Friday, June 19, 2020

What You Call Meritocracy Probably Really Isn't...,


ipsnews |  Since the 1960s, many institutions, the world over, have embraced the notion of meritocracy. With post-Cold War neoliberal ideologies enabling growing wealth concentration, the rich, the privileged and their apologists invoke variants of ‘meritocracy’ to legitimize economic inequality. 

Instead, corporations and other social institutions, which used to be run by hereditary elites, increasingly recruit and promote on the bases of qualifications, ability, competence and performance. Meritocracy is thus supposed to democratize and level society. 

Ironically, British sociologist Michael Young pejoratively coined the term meritocracy in his 1958 dystopian satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy. With his intended criticism rejected as no longer relevant, the term is now used in the English language without the negative connotations Young intended. 

It has been uncritically embraced by supporters of a social philosophy of meritocracy in which influence is supposedly distributed according to the intellectual ability and achievement of individuals. 

Many appreciate meritocracy’s two core virtues. First, the meritocratic elite is presumed to be more capable and effective as their status, income and wealth are due to their ability, rather than their family connections. 

Second, ‘opening up’ the elite supposedly on the bases of individual capacities and capabilities is believed to be consistent with and complementary to ‘fair competition’. They may claim the moral high ground by invoking ‘equality of opportunity’, but are usually careful to stress that ‘equality of outcome’ is to be eschewed at all cost. 

As Yale Law School Professor Daniel Markovits argues in The Meritocracy Trap, unlike the hereditary elites preceding them, meritocratic elites must often work long and hard, e.g., in medicine, finance or consulting, to enhance their own privileges, and to pass them on to their children, siblings and other close relatives, friends and allies.

Gaming meritocracy
Meritocracy is supposed to function best when an insecure ‘middle class’ constantly strives to secure, preserve and augment their income, status and other privileges by maximizing returns to their exclusive education. But access to elite education – that enables a few of modest circumstances to climb the social ladder – waxes and wanes. 

Most middle class families cannot afford the privileged education that wealth can buy, while most ordinary, government financed and run schools have fallen further behind exclusive elite schools, including some funded with public money. In recent decades, the resources gap between better and poorer public schools has also been growing. 

Elite universities and private schools still provide training and socialization, mainly to children of the wealthy, privileged and connected. Huge endowments, obscure admissions policies and tax exemption allow elite US private universities to spend much more than publicly funded institutions.
Meanwhile, technological and social changes have transformed the labour force and economies greatly increasing economic returns to the cognitive, ascriptive and other attributes as well as credentials of ‘the best’ institutions, especially universities and professional guilds, which effectively remain exclusive and elitist.

As ‘meritocrats’ captured growing shares of the education pies, the purported value of ‘schooling’ increased, legitimized by the bogus notion of ‘human capital’. While meritocracy transformed elites over time, it has also increasingly inhibited, not promoted social mobility.