The Meritocracy Myth
Stephen J. McNamee
Robert K. Miller, Jr.
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
According to the ideology of the American Dream,
America is the land of limitless opportunity in which individuals can go
as far as their own merit takes them. According to this ideology, you get
out of the system what you put into it. Getting ahead is ostensibly based
on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors
including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and
having high moral character and integrity. Americans not only tend to think
that is how the system should work, but most Americans also think that
is how the system does work (Huber and Form 1973, Kluegel and Smith 1986,
In our book The
Meritocracy Myth (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), <http://www.rowmanlittlefield.com/isbn/0742510565>,
we challenge the validity of these commonly held assertions, by arguing
that there is a gap between how people think the system works and how the
system actually does work. We refer to this gap as “the meritocracy myth,”
or the myth that the system distributes resources—especially wealth and
income—according to the merit of individuals. We challenge this assertion
in two ways. First, we suggest that while merit does indeed affect who
ends up with what, the impact of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overestimated
by the ideology of the American Dream. Second, we identify a variety of
nonmerit factors that suppress, neutralize, or even negate the effects
of merit and create barriers to individual mobility. We summarize these
arguments below. First, however, we take a brief look at what is at stake.
That is, what is up for grabs in the race to get ahead?
There are a variety of ways to depict America’s unequal
distributions of income and wealth. Income refers to how much one earns
and wealth refers to how much one owns. Although Americans tend to think
of income as coming from wages and salaries, there are actually two sources
of income. In addition to income from wages and salaries, income also includes
sources of revenue that are unrelated to jobs, such as income from capital
gains, dividends, interest payments, and some forms of government aid (“welfare”
including food stamps and the like). In some cases, these sources of income
are related to prior but not current employment (e.g. social security payments,
pensions). Wealth does not refer to a revenue stream, but to assets that
one owns such as houses, cars, personal belongings, businesses, nonresidential
real estate, stocks and bonds, trusts, and other financial assets. These
assets can further be distinguished between those that tend to depreciate
in value (e.g. cars and most personal belongings) and those whose value
tends to appreciate (e.g. business, real estate, stocks, etc.). In general,
the more wealth one has, the more likely that wealth derives from sources
of ownership that tend to appreciate in value. Net worth refers to the
difference between assets (what one owns) and liabilities (what one owes).
Net worth is an accurate measure of what one is really “worth.” Table 1
depicts the distributions of income and Table 2 depicts distributions of
Table 1. Share of Total Available Household Income,
||Share of Income
|Top 5 Percent
*Source: DeNavas-Walt et al. 2003. See
U.S. Current Population Reports for details.
Table 2: Share of Total Available Household Net Worth,
||Share of Net Worth
*Source: Kennickell, 2003. See
data from the Federal Reserve Board for details.
These tables show that the distributions of income
and especially wealth are highly skewed. The top 20 percent of American
households, for instance, receive a large portion of the total amount of
available income (49.7%) while the lowest 20 percent of American households
receive a much smaller portion of available income (3.5%). The top 5% percent
of households alone receive 21.7 percent of all available income.
The distribution of wealth measured by net worth is even more highly skewed.
The richest 1% of households (99th-100th percentile) account for nearly
a third of all available net worth while the bottom half of households
(0-50th percentile) account for only 2.8% of all available net worth. In
other words, the American distributions of income and wealth are “top heavy”
(Wolff 2002) and represent a level of economic inequality that is the highest
among industrial countries of the world.
These distributions are relevant to the myth of meritocracy
in several ways. First, despite the widely held perception that America
is a “middle class” society, most of the money is highly concentrated at
the top of the system. Second, many of the arguments suggesting that “merit”
is behind the distribution of income and wealth also make the case that
merit is distributed “normally” in the population. That is, that the shape
of the distribution of merit resembles a “bell curve” with small numbers
of incompetent people at the lower end, most people of average abilities
in the middle and small numbers of talented people at the upper end. The
highly skewed distribution of economic outcomes, however, appears quite
in excess of any reasonable distribution of merit. Something that is distributed
“normally” cannot be the direct and proportional cause of something with
such skewed distributions. There has to be more to the story than that.
