The Myth of 'Self Made' and The Role of Privilege
June 3, 2019 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Is Meritocracy A Myth? and Other Awkward Conversations CBC Radio talks about how much privilege plays a role in what we think of as Self Made Success Stories. Is the concept of the American (or Canadian) Dream not only not possible anymore, but was it ever a real thing?

The mefi post How Much Opportunity Is Dependent on Owning Property raises some great questions about how Millennials can ever possibly get into the real estate market without some serious outside help. But there is a larger picture of whether success of any sort is possible without privilege. And that privilege is so entrenched - we don't even see it, let alone talk about it.
posted by helmutdog (77 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, meritocracy is a myth. Hell, the very concept itself illustrates the point - how are you determining merit, determining worth? Those very decisions are the essence of privilege.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:42 PM on June 3 [35 favorites]


There's a podcast version of the radio story posted here. Queued it up for the evening commute. (If anyone else has trouble getting the CBC article to load in Safari, Firefox seemed to handle the page better.)
posted by FallibleHuman at 3:45 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Of course the American (or Canadian) Dream is possible. You can always find isolated examples of people bootstrapping with a mixture of ambition and luck.

But we shouldn't build social policy on top of isolated examples with the implicit assumption that if a few can do it, anyone can, and if you don't achieve the Dream then it's your own damn fault.

So instead of asking if the Dream is possible, look at measures of economic mobility for the entire polity. How difficult is it in general for someone in the bottom quintile to move up to the top quintile? How likely is it for children born into the top quintile to remain in the top qunitile?

The data shows a high degree of economic mobility in Denmark and Norway, a moderate level of mobility in Canada, and very low mobility in the US and UK. It looks like the Canadian Dream is still alive, but the American Dream has become more myth than reality.
posted by ascii at 3:45 PM on June 3 [32 favorites]


I take occasional pleasure in informing hardcore fans of 'meritocracy' that the word was coined in a work of dystopian satire. They tend to just double down on their existing beliefs, but the looks of confusion as they process the cognitive dissonance can be fun.
posted by FallibleHuman at 3:49 PM on June 3 [26 favorites]


I don't know if even economic mobility matters from an ethical standpoint: a pyramid-shaped society isn't just simply because it has a lot of churn.
posted by Pyry at 3:56 PM on June 3 [13 favorites]


I take occasional pleasure in informing hardcore fans of 'meritocracy' that the word was coined in a work of dystopian satire.

And the author’s son becoming the most textbook example of falling up just proves the world runs on irony
posted by The Whelk at 4:04 PM on June 3 [10 favorites]


I have constantly seen meritocracies play out well on a small scale. Up to say, maybe 20 people in a homogenous profession will sort themselves efficiently. As soon as you get to the point where the definition of merit is codified people start gaming the system and that's the end of that.

But self-made and meritocracy are two entirely different concepts. A meritocracy doesn't require that you have an even start, and if being born into immense privilege allowed you to acquire great skills then who cares? You're the right person for job you get the job. It doesn't even pretend to be about social equality.

As for the self-made thing: Anyone born in the First World can't be self-made. It's just not an available option.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:50 PM on June 3 [14 favorites]


It was interesting to listen to this conversation on Tapestry, a program which mostly focuses on spirituality and religion. It has an interesting discussion of the pushback against Forbes' declaration that Kylie Jenner was the youngest self-made billionaire.

Anyway, can you really be self-made if you're using a language that other people invented?
posted by clawsoon at 5:01 PM on June 3 [3 favorites]


I take occasional pleasure in informing hardcore fans of 'meritocracy' that the word was coined in a work of dystopian satire. They tend to just double down on their existing beliefs, but the looks of confusion as they process the cognitive dissonance can be fun.

I take occasional pleasure in informing people who like pointing to The Rise of the Meritocracy that the point the satire is trying to make is that society is better when it is ruled by an aristocracy

but it does raise an interesting point about the goal of a more fair world: there are going to be people who lose out in that more fair society, who will refuse to accept a value system in which they are now low-status, and there'll be a lot of people who still remember that old value system and will feel that they have a point, even if their status hasn't changed much. It's not entirely clear there's a path between automated luxury space communism and here.
posted by Merus at 5:04 PM on June 3 [5 favorites]


No, it is not. Meritocracy works if you put your mind to it and not think negatively like a lot of people do.

Hard work, put your mind to it. The 2000s-2010s recession and economic inequality has caused people to be mediocre.

There is no such thing as a fair society---economically----but we can raise people out of poverty and recreate middle class/working class dreams to become wealthy.
posted by YankeeKing6700 at 5:30 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


No, it is not. Meritocracy works if you put your mind to it and not think negatively like a lot of people do.

Define "merit". Define what skills are to be "meritorious".

It's the same privilege bullshit, just in a new wrapper to make it seem more palatable.
posted by NoxAeternum at 5:35 PM on June 3 [29 favorites]


Not so much a myth as a freakin' joke.
posted by metagnathous at 5:37 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


The latest episode of the podcast Citations Needed covers another facet of the meritocracy myth: the frugality myth, or that it's really feasible to scrimp and scrounge your way into riches, with particular attention paid to the goofy FIRE movement.

