The title character of Horatio Alger’s 1867 novel Ragged Dick is an illiterate New York bootblack who, bolstered by his optimism, honesty, industriousness, and desire to “grow up ’spectable,” raises himself into the middle class. Alger’s novels are frequently misunderstood as mere rags-to-riches tales. In fact, they recount their protagonists’ journeys from rags to respectability, celebrating American capitalism and suggesting that the American dream is within everyone’s reach. The novels were idealized, of course; even in America, virtue alone never guaranteed success, and American capitalism during Alger’s time was far from perfect. Nevertheless, the stories were close enough to the truth that they became bestsellers, while America became known as a land of opportunity—a place whose capitalist system benefited the hardworking and the virtuous. In a word, it was a meritocracy. …

But this rosy picture obscures a hard fact: meritocracy is a difficult principle to sustain in a democracy. Any system that allocates rewards on the basis of merit inevitably gives higher compensation to the few, leaving the majority potentially envious. In a democracy, the majority generally rules. Why should that majority agree to grant a minority disproportionate power and rewards?