Meritocracy is a largely a myth. The American dream is completely one.

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A Princeton University student named Tal Fortgang has apparently taken umbrage at his fellow students responding to his expressions of his conservative political views by demanding that he as an affluent, white man that he should “check his privilege.” He wrote an article initially published in the wonderfully named student magazine the Tory which has now been republished in Time. It focuses on how despite appearances his family background contains a great deal of adversity. His central contention is that what others call “privilege” is actually an accumulation over generations of “altruism and self-sacrifice.”

If I get time I may well write something about the main issue of “privilege checking” on which my views are more nuanced than you might imagine. However, for the time being I wanted to reflect on Fortgang’s views on social mobility of which he sees his family as an example of. He says that:

I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.

While I don’t doubt the emotional power of this argument, the evidence is that meritocracy is indeed a myth. That’s not to say that an individual’s ability or effort count for nothing but that these are secondary to other factors. I’ve already blogged about how Britons with Norman names are 25% more likely to attend Oxbridge universities than those without and that “If you’re an American with an ancestor who graduated from an Ivy League college between 1650 and 1850, it’s twice as likely that you’re listed in the American Medical Association’s Directory of Physicians.” However, the observation that initially convinced me that meritocracy didn’t really make sense was Michael Sandel’s observation in his book Justice that birth order – just about the most arbitrary thing one can imagine – impacts on income.

Fortgang strays even further from the mark when he starts waxes about the American dream:

It has been my distinct privilege that my grandparents came to America. First, that there was a place at all that would take them from the ruins of Europe. And second, that such a place was one where they could legally enter, learn the language, and acclimate to a society that ultimately allowed them to flourish.

It may be true that his family has done well in America but that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly good place for poor people seeking upward mobility. The reality is that we should talk about the ‘Danish dream’ rather than the ‘American dream’:

Research on American mobility published in 2006 and based on collecting data on the economic mobility of families across generations looked at the probability of reaching a particular income-distribution with regard to where their parents were ranked. The study found that 42 percent of those whose parents were in the bottom quintile ended up in the bottom quintile themselves, 23 percent of them ended in the second quintile, 19 percent in the middle quintile, 11 percent in the fourth quintile and 6 percent in the top quintile.[23] These data indicate the difficulty of upward intergenerational mobility. There is more intergenerational mobility in Australia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, Spain, France, and Canada than in the U.S. In fact, of affluent countries studied, only Britain and Italy have lower intergenerational mobility than the United States does.

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The term meritocracy was coined by the sociologist Michael Young. Rather than an ideal, he saw meritocracy in rather dystopian terms:

If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get

They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.
So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.

What Fortgang represents is something potentially worse: an unwitting beneficiary of good fortune who nonetheless exhibits the arrogance that comes from believing one has earned their position.

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One thought on “Meritocracy is a largely a myth. The American dream is completely one.

  1. Pingback: John Oliver on inequality | Matter Of Facts

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