Besides the general grossness of shaming poor people for buying any creature comforts like (gasp!) a cup of coffee, the episode gets into what is always missing in the meritocracy/self-discipline narrative, and (as many people upthread have already pointed out) it's that the "success" stories universally leave out that they inherited gobs of capital, had their college paid, got greased into a high-paying job they don't disclose, and/or were otherwise born into massive privilege. The fact they like, cut their own hair now is totally irrelevant to their financial standing.

Like, sure, saving is good, working hard is good. But acting like either way is even comparable to going to say, being gifted a few hundred grand in real estate is a lie knowingly peddled by a predatory ownership class who wants you to work harder, reward yourself less, and hey why not buy some shitty financial instruments (or, there's a reason most big "personal finance" blogs are put out by investment banks, credit card companies, or their affiliates.)
posted by joechip at 5:40 PM on June 3 [24 favorites]


No, it is not. Meritocracy works if you put your mind to it and not think negatively like a lot of people do.

I used to work with a guy who'd go back behind the garage to smoke a joint, and then stand there as I did his job and regale me with tales of The Freeloaders and The Lazies who are ruining America.

I would have complained to the boss, but he was the nephew of the CEO. So, I did two jobs, and he got moved into management.

Should just call it a ROFLtocracy.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:41 PM on June 3 [35 favorites]


Merus, as a USAian, it wouldn’t be the first time I misunderstood something about the UK!

There’s a Fall of the Meritocracy aside in the article about the Tripartite System which gave me the impression that the book was a leftist critique.
posted by FallibleHuman at 5:43 PM on June 3


Merus, I haven't read the book in question, but I had not at all gotten the impression that it was a defence of aristocracy. The author's main quote on wikipedia focuses on the lack of an adequate measure of merit and the problematic nature of unequal societies in general:
It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others. (wikipedia)
More generally on the topic of meritocracy, I keep coming back to the tournament metaphor: that the broader structure of income and wealth in our economy is basically set, like prizes in a tournament. We can compete for those allocated places and their predetermined rewards, but the overall distribution of those rewards is not something any individual can impact. There is only one first place, one second place, one third place, and they get prize money because that's how the tournament organizers designed the system.

Viewing the world in these terms makes it clear that even if we did have a (non-distopian) meritocracy, we need to care about how much gets allocated to everybody, all along the distribution. We could have a real meritocracy where everyone agreed on what merit was and who was the most deserving, and everyone was paid the exact same thing except the most meritorious gets a free ice cream cone on their birthday. Or we can have an equally valid and agreed upon meritocracy where that person gets literally all the money.

The gap between those two scenarios is rooted in policy and politics and how much we believe in the concept of merit itself.
posted by ropeladder at 5:47 PM on June 3 [8 favorites]


I take occasional pleasure in informing people who take occasional pleasure in informing hardcore fans of 'meritocracy' that the word was coined in a work of dystopian satire, that the word was actually coined by a sociologist in an article for the journal Socialist Commentary.
posted by Pinback at 5:49 PM on June 3 [13 favorites]


Merit means hard work.

It is incredibly insulting to tell someone who grew up dirt poor, or middle class day to day parents living paycheck to paycheck, went to school, busted their ass through law school/business school with a scholarship to create their own business with the money they started out with to create an empire and say that it's privileged bullshit.

I don't envy the rich----I admire them because Americans want to be rich. Not stay in the same stagnant condition in life asking for a handout. That's not what this country is about. It's about equality of opportunity--not outcome.

If you are the child of wealthy people, good for you, you will probably grow into the family business if you are interested, you grew up privileged. The question remains whether you live off your parents' wealth, or you do something to build something on your own.
posted by YankeeKing6700 at 5:57 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


It's also incredibly insulting to tell the millions of people who work just as hard or harder but don't become lawyers or billionaires thanks to institutional racism and/or sexism (or just plain bad luck) that their hard work had less merit than the few lucky ones.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:19 PM on June 3 [87 favorites]


Any society that accepts the premise that certain members are "losers" who don't deserve basic dignity is not one I'd aspire to be a part of.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:21 PM on June 3 [39 favorites]


So I think it's always to remember that the answer is both 'yes absolutely' and 'well it depends on scale.' People can and do achieve relative success based on talent and resolve and such, especially if given a level playing field. That's a big 'if' tho, and that 'relative' is even bigger. A little income inequality poisons the well. The level of income inequality in the US means that the well is purely poison. Buckets and buckets of poison that you can pass around and use to poison other wells.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:30 PM on June 3 [7 favorites]


Merit means hard work.

If this were true then coal miners and hotel maids would be millionaires, not jackwads that joined the right society at yale because their dad told them to.
posted by dis_integration at 6:30 PM on June 3 [52 favorites]


[One comment deleted. Hi YankeeKing6700, moderator here. Please cool it; you're a new member coming in pretty insistent and looking like you're after a fight; if that's not your goal here, take a step back.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 6:32 PM on June 3 [12 favorites]


“The game may be rigged, but if you play harder, you can still win” seems like very bad advice.

If the game is rigged, addressing that is not “victimhood”. It’s smart.
posted by FallibleHuman at 6:34 PM on June 3 [20 favorites]


That's not what this country is about. It's about equality of opportunity--not outcome.


