Merit is not a genuine excellence but rather a pretence, constructed to rationalise an offensive distribution of advantage. Merit, in short, is a sham.
The meritocratic ideal—that social and economic rewards should track achievement rather than breeding—anchors the self-image of the age. Aristocracy has had its day, and meritocracy is now a basic tenet of civil religion in all advanced societies.
Meritocracy promises to promote equality and opportunity by opening a previously hereditary elite to outsiders, armed with nothing save their own talents and ambitions. But today, middle-class children lose out to rich children at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work. At the same time, meritocracy entices an anxious and inauthentic elite into a pitiless, lifelong contest to secure income and status through its own excessive industry.
In spite of its promises, meritocracy in fact installs a new form of aristocracy, purpose-built for a world in which the greatest source of income and wealth is not land but human capital and free labor. And merit is not a genuine excellence but rather—like the false virtues that aristocrats trumpeted in the ancien régime—a pretense, constructed to rationalize an offensive distribution of advantage.
Daniel Markovits is Guido Calabresi Professor of Law at Yale Law School and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Private Law. Markovits works in the philosophical foundations of private law, moral and political philosophy, and behavioral economics. He publishes in a range of disciplines, including in Science, The American Economic Review, and The Yale Law Journal.
Markovits’s latest book, The Meritocracy Trap, places meritocracy at the center of rising economic inequality and social and political dysfunction. The book takes up the law, economics, and politics of human capital to identify the mechanisms through which meritocracy breeds inequality and to expose the burdens that meritocratic inequality imposes on all who fall within meritocracy’s orbit.
Oriana Bandiera (@orianabandiera) is the Sir Anthony Atkinson Chair in Economics and Director of STICERD.
This event is the Morishima Lecture. This lecture series is held in honour of Professor Michio Morishima (1923-2004), Sir John Hicks Professor of Economics at LSE and STICERD's first chairman.
STICERD (@STICERD_LSE) brings together world-class academics to put economics and related disciplines at the forefront of research and policy.
Twitter Hashtag for this event: #LSEMorishima
A podcast of this event is available to download from The Meritocracy Trap.
Podcasts and videos of many LSE events can be found at the LSE Public Lectures and Events: podcasts and videos channel.
A copy of the PowerPoint presentation for this event is available to download:
The Meritocracy Trap (pdf)