The Tyranny of Merit

Like Michael Young, Michael Sandel frames his critique of meritocracy in terms of a populist backlash against elite condescension but also (hot off the press and presumably added at the last minute) in terms of the botched response to the current global COVID pandemic. Focusing on the United States, he argues that the country was stymied not only by logistical issues or lack of political will to implement the required measures to combat infection. It was, furthermore and more importantly, “not morally prepared for the pandemic” (4). Whereas a coherent response to Coronavirus required solidarity, the USA was laid low by the discovery that this was a sentiment in short supply. Over decades, any sense of social solidarity has been eroded on the one hand by rising inequality fueled by neoliberal globalization and on the other hand by a “toxic mix of hubris and resentment” (5) that Sandel sees as the result of the entrenchment of meritocratic values throughout the body politic.

As such, seeking a culprit for the current woes of the United States, Sandel indicts less Trump than his liberal predecessors, such as Bill Clinton and, perhaps surprisingly, Barack Obama above all. Trump and Trumpism, he argues, are merely the unwelcome harvest of seeds sown long ago by a generation of center-left as well as center-right politicians who pushed equality of opportunity as the compensation for economic transformation, without considering those who, for whatever reason, were unable to take advantage of the opportunities they were given.

For, however level the playing field, meritocracy still envisages losers as well as winners. The difference is that the winners in a meritocratic system are told that they deserve their success, which is a result of their talents and hard work (rather than the accident of fortune). Conversely, the losers are told–and the more perfect the meritocracy, the more they are also likely to believe–that they, in turn, deserve their failures, which come from their lack of talent or their laziness. Rather than protesting the injustice of their lot, those at the bottom of the meritocratic pile tend to feel humiliated, left only to nurse their lack of self-esteem. Moreover, their misfortunes elicit little sympathy or solidarity from those who have done better in life. If everyone started with the same chances in life, the poor have nobody to blame but themselves.

This stigmatization of failure, and its psychological internalization by those who fail to rise to the opportunities they are offered, is the converse of the meritocratic faith that those who rise to the top should be those who deserve to do so. The losers in life’s race are doubly afflicted: not only are they left behind; they are also told they brought it on themselves. They are both victims and culprits of their own demise. Hence a politics of (sometimes violent) resentment, and the attraction of somebody like Trump, who tells them that he knows what it feels like to be called a loser, and how much it hurts. And hence, incidentally, how counter-productive it is for Trump’s foes to brand him a loser, or laugh at his mistakes: it is precisely thanks to that branding and that elite condescension that meritocracy’s underclass recognize Trump as one of their own.

Not that meritocracy’s victims are only those at the bottom of the pack. Sandel argues, especially in his discussion of higher education, that those on top are also afflicted, forever running to stand still as the stakes of every competition become higher and higher. Hence the way in which high school becomes an exercise in CV-building, with tutors and extra-curricular activities indulged in only to increase the ever-slimmer chances of making it to the elite universities that seem to hold the keys to future success. All this under the watchful eye of helicopter parents ready to fly in to ensure that their precious offspring really do fulfil their potential as surely as the meritocrats promise they can. Then at college itself, students have no time to rest on their laurels, as they dedicate their all to improving their GPAs, making the Dean’s List, and moving on to the most prestigious Law School or Medical Program. Especially at the most elite institutions (such as Harvard, where Sandel teaches), university has been transformed into “basic training for a competitive meritocracy. [. . .] The sorting and striving crowd out teaching and learning” (182). If anything, these are the last places to go if you want anything like an education, or the chance to reflect on what Sandel calls “the common good,” a concept long since abandoned in these bastions of excellence.

To remedy these ills, and to restore a lost sense of social solidarity, Sandel offers two proposals, one rather more concrete than the other. First, to give higher education back its meaning, and to rescue it from its fate as the key institution in the conveyer belt that is meritocratic sorting and measurement, he suggests that admission to college–especially its most elite echelons–should be determined by lottery rather than competition. He does admit that there should be some basic threshold, and allows some possible tweaks to the lottery system to enable (say) affirmative action or even the continuation of legacy privileges, but he argues that everyone stands to gain–those who are admitted, those who are not admitted, and the institutions themselves–if access to higher education were to be seen as a happy accident rather than the end-all and be-all of success to which the young dedicate all their time and their talents.

