February 1, 2024

CHANCELLOR | The Myth of the Meritocracy

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Villains do not see themselves as evil but as heroes in their own tragedies. Everyone likes to view themselves as fair, people do not relish in what they view as wanton injustice. But the idiom “life isn’t fair” is also true. So the question is how does a society square reality, life being unfair, with its perception of itself? To some it’s as simple as  saying “it’s impossible.” To others —  like me — we find the answer in religion, but to others still, especially in the American context, they rely on mythos. Myth-making is not new, Plato discusses the practice in The Republic when explaining the noble lie, or the concept that differences in each person’s composition justified divisions in society, those with authority being granted that authority due to the gold within their composition. America has created a myth for a similar purpose, but instead of being grounded in one’s composition, it is merit. 

If you ask the average American why they are entitled to their things, they will probably answer because they deserve them. They worked to earn the money to pay for it or someone close to them did and gifted it to them. Americans love to think of the institutions in our society as merit-based and they abhor anything that upsets that assessment. A prime example is the university system from admissions to hiring. Students like to think that their acceptance into universities, such as Cornell, is the product of their hard work and dedication from as early as preschool into high school. Things that seem to challenge this position like affirmative action are loathed as distorting the otherwise meritocratic system, by allowing unqualified applicants into universities by virtue of their protected status. 

Now meritocracy is a great idea and in principle should be the way society operates. But society doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Things that are good in principle do not always work in practice and that is true with the meritocratic system. If society had started in the philosopher’s state of nature where all were equal — or even if America at least —  started with no active wrongs against people, then just allowing everything to be decided by merit would be preferable. But back in the real world, America started with a significant albatross around its neck known as slavery and built upon it with Jim Crow and redlining. That is something that a merit-based system cannot account for. A good analogy for a meritocratic system would be a race, but in America, a group of people — African Americans —were held back for centuries giving others a significant head start. So it should be no surprise when those with a headstart maintain their lead. A merit-based system built on unrectified discrimination would lead to the permanent disadvantage of those who were placed behind by policy.

The obvious solution to this would be to rectify the discrimination in order to allow the meritocracy to operate effectively. This would mean programs such as affirmative action, though it’s debatable how well the policy actually worked towards this end — since the main benefactors of the program have been white women. But putting that aside, programs such as affirmative action or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) which seek to benefit those who have been affected by past discrimination are deemed disturbances to the meritocratic system. They are so reviled that almost every time a black person reaches a position of authority they are seen as an unqualified diversity hire, like former President of Harvard Claudine Gay. But these insults ring quite hollow. I remember last year when debating affirmative action, I was asked how it feels not knowing whether you got into Cornell due to your own efforts or affirmative action. I responded that it feels pretty good either way, no one asks the legacy how it feels to not know whether you were accepted due to your efforts or your parents.   

But the opposition to programs such as affirmative action becomes truly laughable when opponents cry that we need to get rid of affirmative action in order to return to a true merit-based system. When did such a system exist, was it during slavery or Jim Crow?

The idea of the meritocracy is a myth, a useful myth but a myth nonetheless. Attacking programs such as affirmative action or DEI in defense of the myth is misguided seeing that the purpose of those programs, though they may be flawed and they are, is to allow the meritocracy to better work for everyone. The atrocities of America’s past cannot be alleviated unless affirmative actions are taken to directly address the issue of the lack of African Americans in positions of authority. And what makes opposition even more caricatured, is that several of the people I know on campus who are vehemently opposed to affirmative action, happily support policies that would attempt to elevate the poor in general, particularly those from Appalachia and the Midwest, and advocate for such policies. Showing that the problem may not be the disruption of the meritocratic system itself but those who benefit from the disruption of the myth.    

Armand Chancellor is a third year student in the Brooks School of Public Policy. His fortnightly column The Rostrum focuses on the interaction of politics and culture at Cornell. He can be reached at [email protected]

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