Meritocracy and Mobility

A great benefit of vacations is time to read. I loaded up the Kindle app on my IPad, and I’ve been going through the digital version of what used to be a pile of books on my nightstand.

Yesterday, I finished Chris Hayes “Twilight of the Elites,” and unlike so many of the entirely predictable books reliably pumped out by pundits of the left and right, I found this to be a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the political and social failures that account for our sour American mood. Hayes connects the angst of the Tea Party to that of the Occupy Movement, and sees both as part of a more widespread distrust of our common institutions.

I should probably note that this emphasis on institutional failure was also at the center of my 2010 book, Distrust, American Style. Hayes focuses on many of the same scandals  that I included in that book; however, my purpose was to show the effects of institutional distrust on social capital—to explore institutional failure as a cause of increased distrust of our neighbors, especially those who may not look or talk or worship as we do.

Hayes’ purpose is to explore what those institutional failures tell us about the failure of America’s approach to meritocracy.

There are so many worthwhile and illuminating passages in the book that picking any one out seems arbitrary, but here’s an example. Hayes notes that any meritocratic system—any system that purports to reward excellent performance rather than social or economic status—depends upon the existence of genuine social mobility. That genius child of poor parents must have a real shot at getting the scholarship, or the job, or the loan to start his business—in other words, a meritocratic society must have mechanisms that facilitate the discovery and advancement of the people who possess merit.

As Hayes points out, however,

            This ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible….Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.

America used to be the land of social mobility; today, of the Western democratic nations only England has less social mobility than we do.

As Hayes says elsewhere, “A deep recognition of the slow death of the meritocratic dream underlies the decline in trust in public institutions and the crisis of authority in which we are now mired.”

Even if you aren’t on vacation, even if you are skeptical of his premises–you should read this book.


  1. Not sure I believe that the US is no longer a meritocratic society. As a resident of Houston, I see things perhaps a bit differently — from the perspective of a very ethnically diverse city. So many businesses here are run by immigrants and/or their sons and daughters. Another example: recently, our local paper published a list of National Merit scholars and the largest number of them (based on last names) were Asian.

  2. Some genius children of poor parents will always ‘make it’ regardless of their impoverished beginnings, but in total, more and more of our bright children, adults, and businesses are cut off at the pass by institutions and individuals that are cannibalistic.

    Impoverishing the middle class and making poor people poorer will ultimately destroy our economy, including the rich. There seems little commitment to the common good to improve the lot of all. It’s a self-defeating strategy. Businesses can’t succeed without customers who have the resources to buy.

  3. Catching up on your columns, but I have to comment on the Chris Hayes’ book. While I agree with much of what he says, to my mind, he is conflating (1) our professed belief in a meritocracy, (2) our actual socioeconomic structure, and (3) our “winner takes all” economics.

    While we believe in meritocracy, we also have a strong anti-intellectual propensity. We prefer “Hoosier common sense” to pointy-headed intellectualism. We tout how Bill Gates dropped out of college, while neglecting to mention his elite high school that gave him more access to computers than Harvard would have.

    While our society has allowed mobility through merit, we also allow mobility (and social stability) through birth and other mechanisms. The best do not always get promoted (or elected) and choosing the right parents still has great benefits.

    However, what exacerbates our society’s inequality most is our “winner takes all” economy. Even if we stacked society purely on merit, there is no reason that the top 1% should get everything with the crumbs they drop going to everyone else. Lopsided distribution of the benefits is our real problem, not our professed belief in a meritocracy.

    Not only does Hayes implicitly assume this pattern of distribution before blaming meritocracy, he also explicitly states that those who succeed will pull the meritocracy ladder up and selectively lower it. Both of these destroy the argument that meritocracy itself is the problem. The causes lie elsewhere.

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