Second and somewhat more vaguely, Sandel insists on the need to accord due dignity to work. His point is that the contribution of the working class to fulfilling social needs is increasingly unrecognized. To add to the fact that ordinary, non-college-educated men and women are disparaged for their failures to measure up to meritocratic ideals, the value of what they do do is frequently ignored or taken for granted. Liberal programs (welfare, for instance) that attempt to enact a distributive justice frame the poor as simply recipients of state aid, passing over their myriad contributions to society. Sandel argues therefore for a what he terms a contributive justice that allows people to feel that they are part of a broader project on more or less equal terms.

The specific policy proposals that Sandel suggests might help shift our perspective on our fellow citizens from seeing them as simply consumers (whether of market goods or state hand-outs) to producers include changes in tax law–a Tobin tax on financial transactions that do not materially contribute to the economy, for instance, or a move from taxing payroll to higher taxes on consumption and capital gains–or perhaps a wage subsidy for low-paid workers. One might add to this list, for instance by suggesting that macroeconomic policy should be less blasé about structural unemployment, or that we might revive the type of public works projects and work programs that Roosevelt’s New Deal rolled out during the Great Depression. (Strangely, FDR doesn’t get much of a mention in this book, despite its attention to the rhetoric of US Presidents; if Obama is the surprise villain of the piece, if anything it’s the Kennedys who come closest to coming out as heroes.) Yet the mere mention of unemployment points to the fact that Sandel’s claim for the dignity of work is undoubtedly the weak point in his argument.

Do not, after all, the unemployed also contribute to society? What about the disabled? Or children, or pensioners? Moreover, putting work at the center of our notion of engaged citizenship is a strange move for an argument that claims to oppose meritocracy. For merit, after all, is not just a matter of talent or credentials, even under the current meritocratic dispensation; it is also a matter of effort. As the narrator of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy puts it, “Intelligence and effort together make up merit (I+E=M). The lazy genius is not one” (84). Yet Sandel seems to want to cut away one pillar of the meritocracy–so-called intelligence–while leaving the other pillar intact. In the terms of the religious debates that he (quite interestingly) surveys, despite his attachment to the notion of grace as undeserved redemption, he ends up preaching a doctrine that sounds very much like salvation through work(s). If, as he notes, merit always has a tendency to creep back in through the side door to edge out grace, it is in his drive to accord dignity to labor that this process is repeated in his own argument.

In any case, the erosion of the “dignity of work” is not merely a matter of elite condescension. It might equally be seen as a nascent consciousness of the reality of alienation. Work is indeed often bullshit (as anthropologist David Graeber points out). And even when it is not, we seldom work on terms that we ourselves choose. The enthusiasm with which the contributions of so-called essential workers (from nurses and hospital porters to teachers and lorry drivers and supermarket shelf-stackers) have been belatedly recognized during the current pandemic, with the nightly cheers to their efforts marking the first lockdown last Spring, is poor compensation for the fact that they continue, on the whole, to be not only underpaid but also exploited, their labour power commodified and measured out in terms of socially-necessary labour time (to use the Marxist jargon). Merely noting, and even celebrating, the fact that their labour is indeed socially necessary does nothing to alter the ongoing reality of their exploitation.

Indirectly, however, Sandel’s book point to another argument: a claim made perhaps most famously by Marx’s son-in-law, the Cuban-born Frenchman Paul Lafargue, who in 1883 published the manifesto The Right to be Lazy. Lafargue urges the proletariat to “return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and more sacred than the anaemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution. It must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting.” Do what you have to do, but do it fast and sloppily if needs be; reserve the rest of your time for enjoyment and relaxation. An entire tradition of the refusal of work has elaborated on this standpoint.

Sandel’s book (perhaps inadvertently) points to something similar in that it strikes this reader, at least, as rather hastily put together, and not simply in the rushed mentions of the current pandemic that top and tail it. Throughout, The Tyranny of Merit is full of repetitions with only minor (and sometimes absolutely minimal) variation; the same points are made over and again, the same figures and statistics reappear as though the author were trying to pad out what would otherwise be an incisive article so as to turn it into something acceptable to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Moreover, the research on which the book is based seems to rely heavily on Google and other Internet search engines: not simply in that almost all its references are to online material, or the ways in which it uses rather simplistically Google Books Ngram statistics on word frequency, but also in the way it mines the public database of US presidential speeches compiled by UC Santa Barbara’s “American Presidency Project” rather than undertaking a more systematic or nuanced analysis of the ways in which historical discourses emerge and evolve.

At times all this is frustrating, and it is tempting to say that the book was more effective in its earlier incarnation as an eight-and-a-half-minute TED talk, itself a format perhaps more suited to a meritocratic age. But I like to think that Sandel is in fact winking at us, telling us that really the illusion of merit is all that matters, and that we should relax a little and not take our work all that seriously.

