The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits, is an eye-opening book which answers the burning question, “Why everything is so screwed up”.

It’s essential reading – especially in the wake of the Biden victory and the question of why Donald Trump got such a large slice of the voting cake. It also has lessons for British voters. If you’re not one yourself, don’t assume you know what motivates Trump supporters and Brexiteers. Markovitz argues that our society has been poisoned by the Meritocracy trap.

Daniel Markovits is a Professor of Law at Yale University and it shows: The Meritocracy Trap has 100 pages of twin-columned notes which deepen the argument in the text.

The term “meritocracy’ was coined in 1958 by British sociologist Michael Young in his satire, The Rise of Meritocracy. It was intended as a warning that scientific testing of children would create inequality of opportunity. It would identify talent at an early age and stream children into schooling and training for preordained jobs. Markovits says that Young became appalled that the term was “embraced rather than reviled.” He also says Young could not foresee that the meritocracy would favour nurture rather than nature. Rather than identifying children best equipped to carry out the jobs society valued, it would train the children of the rich to develop desired skills and, “bend the arc of innovation to favour the skills that it produced.”

It’s important to note that Markovitz defines himself as a Meritocrat and says that the system harms the elite themselves. This book was inspired when he was asked to deliver a graduation address at Yale Law School. As he began to think about the graduates he knew, he felt, “a curious amalgam of powerful empathy and sinister foreboding.”

Before going further, it’s best to start at the back and read the Postscript To The UK Edition first. Markovits argues that in the United States, workers without degrees such as auto workers are included in the definition of middle class, whereas the British would call an auto worker ‘working class’. Conversely, many of those who Markovitz defines as the meritocratically educated professional elite would be called ‘middle class’ in Britain. In this way, Markovitz argues that the privilege of the elite is disguised in Britain. “British meritocrats enjoy the privileges without the responsibilities.”

He says the British left associates meritocracy almost literally with aristocracy and misses the appeal of meritocracy. “By treating meritocrats as skating, rather than grinding their way to the top..it gets the new elite’s back up.”

For Markovits’ argument is that meritocracy excludes the ‘middle class’ and harms the ‘elite. “The young rich today diligently study and doggedly train” for the opportunity to “work with grinding intensity” for absurdly long hours. “No-one need weep for the wealthy. But ignoring how oppressively hard the rich now work is equally misleading.”

Elite schools can demand five hours of homework a night. Once they have achieved an elite job, the meritocratic worker is expected to work long hours. Exploiting their human capital, “they are expected to become an asset manager” of their own skills and knowledge.

Markovitz also tracks how middle-class life has been constrained, saying the idea of moving from production to management as happened in the 20th century is now implausible. A firm like McDonalds which, in the 1960’s, employed 70 to 80 workers at each franchise to make the food they sold now has less than half the workforce – deskilled because food is now pre-packaged. The only skill now lies in developing new systems and equipment. Similarly, at a supermarket chain like Safeway the chance to progress from bag packer to chief executive is now non-existent. Markovitz shows how middle-managers were eliminated by consultants in the 1980’s following leveraged buy-outs in search of the kind of manager who could squeeze further money out of the business in order to pay off the cost of the buy-outs.

Markovitz paints a picture of a society which is poisoning itself – allocating unequal rewards to a self-perpetuating elite which has no chance to really enjoy those rewards – and denying fair reward or fulfilling employment to the deskilled middle class. Markovitz attributes the success of Trump and Brexit to this dispossessed middle class. The elite said Trump could not possibly win in 2015, but Trump, “rode, rather than raised the wave of anger,” from a middle class who saw themselves shut out from the future. Trump won his largest share among voters with some college but no degree, who sympathised with Trump’s rejection of expertise. “When these voters heard the bipartisan elite condemn Trump as boorish and unfit for office, they knew that the elite thought the same of them.”

Markovitz suggests that the seeds of ‘Brexit’ are similar. The winners from globalization tend to be the most skilled, who benefit from cross-border economic activity. And the most skilled tend to be from public schools, “Even pop stars are three times more likely to be privately educated than the general population...the only elite among which (public school) graduates are under-represented is the England men’s football team.”

Geographically, Markovitz notes that skilled and professional jobs have increasingly moved away from Northern and Midlands towns, with a corresponding increase in routine jobs. There is a sense of being looked down upon. As with the rise of Trump, the British ‘left-behind’ know something is wrong and look for a remedy.

The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovitz – Penguin 2019 ISBN 978-0-141-98474-2