That is a myth and a lie that America has peddled since it's inception. America is about the myth of equality of opportunity, but it has never actually lived up to that for all it's citizens. For some of them- yes. For a brief time in some cases- yes. But opportunity has never been equally spread in the country. NEVER.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 6:35 PM on June 3 [21 favorites]


Respectfully, if anyone thinks that “Hard Work = Success” in this country, then they’ve only been paying attention to a very small subset of cases that happen to support the premise, and ignoring the vast, VAST set of cases that don’t.
posted by darkstar at 6:36 PM on June 3 [19 favorites]


I'm not a victim. I say the above as someone who works hard to an unhealthy degree, started out poor, and has been pretty successful at least partly as a result of that hard work.

But I would have to be delusional not to acknowledge that, as an old, straight, white man from a family that at least expected that I should be able to educate myself to whatever extent I was willing to apply myself (so long as I was also willing and able to pay for it myself), that even starting out poor, I was still unfairly advantaged. Do I have merit? I sure hope so. Is my success evidence of merit? No it isn't. It's evidence of luck, nothing more.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:38 PM on June 3 [19 favorites]


Isn't enjoying a nice life or suffering through a hard one enough? Why do we all have to act whatever your lot is, you somehow deserve it? Who fucking knows if you deserve it? What does that have to do with anything? The whole concept is childish.

And how about this shocker: we could cooperate instead of compete.
posted by rue72 at 6:42 PM on June 3 [36 favorites]


I came across this on Fast Company of all places, about how a belief in meritocracy seemed to correlate with different kinds of discrimination. Not just a lie, but a dangerous, destructive lie.
posted by jeoc at 6:43 PM on June 3 [11 favorites]


If America wants to have a happy life and society, yes, I agree with Bernie Sanders and the progressives that universal healthcare paid by the taxpayers should be a top priority, and get out of the corporate healthcare industry.

There should not be a healthcare insurance industry.

That will bring the equality that progressives desperately want.

But in terms of wealth and money and success, it is none of your business how much money some rich person makes. Don't go around saying that you want Americans to be educated and civilized and turn around and attack them for getting educated and moving up socially in a economic mobile way just because they made more than $250,000+ in income. It is none of anyone's concern.

Don't call yourself an ally of people of color, who have been historically poor in this country due to slavery, etc. and when some of them become wealthy (Oprah, Robert F. Smith, LeBron James), you slam that wealth as well.
posted by YankeeKing6700 at 6:55 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


There’s a significant distinction to be made between someone who’s highly educated earning $250k per year, and someone who has a net worth of billions of dollars due to the distortion field that affects edge cases in capitalism.
posted by darkstar at 7:02 PM on June 3 [16 favorites]


I don't begrudge anyone their success who achieved it with a sense of honesty, humility, and self awareness, and who doesn't think that their success entitles them to bypass the rules. Success isn't morality. If anything, success should bear extra accountability and should bear additional responsibility.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:05 PM on June 3 [13 favorites]


That's not what this country is about. It's about equality of opportunity--not outcome.

The thing about equality of opportunity is that it's usually built on the outcomes of previous rounds. You can't really have equality of opportunity if you don't have equality of outcome, at least over the aggregate.

Besides the general grossness of shaming poor people for buying any creature comforts like (gasp!) a cup of coffee, the episode gets into what is always missing in the meritocracy/self-discipline narrative, and (as many people upthread have already pointed out) it's that the "success" stories universally leave out that they inherited gobs of capital, had their college paid, got greased into a high-paying job they don't disclose, and/or were otherwise born into massive privilege.

The thing I can't quite explain is that my parents appears to have genuinely scrimped and saved their way into wealth. They both came from very modest backgrounds, neither has a university degree although they both have trade certificates back when that meant something, and it seems like they ran a series of small businesses and built a portfolio of property until one of the businesses blew up. Of course, they live in a more equitable country than America is, but they were white and presentable so they had access to capital. I remember once my mum managed to get a hold of a million dollars to buy a business she saw as an opportunity by getting lots of little loans from people she knows - a system I've definitely heard formalised in more marginalised communities.
posted by Merus at 7:07 PM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Merit means having certain specific skills and using them unhesitatingly, like Liam Neeson in "Taken". American society constantly lies about what skills are required for success, and Business Schools and Law Schools only teach them indirectly. Depending on the field of endeavor, Cynicism is frequently one of the necessary skills; Honesty rarely is (but judgement as to WHEN to be honest more often is). Hard Work? Better to know where to apply your work.

It's at least partly a Meritocracy... but most of us get the wrong meaning of "Merit".
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:30 PM on June 3 [5 favorites]


Neither of my parents were college graduates -- my mom never attended, and my dad went to 1 year of a religious college and dropped out to join the Marine Corps. They never owned a home and never rented anything other than apartments, not in the best neighborhoods.

I'm female, fat, alcoholic, and came out as a lesbian when I was 20. I went to college on scholarships, grants and student loans. I graduated in 4 years with a degree in engineering and have been working continuously for the past 35+ years in engineering. I make a nice income, have a nice house, and it looks like my partner and I should have a nice retirement.

Although I've worked hard and it hasn't always been easy, I can't call myself "self-made". That would discount my grandma who taught me to read when I was three, my mom and dad who stayed married even when it was hard, our weekly visits to the library, the excellent public education system in 1960s California, our church, and, oh yes, the fact that I have white skin. Once I graduated from college, I was fortunate enough to get a job with a highly respected company with managers that mentored me and put up with my bullshit while I finished growing up. Then I got to go to a lot of management development programs. 20+ years ago, I found my way to AA where a lot of people helped me learn to live without alcohol. Self-made? Not even.
posted by elmay at 7:46 PM on June 3 [27 favorites]


Several comments from someone who's basically a "winner" in the meritocratic world (by my own scoring anyway):

1) The term "meritocracy" started as an insult and I think that should be well understood by both people who defend it and people who think the problem is we've moved away from it.