The Rise of the Meritocracy

Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy is a strange little book, more akin to a dystopian novel than to a work of sociology (though of course all dystopian novels encode some kind of critique of contemporary society). Published in 1958 but set in 2034, it purports to be a work of historical sociology tracing not just the rise of meritocracy, a term that Young coins here, over the long period from 1870 to 2033, but also its crisis. There may be much that Young’s futurology gets wrong, but surely one thing he gets very right is the prediction that some day meritocrats would face a populist backlash that could even end in violence. (In a note to the book’s final sentence we learn that its narrator has died amid the disturbances, and that this is therefore a posthumous publication.) Have we not seen something of that in the events at the US Capitol a couple of days ago? If anything, Young’s dystopian future has come to fruition a decade or so earlier than he anticipated, in 2021 rather than in 2034.

Yet the difference between Young’s critique of meritocracy and the rejection of expertise that characterises not only Trumpism but also (say) Brexit and COVID denialism is that whereas the current populist insurgency is firmly aligned with right-wing politics, often viciously chauvinist and nationalist, by contrast Young imagines meritocracy to be brought down by a fundamentally left-wing (even feminist) protest against its anti-egalitarian injustices. (We are told that the narrator dies at a public meeting at Peterloo, in clear resonance with the Peterloo massacre of 1819, in which the army repressed a crowd gathered to demand that parliamentary representation be democratized.) It is a sign of the distance between our times and Young’s that it is hard to imagine today the struggle against meritocracy to be a progressive cause, so much has the erstwhile left tied itself to its banners.

The particulars of Young’s futurology also (naturally enough) reflect his own British post-war context more than they resonate with today’s political or social realities. For instance, he envisages the continued relevance of state planning, and can hardly imagine the ways in which the market has effectively supplanted the state in so many areas of life. So although he recognizes that meritocracy means that the school and university become ever more the key institutions of social reproduction (think of that uber-meritocrat Tony Blair’s famous slogan, “Education, education, education”), and even predicts both the exhaustion of the comprehensive system and the increasing prevalence of testing at every younger ages, he somewhat bizarrely foresees the withering away of the private sector where what we have instead seen has been the wholesale marketization of public education as schooling has been firmly painted as a private rather than a public good.

At the same time, though Young no doubt correctly envisages the declining relevance of the House of Commons, as meritocracy eats away at democracy, he (perhaps fancifully) portrays the House of Lords taking its place at the center of the parliamentary system, missing the rise of the executive and the triumph of various forms of presidentialism even in notionally parliamentary democracies such as the UK (and again, Blair and Blairism are no doubt paradigmatic here).

Yet for all its failings, and perhaps because of as much as despite its somewhat quaint air, it is worth returning to Young, not least to shock us out of the meritocratic “common sense” that grips us. Merit, which Young defines here as a combination of intelligence and effort, is firmly entrenched as a supreme virtue not only on the left but also, in the form of a valorization of entrepreneurialism, on the right. It is the shibboleth of our times, so much so that few believe it can be questioned: they assume that arguments against meritocracy can only be framed in terms of the fact that “equality of opportunity” has yet to be achieved by many (minorities, women, the poor, or whoever), and so what is needed is for merit to be more, rather than less, perfectly recognized and rewarded. But Young’s dystopia is in fact a fully realized meritocracy: he takes aim at the ideal itself, rather than the obstacles that lie in its path; he is against equality of opportunity, which he opposes in the name of the rather more radical notion of equality, plain and simple.

It is in the nature of any book that goes so against the grain of prevalent common sense that it is misread and misunderstood. In later years, Young felt the need to add a supplementary introduction, in his own voice rather than that of his narrator, to point out that he was arguing against rather than in favour of meritocracy, a point that the satirical tone also perhaps obscures much as some readers apparently felt that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (which argued that the eighteenth-century Irish could alleviate their economic woes by selling their children as food for the rich) was somehow a serious proposition. Yet the term that he coined is still almost universally presented as utopian model rather than, as here, dystopian warning.

It is also in the nature of the book’s satirical genre that Young’s alternative to meritocracy is seldom articulated. But it is here, and it comes in the form of a Manifesto that is imagined to have been published in the early 2000s, and which deserves to be quoted at length:

The classless society would be one which both possessed and acted upon plural values. Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation, and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes superior to the lorry-driver with unusual skill at growing roses? The classless society would also be the tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for living a rich life. (159)

This is the firmly egalitarian left-wing critique of meritocracy, and it should surely be revived.