On Being Made of the Right Stuff
When factors associated with individual “merit” are
related to income and wealth, it turns out that these factors are often
not as uniquely individual or as influential as many presume. Most experts
point out, for instance, that “intelligence,” as measured by IQ tests,
is partially a reflection of inherent intellectual capacity and partially
a reflection of environmental influences. It is the combination of capacity
and experience that determines “intelligence.” Even allowing for this “environmental”
caveat, IQ scores only account for about 10% of the variance in income
differences among individuals (Fisher et al. 1996). Since wealth is less
tied to achievement than income, the amount of influence of intelligence
on wealth is much less. Other purportedly innate “talents” cannot be separated
from experience, since any “talent” must be displayed to be recognized
and labeled as such (Chambliss 1989). There is no way to determine for
certain, for instance, how many potential world-class violinists there
are in the general population but who have never once picked up a violin.
Such “talents” do not spontaneously erupt but must be identified and cultivated.
Applying talents is also necessary. Working hard
is often seen in this context as part of the merit formula. Heads nod in
acknowledgment whenever hard work is mentioned in conjunction with economic
success. Rarely is this assumption questioned. But what exactly do we mean
by hard work? Does it mean the number of hours expended in the effort to
achieve a goal? Does it mean the amount of energy or sheer physical exertion
expended in the completion of tasks? Neither of these measures of
“hard” work is directly associated with economic success. In fact, those
who work the most hours and expend the most effort (at least physically)
are often the most poorly paid in society. By contrast, the really big
money in America comes not from working at all but from owning, which requires
no expenditure of effort, either physical or mental. In short, working
hard is not in and of itself directly related to the amount of income and
wealth that individuals have.
What about attitudes? Again, the story here
is mixed. First, it is not clear which particular mix of attitudes,
outlooks, or frames of mind are associated with economic success. The kind
of mental outlook that would be an advantage in one field of endeavor,
may be a disadvantage in another field of endeavor. A different set
of “proper attitudes,” for instance, may be associated with being a successful
artist than being a successful accountant. Second, the direction
of influence is not always clear. That is, are certain attitudes
a “cause” of success or are certain attitudes the “effect” of success?
An example of the difficulty in discerning the impact
and direction of these influences is reflected in the “culture of poverty”
debate. According to the culture of poverty argument, people are
poor because of deviant or pathological values that are then passed on
from one generation to the next, creating a “vicious cycle of poverty.”
According to this perspective, poor people are viewed as anti-work, anti-family,
anti-school, and anti-success. Recent evidence reported in this journal
(Wynn, 2003) and elsewhere (Barnes, Gould ;1999, Wilson, 1996), however,
indicates that poor people appear to value work, family, school, and achievement
as much as other Americans. Instead of having “deviant” or “pathological”
values, the evidence suggests that poor people adjust their ambitions and
outlooks according to realistic assessments of their more limited life
An example of such an adjustment is the supposed
“present-orientation” of the poor. According to the culture of poverty
theory, poor people are “present-oriented” and are unable to “defer gratification.”
Present orientation may encourage young adults to drop out of school to
take low wage jobs instead staying in school to increase future earning
potential. However, the present orientation of the poor can be an
“effect” of poverty rather than a “cause.” That is, if you are desperately
poor, you may be forced to be present oriented. If you do not know
where your next meal is coming from, you essentially have no choice but
to be focused on immediate needs first and foremost. By contrast,
the rich and middle class can “afford” to be more future oriented since
their immediate needs are secure. Similarly, the poor may report
more modest ambitions than the affluent, not because they are unmotivated,
but because of a realistic assessment of limited life chances. In
this sense, observed differences in outlooks between the poor and the more
affluent are more likely a reflection of fundamentally different life circumstances
than fundamentally different attitudes or values.
