Is a Meritocracy Really What We Want?

Posted by David Imbroscio on April 29, 2016

"Together we can break down all the barriers holding our families … back. We can build ladders of opportunity … so every single American can have that chance to live up to his or her God-given potential.  Then and only then can America live up to its full potential, too." – Hillary Clinton.

This aspiration forms, in a nutshell, the central vision of Hillary Clinton’s quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. What it boils down to is the desire to create a flourishing meritocracy in America. When we “break down all the barriers” holding people back, “every single American” will have the opportunity “to live up to his or her God-given potential.” Simply put, once individual potentialities have been liberated by the removal of barriers blocking advancement, all persons will have the chance to reach a place in American society determined not by the limited opportunities they face, but rather by what they truly merit.

At first glance, this meritocratic vision is morally compelling: that all, regardless of initial circumstances, should have an opportunity to achieve as much as their talents, skills, ability, intelligence, and efforts warrant. As such, it is broadly embraced in America. It sets the groundwork for our political debates, as political analyst Christopher Hayes has recently pointed out, but is “never itself the subject of them, because the belief [in meritocracy] is so widely shared.”

Upon closer scrutiny, however, the meritocratic ideal turns out to be quite pernicious.  Summarizing the conclusion of my recent article on the subject, I find that, while this ideal is highly unlikely to achieve its core objectives (except maybe on the margins), its pursuit nonetheless creates “a competitive individualist ‘rat race’ of a society, fundamentally anti-communal and anti-familial, where group solidarity is uncommon and compassion muted.” And, worst of all, it ends up legitimizing—and thus reinforcing—the very social and economic inequality it purports to rectify.

The real tragedy for scholars and practitioners of community development is that, while we might not initially realize it, many of our urban and social policies, especially those advocated by political liberals, are rooted firmly in this pernicious ideal (or what I call a “Meritocratic Paradigm”). In sync with a quintessentially liberal politician like Clinton, this paradigm first identifies the “barriers holding our families … back” from reaching their “God-given potential.” Then it seeks to “break down” these barriers via various policy interventions (with the ostensible result being a marked increase in the upward social mobility of those demonstrating the requisite “merit”).

In particular, much of liberal urban policy focuses on what liberals see as a kind of “unholy trinity” of barriers, as I have labeled it, that stem from inadequate schooling, troubled families, and poverty-impacted neighborhoods. Yet there is a great body of evidence showing that efforts to break down these barriers yield only marginal results in promoting meritocratic social mobility for the urban poor, while at the same time imposing significant costs on the most vulnerable.

Mostly notably, we see various school reforms fail over and over, and even enhanced higher education produces surprisingly limited impacts. As a result, we end up blaming the educational system for the failures of the rest of society, which in turn opens the door to corporate-oriented policies designed to privatize and monetize public schools. At the same time, programs that intervene into family life, unless highly intensive, also produce only minimal results, and when such interventions are intensive, they tend to violate the liberty of poor parents to autonomously direct the development of their children. Likewise, efforts to reduce barriers arising from the effects of poor neighborhoods via housing dispersal policies or the creation of mixed-income communities also have been generally disappointing, while often disconnecting the vulnerable from crucial familial and communal bonds.

It is important to point out that my critique of the Meritocratic Paradigm undergirding much of our urban policy is not rooted in the more familiar charge (often made by liberals) that meritocracy in America is largely a myth, despite the claim to the contrary by some (often conservative) observers. Rather, the key point I am making is that the whole idea that equates a flourishing meritocracy with the model of a good society is wrong—namely, it is the wrong basis upon which to construct our policy response to urban problems. 

While true meritocracy certainly is mythical (if not fantastical) in contemporary America, the proper response is not to try to turn that myth into a reality (as much of urban policy proffered by liberals aspires to do), but rather to seek a more just and equitable and humane basis for those policies.

