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The Failure of Meritocracy in the United States


The United States is a meritocracy, or at least claims to be one. We reward those who work the hardest and perform the best with great riches and those who do not languish. This is the motivating force behind the high productivity, entrepreneurship, and achievement of this great nation. Except according to a new report by the New America Foundation, entrepreneurship has been in decline since 1977, even as small businesses are given credit for creating 97% of new jobs between 1988 and 2004. Corresponding with the modern Conservative era, replete with low taxes and pro-business (or at least pro-corporate) policies, is a drop of 53% in the per capita number of entrepreneurs. Productivity and corporate revenues have continued to climb, but corresponding wages have stagnated as profiteers squeeze ever more out of their workers without rewarding them for their efforts. Whether it’s the small business owner unsuccessfully struggling to establish themselves against transnational competitors or the employed worker putting in greater and greater effort with no gain, millions of Americans are spinning their wheels. It seems that the little guy can no longer get ahead, while elites of all types have managed to rig the game so that they, and they alone, always win.

Chris Hayes, editor-at-large of the Nation and host of Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, has written a new book, “Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.” In his book, he argues that the United States has endured over a decade of catastrophic failures such as the Iraq war debacle and the Wall Street meltdown, because of the entrenched dysfunctions of the elites in our society. Cocooned in their own world, safe from the consequences of their actions, the elite act recklessly and without regard for the impact of their decisions on the general public. The social distance between the elites and everyone else contributes to their ongoing failures in large part because they dodge any accountability.  Hayes believes that these outcomes are the result of a warping of meritocracy.

Essentially, Hayes argues that true meritocracy requires two principles to function. The Principle of Difference states that people fall into natural hierarchies of talent and ability and the Principle of Mobility holds that there needs to be a process by which successes are rewarded and failures have negative consequences. However, Hayes points out that our meritocracy has a weakness which I argue is a built-in fault of all “meritocracies”; corruption is unavoidable as inequality leads those who are successful to begin to show favor to their family and friends while also closing ranks and blocking the pathways to success for other talented individuals by changing the rules for achievement and creating policies that deny opportunity to people outside their exclusive club. For example, those with power set up a public school funding system that relies on local property taxes guaranteeing that poor, urban communities have schools with fewer resources, despite far greater needs, while the wealthy, suburban communities can spend far more per student. This sets up students in the wealthier school districts to continuously receive a better education which ostensibly leads to superior “merit” via the “talents” that are nurtured in this unequal system.

Lewis Gordon, writing on affirmative action, speaks to the way white supremacy has always been used in place of meritocracy. He writes,

“There is another truth. There are few systems that depend on excellence to function. Most of the services we rely on to get through our lives depend on average levels of performance. And that’s pretty much it. The rewards lavished on many whites in the modern world have not been based on merit. What many people of color discovered upon entering those previously closed corridors was not white superiority but, for the most part, white mediocrity.”

In many ways, Thomas Jefferson described this dynamic in his letter to John Adams in 1813:

“For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground of distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents… The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”

Like Jefferson, we would all like to see our elites or “natural aristocracy” be endowed with natural talents and virtues. We don’t want them to be born into their elite status, artificially propped up by wealth or white supremacy. And yet, today’s America class system is hardening, locking individuals into the status they were born into, more than ever before. For example, your parent’s economic status predicts your own more often in the United States than it does in Europe or Canada. Social mobility, at least in an upward direction, is becoming less and less attainable in the Land of Opportunity. To frame his ideas on meritocracy, Hayes uses the work of Robert Michels who said, “Oligarchy is inevitable.” Michel’s hypothesis is receiving increasing levels of support from the trajectory of the United States, which seems ever more determined to develop an “artificial aristocracy” with concentrated power and wealth.

How do we as a nation balance our need for a cadre of talented leaders and our deep belief in meritocracy with the forces that push our elites toward betrayal of the democratic society they are supposed to lead? How do we prevent elites from spiraling into mediocrity via their own tendency to promote people into their ranks based on familiarity rather than legitimate merit? Hayes writes,

“This is the paradox of meritocracy: It can only come truly to flower in a society that starts out with a relatively high degree of equality. So if you want meritocracy, work for equality.”

Given this prescription, it would seem that the best response to our growing dilemma is to initiate policies that work against entrenched power in everything from the tax code and school funding to Wall Street regulation and concentrations of the media with a few corporations.  This requires a unification of the People to use the power of the masses to push for change. Unfortunately, the greatest barrier to change is paradoxically that elites have ensconced power preventing these changes in policies, and their greatest allies are the conservatives in this country, especially among the masses, who are determined to let them keep it.

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