How meritocracy harms everyone — even the winners

Sean Illing:

Here’s a clarifying stat: At two Ivy League schools that Markovits surveyed, “the share of students from households in the top quintile of the income distribution exceeds the share from the bottom two quintiles combined by a ratio of about three and a half to one.” The point: Meritocracy is a mechanism for transferring wealth from one generation to the next. Call that what you want, but you can’t call it fair or impartial.

What makes Markovits’s book so interesting is that he doesn’t just condemn meritocracy as unfair for non-elites; he argues that it’s actually bad for the people benefiting from it. The “trap” of meritocracy ensnares all of us, he says, in ways that make life less satisfying for everyone.

I spoke to Markovits about how meritocracy works, what it’s doing to us, and what a post-meritocratic society might look like. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.