Demerits of Merit

Greater Kashmir

When racial and sexual injustices have been reduced, we shall still be left with the great injustice of the “smart” and the “dumb”, who are so differently rewarded for comparable effort.Thomas Nagel

The paranoiac response to the Pandemic, the delusional convictions in agency and self-determination, a growing sense of cultural dislocation and a belly-full diet of empty political rhetoric: these are strange times, made stranger by our misdiagnosis and chasing of chimeras. Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard political philosopher, couldn’t have written his new book at a more fitting time. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good lifts the veil over popular hypocrisy, and reads the zeitgeist so well that we are convinced to reckon with the faults in our understandings and valuations.

Sandel attempts to explain the background dynamics of some of the important realities confronting us: meritocracy, elitism in education, diminishing dignity of work and the populist backlash. What connects all these is the discourse on distributive justice, a means to common good. The Coronavirus Pandemic demonstrated the existence of common good and underlined the importance of solidarity. But Sandel laments the continuing “technocratic way of conceiving public good and meritocratic way of defining winners and losers”. All this has narrowed the scope of democratic argument.

Downside of Meritocracy

Michael Young, the author of The Rise of the Meritocracy had warned us in 1958 itself about “meritocracy being a recipe for social discord”. There is a triumphalist aspect to meritocracy, brewing a toxic mix of hubris among “winners” and resentment among “losers”–both seen as legitimate with a smug conviction. Meritocracy has hardened into a hereditary aristocracy as economic/social advantages and disadvantages are carried from one generation to the next. This renders the rhetoric of rising and opportunity as hollow.

Aristocracy instigated the “Politics of Injustice”, where the protest was directed outwards. Meritocracy, on the other hand, has led to the “Politics of disillusionment”, where the protest is directed inwards. This proves utterly demoralising. If it is better to be rich in a meritocracy, it is better to be poor in an aristocracy. Credentialism is the last accepted prejudice, and the “open competition” obscures many deep-rooted discriminations–both of these being leitmotifs of meritocracy.

Meritocratic ideal is about mobility, not equality, and a good society cannot be premised only on the promise of escape. Thus, equality of opportunity (which meritocracy boasts of) is a remedial principle, not an adequate ideal for a just society.

Flawed education system

According to Professor Sandel, our educational institutions (especially colleges and universities) have become sorting machines, which entrench privileges and reinforce condescending attitudes. The civic purpose of educating future citizens as members of political democracy is relegated secondary to this sorting function. This is undoubtedly unhealthy for democracy. What we see is not just valorisation of college degree, but also weaponisation of college credentials. We are accosted by the big diploma and degree divide!

Education is offered as a solution to all problems, and as Christopher Hayes argues, “education system is being forced to do the heavy-lifting” of saving us from slipping down the slopes of mini-hierarchies. No wonder we have been overwhelmed by the “epidemic of over-parenting or helicopter-parenting”. Anxious parents, obsessed with their kids’ success, have turned parenting into a form of “product development”. 

Moreover, how can we miss the elitism in education. Two-third students at Ivy League Schools come from the top 20% of income scale (recall the William Singer admission scandal of 2019). On the other hand, there is a woeful underinvestment in the form of education which is needed by a majority of workforce, like vocational training and skill development.

Dignity of work

Meritocracy is not as much about riches, as it is about prestige. Bankers, financiers and Wall Street speculators not only earn hundreds of times more than a factory worker, but also enjoy tremendous respect in the society. This is disgraceful for an ordinary worker, who arguably contributes more to the common good than a share broker. He has come to realise of late that society doesn’t seem to honour the skills he has to offer, and thus his work is not appreciated and recognised. Apart from the alienation and “deaths by despair”, it has led to the anger being directed towards the elites.

Unfortunately, most of us have little understanding of the discontent among the working class, and this discontent gets easily miscommunicated as xenophobia or racism. The populist backlash doesn’t only bemoan job losses, but symbolises a protest against the technocratic approach to politics–tone-deaf to resentments of people. It is not about wages, it is about social esteem, as work is a source of social recognition, purpose, meaning and identity. The aim is to recreate the “Public Sphere”. Professor Sandel rightly calls for “Contributive Justice” in addition to “Distributive Justice”, so that work regains its rightful dignity.

To end with, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good speaks to us: for all our strivings, we are not fully self-made or self-sufficient. “The grace of God, the accident of fortune and the lottery of birth” do make a difference. It is a clarion call towards cultivating civic sensibilities, gratitude and humility. Michael J. Sandel is truly a “rockstar moralist”. Let’s give him that distinction.