Thursday, January 06, 2005

American meritocracy on the rocks?

I read this article in The Economist this morning, which seemed to go along with what I wrote near the end of this post.
A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap. The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society. [...]

Most Americans see nothing wrong with inequality of income so long as it comes with plenty of social mobility: it is simply the price paid for a dynamic economy. But the new rise in inequality does not seem to have come with a commensurate rise in mobility. There may even have been a fall.
When even an economically right-leaning journal like The Economist says that social mobility is not living up to the free market ideal, you know there's something wrong.

I was especially struck by this passage: far there are few signs of a reform movement. Why not?

The main reason may be a paradoxical one: because the meritocratic revolution of the first half of the 20th century has been at least half successful. Members of the American elite live in an intensely competitive universe. As children, they are ferried from piano lessons to ballet lessons to early-reading classes. As adolescents, they cram in as much after-school coaching as possible. As students, they compete to get into the best graduate schools. As young professionals, they burn the midnight oil for their employers. And, as parents, they agonise about getting their children into the best universities. It is hard for such people to imagine that America is anything but a meritocracy: their lives are a perpetual competition. Yet it is a competition among people very much like themselves—the offspring of a tiny slither of society—rather than among the full range of talents that the country has to offer.
That sounds very true, and perhaps explains why college-age kids are becoming more conservative these days: the American dream is still alive but only within the narrow world of the organization kid.

(I'll leave aside for now the idea that even perfectly "fair" meritocracy is unfair in the sense that successful people don't really "deserve" their success because successful talents and work ethic are determined by genetics and upbringing. I kind of like Rawls's Difference Principle, that inequality is justified to the extent that it benefits the least well-off. That is, meritocracy is instrumentally good in encouraging economic prosperity and thus helping the poor, rather than inherently good in that the winners deserve their success. At least we can hopefully all agree that meritocracy is at least better than entrenched class-, gender-, and race-based prejudice.)


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