2) The best analogy I ever saw for our current world is that success is like winning the lottery. Hard work, ambition, talent, networking, family connections, etc. are the currency you use to buy tickets. Anyone who tells you that they won the lottery because they had a good business plan is full of shit. Claims that people did things that improved their chances are not necessarily false though. (This wonderfully funny video is the source of this comparison.)

3) Claims by the ultra rich billionaires that they are self-made, or studies by economists that show things like this, are trivially correct. Inequality in the developed world has increased so rapidly in the last 40 years that there basically cannot be a class of people who inherited billions from their parents right now, because their were so few billionaires in the past. (I got this point from economist John Quiggin point I believe.)

4) I really don't think there's much qualitative difference in people who "win" by making a quarter of a million in salary vs making tens of millions or billions. It's still luck, intelligence, favorable tax laws and scraping off a lot of the productivity growth of the last decades. The most salient difference is that a lot more people are prone to rationalize why their wealth is from hard work if you draw the line at 250k/year. (Dream Hoarders captures a lot of what I'd have to say here.)
posted by mark k at 8:17 PM on June 3 [8 favorites]


But in terms of wealth and money and success, it is none of your business how much money some rich person makes.

How much money a person has is my concern when that wealth becomes a threat to my liberty.

And if you think billionaires funding pro-billionaire propaganda isn’t a threat to your liberty, well, I can’t help you.
posted by FallibleHuman at 8:35 PM on June 3 [51 favorites]


Personal wealth is fundamentally the portion of the collective wealth that we're hoarding from one another. There's a certain amount of hoarding that we tolerate, or even encourage.

We think it's good for someone to have a house, a car, et cetera. But when someone's got 4 houses and another hasn't got one, well, now that hoarding is hurting someone.

Someone who hoards 4 houses is (by many markets) a millionaire.

So, therefore, a billionaire is someone who's hoarding the equivalent of 4000 houses. That is why being a billionaire is immoral.
posted by explosion at 8:43 PM on June 3 [31 favorites]


It;s also the difference between personal property and private property, one is something you use for its own use "I need a home to live in" the other is something you use as a form of investment over other people "I rent this to other people and pocket the difference"
posted by The Whelk at 9:15 PM on June 3 [19 favorites]


Everyone who hasn't achieved uncommon success thinks everything is because of luck; everyone who has achieved uncommon success things nothing is because of luck.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:18 PM on June 3 [4 favorites]


And (to not abuse the edit window), a quote often attributed to golf champion Sam Snead: "Golf is a game of luck. The more I practice the luckier I get."
posted by PhineasGage at 9:19 PM on June 3


I thought this LSE podcast / lecture by Daniel Markovits was a very interesting argument about how the myth of meritocracy works in the US and how unprecedented the distortions it has produced are.
posted by little onion at 9:21 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


It is none of anyone's concern.

In fact it is everyone's concern. For anyone to be rich, many others must be poor. Otherwise we wouldn't bother making the distinction.

This kinda thing is basically parroting the prosperity gospel.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:37 PM on June 3 [27 favorites]


For anyone to be rich, many others must be poor.

That's an assertion contested by many.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:39 PM on June 3 [4 favorites]


well, we would say we want to abolish the idea of a rich person, when everyone can treat money like a rich person and act like a rich person then everyone is rich.

Public Luxury and Private Sufficiency and all that
posted by The Whelk at 9:42 PM on June 3 [12 favorites]


I just finished reading White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America by Margaret A. Hagerman (which was extremely well done and nuanced and I highly recommend it), and one of the links she makes is between a belief in the American Dream and highly racist attitudes among affluent White kids. If you believe everyone can make it if they just try hard enough, then that tends to go along with the belief that those who don't make it just aren't trying hard enough; given the white supremacist society we all live in, that maps onto racist attitudes toward marginalized groups.
posted by lazuli at 9:55 PM on June 3 [21 favorites]


Meritocracy is just a more appealing repackaging of the Just World fallacy. It allows you to blame others personally for societal distortions and inequalities.
posted by benzenedream at 10:59 PM on June 3 [27 favorites]


It is incredibly insulting to tell someone who grew up dirt poor, or middle class day to day parents living paycheck to paycheck, went to school, busted their ass through law school/business school with a scholarship

This is me (except for the empire, but when I've felt the need I've made a salary in the 2%). I was still born white, reasonably healthy in body and mind, to married, English-speaking, U.S. citizen parents who both had college degrees (each first in their families, but still) and a stable housing situation, and benefited from a remote relative deciding to help pay for a couple years of expensive boarding school. My childhood was not privileged relative to that of most white U.S. citizens, but privileged it nonetheless was. I didn't earn any of the benefits I reaped from the conditions I just described.
posted by praemunire at 11:14 PM on June 3 [10 favorites]


This is interesting, as I can totally believe that most Canadians subscribe to a revisionism that meritocratic/Dream is somehow "ending" or in a decline for millennials. But if you consider the context by which Canada as a country itself was built, "meritocracy" was always an absurd lie. The first atrocity was the taking of the lands of the First Peoples here. The Dream was already poisoned. That fragile white Canadians don't get this, and that immigrant Canadians are protected from knowing this history, should be telling.
posted by polymodus at 11:22 PM on June 3 [10 favorites]


Meritocracy is a national religion here in Singapore, and it is almost universally thought of as a great thing. I think historically this was because meritocracy was marketed as an alternative to corruption, which was endemic in our part of the world back in the 60s; rewarding people who actually work hard versus those who just pay their way to power.

