The Trouble with Meritocracy

Mark Olmsted
3 min readJul 7, 2017
Among other things, a sense of false entitlement

The left/right divide in this country is predicated on some fundamental fault lines. In broad strokes, progressives tend to favor the interests of the many over the few; conservatives extol the primacy of the individual. On the left we consider freedom from want to be one of the measures of liberty; on the right America is seen as a place where nobody has to be poor if they only work hard enough.

In the conservative worldview, government, as the expression of majority will, is seen as the biggest threat to the capacity of the individual to flourish. They see the free market as the ultimate arbiter; it rewards wealth to the most enterprising, ergo the most deserving. They view any system that redistributes wealth as leveling the distinction between the mediocre and the remarkable. (I have yet to find anyone with money in this country who does not consider him or herself to be “remarkable.”)

If you are born poor, in say, Appalachia, and your Dad dies young from black lung and your mother scrapes by as a waitress, you can absolutely still make it in this country. You can ignore the overcrowded classes and peer pressure to get high, you can go to the library and use their computer or encyclopedia because you don’t have one at home. You can get that sports or academic scholarship and be the first in your family to go to college. Many individuals have precisely this kind of life story, and surely their exceptionalism should be rewarded. But what we have now is also a society that punishes the equally unexceptional for being unexceptional.

Most kids who grow up in poor communities, who go to overcrowded schools taught by under-trained teachers — these kids don’t rise above their circumstances. Girls are often sexually abused, gay kids bullied and ostracized. Parents are overwhelmed at best, in prison or addicted at worst. Middle class kids often have it marginally better from a material point of view…

Mark Olmsted

Author, "Ink from the Pen: A Prison Memoir" about my time behind bars. See GQ dot com “Curious Cons of the Man Who Wouldn’t Die” for story of how I got there.