What, then, is to be done? In the article I suggest that a Community Paradigm supplant (or at least supplement) the Meritocratic Paradigm as the theoretical and practical foundation for American urban policy. Rather than focusing on the selective social mobility of (supposedly) meritorious individuals, the aspiration should instead be the uplift of entire urban communities. We must seek to afford disadvantaged urbanities a better life, without the need necessarily to scale the socioeconomic hierarchy. As I say, “For when entire urban communities are uplifted, it might well be the case that very few individuals actually move up this hierarchy, though many experience enhanced social and economic well-being.” Our key focus should thus be on achieving higher socioeconomic attainment for disadvantaged urban populations, rather than the higher socioeconomic mobility so prized by meritocrats.

I join an emerging consensus of observers facing up to the stark reality of the failure of policy interventions to promote much social mobility in twenty-first century America. The preferred response for many, on both the left and the right, is to provide a universal basic income—in essence just sending those with little hope of climbing the arduous meritocratic ladder a monthly check. Others, who point out the highly racialized dimensions of this reality, advocate a plan of reparations for African-Americans. Although both ideas warrant our due consideration and spirited debate, I see more value in a third approach.

My Community Paradigm instead places the virtuous, on-the-ground work of community developers at the center of a superior way forward. This path emphasizes the imperative of building decentralized, grassroots efforts for creating new forms of community wealth.   Such wealth building results in the kind of structural economic change necessary to uplift poorer urban communities in ways that can afford disadvantaged urbanities a better life, without the necessity for massive levels of individual socioeconomic mobility.

In a thoughtful contribution to Rooflines that inspired this post, Miriam Axel-Lute perceptively asks, “Is Rags to Riches the Right Measure?” Troubled by all of the attention given to Raj Chetty’s work, especially its strong focus on enhancing the ability of individuals to move from the bottom to the top of the income distribution, she suggests— as I do—that it is not. 

In this spirit, I end with a simple plea—a plea for all of us trapped in this neoliberal worldview to rediscover the virtues of ordinariness. As Axel-Lute notes, Chetty tracks the number of patents people get to their name as a measure of success. In contrast, a proper appreciation of the virtues of an “ordinary life, ordinary work, and ordinary experience,” as the great Kentucky-based philosopher and poet Wendell Berry has argued, is a good first step toward refashioning our economically and morally damaged society toward one that is more just and more equitable and more humane.

Photo credit: Tim Ellis, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

About the author more »

David Imbroscio, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Louisville, where he currently directs the Ph.D. Program in the School of Urban and Public Affairs. He is author or editor of several books, including Urban America Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy published by Cornell University Press in 2010.

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Rod Siddons
3 May 16, 9:40 am

Excellent article David!  Excellent!

Danelle Riley
3 May 16, 10:16 am

By the end of the article it seems to me that you are advocating for more population-based solutions to overall wellness, which is great from a modern public health stand point. I just don’t know why you had to trash Hillary and the Democratic party to make your point. As you point out, this approach has been around a long time and it didn’t start this year with her.

Tim Mungavan
3 May 16, 11:17 am

Well said. The meritocracy assumption produces life boat strategies. Even if they did work as intended (and they don’t), they accept that the ship is going down. The value of marginal solutions in a neoliberal environment is that they create the illusion of solution at far less cost than a real fix.

Paul Dribin
3 May 16, 11:37 am

Excellent article. I do think you need to provide more specifics. I am becoming a believer that income supplementation is the answer, providing low-income individuals with some options for their lives. I don’t think we will ever get to the point where we can build affordable housing projects in non-traditional areas. If all low-income households had more cash to be used for housing and other critical services, there would be much less stigma.

Charles Bergman
3 May 16, 2:52 pm

I appreciate the author’s thoughts, and agree that an exclusive focus on “meritocracy” can be harmful. But his analysis is premised on false dichotomies. For example, is there a difference between socioeconomic “attainment” and “mobility” that isn’t simply rhetorical? And don’t “community wealth-building” measures like community land trusts and worker cooperatives have the effect of increasing the income and wealth of, well, individuals? I’m having trouble picturing community uplift that cannot be captured in specific improved outcomes for those who live there.

Finally, after the broad analysis, the recommendations seem curiously small-minded. Grassroots community and economic development strategies will always be crucial—I’m a professional dedicated to them—but they can never take the place and match the scale of broad-scale policies.

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