Inherited inequality

The following extracts were taken from an Audrey Pollnow review of ‘The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite’ by Daniel Markovits

Markovits, a professor of law at Yale, argues that a system that once promoted social mobility has created a self-perpetuating class of elites – in particular:

  • Elite workers now earn far more than middle-class workers than was true mid-last-­century
  • Workers paid in the top 1% are far more likely to come from wealthy families


Whilst some say this shows that meritocracy has not been pursued aggressively enough, and the children of the wealthy hold high-paying jobs simply because they’re well-connected, Markovits counters that the individuals who hold these top jobs typically are compensated for the economic value they provide

The problem is super-productive workers are produced by super-intensive educations – through the time and money their parents invest in their education at home and elsewhere

Those who succeed amass the resources/ funds needed to educate and so raise the next generation of meritocrats – their kids

Research shows that, whether through direct parental spending or access to well-funded or well-endowed schools, the children of the rich receive a more expensive education

Hence, we shouldn’t be surprised when the children of the well-to-do are really the most qualified for admission to elite universities

Markovits concludes:Meritocracy is pernicious – like aristocracy, it prevents upward social mobility – but unlike aristocracy, it claims that everyone gets the social position he deserves”

The claim that the people at the top have earned their status is bad for the middle-people who, thanks to technological and economic changes, are often underemployed, and whom many elites regard with contempt rather than noblesse oblige

Markovits argues that one’s class reflects one’s worth, that elite life is meaningful and middle-class life mediocre

But meritocracy isn’t all that good for elites, either

Because elite work is very competitive, the rich now work more hours per week than anyone else – in fact, they typically spend more time working than they would like to – however, unlike the rich of yore who collected rents on the assets they inherited, the rich of today inherit an expensive education which they can translate into wealth and status only by exploiting themselves – and the latter takes a toll on them such as high rates of anxiety, depression and suicides

And the enslaved elites work too hard not because they are forced to but because they value extreme effort – they have been told throughout their lives that they are the anointed, the best and the brightest, cut out to do great things – unsurprisingly, this becomes a central part of their identity – for them, work is not merely a way of supporting their families – it’s also their vocation, the way they perform their identity


  1. There’s no doubt, it’s better to be rich than poor – richness gives one more freedom to do what one wants to do – poverty can be a major worry and constraint on life
  2. But the more money one has, after a certain level the less happy people seem to be
  3. Indeed, one sees more happy-smiley faces, kindness and generosity amongst the abject poor, perhaps because they know they’re all in the same boat and not forever comparing themselves with others who might be better off – visit the slums of Jakarta, Mombasa or Havana for good examples
  4. So maybe we should doubt the pressures for ladder-climbing after all?
  5. Maybe the route to happiness is a UBI – Universal Basic Income – as recommended by some economists



Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.