In the book The Tyranny of Merit, the renowned Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel sets out to explore the origins of the recent populist sentiment in Western democracies.
How can we explain the public distrust in social, economic and social institutions that we see in the West?
Both Brexit and the recent presidential elections in the United States point towards the fact that many people no longer believe the stories about upward mobility and economic success that are continually reinforced in popular culture. It is clear that trust in the credibility of many of our institutions, experts and decision makers has been eroding.
The Problem: How Did We Get Here?
Sandel’s diagnosis of these issues stem from our unwavering support in the meritocratic system that governs our society. The belief that individuals, regardless of the social standing in which they are born, can rise as far as their talents can take them. A validation of the ‘rags to riches’ stories that are well known in our public consciousness.
As inequalities of wealth and income rise in many developed countries, and social mobility stagnates, we begin to see the dark side of this meritocratic ideal. It entrenches and justifies the pride of the ‘winners’ while solidifying the guilt and shame of the least well off. Moreover, those who achieve success tend to see their lot as a direct result of their own doing. It emboldens them with a sense of meritocratic hubris, which can lead them to look down those who have less social standing.
The meritocratic logic is that everyone deserves what they get.
You may object that people’s social standing and wealth is justified because our society permits upward mobility and rewards hard work. Where one ends up is ultimately their responsibility.
Of course, there is truth to that statement. However, Sandel recognizes the impediments people face when aiming to move up the social ladder. Namely, those who have existing wealth and power often mold the system in their favor. This occurs most explicitly when those with the means to do so can buy their kids way into elite colleges. We saw this with the college admissions cheating scandal. Moreover, having access to the right connections, social and community support, and better schooling gives some individuals an inherent advantage over others.
Irrespective of how well our societies enable enable upward mobility, Sandel’s main thesis is to question the ideal of meritocracy in and of itself.
Let’s look at two problems he identifies.
1.The Role of Luck
While our hard work and ambition play a role in our success, we can’t ignore the arbitrariness of several key elements that are out of our control. We don’t choose whether we are born into a wealthy or poor family, our family upbringing or genetics. Random life events sometimes can either provide us with good fortune or derail our long-sought after plans.
Grit and determination do matter. However, isn’t it also true that one can work tirelessly long hours and not see the lucky break that they deserve?
In addition, we can’t claim credit for the particular talents society values. The book looks at the case of Lebron James. As a super basketball player living in a society that rewards the game of basketball, he is generously rewarded for his talents ($42 million/year to be exact). But, if Lebron was born in Renaissance Florence, a period of time which valued artists, sculptors and fresco paintings, his talents as an elite basketball player wouldn’t pay off financially.
2. A Question of Value(s)
Economists will claim that the most efficient way to financially reward individuals is to allocate their income in a way that aligns with the supply and demand of the market. However, efficient outcomes are not necessarily ethical or just. They don’t always align with our values and morals.
The hit TV show Breaking Bad looks at the story of Walter White. It assesses his transformation from a modest earning high school teacher to a high-income narcotics dealer. Although the market rewards him for being a drug dealer, we wouldn’t say that this profession creates more value to society than that of a high school teacher.
His new job as a drug dealer in fact leaves people worse off through addictions and damage to the health of others. The point is the market makes no ethical judgements- it is morally neutral. It doesn’t tell us what contributes to the common good.
A recent example to highlight this idea is the discrepancy between market rewards and morals is in the 2008 financial crisis. Many financiers profited off the vulnerability of others by knowingly selling risky investments. The speculation bubble popped, leaving the average person to loose a lot of money while enriching the bankers through the ‘too big to fail’ bailouts.
Contributive Justice and the Common Good
To be clear Sandel is not advocating to a return to earlier forms of social organization. What he is ultimately attempting to do is to get us to rethink success and the contributions our work provides to common good.
He is trying to restore the dignity of work.
He makes it clear that every job, especially those ‘low-skill’ workers that we look down upon, is fulfilling the essential needs of society. This sentiment is nicely summed up by Martin Luther King Jr.,
One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant
The book goes beyond mere technocratic policy solutions. Sandel wants to begin a dialogue about how we can restore social solidarity and community by respecting the significance that others provide our society through their work.
He wants to question the assumption that ‘value’ is confined to economics, arguing that it should be something the public sphere should weigh in on.
I remember my first essay in university was a reflection on Winston Churchill’s famous quote “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”
I feel the same way about meritocracy. Sandel exposes the issues with it as an ideal and as it plays out in the real world. However, it is not clear what would be a better organizing system for society.
In the final analysis, whether you agree with the book’s critiques, it provides a good starting point for us to think more critically about the dignity of work. Work is not only a means for us to earn a living, but something that provides us with self-esteem, a sense of worth and social recognition.
In the age of the pandemic, perhaps we all can start appreciating how valuable those ‘essential workers’ really are.
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