Hayes describes the United States as a country where the concept of meritocracy is deeply imbedded in our national psyche. Meritocracy might be simply summarized as the concept that the most capable will be rewarded for their skills and capabilities, regardless of irrelevant features such as wealth, ethnicity, race, or gender. Hayes tells us that meritocracy rests on two fundamental principles.
The first is the Principle of Difference:
The second is the Principle of Mobility:
This latter principle assumes that the capable poor will be able to rise to the top while the incompetent wealthy fall to the bottom. Note also that inequality of outcomes is a fundamental component of this process.
Given this description of the ideal of meritocracy, Hayes then invokes what he refers to as The Iron Law of Meritocracy:
Hayes uses Hunter College High School in Manhattan as an example of how meritocracy creates the conditions that pervert its fundamental principles.
Hunter is universally recognized as one of the best schools in the nation, and is an effective gateway to acceptance at top flight universities. Given the great variation in the quality of public school education across the neighborhoods of New York City, is it any wonder that those who can afford to, pay to get their children in elite preschools, in the best private grammar schools, and can provide the private lessons and tutoring classes that have sprung up to prepare students for the test. The result is not equality of opportunity as intended, but an educational process that favors the wealthy and their children.
Given that the city has a population that is 25 percent black and 27.5 percent Hispanic, it is rather hard to associate this process with equality of opportunity.
Hayes describes a comparable process that occurs in our elite colleges and universities.
"At least one third of the students at elite universities, and at least half at liberal arts colleges, are flagged for preferential treatment in the admissions process."
Hayes tells us that minorities are targeted to represent 10 to 15 percent of a typical student population, but the rest of the preferences are dominated by affluent whites: children of alumni or faculty, student athletes, children of celebrities and politicians, and a category referred to as "development cases."
Hayes claims that the Iron Law of Meritocracy will lead to ever greater inequality over time, a result that seems to be supported by the history of our recent decades.