A book can explain why Elizabeth Warren's ideas bother billionaires so much

A book can explain why Elizabeth Warren's ideas bother billionaires so much
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You needn’t look much beyond Daniel Markovitz’s "The Meritocracy Trap" to get a comprehensive understanding of why billionaires are terrified by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign.  

Markowitz’s book has drawn much attention lately because of its provocative thesis. In a nutshell, Markovitz argues that meritocracy has made us all miserable. 

The rich once were aristocrats, who lived lives of leisure, but today’s elite — the meritocrats — work longer hours than anyone else. Our nation’s premier colleges accept only the best students, so parents with the resources to do so push their children from a young age to excel. 


When these children ultimately succeed, they conclude that they have earned their success — that meritocracy works. Some of today’s richest people are talented strivers from modest backgrounds, who happened to cultivate skills at just the right time to cash in. But many already had advantages that they could parlay into wealth. Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergDemocrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff Democrats press Facebook, Twitter on misinformation efforts ahead of Georgia runoff Hillicon Valley: Facebook content moderators demand more workplace protections | Ousted cyber official blasts Giuliani press conference | Tech firms fall short on misinformation targeting Latino vote MORE went to Harvard, Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosElon Musk passes Bill Gates to become world's second-richest person in Bloomberg rankings How space exploration will help to address climate change Bezos makes first donations from billion Earth Fund MORE went to Princeton, and so on. These are not exactly rags-to-riches stories. In other words, many meritocrats are the children of aristocrats.

As Brookings Institution’s senior fellow Darrell West and others have argued, today’s super-wealthy tend to be socially liberal, and many of them have put their money into idiosyncratic philanthropic projects. Their success has bred a certain sort of hubris. 

Many of them believe they deserve their wealth, and that they are better stewards of their money than is the government. Proposals such as Warren’s wealth tax, then, strike many of these people not just as a personal threat, but as being economically inefficient and morally problematic. It would take money away from the causes they have pursued and put it in the hands of less competent government bureaucrats.  

You can see this indignation in editorials over the past two weeks by Steven Rattner and Larry Summers, and in recent interview comments by Bill Gates and Jamie Dimon. Rattner argues that a Warren presidency would be “a terrifying prospect” and that her proposals amount to a “dirigiste, European-style system.” 

Summers argues that she has pushed our national discourse into “dangerous and uncharted territory.” And Gates appears to have left the door open to voting for Trump over Warren (though he may have been joking). Harsh words from a bunch of Democrats. And of course, there are now two billionaires seeking the Democratic nomination.


Warren has not aggressively responded to these critiques, and perhaps she shouldn’t. She may be gambling that she gains more than she loses by being attacked by the wealthy. But meritocratic elites are not all Scrooge McDuck-type characters. 

The trap that Markovitz refers to in his title is the role merit plays in our society. Americans are reluctant to take away money from people who’ve earned it. Yes, we take a dim view of inherited wealth and of the luxuries enjoyed by the upper class.

Yet meritocratic wealth is often taken as a sign of hard work and marketable skills. NBA fans may remember that when Michael Jordan negotiated a $30 million salary during his final season with the Chicago Bulls, sportswriters were quick to point out that he earned more money than that in revenue for the team; a smaller salary for Jordan would mean more money in the pocket of team’s owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who didn’t seem nearly as integral to the team’s fortunes as Jordan. Meritocratic elites see themselves as Jordans, not as Reinsdorfs, and often they can convince us of this too.

It’s not that Markovtiz wants to take us back to a time of aristocracy. He notes, however, that the aristocracy “gave champions of social justice an easy get.” They were politically vulnerable and needed to be prepared to give up some of their riches.

They couldn’t claim that they have earned their wealth through hard work, but they did claim that they had greater virtue than the common person. This might seem frivolous, but Markovitz argues that it wasn’t always false. Leisure can give some people the ability to do the right thing without regard for their own pocketbook. 

“Virtue” may be an antiquated word, but it is inescapable today that philanthropists are more self-interested, not to mention weirder and more idiosyncratic, than the Carnegies, Fords, and Rockefellers.

Arguments against meritocracy, then, often come off sounding like sour grapes, or like a call to return to a world of landed gentry and feudalism. Warren has, of course, been arguing for years that nobody gets rich on their own. What she didn’t add then, but perhaps should now, is that the people who really didn’t get rich on their own — and knew it — were more politically useful.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.