Finally, we challenge the idea that moral character
and integrity are important contributors to economic success. Although
“honesty may be the best policy” in terms of how one should conduct oneself
in relations with others, there is little evidence that the economically
successful are more honest than the less successful. The recent spate of
alleged corporate ethics scandals at such corporations as Enron, WorldCom,
Arthur Andersen, Adelphia, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Duke Energy, Global Crossing,
Xerox as well as recent allegations of misconduct in the vast mutual funds
industry reveal how corporate executives often enrich themselves through
less than honest means. White-collar crime in the form of insider trading,
embezzlement, tax fraud, insurance fraud and the like is hardly evidence
of honesty and virtue in practice. And neither is the extensive and sometimes
highly lucrative so-called “irregular” or “under the table” economy—much
of it related to vice in the form of drug trafficking, gambling, pornography,
loan sharking, or smuggling. Clearly, wealth alone is not a reflection
of moral superiority. To get ahead in America, it no doubt helps to be
bright, shrewd, to work hard, and to have the right combination of attitudes
that maximize success within given fields of endeavor. Playing by the rules,
however, probably works to suppress prospects for economic success since
those who play by the rules are more restricted in their opportunities
to attain wealth and income than those who choose to ignore the rules.
Nonmerit Barriers to Mobility
There are a variety of social forces that tend to
suppress, neutralize, or even negate the effects of merit in the race to
get ahead. We might collectively refer to these forces as “social gravity.”
These forces tend to keep people in the places they already occupy, regardless
of the extent of their individual merit.
First and foremost among these nonmerit factors is
the effect of inheritance, broadly defined as the effects of initial class
placement at birth on future life chances. Inheritance is not just bulk
estates that are transferred upon the death of parents. Inheritance refers
more broadly to unequal starting points in the race to get ahead. The race
to get ahead is like a relay race in which we inherit an initial starting
point from parents. For a while, we run alongside our parents as the baton
is passed, and then we take off on our own. In this relay race, those born
into great wealth start far ahead of those born to poor parents, who have
a huge deficit to overcome if they are to catch up. Indeed, of all the
factors that we might consider, where we start out in life has the greatest
effect on where we end up. In the race to get ahead, the effects of inheritance
come first and merit second, not the other way around.
Inheritance provides numerous cumulative nonmerit
advantages that are available in varying degrees to all those born into
at least some relative advantage, excluding only those at the very bottom
of the system. Included among these nonmerit advantages are high standards
of living from birth, inter vivos gifts (gifts between the living) such
as infusions of cash and property bestowed by parents on their children
at critical junctures in the life course (going to college, getting married,
buying a home, having children, starting a business, etc.), insulation
from downward mobility (family safety nets which prevent children from
skidding in times of personal crises, setbacks, or as the result of personal
failures), access to educational opportunities as well as other opportunities
to acquire personal merit or to have merit identified and cultivated, better
health care and consequently longer and healthier lives (which increases
earning power and the ability to accumulate assets during the life course).
Another advantage of inheritance is access to high-powered
forms of social and cultural capital. Social capital is one’s “social resources”
and refers to essentially to the value of whom you know. Cultural capital
is one’s cultural resources and refers essentially to the social value
of what you know. Everyone has friends, but those born into privilege have
friends in high places with resources and power. Everyone possesses culture—bodies
of knowledge and information needed to navigate through social space. Full
acceptance into the highest social circles, however, requires knowledge
of the ways of life of a particular group a kind of “savoir faire” that
includes expected demeanor, manners, and comportment associated with the
upper class. Those born into these high powered circles are trained from
an early age in the cultural ways of the group, which allows them to travel
comfortably in these circles and to “fit in.” Outsiders who aspire
to become part of these high-powered circles must learn these cultural
ways of life from the outside in a more difficult and daunting task that
continually carries the risk of being exposed as an imposter or pretender.
Besides the nonmerit effects of inheritance, just
plain bad luck can suppress the effects of merit. Bad luck can take many
forms but two very common forms of bad luck are to be laid off from a job
that you are good at or to spend many years preparing for a job for which
demand either never materializes or declines. In looking at jobs and job
opportunities, Americans tend to focus on the “supply” side of markets
for labor; that is, the pool of available people in the labor force. Much
less attention is paid to the “demand” side, or the number and types of
jobs available. In the race to get ahead, it is possible and all too common
for meritorious individuals to be “all dressed up with no place to go.”
For the past twenty years, the “growth” jobs in America have disproportionately
been in the low wage service sector of the economy. At the same time, more
Americans are getting more education, especially higher education. Simply
put, these trends are running in opposite directions: the economy is not
producing as many high-powered jobs as the society is producing highly
qualified people to fill them (Collins 1979, Livingstone 1998).
