But what if left and right are both wrong? What if the system isn’t corrupt, as Corbyn suggests, and yet still leads to rampant inequality? What if some people pedal as hard as they can, and despite what Johnson says, they still can’t get to the top, even though they are intelligent and capable? What if the true cause of the most extreme form of inequality is down to a mechanism that both the left and right welcome and accept – the idea of merit?
That is the question at the heart of The Meritocracy Trap, by Daniel Markovits, a Professor of Law at the Yale Law School, a position that puts him right at the heart of the US’s meritocratic engine room. He specialises in teaching America’s brightest and best, the students who’ve come from the top schools and who will go on to get the top jobs with salaries to match. You’d think someone who spent his days overseeing this cycle of perpetual success would be happy. But he’s not. He’s deeply worried.
Meritocracy, as Markovits explains in this brilliant and deeply alarming book, is tearing society apart. But his focus is not on the poorest in society. As he sees it, the buying power of the very worst-off Americans has increased substantially since the mid-twentieth century, and is still improving. The gap between the broad middle class and the poorest has therefore narrowed.
What worries him is the gap between the middle and those at the very top. It is here that we find the worst and most damaging inequality. It’s the gap between the mid-ranking functionary and the CEO, between the shop owner and the hedge fund manager, the high street banker and the investment banker. While the gap between the poorest and the middle has closed, the gap between the middle and very richest has widened.