American hierarchy justifies itself with a narrative of merit. People who work hard and take smart risks, who have a knack for knowing what goods and services are wanted where, naturally rise up the ranks, become wealthy and powerful, and are able to use their wealth to do social good (and to further enrich themselves in the process).
Setting aside the question of whether this meritocratic system is a good way to organize society, let’s address a different question: Does the US actually resemble the meritocratic system it claims to emulate?
(The answer is no. America is not a meritocracy.)
The most basic argument against this notion of American meritocracy is the lack of inter-generational economic mobility in the US. A person with poor parents in the US has a 47% chance of being poor as an adult. In Canada, that number is only 19%. Here’s a figure showing this number for seven more countries. As you can see, the US is much less mobile than comparable nations.
On the upper end of the wealth spectrum, information is harder to come by, but as far as I can tell, in America, the (familial) rich stay rich. According to respected economist Richard Reeves
There is intergenerational ‘stickiness’ at the bottom of the income distribution; but there is at least as much at the other end, and some evidence that the U.S. shows particularly low rates of downward mobility from the top.
This lack of social mobility seems to suggest that wealthy Americans are wealthy more as a result of familial wealth than because of their own merit (in the words of Elon Musk “Probability of progeny being equally excellent at capital allocation is not high”).
Still, one could argue that merit, in fact, is heritable: Low social mobility is the system working as it should; the poor stay poor because they’re lazy,; the rich stay rich because they work hard; Canada’s higher mobility is evidence of injustice (affirmative action gone awry); and so on. Social Darwinist arguments like these are repugnant and incorrect, but they do explain America’s lack of social mobility as well as any other theory, so different evidence is necessary to refute them. I’ll address this in another post.