In addition to the number and types of jobs available,
the locations of jobs both geographically and within different sectors
of the economy also represent non-merit factors in the prospects for employment.
For instance, a janitor who works for a large corporation New York City
may get paid much more for doing essentially the same job as a janitor
who works for a small family business in a small town in Mississippi.
These effects are independent of the demands of the jobs or the qualifications
or merit of the individuals holding them. Differences in benefits
and wages between such jobs are often substantial and may mean the difference
between a secure existence and poverty.
If poverty were exclusively due to individual differences,
we would expect rates of poverty to be randomly distributed throughout
the county. Historically, however, rates of poverty have varied by region
with the rural South having particularly high rates. These differences
have been reduced in recent decades as Northern and Midwest states in the
so-called “rust belt” have experienced plant closings and “deindustrialization”
while Southern and Southwest states in the so-called “sun belt” have
experienced greater economic diversity and development. Despite these
trends, research recently reported in this journal (Wimberley and Morris,
2003) shows that rates of poverty in the United States continue to vary
by region and locations within regions suggesting that geography is still
a major factor in the distribution of economic opportunity.
Education is another factor widely seen as responsible
for where people end up in the system. The role of education in getting
ahead in America, however, is not as simple as is often assumed. On the
one hand, those with more education, on average, have higher income and
wealth. Education is thus often seen as the primary means of upward social
mobility. In this context, education is widely perceived as a gatekeeper
institution which sifts and sorts individuals according to individual merit.
Grades, credits, diplomas, degrees, and certificates are clearly “earned,”
not purchased or appropriated. But, as much research has demonstrated,
educational opportunity is not equally distributed in the population (Bowles
and Gintis 1976, 2002, Bourdieu and Passeron 1990, Aschaffenburg and Maas
1997, Kozol, 1991, Sacks, 2003, Ballantine 2001). Upper class children
tend to get upper class educations (e.g. at elite private prep schools
and ivy league colleges), middle class children tend to get middle class
educations (e.g. at public schools and public universities), and working
class people tend to get working class educations (e.g. public schools
and technical or community colleges), and poor people tend to get poor
(e.g. inner city schools that have high drop out rates and usually no higher
education). Educational attainment clearly depends on family economic standing
and is not simply a major independent cause of it. The quality of schools
and the quality of educational opportunity vary according to where one
lives, and where one lives depend on familial economic resources and race.
Most public schools, for instance, are supported by local property taxes.
The tax base is higher in wealthy communities and proportionally lower
in poorer areas. These discrepancies give rise to the perpetual parental
scramble to locate in communities and neighborhoods that have reputations
for “good schools,” since parents want to provide every possible advantage
to their children that they can afford. To the extent that parents are
actually successful in passing on such advantages, educational attainment
is primarily a reflection of family income. In sum, it is important to
recognize that individual achievement occurs within a context of unequal
Besides education, self-employment is popularly perceived
as a major route to upward mobility. Opportunities to get ahead on the
basis of being self-employed or striking out on one’s own to start a new
business, however, have sharply declined. In colonial times, about three
fourths of the non-slave American population was self- employed most as
small family farmers. Today, only seven percent of the labor force is self
employed (U.S. Census Bureau 2002). The “family farm,” in particular, is
on the brink of statistical extinction. As self-employment has declined,
the size and dominance of corporations has increased. This leaves many
fewer opportunities for “self-made” individuals to enter existing markets
or to establish new ones. America has witnessed the sharp decline of “mom
and pop” stores, restaurants, and retail shops and the concomitant rise
of Wal-Marts, Holiday Inns, and McDonalds. As more Americans work for someone
else in increasingly bureaucratized settings, the prospects of rapid “rags
to riches” mobility decline.
In addition to the decline of self-employment, manufacturing
has also experienced drastic workforce reduction as production facilities
have increasingly moved to foreign countries in efforts to reduce costs
of production. This is a significant trend since the United States became
a world power based on its industrial strength, which supported a large
and relatively prosperous working and middle class. Some service jobs,
such as customer service and computer programming, are also being moved
to foreign countries in increasing numbers. All of these trends are occurring
quite independent of the merit of individuals but nevertheless profoundly
impact the opportunities of individuals to get ahead.
