'This book flips your world upside down. Daniel Markovits argues that meritocracy isn't a virtuous, efficient system that rewards the best and brightest. Instead it rewards middle-class families who can afford huge investments in their children's education ... Frightening, eye-opening stuff' The Times, Books of the Year
Even in the midst of runaway economic inequality and dangerous social division, it remains an axiom of modern life that meritocracy reigns supreme and promises to open opportunity to all. The idea that reward should follow ability and effort is so entrenched in our psyche that, even as society divides itself at almost every turn, all sides can be heard repeating meritocratic notions. Meritocracy cuts to the heart of who we think we are.
But what if, both up and down the social ladder, meritocracy is a sham? Today, meritocracy has become exactly what it was conceived to resist: a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Upward mobility has become a fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite. At the same time, meritocracy now ensnares even those who manage to claw their way to the top, requiring rich adults to work with crushing intensity, exploiting their expensive educations in order to extract a return. All this is not the result of deviations or retreats from meritocracy but rather stems directly from meritocracy's successes.
This is the radical argument that The Meritocracy Trap prosecutes with rare force, comprehensive research, and devastating persuasion. Daniel Markovits, a law professor trained in philosophy and economics, is better placed than most to puncture one of the dominant ideas of our age. Having spent his life at elite universities, he knows from the inside the corrosive system we are trapped within, as well as how we can take the first steps towards a world that might afford us both prosperity and dignity.
Yale law professor Markovits presents a reasonable but confusingly structured argument that what in the U.S. "is conventionally called merit is actually an ideological conceit, constructed to launder a fundamentally unjust allocation of advantage." The elite maintain their status, he writes, not through the possession of merit but through fetishizing their own labor and skills, and sending their children to elite schools that people with less money can't afford, entrenching a rigid class system. As such, the problems the meritocracy narrative causes are both emotional (especially for the underemployed and out of work) and political (because inequality breeds political divisiveness). Meanwhile, chances for advancement for those who aren't already rich have dried up drastically in the last 50 years: the system, Markovits argues, consists more and more of "gloomy" and "glossy" jobs those at the very bottom of the ladder, and those at the very top, with few rungs in the middle. Automation has reduced the number of middle-class jobs on offer, and, in industries such as finance and retail, the disparity between the pay received by higher-income and lower-income workers has grown drastically. Markovits makes some astute observations about this fundamentally American dogma, but in a frequently verbose and repetitive style. Nevertheless, those seeking insight into the landscape of contemporary income inequality will find much of value in his analysis. \n