Meritocracy is the poisonous cause of, not the antidote for, the college admissions scandal

Last March 12, Americans experienced a Casablanca moment when federal prosecutors charged dozens of wealthy parents with paying a consultant to help them bribe their children’s ways into elite universities such as Yale, Stanford, USC, and others.

I call it the Casablanca moment because the shockwaves rolling through the media response recalled the scene from the classic movie in which Claude Rains’ character Captain Renault, when the casino is raided, declares, “I’m shocked, shocked, that there’s gambling going on in this establishment!” Meanwhile, of course, the croupier approaches him with a wad of bills: “Your winnings, sir.” Renault is only somewhat discomfited.

Are we, too, really shocked at yet another revelation of the way class inequality continues to benefit the wealthy, providing special access to opportunity and only intensifying and widening the gulfs between classes?
Often these gulfs are referenced euphemistically in terms of “privilege” because Americans live largely in denial of the realities of class struggle in the United States. The college admissions scandal, or rather the national response to it, highlights this denial by often diagnosing the problem as one of corruption in our system rather than as a problem with the values and system of class society itself.

Here’s what I mean. Article after article after article I have read on this matter analyze this scandal to expose the fact that American society is not functioning as the meritocracy it purports to be, where people compete on the proverbial even playing field and succeed on the basis of their skills and talents. James Dickey, in a Sports Illustrated column, reads the scandal as a “subtextual indictment of American meritocracy and its hallowed institutions and loudest defenders.” Diana Elliott and Steven Brown assert the scandal “shows the US is far from a meritocracy” and suggest that “[p]art of our awakening as a society is to accept this and work to dismantle the system that has privileged the wealthy and the elite.” Krystal Ball, although she complicates the matter, similarly argues that what the scandal “reveals is just what a fantasy this idea of a meritocracy — the core of the American Dream — really is. Increasingly in America, your lot in life depends a lot more on your birthright than on your talents, hard work or other positive qualities.”

Implicit in most of these analyses that decry the lack of genuine meritocracy in U.S. society is the prescription that the cure for this illness is meritocracy itself—just a real meritocracy, not a fake one. The problem is that kids who don’t deserve access to these elite institutions are having these opportunities bestowed on them because of their parents’ wealth, while the really talented kids who deserve it, but might not come from wealthy families, are not enjoying equal opportunity.

I suppose it’s a nice thought, and if genuine meritocracy were actually achievable and really recognized and awarded opportunity to the most talented, U.S. society might be in a marginally better place, removing some of the corruption from class society.

But we also need to recognize that it is precisely U.S. capitalism’s animating principle of meritocracy that creates, exacerbates, and apologizes for class inequality, the gross inequities in wealth distribution, that enable and largely justify the privileged in their pursuit of more.

As a culture, we largely take the justness and legitimacy of meritocracy for granted because few people question why a doctor, lawyer, politician, or banker earns a higher salary than a custodian, postal worker, grocery store cashier, fast food worker, social worker, or teacher. Certain work, the belief goes, deserves a higher remuneration than others.

In short, according to the story, people get what they deserve. This belief in meritocracy thus enables us to justify poverty, people not having access to proper health care, not being able to afford college, not being able to afford food or housing, and so forth.

With their thinking shaped by this framework, it has just come to make sense to most Americans, even if we are all performing socially necessary labor that makes all of our lives possible, that some people on the basis of what they do deserve to live in nicer neighborhoods, own larger houses, eat healthier foods, have access to better education, and drive better cars.

They deserve greater access to social resources, a larger piece of the pie. They deserve to consume more.

The outrage the college admissions scandal has inspired tends to be directed at those it deems undeserving, not at meritocracy and the class hierarchy and inequality it fuels and justifies.

The outrage, put another way, is calling for a more “just” inequality in which those who truly deserve more than others get it.

In creating income inequality and class division, meritocracy reproduces a society in which the wealthy will have privileges. It is the poisonous cause of, and not the cure for, the problem the college admissions scandal exposes.

Ball, to some extent, recognizes “the whole concept is immoral nonsense in the first place,” urging us to “move past the mythology of a worthy elite class and create a system that recognizes the worthiness of all.”

She can go further, though. What does it mean to recognize “the worthiness of all”?

Is it just a moral recognition? Or will our moral value system align with how we determine economic value also?

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez recently raised this issue, complaining about people who say “they’re going to ‘send me back to waitressing,’ as if that’s bad or shameful. It’s as though they think being a member of Congress makes you intrinsically ‘better’ than a waitress.”

When we can respect the waitress and her work she as much as we do the Congress member and her work, we will have equal moral recognition of worthiness.

When a waitress has the same access not just to opportunities but to resources, without having to be “more” than a waitress, we will have aligned our moral and economic value systems in recognizing the worthiness of all.