“High on a throne of royal state . . .
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised
To that bad eminence.”
Hell is a meritocracy. Yet in America the meritocratic ideal is universally applauded. Everyone agrees—or pretends to agree—that the angel of justice smiles upon the triumph of merit. Indeed, the hopes enshrined in the “American Dream” are predicated largely on the rule of merit, and who would be fool enough to attack the very foundation of that collective dream? The notion that everyone—regardless of the contingencies of birth, creed, race, ethnicity, or sex—should have an opportunity to rise to whatever station in life his or her merit can achieve is deeply rooted in American history. By the late 19th century, this ideal was well established, though our contemporary understanding of “equality of opportunity” emerged only in the post-World War II era. Only during the last half-century has the rule of merit been transformed into a vast bureaucracy intended to ensure everyone an equal place at the “starting line,” and it is only when the central state makes itself the ultimate guarantor of the rule of merit that a meritocracy...