How "meritocracy" went from a joke to a dogma, and destroyed the lives of everyone it touched

According to insiders they’re the first White House couple to sleep in separate living quarters since the Kennedys. She didn’t even move to D.C. for the better part of a year after the election.

I think most people put on a public show of feeling fine most of the time regardless of social class, maybe especially when that’s what their peers expect of them. If you look at other indicators though (addiction rates, seeking psychological counseling, divorce rates, etc) you’ll find plenty of evidence that wealth doesn’t exactly guarantee a life of bliss.

That said—yes, duh, it’s far more pressing and important that we attend to the physical needs of the poor than the psychological state of the rich.


If not bliss, at least it guarantees that they can afford those things they need; drugs, help, or divorces. Not having money isn’t very damned blissful either, in a society that requires a person to have it in order to matter or exist.

I’m aware of “more money, more problems” and that line of thought; where the more money you have, the more things you need to be thinking about or be aware of so you don’t lose your money. I’ve never experienced it myself, but I’ve heard about it. I loved Brewster’s Millions and Trading Places back when I was an unemployed teen.

Part of me feels like that’s a form of misdirection/propaganda though. “Oh man, you think finding a way to feed your family for a day is rough? Try running a multinational company. The stress is unbelievable.” And yet I never hear about any real millionaires willing to give it all up for the peace of mind that comes with being poor.

The rich are insulated, even if they aren’t happy.

Not so much “duh” though, is it? At least, not if you ask the ones who are in a position to do something about it.


I don’t think the takeaway is that the myth of the meritocracy makes life more miserable for the rich than it does for anyone else.


No offense, but I’d still like airplanes I ride in to be flown by tested, licensed pilots, and not just someone who shows up. And I’d like my bridges built by tested, licensed engineers, thanks.

Ability should trump everything - race, gender, cronyism, etc. That is what meritocracy means to me. I don’t care about my pilot’s color, gender, or sexual preferences - I care how well they can fly the plane.

Capitalism is supposed to align incentives so that companies with ability outlive companies with less ability, and it does… at small scale. Monopolies and oligopolies (among other things) distort the market and should, IMO, be outlawed/massively regulated (In theory they are, in practice not so much).


That’s mostly training, not “merit.” Within reason, anyone given the appropriate training could do those jobs competently. Jobs that demand high pay generally do so because, somewhere along the line to credentialing, there’s a bottleneck that creates scarcity.


The myth of the meritocracy isn’t “ability is important and should be incentivized.”

The myth of the meritocracy is “people who have lots of wealth and power have done something to merit such wealth and power, and people who lack those things must lack said merit.”


I agree with that.


Meritocracy means choosing the best-qualified candidate without asking why that person came out on top – without asking if an expensive private education or family connections, etc, gave them an advantage.

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Kinda tired of undefined ‘elite’ bashing. I’m sometimes tempted to asked said bashers if they’re fine with a mediocre emergency surgeon; one who’s not invested years of learning and toil; who doesn’t work long hours or shifts; who isn’t willing to keep investing in new techniques and technologies.

By all means, better life/work balance for all. But many professions demand excellence, support, and yes, relatively higher compensation. And just maybe, if that registers, we can ask the same question about teachers, firefighters, etc.

You’re completely mis-stating the premise here.

The problem isn’t that hard working people with specialized, high-demand skill sets shouldn’t earn more than lazy people who lack those skills. The problem is the flawed premise that people who have more than everyone else must have done something to deserve it (and likewise, people who lack wealth must have done something to deserve being poor).


I want the surgeon who came from the pool of everybody who wanted to be a surgeon, not just those lucky enough to be born where they could get a good education, not be arrested over something minor like jaywalking or talking back to the teacher, not just those lucky enough that they didn’t have to sacrifice their dream as something out of reach because with Dad in jail for bullshit charges and Mom working five jobs, university (let alone med school) was out of the question. Who didn’t have to worry about falling asleep during the SATs on account of staying up all night with their sick sibling because Mom’s at work and Dad’s not around.


surgeon might not actually be the best potential surgeon. They likely got there because they got breakfast every morning and could concentrate in school. They likely got there with a supportive learning environment. It’s possible they had family connections or more chances for “enrichment”. Nobody is saying that they don’t work hard. But the myth of meritocracy says hard work gets rewarded. Well, where’s the reward for the Mom working five jobs? Where’s the reward for the kid who has to choose between studying for tomorrow’s test or picking up the extra shift that will mean they have enough money for a meal? They’re working hard, too. If meritocracy is so great, where’s their pile of cash?


There might be some people who would argue that these problems are the result of the non-meritocracy elements of our society. In a true meritocracy, the resources would be given to those who could make the best use of them. All children would have a chance and not have to deal with any of those problems.

A person getting into Harvard because his dad graduated from there and he can pay the full tuition rate plus a million bucks to name the library after him is the least meritocracy thing I can think of.

Basing college admissions on (a theoretical test which actually measured potential) and no one walking out of college with student loans would be the most meritocracy thing.

Just because jerks use the word incorrectly and assume it to be in force when it is not does not mean that the idea doesn’t have merit…


“The concept of a meritocracy has merit” seems like a kind of recursive philosophy.


You’re trying to retcon the definition. In the article, Cory talks about the origin of the term, which set its definition as “people who are (financially) successful got there through merit (not luck or starting 59 feet past 3rd base) and people who aren’t successful got that way through lack thereof.”

Rather than try to redefine the term (while shitheads continue to use it by its original definition), how about we kill it, dead, and find another word that fits better.


Women fly planes as well as men. Whatever else a person may think, the best women pilots are better than the worst male pilots.

Commercial pilots are overwhelmingly men.

We aren’t in a meritocracy, and capitalism, as it is currently practiced, protects non-merit based systems routinely and widely.




I am a tool and die maker, not an engineer, so this isn’t my “bitch”, just an observation; the idea that effort and merit is rewarded is ridiculous. Probably one of the most maligned “professional” skill sets in the last 20 years has been mechanical engineering. They are required to have a vast math and fabrication knowledge base, have a complete knowledge of up to date computer skills and are offered shit pay for lots of hours. They also get laid off a lot, especially if older than fifty.

Meritocratic order my ass.


Oh? Maybe you didn’t notice but I didn’t use the term meritocracy. So feel free to define it as you like. Just don’t presume to define it for me.

Silly me, I assumed your comment was supposed to be related to the topic at hand in some way.