It's been a rough year for American meritocracy — the idea that talented, hard-working people will naturally rise to the top of our corporate and government hierarchies. The college admissions bribery scandal demonstrated just how far many wealthy parents will go to give their children an advantage in the climb to the top. The rest of us revel in juicy details, like parents having their kids' pictures Photoshopped to make it them look like football or water polo stars when they really didn't play at all.
But the central problem with meritocracy isn't the outright cheating. It isn't even the perfectly legal ways wealthy parents pave their children's way into the elite with private tutoring and fancy preschools. The trouble is that a society built on people living with the singular goal of advancing to the top of a system of wealth, power, and prestige, tends to produce disastrous results — for the people doing the striving, for the rest of society, and for the planet. It's barely an exaggeration to say that this blind orientation toward success is likely to kill us all.
More than a century ago, sociologist Max Weber identified a mindset he called the "Protestant Ethic," a secularized but "entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational" drive for the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. People who adopt this ethic are so focused on the endless grind for success that they can no longer identify or prioritize their own needs or those of society as a whole. As Daniel Markovits recently wrote at The Atlantic, "Meritocracy traps entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry but never finding, or even knowing, the right food."
This kind of motivation often produces miserable strivers. It also produces people so desperately set on a singular goal that prioritizing anything else seems like a naïve dream. It's impossible to turn down a higher salary and better title for more meaningful work or a more personally satisfying lifestyle. To do that would mean giving up a chance to win at a game that elites have been playing since birth.
This drive seeps into and permeates meritocrats' projects: The companies they run and the governments they head prioritize ever-rising profits and GDP regardless of any costs to human relationships or ecosystems. They churn out plastic packaging and reduce caps on emissions because taking steps to reduce waste and pollution would tarnish the bottom line. That's seen as a loss, and meritocrats are blinded by their need to win.
This is where meritocracy becomes an existential threat to all of us. To address our climate crisis, we need to wean our economy off fossil fuels. We need to create a whole lot of new jobs in green industries like solar and wind while reducing carbon-intensive production and consumption. These new industries won't necessarily generate extreme profit or rising GDP — at least not right away. This economic shift will take time, and require a mental adjustment: Instead of measuring success by our individual wins, we'll need to think on a global scale. How do our actions, companies, pursuits affect the world as a whole? Can this question guide our decisions, purchases, how we measure my own success? If success doesn't mean winning at the expense of others, what is it?
It's hard to imagine the majority of our elites embracing a shift in mindset like this on their own. But the truth is, we literally can't continue the way we're going.
Perhaps prophetically, Weber suggested that the value system he described, having become connected with the rise of industrial capitalism, might continue "until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt." Of course, Weber didn't expect climate change. Today we know that the predictable result of continuing to burn fossil fuels is much worse than he could have imagined: crop failures, refugee crises, war, massive disease outbreaks. Even a selfish billionaire willing to ignore enormous human suffering would note that this is not a recipe for robust global economic growth.
In the face of this worldwide crisis, an individualistic quest for money and power is a bizarre way to live. Perhaps meritocrats have a rational motive for their single-minded pursuits. Maybe they want their children to have enough money to escape the disasters that are going to befall the rest of us. But it's more likely that the real explanation is they're too busy hustling to stop and really think things through. It's probably going to fall to the rest of us to stop them before their striving destroys us all.
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