When we envision meritocracy at work, we imagine someone starting off as a salesperson and moving their way up to manager, or a passionate student from an underprivileged background working from paralegal to partner. Americans tend to view hard work as a necessary step toward achievement, believing that with enough time, sacrifice and heart, anyone can succeed. Yet this idealistic vision quickly falls apart when we realize we are being misled by the mirage of meritocracy, an ideology that justifies social stratification and disregards collective measures of success.

The belief in a meritocracy — the idea that power, wealth and status should be allocated according to deservedness — is one of the foundational ideas of American thought. Former President James Madison argued that as the nation grew, voters will elect “men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.” Merit is seen as some unquestionable force, a quality that can be easily measured and that will make sure only the best are in power. Not only are our politicians viewed as deserving their position because of their individual merit, but other high-status positions — from corporate executives to neurosurgeons — are painted as reaching the top because of their own personal strengths. 

Meritocratic language leads us to make several assumptions about our social reality. First, it leads us to believe that individual determination alone causes success, and dismisses factors like socioeconomic class, upbringing and environment. Merit itself is useful; it is a measure of competence, skill and one’s ability to succeed in a given role — we all want our leaders to be organized, knowledgeable, and to have our best interests in mind. Meritocracy, on the other hand, ascribes moral worth to that success, urging us to view all people of higher status as inherently deserving of their position. 

Second, meritocratic logic forces us to justify immense differences in wealth. Individuals like Tesla CEO Elon Musk are praised for their talents, with their success and wealth seen as a reflection of their merit. If we analyze his success from this lens, there is nothing to justify anything other than his continued accrual of wealth. 

But Musk did not get to where he is alone: he was born into a well-off family, his Tesla cars are designed by many talented engineers and they are produced and sold by almost 100,000 people around the world. Yet Musk is individually given credit for that success, as if his mindset and work ethic were enough to make him the richest man in the world. We ignore the countless hours of labor spent on his behalf and forget about the individuals who work to produce the technology that has supplied his fortune. Musk is an intelligent and hard-working individual but  his deservedness is not superior to the thousands of people who have accounted for his rise.

There is another side of meritocracy that is rarely examined: how we treat the people who don’t succeed. Because of meritocracy’s perverse logic, people at the bottom deserve their status just as much as those at the top. As Michael Sandel, a Harvard University (Mass.) philosopher and longtime critic of meritocracy, argues, the principle that winners deserve what they receive necessarily implies that those who couldn’t succeed, who did what they could but fell short, deserve their fate as well. 

In this way, meritocracy is employed to justify capitalist exploitation. For example, when a boss chooses to pay his workers minimum wage, give them little to no benefits and give himself a $2 million dollar salary from the profits that his workers provided to him with their labor, we don’t bat an eye. If we assume, as meritocracy does, that people’s economic status is solely the consequence of their own actions, then the workers don’t deserve any more than they are paid.

Thus, a system of thought seeking to alleviate inequality by rewarding those who are deemed deserving ends up reinforcing inequality by justifying differences that already exist. Social mobility is presented as the hallmark of a meritocratic order, but this is a propagandized message: meritocracy does not create mobility. It tricks us into believing that people with high status are fundamentally more valuable, talented and hardworking, blinding us to the social and economic conditions which have accounted for their success. 

These ideas affect young people as well, shaping their view of the world in ways that can distort their understanding of society. In one of my class discussions on how systemic racism has hindered the ability of Black Americans to succeed, someone said, “But, what about Kanye?” Anecdotal examples of success like Kanye West, LeBron James and Barack Obama make us cling on to the belief that the American Dream is on the horizon for all Americans, turning decades of discrimination into a thing of the past. 

But if we examine our reality with even a moderate amount of scrutiny, we realize that we are far from a land of opportunity: only four Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, there have only been 11 Black senators in the history of the United States and Black workers make 38% less than their white counterparts.  Inequalities like these are also the case for women and nearly all other people of color, all of whom on average, earn less than white men. Meritocracy requires a level playing field to function; if the majority of players are at a disadvantage, how can we continue to accept the results of the game?

Millions of people are denied the opportunity to demonstrate their merit, and meritocratic thinking urges us to believe it’s their fault. Not only does this view dismiss the incredible amount of work that people do just to feed their families, but it gives us a reason not to support them. By shifting the blame away from the broken institutions which have failed to support generations of Americans, we absolve ourselves from responsibility. 

While combating decades of entrenched individualism, capitalism and classism is a daunting task, rethinking how we view people who have succeeded — and those who have not — is an important first step. We must recognize that meritocracy leads us to blame people for needing help instead of acknowledging how we have failed them, question the success of those at the top and seriously address how wealth is distributed across the country. Change is possible, but not if we perpetuate the myth that those endowed with status, wealth and authority got there on their own. 

Carson Kindred (25C) is from Minneapolis, Minnesota.