Tyranny of Merit

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* Book: The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel. Allen Lane, September 2020



Richard King:

"Sandel is especially informative here. His book takes the long view of meritocracy (and of US-style meritocracy in particular), charting the relationship between puritanical attitudes to work in the sixteenth century and the emergence of capitalism in Northern Europe, in much the same vein as Max Weber’s opus, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). In essence it is the story of how striving and effort effectively drove out luck and grace as the measure of ‘merit’ in early-modern Europe, and of how our contemporary ideas of success mirror puritanical ideas of salvation – i.e. as something we earn through our own effort. As Sandel puts it:

This is the heart of the meritocratic ethic. It celebrates freedom – the ability to control my destiny by dint of hard work – and deservingness. If I am responsible for having accrued a handsome share of worldly goods – income and wealth, power and prestige – I must deserve them. Success is a sign of virtue. My affluence is my due.

It is a short step from here to the ‘prosperity theology’ that celebrates wealth as the manifestation of superior virtue, and Sandel notes too the way this equation plays out at the national level, as the link between US prosperity/power and its ‘providential’ role in history. The US is great because it is good, and God help those who get in its road.

Sandel’s case against meritocracy is in two parts. The first turns on the question of luck and fairness. Meritocracy claims to reward individuals according to their abilities; but since we are not responsible for such abilities as we are born with, nor for the fact that we are born into societies that happen to value those abilities, it isn’t morally clear why the people who possess them should be rewarded for their successes. Ian Thorpe may have been a dutiful trainer, but he also has feet like paddle-blades, and happens to have been born in Australia, which reveres its top-flight swimmers as heroes. And what goes for the Thorpedo goes too for the doctor or college professor with the high IQ: since cognitive ability appears to be partly hereditary, their success cannot be attributed to striving alone.

The second part of Sandel’s case against meritocracy is the more serious one and goes to the ‘tyranny’ of his title. This is the idea that meritocracy, even if it could be shown to be fair, would not produce a ‘good’ society, because its effect is to rationalise inequality, creating a presumption that people get what they deserve and thus deepening the gap between rich and poor. It passes judgment, in other words, making the ‘winners’ arrogant and the ‘losers’ despair. Thus Scott Morrison’s folksy mantra, ‘if you have a go, you get a go’ is not merely congruent with the social violence evinced in something like the ‘Robodebt’ scandal; it makes such violence possible. Even in the hands of more caring administrations, meritocracy is a brutal creed. As Young put it himself in a piece in The Guardian, written at the height of the ‘New Labour’ experiment, ‘It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none.’

Because the essence of modern meritocracy is the link between education and striving, one of its key social manifestations is the phenomenon of ‘credentialism’ – the belief that academic or other formal qualifications are the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job. For both Sandel and Goodhart, one effect of this belief has been to undermine the dignity associated with other forms of work, which is to say work requiring less in the way of cognitive thinking skills. Without necessarily aiming to, politicians and opinion makers assist in this process of undermining, sprinkling their speeches and articles with language that implicitly reveres the cognitive over the manual or emotional. (Sandel notes in particular the prominence of the adjective ‘smart’, as in ‘smartphones’, ‘smart cars’, ‘smart bombs’ etc.) Whereas in the past such public figures may have reached for a different language of judgment, based on alternative evaluative contrasts (just versus unjust, free versus unfree, strong versus weak, open versus closed), today ‘the reigning evaluative contrast’ (Sandel) is between intelligence and unintelligence. Such language is implicitly technocratic, since the ‘smart thing to do almost always points to a prudential or self-interested reason that does not depend on moral considerations’. Nevertheless, it disguises a harsh judgment – one that marginalises other forms of work and fuels prejudice against less educated members of society.

Sandel is a philosopher in the communitarian tradition. As such he is a shrewd critic of liberal ideas, and one of the most impressive things about The Tyranny of Merit is the forensic way it anatomises different traditions within liberalism. In particular it demonstrates how these traditions tend to give rise to meritocratic attitudes, even where the tradition in question ostensibly rejects merit as an organising principle (as, for example, both Hayekian neoliberalism and some forms of social liberalism do). But its most important contribution is the way it sets out a different basis for valuing work and the people that do it. Taking issue in particular with the ‘distributive justice’ model of liberalism associated with the philosopher John Rawls, Sandel suggests that what people want is not only more material equality but also a sense that they are contributing to society, and are respected for doing so. This is the basis for what he calls ‘contributive justice’, and it meets the central problem, as he sees it, of Rawls’ rather bloodless ‘welfare liberalism’, which is that it is unable to establish a moral principle compelling or robust enough to generate the sort of social solidarity needed for social democracy to flourish. By contrast, Sandel’s ‘producer-centred ethic’ sees work as ‘a socially integrating activity’ – an ‘arena of recognition’ through which we honour our obligations to one another. It suggests that ‘we are most fully human when we contribute to the common good and earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contributions we make’.

