Merit is a sham,” Daniel Markovits writes in the first sentence of his new book, The Meritocracy Trap. But, for Markovits, our system of elite education and glossy jobs is not fraudulent in the way many of us think. The main problem isn’t that Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or the Ivy League are greedy, blinkered, or inept. We don’t need to cleanse our meritocracy of undeserving people or upgrade our meritocrats; we need to dismantle the whole system. Even when it works, Markovits argues, meritocracy is a primary driver of inequality in America.
Markovits, of course, is a meritocrat himself—doing stints at Yale College, London School of Economics, Harvard, and Yale Law, where he teaches today. Nonetheless, he says, these structures are making everyone miserable. The middle and working classes are blocked from opportunity, and the elites are locked into a life of grinding intensity and ruthless self-exploitation. But in this misery, there’s a way out. He suggests that if workers of all types could see how meritocratic structures are causing such disaffection, then maybe we could work together to unwind the system. Meritocracy, Markovits writes, has become “a caste order that breeds rancor and division.” But emancipation from it “would heal a society that meritocracy has made oppressive and mistrustful.”