In October last year, CNN nominated “The Meritocracy Trap” by Daniel Markovits as its Book of the Week. I finally got a chance to read it after completing my Spring 2020 study term. In his book, Markovits presents an argument that undermines the seemingly virtuous meritocratic social arrangement. The book is very persuasively written and Markovits asserts his thesis by demonstrating how meritocracy has the same defect it was intended to remedy. In his discussion, Markovits exclusively uses American case studies and statistics. Following his analysis, I thought it was worth writing about whether there is also a Meritocracy Trap in Canada.
Meritocracy is a system where people who show higher levels of ability deserve higher rewards and socio-economic status than those who show lower levels of ability. This is very much the practice around the developed world. Meritocracy was intended to replace the aristocracy, which was a system where wealth and status were passed down by birthright. Meritocracy seems fair, right?
Markovits explains Meritocracy’s flaw in his book. The smartest people earn the best (and highest paying) jobs in the country; since they are rich, their children, obviously have access to the best schools (e.g. private school). Those children receive elite education and training from a young age and they usually end up “smarter” than their middle- and lower-income counterparts. Since the children are smart, like their parents, they also earn the best (and highest paying) jobs in the country. Hence, wealth is indirectly passed down by birth as it was in Aristocracy. Markovits concludes that Meritocracy fails to serve its purpose. In the US, this phenomenon is amplified due to the disparity between university reputations. Alumni from elite universities (e.g. the Ivey League) end up earning much more than alumni from non-elite universities (e.g. state Universities).
Fortunately, in Canada, the difference between university reputations is not large enough to create such disparities in salaries. Almost all universities are state-funded. It is not uncommon to find graduates of UofT (the top-ranked university in Canada, overall) earning similar salaries to alumni from other Canadian universities. Admittedly, alumni from some Canadian universities have it easier when looking for a job when fresh out of university. However, finding a job easily in Canada does not necessarily translate to having higher salaries. Further, no university in Canada has its alumni dominating the most prestigious jobs in the country. The top Canadian law firms have lawyers coming from all law schools and graduates from all Canadian med schools usually end up with the similar salaries if their specialization is the same. In the US, graduating from Harvard University or other high-ranking schools almost guarantees a path to an elite job; the top jobs are disproportionately filled with alumni of top-ranked universities.
Overall, due to the narrow spectrum of university “eliteness” in Canada at the moment, the effects of The Meritocracy Trap are felt to a much smaller degree than in the US.