The Mythology of Merit
By: Connor Reardon
Americans have almost always been taught the motif of the great “American Dream” whereby anyone, regardless of their birth, will be able to soar to the heights to which their talent may take them. Under the present national circumstances, and those of the previous decades, perhaps even centuries, this is an illusory notion of success. Assuming one seeks to measure success by financial means, the American Dream we know of is further from obtainability than ever before, and the causes of this are being compounded by the year. Many Americans across the various socio-economic classes like to think of the possibilities presented in this great land of opportunity. However, I look at this idea with great scrutiny. The financial establishment of this country has, perhaps naturally, perhaps deliberately, created a society commanded by money-power. And this money-power can scarcely be obtained in great quantities by the typical American. Certain myths surrounding the American notion of meritocracy, often perpetuated by financiers and their political allies, are being constantly impressed upon the American psyche, though in recent years, more scrutiny has been given to these illusory notions. What are these myths and notions of which I speak, you may wonder? Allow me to explain.
First, let it be known that it is with an unparalleled love of and identification with this nation from which I speak. In fact, it is patriotism which has caused me to grow disillusioned with these very myths. Myths which stifle the success and development of our American nation, and which have seen near formidable influence and power placed in the hands of those who, in any normal society, would have almost none. Now, let us address the notion of American meritocracy. In this country, we do not have a true meritocracy, whereby those who are the most skilled, most ingenuitive, most excellent and brilliant rise to prominence in our society. Brilliant inventors, devoted statesmen, loyal war heroes, and the most enlightened academics are given a back seat. Instead, we have a financial democracy, wherein celebrities, businessmen and women, and professional athletes are revered as deities walking among us. Money men who happen to possess a few talents which are useful solely for entertainment, or who happened to invest wisely and exploited a per-chance opportunity, have amassed formidable money-power, and as a result, have gained the reverence of the American people. Basketball players and business executives are given more of a say in the American psyche on political, economic, and social matters than learned experts in those fields simply because they have taken hold of fortunes.
Of course, this will bring one to ask “What is inherently wrong here? Why must we challenge this status quo?” And in response, I say of course, it is because of the profound impact this has had on our society from the top down. The consequence of the social and political power which has been attached to money is that it subverts a genuine meritocracy, a principle which very few could hold in contempt, with an illusory one. Skill with finance does not indicate overall greatness. There is risk and reward in economics, and fortunes are given such a name for a reason. Chance and skillful manipulation of money have created a great many fortunes, and with those fortunes, the aforementioned reverence and power through influence. While chance can similarly ruin these same fortunes, as capitalist economics is a fickle thing, ultimately, chance offers a greater guarantee of success in this country than hard work and the Steve Jobs-esque spark of brilliance. Steve Jobs is perhaps the greatest example of the American Dream in practice in the past twenty years. He rose from nothing to the CEO of one of the most powerful corporations on earth, and as the inventor of one of the most brilliant devices. There is little doubt that Steve Jobs is an example of a genuinely meritocratic rise to prominence in our otherwise illusory meritocracy. I, for one, would not dispute that he earned his place at the top, or that he manipulated finance to gain power. However, Jobs is the apex of the American Dream in our time for a reason. Most fortune 500 CEOs are not great inventors who rose from the ground up. Many simply manipulated fortunes they inherited and emerged with larger fortunes, which they then spent to perpetuate their own prosperity. The self-made executive is largely an illusion. Though they do exist, they are few and far between, and we are not likely to see another Steve Jobs for decades.
And what of the celebrity/athletic class? The class of entertainers? Does anything more need to be said than the fact that their labor is valued solely on their sensationalism? Their money is earned because people enjoy seeing them act, direct, write, or play sports. This is not to say they and their labor have no value. On the contrary, these entertainers are vital to any modern society! However, we must consider that if people were not stimulated by this class’ entertaining talents, all their skills would be utterly worthless but for their own entertainment. If football were to cease to exist tomorrow, Tom Brady would be undifferentiated from the great mass of the unexceptional.
