Meritocracy: Is Success A Result Of Hard Work Or Luck?

It is an accident of birth that you live in this time. — We are indoctrinated from a young age into the belief system of meritocracy. While many are not familiar with the word, we are all familiar with the notion — If you work hard and play by the rules, you too can achieve the American Dream. We love lines like this, because as Americans we are more likely to believe success is achieved by intelligence, skill, and hard work, and we are less inclined to accept success is the result of race, family, or wealth. Advantageously we corroborate our meritocratic beliefs each time a person of success attributes their prosperity to hard work. And why not? After all, this belief system traces its roots to the American revolution, a rejection of the nobility and social order that saw peasants merely as vessels of labor and taxation.

For most people’s faith in hard work, this is where the story ends. At the same time, many would agree hard-working people regularly get left behind. It is a hard truth we’d rather not acknowledge, because it is antithetical to the idea of meritocracy.

“Meritocracy” is a really fascinating word. It’s coined by a British left-wing social critic named Michael Young in the 1950s. And he writes a book called The Rise of the Meritocracy. This book is kind of in the vein of 1984 or Brave New World. It’s a dystopic work of social criticism about the future, in which he writes about a Britain in the future that manages to use intelligence testing and productivity testing inside firms to select out for the people who were the smartest and the hardest-working and have them run everything. Michael Young says in the book, tongue in cheek, “You know, we realize democracy can be no more than an aspiration, that we can’t have rule by the people, but rule by the cleverest people.” Later in his life, Young was horrified to find that this word, “meritocracy,” which he had intended as satire, had been adopted as an actual social model. In 2001, he writes in an op-ed in The Guardian, while Tony Blair is campaigning for New Labour on a vision of meritocracy, he’s saying, “No, no, no, no, no! I didn’t mean this as a model; I meant it as a critique and what an awful vision it would be of a society that didn’t take our egalitarian commitment seriously, that didn’t take democracy seriously, and instead decided to outsource the important decisions to people that were selected out for their brains or their other features.”
Chris Hayes on “Democracy Now”

It is true hard work is often required to achieve success, but success should not be conflated with hard work. Because there are hard-working people who will never be successful, while there are some who will achieve their success largely through connections and privilege. Call it the meritocracy end-run.

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 Economist (Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend)

Success may often require hard work, but hard work is not always the reason for success, and luck often plays a larger role than we care to admit.

Still skeptical?

I want you to imagine how successful you would be if you were born in Afghanistan. Do you think you would have the same opportunity as you do in the United States? And if you had access to an inferior education, would you be as intelligent? How about if instead of being born in a modern first-world industrialized nation, you were born 500 years ago, or 5000 years ago. How would you rate your chance of success compared to now? Had you been born thousands of years ago, success better have come quickly, because you might have died at a young age from a now curable disease. And how easy would it be to achieve basic health, let alone prosperity, if you had been born a child of a slave in early America? Just think of the dumb luck of being born a white male at that same time. Did that have anything to do with skill?

All we have to do is look at the seven billion people living on planet Earth to understand the monumental influence luck has on achieving success. Your chances of living a comfortable life with high-quality health care and seemingly endless recreational opportunities is an accident of both where and when you were born. In the entire history of humanity, you and I are among a very select few to win the lottery of opportunity.

Herein lies the problem with the idea of meritocracy: When we believe that it’s one’s inherent value, talent, and hard work that leads to their successes, we are ignoring all of the outside help that contributed to their achievements. It isn’t that they don’t deserve their achievements and accolades – it’s that less fortunate people don’t receive the same opportunities to obtain these achievements and accolades. —

[F]actors, such as race, class, and gender, put billions of people at an early disadvantage because society treats people differently based on circumstances they can’t control. This makes society inherently unfair. Since we can’t fully grasp the multitudes of these imperceptible factors, it is much simpler to accept the concept that some people are inherently better than others. It certainly simplifies life and discourages people from asking further questions. In essence, meritocracies give people a false sense of control.
5 Problems With the Myth of Meritocracy

The fatal blow to the church of meritocracy is that we are all flawed. If we rise and fall based on our abilities, it means there must be people in society judging these abilities. People higher up the ladder have larger influence on what is considered merit. The problem should be obvious. We cannot fully escape our prejudices, especially when they are implicit. The result is a system that favors familiarity. And when the people pulling the levers are rich, that means a system that favors the rich.

Look, I’m not telling people they should give up. Of course everyone should work hard and chase their dreams, but it is human folly to believe meritocracy will solve things like poverty and hunger, access to a good education, and affordable health care. The real insidiousness of meritocracy rears its ugly head when we make moral judgments about people who are struggling economically, allowing us to believe economic inequality is the result of a character flaw. This is how faith in meritocracy clouds our better judgment. We must not allow a belief system so easily demonstrated as fraudulent to shape our efforts to mitigate outcomes and the effects an unequal society have on opportunity.

If you don’t concern yourself at all with equality of outcomes, you will, over time, produce a system with horrendous inequality of opportunity. This is the paradox of meritocracy: It can only come truly to flower in a society that starts out with a relatively high degree of equality. So if you want meritocracy, work for equality.
– Chris Hayes (Twilight of the Elites)

Hard work can pay off, but often it doesn’t.

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