In this article, I develop the point that whereas talent is the basis for desert, talent itself is not meritocratically deserved. It is produced by three processes, none of which are meritocratic: (1) talent is unequally distributed by the rigged lottery of birth, (2) talent is defined in ways that favor some traits over others, and (3) the market for talent is manipulated to maximally extract advantages by those who have more of it. To see how, we require a sociological perspective on economic rent. I argue that talent is a major means through which people seek rent in modern-day capitalism. Talent today is what inherited land was to feudal societies; an unchallenged source of symbolic and economic rewards. Whereas God sanctified the aristocracy’s wealth, contemporary privilege is legitimated by meritocracy. Drawing on the work of Gary Becker, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jerome Karabel, I show how rent-seeking in modern societies has come to rely principally on rent-definition and creation. Inequality is produced by the ways in which talent is defined, institutionalized, and sustained by the moral deservingness we attribute to the accomplishments of talents. Consequently, today’s inequalities are as striking as ever, yet harder to challenge than ever before.
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