Hereditary Meritocracy Is Not Meritocracy | Critical Commentary of The Economist

I recently came across an old article in The Economist from a few years ago titled “An [sic] Hereditary Meritocracy”. The title is provocative and not dissimilar from, albeit a quite reductive form of, one of the main ideas by our favourite Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu (see “The Forms of Capital (1986)). In essence, this is the idea that we in the advanced economies of the world, although not subject to the arbitrary inequality of hereditary transmission of power legitimised by divine right, are still far from the ideal world in which “the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life”. Actually, the transmission of power and privilege is still quite arbitrary, largely hereditary but now it is disguised in other forms…

The article begins with a brief definition of meritocracy as “the notion that power, success and wealth should be distributed according to talent and diligence, rather than by accident of birth”, calling it originally American. An analysis of this, what will seem to many as an immediately outlandish claim, is far beyond the scope of this article- as is the claim that today’s American elite are not a “rotten lot”- but it should be worth noting that this sentiment is a European invention borne of the Enlightenment before the United States even existed.

The next claim that I would like to focus on in this short commentary reads: “America’s elite is producing children who not only get ahead, but deserve to do so: they meet the standards of meritocracy better than their peers, and are thus worthy of the status they inherit” (emphasis mine). As we read in the previous paragraph, if the elites earn their privileges through their own hard work rather than inheritance, the society is meritocratic… but what if the elite also inherits the “talent and diligence” required to “meet the standards of meritocracy”, or conversely, what if elites are holding the lower classes back? (Sound conspiratorial? Check out Gilens’ and Page’s research on “Elites, Interest Groups & Average Citizens” or my previous look at some of their older work investigating whether the US is an oligarchy.)

The article notes, nepotism is to be expected somewhat, especially when considering evidence from the psychological sciences that suggests we are hardwired or have evolved to be somewhat nepotistic (see “kin selection theory”). However, it seems contrary to the point of the article to just resign to this. By framing nepotism and merit in this way, the author admits that the elites engage in a strategy of reproducing the current structure of social space, that is one in which they and their kin hold power, wealth, and prestige, by passing down their privileges in a way that is more difficult for us to notice is unfairly hereditary.

Continuing the article, the author looks at differences in education from as early as kindergarten but most people already understand that better schools usually mean better life chances. Further, better school usually means private schools and so those who cannot afford it, arguably those who are more in need of better education, end up at worse schools. What’s left out is how not just access to education is inherited from parents via their possession of the levels of economic capital needed to either pay for good schooling, or relocate to it, is how parents instill the value of education into their children.

Again, some of these results stem from economic causes. Poor working-class families may simply not have time or energy, or perhaps even the education themselves, to sit down every evening after work (or maybe they’re at work, and maybe those more well-off can just pay someone to do it) and help their child with their homework. “But if they really want their kids to be successful, they should just make the time/effort!” I hear the right-wing individualist smugly declare, ignorant of human psychology. Indeed I would agree, if not for mounting evidence which suggests that human volition is a limited resource. It’s a simple idea really, when we’re tired, we don’t function as well, and working-class families often can’t, not due to some moral failing on their behalf, but because their capacity to act freely is already tapped. (For a deeper look, check out “ego depletion theory” and the work of Roy Baumeister.)

These kind of effects are probably cumulative and appear to produce hereditary characteristics too. Maybe one working-class parent is at work and the second is too tired from their work to educate their child. The child doesn’t exercise their capacity for free will, which evidence suggests also acts like a muscle in that it is strengthened through exercise (such as those delaying gratification or using persistent deliberate effort) and atrophies through disuse. When the child grows up, probably reproducing the structure of social space they were raised in, i.e. becoming working-class, they also don’t have the volitional capacity (or economic freedom) to educate their kids. And so the cycle continues.

On the other side of the class divide, kids are given elite schooling and inculcated with values which usually align with those already in power (their parents). From kindergarten, or even earlier, there is both an expectation and investment that is rare to be seen in working-class families which seems to be inherited such that when educational institutions come to measure talent, the result of differences in the different classes seems natural or the result of some innate willingness to strive towards the kinds of achievements which are valued (and what is valued is determined by the previous generation of power which passes on those values to their progeny).

Overall, I agree with this article about how regarding a society as meritocratic can be confounded by the fact that the constructs by which we measure merit are largely heritable. However, the article ends with pessimism which is due to a lack of understanding. Also considering the author looks at differences in the way education is funded, it seems to be they hint at a real solution, perhaps not politically feasible. And it is not as some apparently fear to put up arbitrary ceilings for elites, but to open up the possibilities for children of lower-classes by removing the economic restrictions which currently hold them back from their potential.

If we really want to (I can’t believe I’m going to quote Thatcher!) “let our poppies grow tall”, then we need to accept the reality that some of those poppies are getting extra fertiliser and some are born in the shade. What does this mean? Well, for a start in the US, relieving graduates of some of the debt which holds them down achieving the social mobility which for many was the whole point of going to college. In the UK, a complete overhaul of the way the education system is funded is needed. Solutions are somewhat beyond the scope of this article too but we can at least be more optimistic about progress if we are more certain about the reality of the situation.

For anyone more interested in work and research which aims to make the world genuinely more meritocratic, check out The Sutton Trust. From their website:

“We believe that all young people should have the chance to explore their future options regardless of their background, gender, ethnicity or where they live. This is why we run our programmes. We want you to live on a university campus, explore university subjects, take part in work experience and find out what your future could hold.”

I think here at Cleft we share that belief.

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