is assuming that performance on IQ-type tests can be significantly improved by education and coaching. Given a target population with some education, further coaching makes little difference. Indeed, the tests were explicitly designed to be test-retest reliable. Doubts have been raised recently. Responding to a booming test-coaching industry, the College Board recently announced its own “practice tool” which boosted scores 90 points or more in weakly controlled experiments. The conclusion still seems to be that “[T]he best independent research suggests that formal coaching can further boost a student’s score, but only by a little bit.”

Tests like the SAT are useful because they do predict college performance, not perfectly but  better than other selection methods although, again, there is some debate about this. The SAT may have become less predictive in recent decades. The problem might be inadequacy of the test itself, as many claim. But it might also be the students and set of colleges (selective vs non-selective) used to estimate the SAT-grade-point correlation. Or it may be that the courses taken by first-year students are at least as responsible for their grades as their own talent and effort. The first-year “core curriculum” is a thing of the past in many, perhaps most colleges.  Consequently, a student’s grades may be more  function of her ingenuity in selecting first-year courses that match her ability, than of her ability in coping with a curriculum that is standard for all. Grade inflation (the camouflage term now is grade compression) is an acknowledged problem and students well know which courses are easy and which are not.

The fact is there is such a thing as natural talent and elite schools now get most of it. If the best jobs and careers go to graduates of these schools, a stratified society will be the inevitable result.

The Solution?

Markovits’s recommendations are as modest as his theory is all-embracing. To solve inequality, remove the limit on the payroll (social-security) tax. This is an idea that has been around a long time and seems quite reasonable. The payroll tax is certainly regressive, since it only falls on incomes below $133,000 or so—a large salary for many, but trivial for the superordinate mega-rich that are his main target. It’s hard to see how to justify the limit if you think inequality has become excessive.

Markovits considers the money spent by the rich on educating their children as a form of inheritance. To tax it, and to curb the dominance of elite private colleges, Markovits suggests putting a limitation on their tax exempt status. Again, fair enough, given the fact that many top-ranked schools make enough money from their endowments to abolish tuition fees entirely. Charities are supposed to devote a large proportion of their income to supporting charitable activities. Do Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the like really do this? Or do they waste their income on swollen non-teaching bureaucracies and luxurious support facilities? It’s worth a debate.

Markovits also takes a swipe at finance, which exists simply to allocate resources but takes up 10 percent or more of  GDP. It is now the source of great wealth, much of it generated through clever instruments like the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) which contributed to the collapse of 2008. A Nobelist economist even claimed, post-2008, that bundles of hundreds of individual mortgages (CDOs) somehow made them more secure. Of what use are regulators who fail to spot the risks posed by CDOs and the like? Markovits offers no solution, but the growth and complexity of modern finance is a problem that goes beyond the technical shenanigans of superordinate quants.


Every civilization has an elite. There is always a hierarchy of some sort. A hierarchical structure is probably inevitable in any complex organization. So the issue is not hierarchy or no hierarchy, but how should the hierarchy be selected?

The problem is that almost any hierarchy is incompatible with what has become an American dogma: that all people are equal, not just in terms of their legal rights as citizens, but in essentially everything. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers seem to imply that exceptional people are the largely the result of exceptional effort—the “10,000-hour rule.” There is nothing otherwise special about them, except perhaps a bit of luck. This makes it hard to live with any kind of hierarchy. Those below the top are led to feel that their failure is somehow not their fault but simply due to poverty or a limited access to an elite education. It puts the confirmed egalitarian in an insoluble bind.

Daniel Markovits doesn’t believe in natural talent, hence ‘The Myth of Merit,’ his last chapter. Logically, he should favor random selection, if not for everything, then for positions of power. But he fails to follow through. His way out is via the idea that “Meritocracy has built a world that makes itself,” i.e., that meritocracy is self-perpetuating. But if we believe that there is such a thing as talent, which includes wisdom, virtue and energy as well as the ability to do well on the SAT, then surely the best society is the one that puts people high in these qualities in charge: Thomas Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy.” Markovits’s answer is to condemn the very idea of merit—thus abandoning logic for the embrace of  an obvious falsehood, that everyone can do anything if only they’re given a proper chance.

Effort is good; it’s good to believe that you can achieve by thinking and working hard. But it is destructive for society to think that those who do succeed have no special merit. Equality of opportunity is good. But if—and this is where I disagree with the professor—we are not all equally talented, then equality of opportunity also guarantees inequality of results. If society is not to dissolve into chaos, the system must be fair and give all as much opportunity as possible. But society must also recognize that even if we achieve that ideal, some people have more talent than others. Even, perhaps especially, in a fair and just society, they will likely land on top.

References and Notes:

1 Daniel Markovits (2019) The Meritocracy Trap: how America’s foundational myth feeds inequality, dismantles the middle class, and devours the elite. (Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition).
2 The 0-1 Gini coefficient is the standard measure of income inequality (1 is completely unequal, 0 is complete equality); it is less arbitrary than threshold measures such as “the fraction of X living in poverty”, or ill-defined terms like “middle class.”
3 See for example College Admissions Ride the Equality Roundabout (J. Staddon, Academic Questions, in press)


John Staddon

John Staddon is a James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University.