The Myth Of Meritocracy

Jul 25, 2006

by Scott Hughes

In respect to hunger & poverty in America, the U.S. people believe in a myth. The real myth is NOT that hunger and poverty don’t exist within America. Albeit, the prevalence of poverty hunger in America is largely downplayed and ignored by the collective American opinion. Regardless, no one can deny the staggering statistics. In the United States, 38.2 million people–including 14 million children–live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. 3.9 percent of U.S. households experience hunger. 8.0 percent of U.S. households are at risk of hunger. Though often ignored, the facts are blatant.

The real myth in America is the myth of meritocracy – the myth that the poor are just lazy and stupid. Most Americans seem to believe that the poor in America deserve poverty. These people believe the United States is a meritocracy, in which wealth and status is determined by merit. These people believe that the wealthy in the United States have earned their wealth through intelligence and hard work. And accordingly, these people believe that laziness and stupidity cause poverty.

The prevalence of this myth shocks some people, who wonder how over 14 million U.S. children could deserve poverty. Children. The non-meritocratic reality is obvious to most anyone who has worked or knows someone who has worked two or even three jobs and barely earns enough to survive. Indeed, many intelligent hard-working American families struggle to feed, house, and clothe themselves.

It seems that the belief in the myth of meritocracy isn’t based on logic or empirical evidence. Rather, it seems the belief in meritocracy is based on desire and cognitive dissonance. Not to say that the majority of non-poor Americans directly want to believe that 38.2 million American people are lazy and stupid. Rather, the majority of non-poor Americans want to believe that they, the non-poor, have earned their wealth and status. The majority of non-poor Americans choose to reject the notion that poverty is unfairly determined by non-meritocratic forces, because they don’t want to accept that their own wealth is equally unfair. The majority of non-poor Americans don’t want to admit that the majority of the poor Americans are unlucky, because that would entail that the majority of non-poor Americans are just lucky. Understandably, Americans want to feel like they are deserving, decent citizens living in a fair meritocracy. They don’t want to feel guilty, lucky or responsible to the poor.

Unfortunately, this pretentiousness and arrogance alone cannot explain the prevalence of the myth of meritocracy, because not only do non-poor Americans believe in the myth of meritocracy, but also poor Americans believe in it! While arrogance and a desire to feel proud could explained the non-poor Americans belief in the myth of meritocracy, it can’t explain why poor Americans believe in this myth. Just like non-poor Americans, poor Americans believe that they are inferior and deserve to be poor. Poor Americans literally have – both collectively and individually – an inferiority complex. Additionally, working-class and middle-class Americans never question their own status in relation to the upper-class. Indeed, working-class Americans don’t avoid poverty with actual wealth, but rather with credit-lines. Their houses, cars, and clothes are all financed with borrowed money. The majority of non-poor working-class Americans are literally on the brink of poverty. Generally, their apparent wealth is just an illusion.

To understand the prevalence of the myth of meritocracy, one must understand the socioeconomic structure of the United States. The true wealth in the United States is in the hands of a few. The top 1% in the United States have more wealth than the lower 95%. Generally speaking, the upper-class doesn’t work or produce. Generally speaking, this upper-class is unproductive and uncreative. Instead of being workers or managers, the upper-class make money by share-holding and banking. Money controls everything, so the richest of the rich don’t need to work. Indeed, the government-sponsored dollar is mightier than the sword.

It’s not in the interest of the richest and most powerful, the true owners of America, to have a rebellious working-class. The powers that be all have a stake in the continuance of the non-meritocratic oligarchy. So, right from the start in the government-run schools, students are taught to believe in the myth of meritocracy. The schools literally teach students blind nationalist patriotism. The entire social system, namely schools, indoctrinate the people to believe that America is completely fair and meritocratic. Any evidence that contradicts the myth of meritocracy is omitted from the courses, whether historical or contemporary. Indeed, even women-oppressing Indian-killing slave-owners are made out to be American heroes.

A very small minority of non-working unproductive people truly run America, and indeed most of the world. A very small minority of people have all the wealth and power. Simple Machiavellian philosophy says that those who benefit from the current social order will do whatever they can to keep that order in place. Simple Machiavellian philosophy says that those whom change would adversely affect will furiously try to stop change. It is no surprise that the very small minority of wealthy and powerful leaders want to keep the current social order; they’re living the good life. Wealth without work.

The main way to keep the masses of people from uprising is by tricking the masses with the myth of meritocracy. Convince the lower and working classes that classism is based on merit, and they’ll keep going to their jobs. Even as more children starve and middle-class debts increase, they’ll keep going to their jobs. So long as the working-classes and lower-classes have an inferiority complex, they’ll keep working. They’ll be depressed, stressed, and hungry, but they’ll keep working. Nothing changes, and those few people with a stake in the oligarchy prevail. The prevalence of the myth of meritocracy guarantees the prevalence of the oligarchy.

And, as long as the oligarchy prevails and nothing changes, 14 million American children go to bed hungry every night. And, 16,000 children die everyday.

About The Author: Scott Hughes has a blog about hunger & poverty at http://millionsofmouths.com/blog/nfblog/. You may republish this article so long as you keep all links intact and include this “about the author” footer.

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2 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Mr. Working Class
    August 7th, 2006 at 3:01 am #

    I resent your assumption that I’m too stupid to think for myself and that I’ve been brainwashed or indoctrinated. I am not poor, and I’m not even close to being rich, but I can tell you that I’ve gotten where I am today by hard work, pure and simple. Life isn’t a coin flip. Its what you make of it. Please grow up and learn something about the real world.

  2. Scott Hughes
    August 11th, 2006 at 10:30 am #

    This is to “Mr. Working Class”, who said: “I resent your assumption that Iím too stupid to think for myself and that Iíve been brainwashed or indoctrinated. I am not poor, and Iím not even close to being rich, but I can tell you that Iíve gotten where I am today by hard work, pure and simple. Life isnít a coin flip. Its what you make of it.”

    I’m a Libertarian, which means my entire philosophy is based on the idea that individual people are able to think for themselves. So, if you think I called you stupid, you are mistaken. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

    I can safely assume that you are not rich, because you wouldn’t bother reading this blog in such a case. You’d be off in your Yacht or figuring out how to embezzle another million dollars or something.

    I believe you work hard (and all working class people as well). But if you think what you have is what you deserve, then the rich folk have pulled the wool over your eyes. Are you that sure you aren’t poor? You couldn’t buy your house, you had to go to the bank.

    You say life’s not a coin-flip, but why did the bank approve your mortgage? Is it because of how well you did in school, or where you went to school? Did the color of your skin and your class not factor in at all?

    But for the sake of argument let’s pretend that it was a meritocratic process. For the rest of this comment, we’ll pretend that the bank gives out loans to people based on merit.

    My entire point is that the poor, blue-collars, and the white-collars are all in the same boat. I’m not saying you do not deserve what you have. I’m saying you deserve more!

    Of course life’s not a coin-flip. A coin-flip is 50/50. You never had a chance of being the banker, regardless of how hard you worked. You can work as hard as you want. You’ll just get a higher credit limit so you can borrow more. You won’t get the wealth you deserve, because the system is not a meritocracy.

    For more on why people believe in the myth of meritocracy, I recommend you read Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.

Children suffering from Poverty