Myth of meritocracy

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Myth of meritocracy is a phrase arguing that meritocracy, or achieving upward social mobility through one's own merits regardless of one's social position, is not widely attainable in capitalist societies because of inherent contradictions.[1] Meritocracy is argued to be a myth because, despite being promoted as an open and accessible method of achieving upward class mobility under neoliberal or free market capitalism, wealth disparity and limited class mobility remain widespread, regardless of individual work ethic.[2][3] Some scholars argue that the wealth disparity has even increased because the "myth" of meritocracy has been so effectively promoted and defended by the political and private elite through the media, education, corporate culture, and elsewhere.[4][5][6] As described by economist Robert Reich, many Americans still believe in meritocracy despite "the nation drifting ever-farther away from it."[7]


It has been argued that meritocracy under capitalism will always remain a myth because, as Michael Kinsley states, "Inequalities of income, wealth, status are inevitable, and in a capitalist system even necessary."[1] Even though many economists admit that too much disparity between the rich and the poor can destabilize society politically and economically, increases in wealth disparity under capitalism are expected to grow over time since, and French economist Thomas Piketty argues in his best-seller book that capitalism tends to reward the owners of capital with a greater and greater share of the economy's output, while wage-earners get a smaller and smaller share.[8] Rising wealth disparity increasingly undermines faith in the existence of meritocracy, as beliefs in equal opportunity and social equality lose credibility among lower classes who recognize the preexisting reality of limited class mobility as a feature of the neoliberal version of capitalism.[9][10] At the same time, the elite use their comparatively greater wealth, power, and influence to unequally benefit themselves and ensure their continued upper class status at the expense of lower classes, which further undermines beliefs in the existence of meritocracy.[11][12]

Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank rejects meritocracy in his book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.[13] He describes how chance plays a significant role in deciding who gets what that is not objectively based on merit. He does not discount the importance of hard work, but, using psychological studies, mathematical formulae, and examples, demonstrates that among groups of people performing at a high level, chance (luck) plays an enormous role in an individual's success.


The myth of meritocracy has been identified by scholars as a tool of the elite of a society to uphold and justify the reproduction of existing economic, social, and political hierarchies.[2][4][14][15]

Class mobility[edit]

The myth of meritocracy is used to maintain the belief that class mobility is widely attainable. As Daniel Markovits describes, "meritocracy excludes people outside of the elite, excludes middle class people and working class people from schooling, from good jobs, and from status and income, and then insults them by saying that the reason they’re excluded is that they don’t measure up, rather than that there’s a structural block to their inclusion."[12] Furthermore, Markovits explicitly denounces the myth of the purported "American meritocracy", which for him "has become precisely what it was invented to combat: a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations."[16] Phrases such as "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" have been identified as concealing the myth of meritocracy by placing the onus of upward class mobility solely on the individual while intentionally ignoring structural conditions.[15] The minority of individuals who manage to overcome structural conditions and achieve upward class mobility are used as examples to support the idea that meritocracy exists.[17]

In the United States, people of lower classes are conditioned to believe in meritocracy, despite class mobility in the country being among the lowest in industrialized economies.[18][15] In the U.S., 50% of a father's income position is inherited by his son. In contrast, the amount in Norway or Canada is less than 20%. Moreover, in the U.S. 8% of children raised in the bottom 20% of the income distribution are able to climb to the top 20% as adult, while the figure in Denmark is nearly double at 15%.[19] According to an academic study on why Americans overestimate class mobility, "research indicates that errors in social perception are driven by both informational factors—such as the lack of awareness of statistical information relevant to actual mobility trends—and motivational factors—the desire to believe that society is meritocratic."[17] Americans are more inclined to believe in meritocracy out of the prospect that they will one day join the elite or upper class. Scholars have paralleled this belief to John Steinbeck's notable quote that "the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”[20] As academic Tad Delay states, "the fantasy of class mobility, of becoming bourgeois, is enough to defend the aristocracy."[15]

In India, the myth of meritocracy has been identified as a mechanism for the elite to justify the structure of the caste system.[14]


The myth of meritocracy has been identified by scholars as promoting the color blind philosophy that anyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity, can succeed if they work hard enough. "This belief suggests that if a person of color is not succeeding at work (e.g. not getting promoted), it must be due to laziness or a lack of effort on that person's part," rather than a structural barrier, as described by scholars Kevin Nadal, Katie Griffen, and Yinglee Wong.[21] The myth of meritocracy has been identified as a tool to both invisibilize institutional racism and justify racist attitudes while also serving as an argument against affirmative action policies.[2][22][23] The belief that the United States is a meritocracy is most accepted as an accurate reflection of reality among young, upper class, whites and least accepted as an accurate reflection of reality among older, working class, people of color.[24]

