Is American Meritocracy a Myth?
Here’s my new favorite dinner question: What percentage of your personal success is due to luck? What percentage is due to hard work? People’s answers vary wildly. I’ve met those who split it down the middle, others who go 100 percent hard work, and even some who pick 100 percent luck. What about you?
Hear how I answer this question here.
When we interviewed NBA superstar Michael Porter Jr., he answered the question surprisingly: 90 percent luck and 10 percent hard work. This isn’t because he’s lazy. MPJ is known for having a tremendous work ethic on and off the court. But he had reason to give luck the credit:
- He was born into a great family. His mom and dad are happily married.
- His parents taught him his work ethic and supported him during difficult trials.
- Both of his parents are basketball coaches, and trained him from a young age.
- His personal needs — food, shelter, and clothing — have always been provided.
- He had the opportunity to get a quality education.
- He was born with tremendous height and natural athleticism.
- He lives in a society and a time where height and athleticism can earn you tremendous wealth.
MPJ realized that if he were born with the exact same genes, just 200 years earlier in a different family, his life would look wildly different. So he’s lucky.
You can listen to him explain this yourself here!
And he’s got a point. Study after study shows that random factors often contribute to our success. For example, Canadian hockey players born in the month of January have a higher chance of going pro. This isn’t because of some strange alchemy—that those born in the cold months excel on the ice. It’s because December is the age cut-off. In other words, the children born in January were always the oldest children on the skating rink. This made them physically stronger and larger than their companions. That strength and size improved their performance, which drew the attention of coaches, who then coached in them increasing skills and confidence. It was a virtuous cycle.
A similar thing happens in academics. Researchers whose last names come earlier in the alphabet experience considerably more success than those with names that come later. This is because indexes and co-authored papers and books list contributors alphabetically. Whoever gets named first is not only remembered, but also often credited and quoted.
Or take Bill Gates. Was he a genius? Or was he lucky enough to be born in a wealthy neighborhood where he had easy access to technology?
Nicholas Kristoff gets it right:
“One delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence. In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes.”
The author of Ecclesiastes puts it a bit more starkly. “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecc. 9:11).
Perhaps you’re finding all of this offensive. Me too. But it’s because we were raised in a society that taught us a deeply moving myth by which we can narrate our lives: the myth of meritocracy.
The Myth of Meritocracy
A meritocracy is a system in which a person’s success is based on their talents, abilities, hard work, morals, and choices. In sum: their merits. While this might sound like a given, it’s a historical novelty. Up until the last century, most European countries were aristocracies. The idea was that a society needed to cultivate a class of people with the qualities necessary to order a people for the common good.
Thus, individuals with titles and land were cultivated educationally and socially to take on a collective responsibility: providing for the needs of a populace, governing a populace, and maintaining the social fabric that kept everyone in place.
While this might sound noble (pun intended), in practice it rarely was. It turns out that the upper class has as many shills, morons, abusers, and malefactors as every other class. This led to an obvious question: Why does class qualify a juvenile miscreant to govern an impoverished man or woman of tremendous talent, intelligence, and character?
Part of the American experiment was pioneering a new form of social hierarchicalism: the meritocracy. Thomas Jefferson said he wanted to create a “natural aristocracy” based on talent and intelligence. He dreamed that American schools would “[rake] geniuses from the rubbish.”
Unfortunately, America’s Ivy League wasn’t up to the task. When James Conant became the president of Harvard, he was alarmed to learn that most students were admitted on a legacy basis — meaning that Harvard’s grads weren’t the best and the brightest; they were just the sons of America’s Ivy League elite. In an effort to change this, he sought a fairer sorting system, ultimately alighting upon the test the military used to evaluate IQ in World War I, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
In some ways, he succeeded, reducing legacy admissions significantly. But it did not take long for America’s elite to learn how to game the system. A large donation could — via a quietly assumed quid pro quo agreement — still procure a spot. Moreover, those with wealth could invest in expensive SAT training programs that allowed their son or daughter to succeed. Those with less resources — and quite possibly lower-quality secondary education — compete with their hands tied behind their backs.
But the problem isn’t just practical, it’s also moral and philosophical. The winners in this meritocratic game do not merely benefit from material rewards; they also benefit from a tremendous ego-boost: I’m not a loser. I’m a winner. I did this. The opposite is also true of those on the bottom of the pile. They learn the lesson: I’m a loser. I can’t do it. Something is wrong with me. And so the gap between the haves and have-nots grows larger and larger.
Hard Work and the Gospel
On the one hand, the Bible is full of admonitions to work hard because it leads to success (Prov. 12:11; 16:26; 22:29). It also warns that laziness leads to failure (Prov. 12:11, 18:9, 20:4). (As a sidenote, the Bible never reverses the equation. It never says that failure is proof of laziness nor that success is proof of diligence.)
However, the Bible warns us that no amount of hard work can resolve our most fundamental problem: a ruptured relationship with the living God. Paul wrote, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Rom. 3:20).
If salvation were a meritocracy, we’d all end up in the loser column. And unlike the meritocracy of the United States, this would be entirely justified. Our work earns us nothing but just condemnation.
The good news is that the economy of salvation isn’t fair.
“He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Tim. 1:9)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Your most valuable treasure — eternal life with Jesus — is blessedly unmeritocratic. And this should radically reorient us within our pseudo-meritocratic system. Christians should answer the luck/hard work question with a resounding: I added nothing! He did it all. How can Christians look down on the losers in the meritocratic game? We can’t, because we know that we too are losers. How can Christians smugly smile at their own success? We can’t, because we know it’s all a gift.
Someone could justly critique this blog post by asking: Do you have a better option than a meritocracy? No, I do not. This side of the fall, a meritocracy might be a terrible way to organize society. But it’s also the least terrible way I know of.
And I think it would improve tremendously if the “winners” deflated their egos and thanked their lucky stars. Christians should be the first to do so because it’s not feigned humility. It’s reality.
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Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.Twitter