The Meritocracy Trap

How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite
Narrated by: Fred Sanders
Length: 14 hrs and 13 mins
4.6 out of 5 stars (257 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A revolutionary new argument from eminent Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits attacking the false promise of meritocracy 

It is an axiom of American life that advantage should be earned through ability and effort. Even as the country divides itself at every turn, the meritocratic ideal - that social and economic rewards should follow achievement rather than breeding - reigns supreme. Both Democrats and Republicans insistently repeat meritocratic notions. Meritocracy cuts to the heart of who we are. It sustains the American dream.

But what if, both up and down the social ladder, meritocracy is a sham? Today, meritocracy has become exactly what it was conceived to resist: a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Upward mobility has become a fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite. At the same time, meritocracy now ensnares even those who manage to claw their way to the top, requiring rich adults to work with crushing intensity, exploiting their expensive educations in order to extract a return. All this is not the result of deviations or retreats from meritocracy, but rather stems directly from meritocracy’s successes.

This is the radical argument that Daniel Markovits prosecutes with rare force. Markovits is well placed to expose the sham of meritocracy. Having spent his life at elite universities, he knows from the inside the corrosive system we are trapped within. Markovits also knows that, if we understand that meritocratic inequality produces near-universal harm, we can cure it. When The Meritocracy Trap reveals the inner workings of the meritocratic machine, it also illuminates the first steps outward, towards a new world that might once again afford dignity and prosperity to the American people.

*Includes a PDF of figures and tables.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.

©2019 Daniel Markovits (P)2019 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"At once wide-ranging and rigorous, subtle and penetrating, Markovits’s book is revelatory both in its particulars and in its big picture. Anyone who wants to argue about the merits of meritocracy must take account of this book." (Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law, NYU, and author of The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity)

"We’ve been waiting for the Big Book that explains America's wrong turn. Daniel Markovits has supplied it. The Meritocracy Trap is a sociological masterpiece - a damning indictment of parenting and schools,  an unflattering portrait of a ruling class and the economy it invented. Far too many readers will recognize themselves in his brilliant critique, and they will feel a rush of anger, a pang of regret, and a burning desire to remake the system." (Franklin Foer, author of World Without Mind)

"Provocatively weighing in on growing inequality, Daniel Markovits weaves a disturbing tale of merit and social division. Pulling no punches, he warns us that meritocracy is a trap, fetishizing certain skills and endless assessments. Markovitz shows - in exquisite detail - the perverse link between an upper class education and elite jobs and how together they enrich the few, while devaluing and demoralizing the rest." (Jerry Brown, former governor of California)

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    4 out of 5 stars

A well-argued theory

This book starts off with a bang. Markovits' introduction has so many assertions that it may be worth listening to twice, especially for those of us who have always assumed meritocracy is an unchallengeable good. It's an interesting thesis. I can envision many people reading the sections about how meritocracy hurts the elite and rolling their eyes, but, by the end of the book, Markovits has made a strong case that "the rich and the rest" can find common ground that benefits them both. The general premise of "The Meritocracy Trap" is that the rich are able to invest substantially more in developing the human capital of their children, and then use this advantage to make the work at the upper limits of the job pool ever more lucrative (if not necessarily productive toward societal-level benefits). This repeats itself from generation to generation, in a positive feedback loop (read: trap). Whereas the aristocratic rich were susceptible to hard-working meritocrats usurping their position as elites, the meritocrats are continuously improving their position, making their replacement unlikely as long as creating "the best and brightest" is the ideal. I would like to have seen Markovits co-author this book with an economist (he has some influential ones there at Yale) just to provide a deeper perspective into the financial aspects. Even a professor of education would have been a good addition, but he still does a thorough job of fleshing out his thesis. It does seem to never surpass the level of being a theory, and I am sure there will be some rebuttals in the following weeks. However, this is a worthwhile book to get the conversation started. We DO need a dialogue between the rich and the rest, and we DO need to find a common ground where both groups are more satisfied than they are currently. Fred Sanders does a good job narrating, at it was easily understandable through 3.50x speed.

14 people found this helpful

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Not the serious book it pretends to be

The writer has a point, but he thinks it’s the only point. He dismisses or ignores other factors (e.g., technology, globalization), he makes few comparisons to other countries, and he fails to tell us how we got here (unless you believe it was all the SATs and a few college presidents). Instead of a structured argument, the author layers anecdote upon anecdote, repeating the same arguments chapter after chapter after chapter. When he does use numbers, it’s to explain the current state of America vs. 50 or 60 years ago - facts that any reader of nonfiction, the New Yorker or the New York Times have heard many times over. This subject deserves a serious book - this is not that book.

10 people found this helpful

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Repetitive

This would have made a good long essay, but as a book, it was too repetitive. After the first chapter or so, it stopped teaching me anything I didn’t already know.

2 people found this helpful

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This book turned me around 180 degrees.

Who would have thought there was so much harm being done by meritocracy. The book was very insightful!

1 person found this helpful

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spot on

Easy to listen to at 1.5 speed. Adept assessment of modern income inequality. Robust conclusion albeit narrow and ultimately assumes implicit the monetary mechanisms that create the social corruption.

1 person found this helpful

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Fascinating read. Inadequate solution.

Markovits does a phenomenal job laying out the problem with modern meritocracy in extensive detail. He captures the current cultural and political environment perfectly, and paints a picture that connects today’s ills with a lack of both wages and status for the middle class. At the same time, he shows why this is a poor model for elite workers, who face burnout and strive to put their children through the same difficult tournaments in a quest for the status that modern meritocracy awards to its winners. Through no fault of the author, the proposed remedies for the problems the meritocracy come up short and provide a sharp contrast to the wide-ranging discussions laying out the problems with meritocracy. The basic suggestion that we essentially “be less efficient” and bring more middle-skill (and this middle class) jobs into the economy ignores the global and competitive nature of today’s economy.

1 person found this helpful

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Eye opening fire me

I completely believed in industrious hard work as the fundamentally sound only way. This scholarly work has educated me to see that there is a very real dark side to succeeding only through merit.

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Awesome display of America Today!

This book was absolutely an eye opener! This is a must read for all citizens.

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informative

I found it an indispensable resource in understanding the problem of modern meritocratic inequality. It's fact-laden and far reaching, but grounded in a revealing, nuanced, and even-handed look at the problems of a social order based in "merit."

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Fails to Make Compelling Arguments

The author's main argument against a meritocracy is that it increases income inequality and decreases social mobility. He thinks that private schooling accounts for the gap in college admissions. He doesn't provide much evidence for this. In fact, all evidence points away from the efficacy of more schooling producing smarter kids. Read "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray for a more evidence-based explanation about why academic performance persists across generations. He also doesn't do a great job of explaining why the meritocracy is a bad thing, aside from some mildly Marxist tropes like inequality of outcome. His solutions are very backwards looking. We should wind back the clock because the 60s were better...