Success, Merit and Capital in America

87 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2017

See all articles by Eli Wald

Eli Wald

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Date Written: November 28, 2017


President Trump’s rallying cry, “Make America Great Again!” evokes nostalgia to an unspecified past, one in which jobs were plentiful and the American Dream was within reach for all, based solely on individual hard work and merit. This effective narrative, however, is inaccurate because it ignores the relationship between merit and capital. This Article argues that while attaining success is a function of hard work, individual effort and merit, it is also dependent on one’s endowments of social, cultural, identity and economic capital.

The importance of acknowledging the merit-capital interplay cannot be overstated. The impact of social, cultural, identity and economic capital on merit is often overlooked, especially in controversial debates over racial and gender equality, discrimination and affirmative action. To recognize the impact of capital on merit, capital analysis must be deployed. First, capital analysis requires capital transparency, revising the Dream’s narrative so it accurately depicts the role of capital in attaining success. Second, it necessitates developing methods to avoid confusing capital and merit. Third, it demands investing in and building the capital infrastructure of those with lower endowments so that all have an equal opportunity to pursue the Dream. To focus on the relationship between success, merit and capital without getting bogged down by the all-too-familiar gendered and racialized fault lines, the Article studies in detail the impact of capital on the American Dream of William Stoner, the protagonist in John Williams’ celebrated novel, Stoner. The Stoner case study, exploring the successes and failures of a Caucasian male English professor, demonstrates that those well-endowed with capital assets are more likely to succeed whereas those lacking capital endowments are more likely to fail, and exposes the inherent limitations of hard work, individual effort and merit that are unaccompanied by capital. It shows that commitment to the American Dream and equality requires attention and a systemic response to the impact capital has on merit. Building on the case study, the Article develops the counters of capital analysis and examines the complex interplay of merit and capital to explain success and failure in America.

Making America great again cannot be about returning to a nostalgic and fictional era in which hard work, individual effort and merit were sufficient conditions for a successful pursuit of the Dream. Rather, making America great again must entail acknowledging the merit-capital interplay and the ways in which social, cultural, identity and economic capital influence merit and thus success.

Suggested Citation

Wald, Eli, Success, Merit and Capital in America (November 28, 2017). Marquette Law Review, Vol. 101, No. 1, 2017; U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-40. Available at SSRN: or

Eli Wald (Contact Author)

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States


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