There was a certain sleight of hand, though, in how "meritocracy" has changed from then to now. The process probably went something like this:
  1. Corruption is horrible, we need to be a meritocratic society where only deserving people are in power.
  2. We wipe out corruption, and reward people based on "merit", which is a reflection of their value to society.
  3. We love capitalism and think it's great! So we reward meritorious people with money. We also use money as a way of judging people's contribution to society, since in a free market, you get paid what you're worth, amirite?
  4. So now that we live in a meritocratic society, all the people who are rich totally deserved to be rich, since their wealth is an indication of their societal value, and they got the money because they contributed, since we're meritocratic, amirite?
  5. People who are poor? Well, I guess they must be lacking in merit, since if they had merit, they would be rich.
  6. Our country is awesome!
In other words, it is the intersection of meritocracy and capitalism that produces a justification for neoliberalism.
posted by destrius at 11:30 PM on June 3 [28 favorites]


I think some people suffer from a lack of perspective. It’s very easy to argue that you’ve earned everything solely by the sweat of your brow when you consider your life experiences to have been less exceptional than they were. My first girlfriend once told me that her family was “solidly middle class” while we were standing in the foyer of her executive-level parents’ mansion. A kid I went to high school with once told me “hey, we’re not rich! My dad only makes six figures!” I think some people truly believe that their lives have been unremarkable, when in fact they’ve been in a top percentile since they were born. But work is work, stress is stress, and it seems like everyone worries about money, no matter how much they have. So the narrative of success begins with the hard work and talent, not with the family mansion or the parents’ high incomes and connections, because everyone’s parents had houses and jobs, right?

I mean, some people truly are breakout successes who came from humble beginnings. But in my experience, way more people want to SEE themselves that way, because it’s more flattering than the truth.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:30 PM on June 3 [18 favorites]


Meritocracy is just a more appealing repackaging of the Just World fallacy. It allows you to blame others personally for societal distortions and inequalities.

It's all that and more. Belief in meritocracy is also driven by a belief that your own talents will protect you from forces that are out of your control. If you earned everything you have by the sweat of your brow, then nothing can truly threaten you - even if you lost everything in a fire or something, you could make it back. So there's an element of fear there that makes it very appealing to people.

And like all the best lies, it's not entirely false: it's true that hard work is a real factor in most success stories, so it's easy to discount everything else that goes into some people having more than others. If someone making $250K/yr tells me they work their ass off, I believe them. It's simply that that's only part of the story. That helps make the belief very entrenched.

A further thought I wanted to share on this point: a belief in meritocracy logically extends to authoritarian tendencies because it's a good reason to trust the rich. After all, if someone is a billionaire, they must be smarter than your average Joe, and are therefore more capable of making tough decisions to fix things. If I had a nickel for every time I've ever heard that used to defend Trump, well. People would probably be overestimating my talents too.

Anyway. It's pretty easy to see how people fall for this shit, but it's not just gross, it's dangerous.

Upon preview:
In other words, it is the intersection of meritocracy and capitalism that produces a justification for neoliberalism.

Yep.
posted by mordax at 11:36 PM on June 3 [19 favorites]


The wikipedia entry on Meritocracy is interesting and quick easy read to get up to speed on the concept. I know, reading is hard work.
posted by polymodus at 12:06 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


That's an assertion contested by many.

Perhaps there is a psychological need to contest the overwhelming evidence of wealth inequality, regardless of personal status. Our society has a narrative about success and how one attains it, which has to ignore empirical inequality in order for it to work. Most successful people probably don't want to believe they are evil. Relatively unsuccessful people probably don't want to think they are potentially suckers in a long con game.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 3:02 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


That's not what this country is about. It's about equality of opportunity--not outcome.

Nobody with the most passing understanding of child development would think we live in a meritocracy and all have equal opportunity. So much of our later lives is dependent on lead exposure, nutrition, educational opportunities, exposure to stress, exposure to poverty, etc from an early age. I don't mean in how much money kids have to work with when they turn 18, I mean how one's brain literally, irrevocably develops is affected by a variety of material factors that are completely beyond a child's control and will shape who they are and what they're capable of for the rest of their lives. Without programs like mass lead and mercury abatement, easy access to quality early childhood education, widespread well-baby and well-mother programs, parental leave, and all that we cannot possibly assert that kids living in sub-optimal home situations will get the same opportunities as those not. And that's not even delving into how one's epigenetics are shaped in the womb by generational stress and poverty.
posted by schroedinger at 5:37 AM on June 4 [26 favorites]


I take occasional pleasure in informing people who like pointing to The Rise of the Meritocracy that the point the satire is trying to make is that society is better when it is ruled by an aristocracy

I have read the book - and this is entirely a disingenuous description of Michael Young's point.

In the novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, the meritocracy is perfect. It's science fiction - and part of the fantasy-science is that they have an utterly perfect way to measure intelligence and talent, and power and status are distributed accordingly, with no thought to birth.

