Transatlantic Thoughts: Meritocracy is ideal, blocked by difference

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Editor’s note: Transatlantic Thoughts is a weekly column that examines Carnegie Mellon’s student life from a foreigner’s perspective. Find previous installments

As initiated last week, this column will start to broaden its topics to discuss subjects outside Carnegie Mellon. This week, I will attempt to give some perspective to the notion of meritocracy as it is understood in the U.S.

Meritocracy is a cornerstone of the American philosophy: through the self-made man myth, it conveys a fair view of the society where everyone will have a chance to climb the social ladder, given enough hard work and determination. And there exists a certain number of illustrations of this principle, who happen to be widely spread in media: many of the CEOs of the major tech companies feature extraordinary life paths, rising from humble origins to become multibillionaires.

Here at Carnegie Mellon, the meritocracy is almost ideal: as I’ve described in my first article about the grading scheme, the most rewarded students are those who work the most, and not the most naturally intelligent ones. If you fail, your heart isn’t enough in the work and you learn a valuable life lesson: hard work is the key to success.

It is, of course, a good idea to follow these principles; however if you really believe in meritocracy, you have to follow the idea to the end. Indeed, if everyone were to be judged on their own merits, it is natural that they should start at the same point. This ground leveling is essential to fairness because it ensures that the game is not rigged. But here in the U.S., the leveling is unequal and leaves out the most important factor of all: wealth.

One of the things that impressed me when coming here was all the attention and infrastructure for people with disabilities. Almost all of the public buildings and public transportation are designed to welcome all people, and that is something Americans can be proud of. However, if disabled or more generally ill people have the physical ability to move freely, they still have to cover their health costs out of their pockets. Because of this, their purchasing power is significantly reduced and so are their life opportunities. I think it is not fair for someone hit by a genetic disease or by a disease caused by an external factor (think of the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan or a gun wound from a mass shooting) to have to support their health costs by themselves.

I wish we would live in a world where everyone has to endure the consequences of his own actions and only his own. However, randomness is an inherent part of life, and, in my opinion, a truly meritocratic society should at least try to compensate for random hazards in order to provide equal opportunities. Speaking of opportunities, whether or not you attend college is a decisive factor in your early career. And in the U.S., the decision to go to college will often not be taken on your high school merit, but rather on your parent’s wealth. I would not be here in graduate school if it weren’t for my grandmother’s inheritance.

These two key examples convey a simple idea: if you believe in the ideal of meritocracy, then you should fight so that it applies to the whole society and not only for yourself, regardless of how much merit you can have. The Republican party has recently been attacking the estate tax, nicknaming it the “death tax.” But the estate tax is a cornerstone of meritocracy: the wealth you receive from your ancestors is the most unfair advantage that can be given to you because nobody chooses where he is born. On the contrary, in an ideal meritocracy, the estate tax should be as high as to allow the only estate of sentimental values such as the family house to be passed to the descendant, to ensure that everyone can build up with his merit from the same starting position.

At this point, I could epitomize the arrogant French and claim that all of this problems don’t exist in France and its high-taxes welfare state. However, it is not the case at all. Actually, French sociologists have been studying the question of meritocracy in French society, and their findings are fascinating. I apologize in advance for this very gross summary of Bourdieu’s very fine analysis, which is a sociology standard around the world.

Apart from the economic capital which was discussed above, an individual accumulates throughout his life two other forms of capital: the social capital (relationships, professional network) and the cultural capital (knowledge, artistic culture, social status). It turns out that inequalities in the cultural capital or in the social capital when reaching adulthood take a huge toll on meritocracy afterward. Indeed, the French higher education system is mostly free and accessible to everyone; nevertheless, extensive studies have shown an over-representation of sons and daughters of the wealthiest subset of society in its elite schools.

The entrance examination I took for my undergraduate in France is an attempt at ideal meritocracy: you take two weeks of exams, both oral and written, and your admission to the school is determined only by your scores at those exams. Although everyone should have equal opportunities, the statistics of admission show that 60 percent of the admitted students had at least one parent who is either an executive or has an intellectual profession like being a professor. Those who had at least one parent professor performed in general much better at the exam, or had more chances to know that the exam even existed.

My take on this issue is that meritocracy is above all else an ideal. It is essential for a society because everyone needs to believe there exist some fairness and justice in the world they live in. But meritocracy should not be used to justify indecent inequalities between individuals: willingness to work hard is not the only difference between a multi-millionaire and a destitute. And as economic growth slows down worldwide, randomness and initial advantages are going to weigh in much more in determining one’s future.

This situation is familiar to old world countries, and it was often war that leveled the ground to ensure better meritocracy. After two devastating conflicts, most Western European countries decided that the state should step in to provide safety nets for its population. I often wonder which solution the U.S. will adapt to tackle this recent meritocratic crisis; in all cases, I enjoy analyzing this fascinating country that always offers perspective to me.