The most obvious and widely recognized nonmerit barrier
to achievement is discrimination. Discrimination not only suppresses merit;
it is the antithesis of merit. Race and sex discrimination have been the
most pervasive forms of discrimination in America. The good news is that
such discrimination is declining. The bad news is that these forms of discrimination
are down but not out. Besides ongoing discrimination, there are still inertial
effects of past discrimination that create disadvantage in the present.
The divisive debate over affirmative action in America highlights the continuing
disagreements about the size and importance of these residual effects and
how to best to address them.
Most Americans agree that race and sex discrimination
are wrong and that a “level playing field” should be established. Indeed,
it is often assumed that we would have true equality of opportunity in
American if only these forms of discrimination were eliminated. This position
is naïve, however, because it overlooks the effects of other nonmerit
factors identified here (especially inheritance). Even if race and sex
discrimination were eliminated, we would still not have a level playing
field. This position also overlooks other forms of discrimination that,
while less pervasive in America, nevertheless suppress or neutralize the
effects of merit: discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, religion,
age, physical disability (unrelated to job performance), physical appearance,
and region (discrimination against Southerners and preference for Yankees).
That these forms of discrimination effect fewer people than sex and race
discrimination is little comfort to those who are victimized by it. For
them, the effective rate of discrimination is 100 percent.
Some of these forms of discrimination are not well-recognized
or generally acknowledged. “Lookism,” for instance, is a subtle form of
discrimination in which attractive people get numerous nonmerit advantages
over less attractive people (e.g., more attention, more help, more recognition
and credit for accomplishments, more positive evaluation of performance
and the like) (Etcoff 1999). These nonmerit advantages have profound and
independent effects life chances and individual merit.
In The Meritocracy Myth, we do
not suggest that “merit” is a myth. Rather, we argue that meritocracy the
idea that societal resources are distributed exclusively or primarily on
the basis of individual merit is a myth. It is a myth because of the combined
effects of non-merit factors such as inheritance, social and cultural advantages,
unequal educational opportunity, luck and the changing structure of job
opportunities, the decline of self-employment, and discrimination in all
of its forms. If meritocracy is a myth, how can the system be made to operate
more closely according to meritocratic principles that Americans so uniformly
We suggest four ways in which American society could
be made more genuinely meritocratic.
All of these measures would reduce the overall extent of inequality in
society and at the same time allow individual merit to have a greater effect
on economic outcomes. Such fundamental change in the distribution of societal
resources and opportunity, however, are predicated on the assumption that
these goals would be widely seen as both desirable and politically feasible.
First, current forms of discrimination could be reduced or eliminated.
Second, the wealthy could be encouraged to redistribute greater amounts
of their accumulated wealth through philanthropy in ways that would provide
greater opportunity for the less privileged.
Third, the tax system could be redesigned to be genuinely progressive in
ways that would close the distance between those at the top and the bottom
of the system.
Fourth, more government resources could be allocated to provide more equal
access to critical services such as education and health care.
It is generally acknowledged that a pure meritocracy
is probably impossible to achieve. What is less generally acknowledged
is that such a system may not be entirely desirable. The limits and dangers
of a system operating purely on the basis of merit were dramatically portrayed
in The Rise of the Meritocracy (1961), a novel by British sociologist Michael
Young. Young envisioned a society in which those at the top of the system
ruled autocratically with a sense of righteous entitlement while those
at the bottom of the system were incapable of protecting themselves against
the abuses leveled against them from the merit elite above. Instead of
a fair and enlightened society, the meritocracy became cruel and ruthless.
One possible advantage of a nonmeritocratic society
is that at any point in time there are, for whatever combination of reasons,
at least some of those at the top of the system who are less capable and
competent than at least some of those at the bottom. Such discrepancies
should render humility for those at the top and hope and dignity for those
at the bottom. But this can only happen if it is widely acknowledged that
inheritance, luck, and a variety of other circumstances beyond the control
of individuals are important in affecting where one ends up in the system.
While meritocracy may be neither possible nor even desirable, we argue
that the myth of meritocracy is itself harmful because by discounting the
most important causes of inequality, it leads to unwarranted exaltation
of the rich and unwarranted condemnation of the poor. We may always have
the rich and poor among us, but we need neither exalt the former nor condemn
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