And it's horrible - not because it's a bad meritocracy, it's a perfect meritocracy - but because inequality is horrible, regardless of how it's justified. Whether based on aristocracy or meritocracy, it's still inequality.

I don't know how all this played out in the author's personal life, though I know that Michael Young was a socialist and instrumental in ending the grammar school system in favour of one that was less stratified.

But the novel is quite clear: it's not the method of distributing status which is problematic, it's the unequal distribution of status and quality of life. It argues that even if someone is not very bright or talented, they deserve to have a comfortable life, because we all do.
posted by jb at 6:19 AM on June 4 [10 favorites]


Meritocracy is used as a cover word here in Singapore to excuse racial, inherited and class discrimination that quickly separates and filters children by the time they hit the start of primary school.

My kids have gone to public schools here intended for children in theory equally. One kid has access to a massive swimming pool and two huge libraries, daily volunteer taught extra classes for learning disabilities and the teachers get extra help with admin. The other kids had to go to a separate charity-funded center for their extra classes, a playground and basketball court and a regular small field, and a small library plus overworked teachers.

Mostly, the parents at the first school tell me that the reason their kids do better than other kids is 1) random luck, 2) genetics or 3) they are better parents. No-one has ever told me it's because they are richer and have more social advantages because well. Why admit the truth?
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:56 AM on June 4 [7 favorites]


No-one has ever told me it's because they are richer and have more social advantages because well. Why admit the truth?

What's hilarious is that their privilege is what bought them the luxury of that continued self-delusion.
posted by rue72 at 7:00 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


But in terms of wealth and money and success, it is none of your business how much money some rich person makes.

When they use all manner of tax loopholes and lobbying to avoid taxes and Trump Tax Cut and such, it goddamn well is all of our business.

I'll be over here sharpening my guillotine.
posted by Fleebnork at 7:17 AM on June 4 [11 favorites]


[One comment deleted; YankeeKing6700, I'm giving you a one-day ban. First, don't make threads about the people in them -- by saying stuff like "people like you just want __". Second, your comments are responding to stuff people here aren't actually saying. It makes it seem like you're just here to troll, and that's not allowed here. You can reach the moderators at the contact form.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:12 AM on June 4 [10 favorites]


Mostly, the parents at the first school tell me that the reason their kids do better than other kids is 1) random luck, 2) genetics or 3) they are better parents. No-one has ever told me it's because they are richer and have more social advantages because well. Why admit the truth?

But of course, if you mention the process of choosing which primary school* to go to, many rich parents here will start talking about the necessity of spending huge amounts of money to buy a property near the school of choice.

Primary school allocation in Singapore is this huge, complicated game, which is theoretically fair because schools give priority to kids who live nearby. But of course rich people can buy houses and move to be able to take advantage of that. That's one of the ironies of meritocracy in Singapore, really; many of the people who speak very glowingly of how our system is meritocratic and fair, are the same people who will spend tons of time and money getting their kids into the right school, sending them for enrichment lessons, camps, and tuition classes.

* elementary school equivalent
posted by destrius at 8:16 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


Dream Hoarders is an excellent book. The author and I have different starting values, so I didn't agree with him on everything, but it is very good.
posted by jb at 9:31 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Also, everyone should read Pinback's link from above -
The term meritocracy arose in socialist circles in the 1950s as a derisive term for a new system of class oppression. The first known use of the term is by Alan Fox in the journal Socialist Commentary of May 1956. Fox writes:

[Social stratification] will remain as long as we assume it to be a law of nature that those of higher occupational status must not only enjoy markedly superior education as well but also, by right and necessity, have a higher income in the bargain. As long as that assumption remains—as long as violation of it are regarded as grotesque paradoxes—then so long will our society be divisible into the blessed and the unblessed—those who get the best of everything, and those who get the poorest and the least. This way lies the “meritocracy”; the society in which the gifted, the smart, the energetic, the ambitious and the ruthless are carefully sifted out and helped towards their destined positions of dominance, where they proceed not only to enjoy the fulfillment of exercising their natural endowment but also to receive a fat bonus thrown in for good measure.

This is not enough. Merely to devise bigger and better “sieves” (“equality of opportunity”) to help the clever boys get to the top and then pile rewards on them when they get there is the vision of a certain brand of New Conservatism; it has never been the vision of socialism.
The bolding is my own, to emphasize the heart of the criticism of "meritocracy": the critcism is not about the merit (poorly defined or not), it's a criticism of -ocracy.

No more equality of "opportunity" whether false or true. I want (relative) equality of outcome - I want EQUITY.
posted by jb at 9:45 AM on June 4 [10 favorites]


The biggest giveaway in the meritocracy scam is its descriptive nature. Merit is always, without exception, described after financial and social success is already gained. Someone is rich or high-status, then everyone including the person in question goes back and cherry-picks justifications for how they got there.

Merit is never, ever prognostic of success. No one is able to see someone working hard or possessing talent and predict good things in their future. No one is able to say "I am 100% certain that person will be elevated to wealth and status".

