Saturday, April 11, 2020


Meritocracy has taken quite a beating lately. Even as COVID-19 has reduced the global power elite to awkward Zoom chats and toilet paper humor, we are still not spared the obligatory weekly article about unfulfilled millennials, overburdened baby boomers, and failed promises to the best and brightest. 

Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits has entered the fray with this densely researched expose, which argues that our society’s meritocratic underpinnings are at best a myth and at worst a fraud. Despite the best intentions of egalitarian mid-20th-century American educational theorists, Mr. Markovits maintains, introducing meritocracy into prestigious educational institutions and high-status professions has created an indoctrinated “elite” that has ruthlessly used its advantages to perpetuate and aggrandize itself at the expense of a disfranchised “rest.” 

In the process, it has also enslaved itself in a lifelong series of uber-competitive tournaments, hysterical loyalty tests and ceaseless “productivity” to demonstrate its worth and justify its continuing advantages. With no credible alternative on the horizon, Mr. Markovits drearily argues that there is no escape from society’s sorting into an oppressed “used” and a rewarded, but hapless, “used up.”

Scarily, he posits that the structures that allowed this sorting have effectively frozen the cycle of “haves” and “have-nots” into what are two countries uneasily coexisting but ever more apart. Mr. Markovits’ bathetic conclusion offers a handful of tired palliatives to promote economic diversity in education (e.g. increase enrolments, offer tax incentives) that might ease some disaffection but are unlikely to solve any systemic problem.

As an Ivy League law professor in the older ranks of Generation X removed from millennial dismay and boomer despair, Mr. Markovits is in a prime position to make such observations. His university’s highly competitive student youth is overwhelmingly “privileged” in background, and its law school’s graduates often go on to well paid but soul-crushing Big Law associateships.

In the course of their legal studies, some 70 percent of them self-report a mental health issue, leaving one to wonder how many of the remaining 30 percent have to be diagnosed, and whether they and their self-reporting classmates get better or worse after graduation. Their older peers enter partnerships that still consume the vast majority of their waking lives and leave them contemplating greater pressures as they try to secure their children pole position in the same rat race.

Mr. Markovits’ plaintive tone belies a myopia that only American academia could produce. Confessing that he has never left the bubble of meritocratic overachievement, he has simply no concept of “elite” status outside of it. For all its sophistication, his analysis barely even mentions entrepreneurship, the bedrock of the American economic experience since the Founding, or its adjunct, investment, which is widely regarded as the most reliable path to wealth and all its benefits, including the personal freedom his meritocrats both lack and deny each other.

Curiously, his historical foil for today’s meritocratic elite is not the Yankee traders, brilliant inventors and 19th-century robber barons we were once taught to admire, but the almost quaintly removed straw man of the European aristocracy, which Mr. Markovits caricatures as lazy, exploitative and, perhaps worst of all in his view, unproductive.

Recent research does not bear this out — most national aristocracies were adaptive, creative and largely devoted to state service that Mr. Markovits’ meritocrats eschew (as he notes, during the Gulf War more Yale students were murdered in New Haven than died in Iraq) — but the crude stereotype conveniently allows him to ignore his 42 million countrymen who file self-employment tax returns.

Not all of these individuals, who comprise one-third of all filers, are rich, but many have built fortune, status and influence without — and even despite — the institutions and values of elite meritocracy. Indeed, faced with monstrous hours, hateful micromanagement and, increasingly, premature health problems, many of that system’s brightest and most imaginative products now embrace entrepreneurship over the progressively more responsible white-collar professional track that they were led to believe was the only morally acceptable path to happiness and success.

What Mr. Markovits has done is produce a fairly accurate picture of a dangerously distressed and deeply disordered professional upper-middle class, an anxious and terrified technical-managerial caste festering far down the totem pole from the actual ruling elite, which it despises and which, in turn, despises it. As a member of that caste who teaches at Yale, he is surely aware that in the current climate he and his meritocratic confreres are but one false accusation, injudicious tweet, or too-broadminded statement about Halloween costumes away from irredeemable ruin.

While he claims that a fetishized commitment to “inclusiveness” results from a radically idealized commitment to objective merit, he never questions or even seems aware of whether anything else lies beyond, or whether our unsustainable academic-professional matrix can endure in a country that increasingly neither wants nor needs it in its current form.

• Paul du Quenoy is a private investor and philanthropist. 

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By Daniel Markovits

Penguin Press, $30, 448 pages

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