For Sandel, and for others in the communitarian tradition, even social liberalism concedes too much to its classical progenitor, reproducing liberalism’s principal error (which is also, historically, its greatest strength) – its emphasis on the individual. For Sandel, our sociality is prior to our individuality, and the way we view work should reflect that fact. Work is not merely a means to an end; it is an irreducible aspect of our humanity in that it allows us to meet what he describes as ‘the fundamental human need to be needed’." (https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/sandel-goodhart-bunting/?)


Richard King:

"Both books are concerned with what Goodhart calls ‘cognitive meritocracy’ – a useful phrase in that it links a moral system to a particular form of work, which is linked in turn to a particular period of socioeconomic change. For both Sandel and Goodhart, this moral system has eroded social solidarity, increased inequality and precipitated the rise of rightwing populism. We need, writes Sandel, a ‘reckoning’ with it, as part of a broader recalibration of status and value with respect to labour."

The story of the concept of ‘meritocracy’ has been well rehearsed in recent times, largely because of the way in which inequality and precarity have exposed its weaknesses. But some are still surprised to learn that the idea was conceived in the spirit of social satire, not the spirit of idealism. Its originator was the British socialist and sociologist Michael Young, whose 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy purported to be a history of Britain told from the year 2033. Writing at a time when the old British class system, and the logic that sustained it, was beginning to break down, Young saw how the emerging idea of a merit-based society – one in which ‘IQ + effort’ would come to replace nepotism and patronage – would appeal to many working class people eager to escape manual, poorly-paid work. But he also saw how that emerging system would give rise to a new moral logic, in which inequalities of wealth were justified on the grounds of individual endeavour. ‘Without defending the class-bound order that was passing,’ writes Sandel, ‘Young suggested that its moral arbitrariness and manifest unfairness at least had this desirable effect: It tempered the self-regard of the upper class and prevented the working class from viewing its subordinate status as personal failure.’ Moreover, knowing the system was rigged allowed the working class to oppose it – indeed to oppose it as a class (hence the old working-class imperative to rise with your class, not above it). For Young, ‘the meritocracy’ would afford no such recourse. It would leave the working class ‘morally naked’.

To call The Rise of the Meritocracy prophetic would be to understate the point, given that it actually furnished liberalism with the concept it needed to liberate capitalism from its more hidebound associations. Framed as a riposte to upper-class entitlement, the concept found its fullest articulation, not under the right-neoliberal governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but under the centre-left governments of Paul Keating, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder, which could draw on their commitment to state education and training as a way to square the circle between a broadly neoliberal economics and a more egalitarian ethos. Thus the shifting of risk (‘flexibility’) from employer to employee could be characterised as aspiration, and education linked to striving, as in Clinton’s oft-repeated couplet, ‘The more you learn, the more you earn.’ As Thomas Frank demonstrates in Listen, Liberal (2016), one effect of this process has been to tie progressive politics to the professional classes – an association that reached its zenith with Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency, in which the candidate’s smarts were deployed rhetorically to yoke together a technocratic program and ‘lean-in’-style identity politics. To no avail, as it turned out.

Why so? One reason, surely, is that the meritocratic society envisaged by its early spruikers simply hasn’t come to pass. Nor could it, in a society where family wealth and various forms of prejudice continue to exert such influence. True, political scientists such as Charles Murray have argued that meritocracy is compatible with low social mobility, citing the heritability of intelligence and ‘assortative mating’ as stabilising factors (Goodhart flirts with this idea, which is essentially that intelligent people tend to marry other intelligent people and therefore to produce intelligent kids). But this is a long way from what the avatars of Third Way politics signed up to, or asked their electorates to sign up to, when they insisted that their priorities were ‘education, education, education’ (Blair) or assured laid-off workers in the American Midwest that they’d be retrained as computer programmers now that their jobs had been off-shored (Clinton). As Sandel notes, there is currently more social mobility in China than in the US. At least the American Dream is alive somewhere.

So, such meritocracy as we have is either imperfect or self-defeating. But for Sandel and Goodhart, and indeed for Young, it is less the possibility of meritocracy than the principles underlying it that are significant, given that its central aim is not to eradicate material inequality but to justify it in the name of ‘equality of opportunity’. Even if it were possible to create a level playing field in the mountainous regions of late capitalism, it would still leave countless people on the sidelines, nursing insults as well as injuries." (https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/sandel-goodhart-bunting/?)