For every person who "made it", there are twenty smarter, harder-working people who didn't.
posted by FakeFreyja at 9:59 AM on June 4 [20 favorites]


The idea that billionaireism is laudable and praiseworthy if the billionaire in question is a POC is a ridiculously gross and harmful one. Just as no human empire has ever flourished without slavery being an enormous part of that society, no billionaire can exist who has not harmed many hundreds of thousands of people along that journey to financial excess, not only as a direct outcome of their primary business practices but also through the policies and legislation they personally fund or through the things in which they choose to invest.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:40 PM on June 4 [6 favorites]


>>For anyone to be rich, many others must be poor.<>That's an assertion contested by many.<



I tend to agree, it is not really pie. A bigger piece for you does not imply a smaller one for me.
posted by twidget at 3:00 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


I think some people suffer from a lack of perspective. It’s very easy to argue that you’ve earned everything solely by the sweat of your brow when you consider your life experiences to have been less exceptional than they were.

Indeed. Ask yourself - when someone is thinking about the role of hard work in success, what sample are they using? Most people will compare themselves and their peer groups against other people they know who will usually share a broad set of characteristics already like high school classmates or colleagues.

If I compare myself to my colleagues, it's clear that the most successful ones are typically the ones that work the hardest. The same if I compare myself to my friends from university.

The trouble is those groups have already been pre-sieved pretty extensively.

The statements: "among a group of graduates of a university in the global top 10, the hardest workers tend to be more successful than the laziest" is not remotely the same when you apply the same logic to the whole population of a country, let alone the world. Even the laziest among us are now successful professionals, less successful than the real go-getters, but still people who own houses in and around London in their early 30s and go on a few holidays a year.
posted by atrazine at 3:02 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


I tend to agree, it is not really pie. A bigger piece for you does not imply a smaller one for me.

Possibly at this point, real sources should be happening, from an economic standpoint.
posted by XtinaS at 3:13 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]


I tend to agree, it is not really pie. A bigger piece for you does not imply a smaller one for me.

In the first world, we are usually talking about relative poverty, not absolute poverty.

While economies can grow, at any given moment in time, they are finite. And since relative poverty is about the relative share of income/wealth in an economy, then the economy is like a pie. If someone (or a class of people) goes from having 20% of the wealth of a given population to having 50% of that wealth, then the rest of the people have less, relatively. And in the developed world, relative poverty and inequality is still associated with bad social and health outcomes.

Another example would be the wage share: the share of income that goes to labour as opposed to capital. As the capital share goes up, the labour share (by necessity) goes down.

This is why people get angry about the rich: their greater share of income hurts our share - and we see it in our daily lives when looking at resources like housing. The buying power of the upper middle and upper classes (and investors) has actively driven prices up in many markets - and that's made those of us with more stagnant wages poorer.
posted by jb at 4:57 PM on June 4 [7 favorites]


> The bolding is my own, to emphasize the heart of the criticism of "meritocracy": the critcism is not about the merit (poorly defined or not), it's a criticism of -ocracy.
Both Fox and Young's writings, though, go deeper than that - they're both as much a criticism of the "merit-" aspect as they are of the "-ocracy".

In context, Fox's idea that "the gifted, the smart, the energetic, the ambitious and the ruthless" and "clever boys" deserve to be "sifted out" and helped to "get to the top and then pile rewards on them when they get there" is dripping with sarcasm. Young's book is even more explicit, with the central conceit of its dystopia being that "Intelligence combined with Effort equals Merit".

Ultimately both are riffing on and highlighting the fact that, as I've seen quipped, "meritocracies" almost always turn out to be "mirrortocracies" - the merits that are valued are the ones that a nascent or established gatekeeping group sees in itself.

Which - given that those 'merits' can be and have been used to justify a multitude of sins, from simple shitty group exclusionism to paternalism to toxic masculinity/feminism to Nazism and neo-Nazism to the current absolute batshit insanity of several Western 'democracies' - clearly indicates that, if nothing else, the choice of which traits to use to define "merit" needs some serious, continuous, and context-dependent examination.

In other words, the criticism is not simply of "-ocracies" - it's also that there is not and cannot be a clear and universal measure of "merit", so it's a bullshit measure to use for any sort of governance…
posted by Pinback at 8:40 PM on June 4 [6 favorites]


Pinnacle: fair enough - the criticism of inequality was what I personally took away from Young's novel. I started the book as a believer in the kind of meritocracy he satirized, and came out a critic of -ocracies (that is, the idea that some people are just worth more and deserve better lives - not the idea that some people should be in administration of our governments, which is necessary).
posted by jb at 4:34 AM on June 5


Thanks jb for actually bothering to explain.

Next time I'll make a little more effort to substantiate my hot take reaction to neoliberal logic.

I tend to agree, it is not really pie. A bigger piece for you does not imply a smaller one for me.

I'm no Malthusian, but I think you'd have a hard time pointing to any period in modern history including the present where this wasn't implicit.

"A rising tide lifts all boats" is a nice axiom, but like supply-side economics it's more a rhetorical position than a theory.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:11 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I tend to agree, it is not really pie. A bigger piece for you does not imply a smaller one for me.

I'm no Malthusian, but I think you'd have a hard time pointing to any period in modern history including the present where this wasn't implicit.

"A rising tide lifts all boats" is a nice axiom, but like supply-side economics it's more a rhetorical position than a theory.


It's a theory (a hypothesis), but it's not a Theory (i.e. with evidence behind it).

