Is the United States a Meritocracy?

Most successful human beings would like to believe that they’ve achieved success through hard work and dedication. Most of us, as conservatives and libertarians, would like to believe that at its core, America is a meritocratic system, and that just about anyone can achieve upward social mobility and achieve the American dream. Is this the case? To what degree is America a meritocracy?

What Is A Meritocracy?

Miriam-Webster’s dictionary, which would never, ever alter definitions based on the woke movement, defines meritocracy as: “a system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit.”

Does Hard Work Alone Earn You A Position Of Success?

In other words, you earn your position based on your merit. Now, the definition of merit doesn’t actually mention labor. It is simply a quality that justifies your honor or esteem. You could imagine a decently athletic 7 foot tall person with big hands and long arms being placed in the starting lineup of an NBA team. There may be many more hard working people who aren’t starters, or even on the team, but by being super tall, you merit being on the team. 

Imagine a 5 foot 5 inch guy, who is the hardest working person around. It won’t matter, they don’t merit a position on anything other than a recreational team. No competitive collegiate or pro team would ever put a super short guy on a basketball team.

Merit, therefore, is less about the individual’s efforts alone, but more about how they benefit another entity, and fit into their plan for achieving their goals. If you can help the team win, you merit being there. If you can’t, you don’t. 

A Study In Meritocracy: Did Rudy Merit a Spot On The Notre Dame Football Team? 

Rudy is a great story. I really love the movie. It’s beautifully shot, giving you the feel of fall and football. It has a great cast with Sean Astin, Charles Dutton, Jon Favreau, Ned Beatty and more. 

Sadly, that’s all it is: a story that makes people feel good. The story goes like this: Little shrimpy guy wants to play for the Fighting Irish so, so badly that he works really, really hard, and eventually he gets to come in for a single play, achieving his dream. How did he merit a spot on the team? Tons of people want to play for Notre Dame. We call them, “Fans!” 

Indeed, a guy who actually did merit 4 Super Bowl rings and 3 Super Bowl MVPs who had the combination of hard work and actual and tangible benefit to his team, Joe Montana, has said the story of Rudy is nothing more than a movie fantasy. He would know, he played with Rudy on that same Fighting Irish team. 

However, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger did manage to parlay his fantastic story into a career as a motivational speaker and author. So, you could say he merits his success through shrewd decision making and crafting his brand.

The Myth of Meritocracy in America

This is where you can really see the disconnect between the idea of hard work and social status. Lots of people work hard. A lot of them live in their cars. A lot of them have a mountain of bills and are unable to find health care. Many of them are classified as “low-income” oir “working class.” 

Many people who dwell comfortably in the middle and upper classes don’t work especially hard. They may be the beneficiary of a wide range of inherited traits that they didn’t necessarily work for. They may have attended private and prestigious high schools. They might have received intensive, expensive tutoring to boost their test scores. Then, they could have been admitted to Yale, Princeton, Harvard based partially on their hard work, but also largely due to being a “legacy” or simply appearing to the college admissions committee that they simply “belong there.”

Once you get into one of these elite colleges, your chances of success to be at the top of our social stratification are much higher. You can definitely muck it up by failing, but if you do basically enough, you’ll probably be looking down at the people working hard for little pay.

The Meritocracy Trap

Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits has written extensively about the falsehoods of meritocracy in his book, “The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles The Middle Class and Devours The Elite.” In this book, Markovits essentially says that American Meritocracy is a scam. 

The idea that hard work alone does not build upward social mobility. In fact, he says that the expensive private higher education required to achieve top positions of success requires people to work with “Crushing intensity” in order to justify the expense.

Markovits’ view is shared by both Michael Sandel, a Harvard University Law School professor and the late Michael Young, a British sociologist. In fact, it was Michael Young who coined the term “meritocracy.” 

Sandel has argued that the concept of meritocracy has pushed people towards the belief that “you can make it if you want and try.” He feels that as people realize that their efforts are so often in vain, they are pushed towards populism. Interestingly Young created the term meritocracy not out of admiration for the concept, but rather out of derision.

Are People Fed Up With The Meritocratic Concept?

It seems pretty clear that people are spinning their wheels working towards success, only to be frustrated when their hard work doesn’t pay off. They may often praise the ideal of a meritocracy, but when they aren’t achieving what they feel they should, they blame it on external factors.

The unlikely rise of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 seems to be due in part to people feeling like meritocracy wasn’t working for them. At the same time, hostility towards billionaires on both sides of the political spectrum is increasing exponentially. 

Affirmative action is often at the center of the debate over meritocracy. The idea is that really only white men have potential to succeed, so by favoring qualified people of color for particular positions, you can open up higher social positions to a more diverse group of people.

This idea clearly hasn’t succeeded. On one side of the political spectrum it is a way of hiring unqualified people based purely on race. This often causes resentment, and sadly may give rise to viewing some very qualified individuals as being hired only due to their demographic characteristics. 

The Future Of Meritocracy In American Life

The idea that American society is a meritocracy is unlikely to go away anytime soon. This is unfortunate, because dispensing with the idea that hard work alone makes you successful seems to inhibit true equality of opportunity and further aggravate disparities in family income.

People need to realize that we are individual human beings with innate and largely immutable qualities that make us good at certain things. There’s always going to be certain things we aren’t good at, and that’s okay.

Perhaps, we’ve lost track of our humanity. So many among us truly believe that they are God-like and have unlimited potential. We aren’t. While it may be true that someone is cleaning a bathroom because they were denied equal opportunity to private schools through lack of income, there’s also someone cleaning a bathroom because that’s what they are good at.