Tyranny of merit[edit]

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in his latest book (2020) makes a case against meritocracy, calling it a "tyranny". Ongoing stalled social mobility and increasing inequality are laying bare the crass delusion of the American Dream, and the promise "you can make it if you want and try". The latter, according to Sandel, is the main culprit of the anger and frustration which brought some Western countries towards populism.[25][26]


  1. ^ a b Kinsley, Michael (18 January 1990). "The Myth of Meritocracy". The Washington Post.
  2. ^ a b c Cooper, Jewell E.; He, Ye; Levin, Barbara B. (2011). Developing Critical Cultural Competence: A Guide for 21st-Century Educators. SAGE Publications. pp. 14–15. ISBN 9781452269276.
  3. ^ Grover, Ed (25 October 2017). "The myth of meritocracy is increasing inequality, book argues".
  4. ^ a b Littler, Jo (2017). Against Meritocracy: Culture, power and myths of mobility. Routledge. p. 139. ISBN 9781138889552. open access
  5. ^ Markovits, Daniel (9 July 2019). "How the 'meritocracy' feeds inequality". CNN.
  6. ^ Cooper, Marianne (1 December 2015). "The False Promise of Meritocracy". The Atlantic.
  7. ^ Reich, Robert (15 April 2019). "Robert Reich: The myth of meritocracy". Salon.
  8. ^ Ydstie, John (18 May 2014). "The Merits Of Income Inequality: What's The Right Amount?". NPR.
  9. ^ Thrasher, Steven W. (5 December 2015). "Income inequality happens by design. We can't fix it by tweaking capitalism". The Guardian.
  10. ^ Hasanov, Fuad; Izraeli, Oded (February 2012). "How Much Inequality Is Necessary for Growth?". Harvard Business Review.
  11. ^ Levitz, Eric (20 September 2019). "Harvard's Affirmative Action for Rich Whites Exposes Myth of Meritocracy". New York Mag.
  12. ^ a b Francis, Lizzy (20 September 2019). "The Myth of Meritocracy Is The Real Criminal In The College Admissions Scandal". Fatherly.
  13. ^ Princeton University Press, 2016
  14. ^ a b Nathan, Andrew J. (May 2020). "The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India". Foreign Affairs.
  15. ^ a b c d Delay, Tad (2019). Against: What Does the White Evangelical Want?. Cascade Books. p. 140. ISBN 9781532668463.
  16. ^ Cited in: Appiah, Kwame Anthony (19 October 2018). "The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve?". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 July 2021.
  17. ^ a b Kraus, Michael W.; Tan, Jacinth J.X. (May 2015). "Americans overestimate social class mobility". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 58: 101–111 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  18. ^ Gould, Elise (10 October 2012). "U.S. lags behind peer countries in mobility". Economic Policy Institute.
  19. ^ Rank, Mark R; Eppard, Lawrence M. "The American Dream of upward mobility is broken. Look at the numbers". The Guardian.
  20. ^ Alesina, Alberto; Stantcheva, Stefanie; Teso, Edoardo (2018). "Intergenerational Mobility and Preferences for Redistribution". American Economic Review. 108: 521–554.
  21. ^ Nadal, Kevin L.; Griffin, Katie E.; Wong, Yinglee (2011). "Gender, Racial, and Sexual Orientation Microaggressions". In Paludi, Michele A.; Coates, Breena E. (eds.). Women as Transformational Leaders: From Grassroots to Global Interests. ABC-CLIO. pp. 9–10. ISBN 9780313386534.
  22. ^ Halley, Jean O'Malley; Eshleman, Amy; Mahadevan Vijaya, Ramya (2011). Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 191–192. ISBN 9781442203075.
  23. ^ Cock, Jacklyn; Bernstein, Alison R. (2002). Melting Pots & Rainbow Nations: Conversations about Difference in the United States and South Africa. University of Illinois Press. pp. 34. ISBN 9780252070273.
  24. ^ Reynolds, Jeremy (June 2014). "Perceptions of meritocracy in the land of opportunity". Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. 36 – via ScienceDirect.
  25. ^ Sandel, Michael. The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2020. ISBN 9780374289980.
  26. ^ Coman, Julian (6 September 2020). "Michael Sandel: 'The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit'". The Guardian.

See also[edit]