The truth seems to lie some place between the extremes of mercantilism (the world is a finite pie, and we're fighting for our slice through colonialism) and Adam-Smith-exaggerated-liberalism (the world is infinitely rich, we can all get richer together). It's quite clear that wealth and value in general are not finite, but many important resources are, and also at any given moment the existing value is finite - which leads to a question of distribution of resources and wealth/value.
posted by jb at 9:01 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Whatever the case is, the economics of it is not like divvying up a pie, since the use value of money is very nonlinear. A hundred bucks to a starving person means a lot more to them than a hundred bucks to me, which means a lot more to me now than when I start a new job in two weeks.

It's like I have a magic pie where I can give a slice of it to three people and still have half a pie, and those three slices will each turn into half a pie for the people I give it to, except I'm afraid to do that since I'm worried about starving in the future so I'm overeating now because precarity is built into the economy.

OK that's a terrible analogy, but divvying up a pie is a terrible analogy for how the distribution of wealth in the economy actually works at a large scale.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:05 PM on June 5 [4 favorites]


Vox had an interesting piece on meritocracy and equality of opportunity a while back — The case against equality of opportunity:
Equality of opportunity is nearly impossible to measure, but you know what we do know how to measure? If people's incomes are growing. How equal the income — and wealth — distribution is. If poverty is falling. If life expectancy is increasing. If children are learning. How long kids are staying in school. How many people lack permanent homes. How many illnesses — physical and mental alike — are going untreated. These things are not necessarily easy to measure. But we can, and do, measure them, and we know how we want the numbers to look at the end of the day.

That's because they're outcomes, the thing opportunity egalitarians define themselves in opposition to. By embracing them, we give ourselves goals to strive for, a basis to determine if our politics are working, a clear path forward. By rejecting them, we are left with a morass of conceptual confusion. Equality of opportunity is a distraction. It takes our eyes off the prize. And in the process, it perpetuates the logic that lets actual inequality fester. The sooner we stop talking about mobility and opportunity and start talking about poverty and suffering, the sooner we can solve these problems.
posted by Kilter at 4:00 PM on June 5 [5 favorites]


here's another quote from Kilter's link, which encapsulates why I think "meritocracy" is abhorrent, even if (by magic) the definition and/or measurement is perfect:
Equality of opportunity is also a morally heinous ideal. It is a way for us to justify the abandonment of people who — we insist — were given opportunities and squandered them. Even if it were possible to achieve equality of opportunity, it's not an achievement worth fighting for.

Call it the Good Will Hunting problem. The title character and his friend Chuckie (played by Ben Affleck) both expect to work menial jobs their whole lives, by virtue of having been born working-class in South Boston rather than rich in Back Bay. Will gets out, not because he is Chuckie's moral better or even because he works harder than Chuckie, but because, due to some genetic fluke, he has a near-perfect memory and is a mathematical prodigy. Chuckie, meanwhile, is stuck working jobs he hates, telling Will, "I'd do anything to fuckin' have what you got."

Equality of opportunity promises to help people like Will. It promises to abandon people like Chuckie.

Equality of opportunity is usually defined in opposition to equality of outcomes. The idea is that there are some people who struggle despite being smart, hard-working, industrious members of society. They deserve the same opportunities that smart, hard-working, industrious people in the upper classes receive. Good Will Hunting is an effective romanticization of this ideology, a portrait of a world where a good intellect is all you need to escape poverty, a depiction of equality of opportunity in practice.

That all sounds rather pleasant. But equality of outcomes would also help these poor, smart strivers. The difference is that while equality of outcomes promises gains for every poor person, equality of opportunity explicitly leaves some people out. It tells the poor who are not Mensa members, who don't have the work ethic of John Henry, that they deserve nothing. It gives Will Hunting everything, and offers his Southie friends squat.
No matter what definition of merit, someone will be left behind. It might be someone disabled, or maybe just someone who is "average" (averagely talented, averagely lazy) - they shouldn't have to be remarkable just to have a decent life.
posted by jb at 11:27 AM on June 6 [4 favorites]


LGM has a good dissection of the "merit myth:
In life in general, where performance is almost far more difficult to quantify in any even loosely objective way, that myth is far more corrosive.

The merit myth exists to justify the maintenance of extremely hierarchical anti-egalitarian social structures. If there are 10 or 100 or 1000 times as many people who have the ability and desire to, say, write cover stories for prestigious magazines, or to attend hyper-elite colleges, or to be captains or at least lieutenants of industry, or to star in a Hollywood movie, or to write the Great American novel, as there are social slots available for people to fill these roles (and there are), then you’ve got to create sorting mechanisms that give the impression that these slots aren’t being handed out arbitrarily, or worse yet on the basis of pre-existing social privilege.

That’s where Jeffrey Goldberg and his search for ultra-rare gynecological journalistic muscles comes in.

Goldberg’s mission, as he understands it, is to perform the extraordinarily difficult job of finding people who can write good Atlantic cover stories. He thinks this job is hard because there are so few such people. It is a hard job — but for exactly the opposite reason. There are enormous numbers of extremely gifted hard-working creative etc. American journalists out there, many of them working for nothing or close to it, for reasons that are too obvious to belabor.

All this applies equally to actors, writers, aspiring disrupters of the market for whatever, potential HYPS undergraduates, and so forth.

It’s a big country. So what to do? The answer is you come up with a bunch of largely phony metrics for sorting out sheep of supposedly unicorn-like rarity from the vast multitudes of goats.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:34 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]


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