The essential points illustrated in the previous paragraphs is that power currently rests in the hands of those whose skills may not particularly warrant it. This brings us to the next key element of the financial-democratic-illusory meritocracy: the people on the other side. Indeed, there are brilliant people in all fields, such as science, the military, politics, the arts, who fight their way to some prominence in our society. Perhaps they do not constantly have the spotlight, and there are far less household names in these fields than in the financial and entertainment classes, but there are indeed skilled persons with voices in their fields. That is only a matter of our society’s current priorities. However, we must consider this: how many geniuses and persons of excellence within these fields will never be able to succeed because the odds were stacked against them?
Every American student who plans to get a college degree is constantly burdened by worries about the inevitable debts they will accumulate in order to get there… well, those who do not already have hereditary fortunes to buy their way into prestigious universities. The American educational system is one of the greatest obstacles to true meritocracy in this country for a variety of reasons, none more infamous than the absurd tuition fees for American universities. It should be absurd to anyone, regardless of political affiliation, that those who seek a higher education can readily anticipate starting their adult lives in crushing debt, and will be working well into their twenties, thirties, and possibly beyond to repay that debt. This is hardly a matter of where one may reside on the political spectrum. For reasons I will discuss shortly, the present system of hyper-expensive, privatized tuitions benefits no one. Nothing but the existing illusory meritocracy can gain anything from the present system of things. I would like to posit a scenario: Student A has expressed a brilliant degree of talent in a random academic field, and Student A is by all measures to any sensible person, deserving a place in an Ivy League institution so his skills can be honed for the betterment of society. However, Student A, despite a brilliant intellect, and much effort in academic affairs, is unable to muster the money for tuition, not even with scholarships. Then, Student B, born to a New York City financial family, but more or less an average academic, uses family ties and exploits his wealth to buy his way into the same institution Student A had every place in. Hard work never guarantees success. This is an essential truth which must be acknowledged. While this was a fairly unlikely and hypothetical scenario, the point cannot be more clear, and I am certain that we are all aware of the truth behind it. How many hard working people of the white and blue collar spheres grind every day, take on overtime with no pay, and put their best into every project, only to spend their entire lives operating the same machinery or drafting the same spreadsheets? America’s hierarchy is stagnant, and with our current system of tuitions, this is only exacerbated. Another point which must be taken into account is that wealth does not inherently indicate excellence. It is a salient truth that intelligence, skillfulness, and the ability to contribute to society are by no means grounded in class. A poor man may be a genius, and a financier a fool in all but money manipulation, and yet one will forever hold power, while the other will never have the opportunity to contribute to society as he should have. Perhaps because he did not have a voice to be heard, or an education to hone his valuable skills. How many geniuses do you know in your personal lives, and have befriended, who may never have the spotlight they deserve?
This is not to suggest that this is some Marxian struggle of class and that all must change so we can all be made equal in totality. On the contrary, the only classes which are in conflict here are the excellent, and the unexceptional, and unfortunately, the latter appears to have much undue power, while the former, the truly brilliant, are often unaware of their own capacity for greatness. A more level academic playing field is just a starting point from which we, as a national society, may achieve a truly brilliant end: a genuine meritocracy, a true American Dream. If the rich kid and the poor kid have the same opportunities to attend the same schools, all of which must meet a high standard of quality and meaningful education, we will see who is truly exceptional, and it can and should go either way. From an equal start, those who are truly deserving will have every capacity to climb the social ladder and reach greatness, while contributing great things to their country along the way. Those who are unexceptional, will get where they get. What makes a true system of merit, is that regardless of birth, those who are brilliant will ascend. Constitutional rights, however, have clearly not been sufficient to guarantee this. To establish a genuine and perpetual meritocracy. Instead, we have a once or twice in a century wild-card, truly deserving, success story. More often than not, however, exceptionality goes unrewarded, and even more often unnoticed on the societal level. For the American Dream to hold any value, this must change, and fortunately, it appears that more and more people all over our society, and on all sides of all political spectrums, are beginning to realize it.
The time has long passed for the illusion of merit to give way for the true, tangible manifestation of it. As this transition unfolds, we will see a proper, organic hierarchy take hold-- a flexible one, where truly anyone can soar as high as their talent will take them. Not wealth, not chance, not sensation. Talent alone.