Do we want to live in a meritocracy? | Politics books

TThe double shock of Donald Trump’s election and victory in a 2016 referendum left political commentators scrambling for an explanation. The blame was largely blamed on members of the arrogant liberal elite, who had become so convinced of their status and opinions that they ignored the growing discontent of their fellow citizens. Trump’s victory and Brexit, in their different ways, were both a cause and an opportunity for those “left behind” to back off.

There is a lot to this argument. In Western democracies, modern political parties of the center-left and the right have increasingly emphasized meritocracy as the basis upon which society must be organized. The promise of “equal opportunity”—which included a massive expansion of higher education—was that it would reduce the inequalities created by market economies. But too often the meritocratic reality was that the wealthy used their privilege to monopolize the most prestigious schools and universities, gaining qualifications that served as a ticket to success. Those without degrees witnessed their access to high-level jobs being banned. The super-rich are getting richer than ever while non-graduate earnings have stagnated.

Worst of all, the responsible wealthy now believed that they earned their privilege through mental strength and hard work, rather than inheritance. However, these highly qualified elites have left their states facing a series of unwinnable wars, a financial crisis, accelerated climate change, and rates of economic growth much lower than in the post-war decades.

However, there is no monopoly on error here. Those who voted for Trump and Brexit had a different but equally skeptical idea of ​​what meritocracy should look like. For example, voters who leave the vote are likely to take a hard line on the “undeserving” poor, who see their benefits as unearned, and on immigrants who “skip the waiting list” for housing. They may believe that their efforts deserve a greater reward and object to the advancement of people above and below them on the ladder. After becoming prime minister, Theresa May, speaking to Brexit voters, offered a “vision of truly meritocracy Britain… Ordinary working-class people… deserve a better deal”. Politicians on all sides talk about “people who work hard and play by the rules” while repeating Christian teaching.

The best post-revolutionary populist books, such as The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel, accept that current elites do not represent true merit, but take the debate further. Even if we could somehow organize society to ensure real equality of opportunity, and give everyone a chance to succeed, would we want that? After all, sociologist and politician Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” in his 1958 book, which he imagined leads to a dystopia where the elite with high IQs, sure their position was justified, imposed it on everyone else until a rebellion arose. . .

Sandel sees our talents as worth nothing more than the advantages conferred by wealthy, well-connected parents. They are also a birth accident. In her latest book, The Genetic Lottery, Catherine Page Harden notes that there is a one in 70 trillion chance that any child will come off the pool of their parents’ genetic material. None of us control the genes we are born with or the environment in which we are born. You might think that no matter what your natural talents are, you still have to work hard to achieve your successes. But it’s also our genes that help determine how conscientious we are, how well we can focus, and so on.

Sandel points out that the same reasoning applies even if you are religious and do not accept a purely biological account of human behavior. If your talents were endowed by an omnipotent deity, your accomplishments are no more due to your personal merits than if they were just a genetic accident.

But full acceptance of this logic is almost impossible. When Luther and Calvin strongly reaffirmed Augustine’s principle of salvation by grace alone, their followers found it impossible to believe that their actions made no difference to their eternal destiny, so they ended up seeing their good deeds as evidence of God’s plan to save them. They “deserve” it after all.

The same is true of our more secular world. While people might be able to accept Sandel and Harden’s reasoning in theory, it would be very difficult to organize society if people were not motivated in practice by the potential for reward for what they feel is their efforts. Both authors struggle to offer practical suggestions on how to reduce the focus on merit. Harden, writing for an American audience, only suggests the type of welfare state common in Europe, which, while clearly preferred, still leaves huge disparities. Sandel pushes for a redistribution of status based on civic and moral value rather than just financial success, which simply changes the definition of merit to one he’s more comfortable with.

The principle of meritocracy as an organizing principle is an imperative function of a free society. We are designed to see our accomplishments as worthy of reward and any politician who tried to suggest otherwise would not spend long in elected office. But the collection of books on the limits of merit is an important correction to the arrogance of contemporary merit and an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of luck or grace in our political thinking. The more we are able to accept our accomplishments largely outside of our control, the easier it becomes to understand that our own failures, and the failures of others, are too. This in turn increases our humility and the respect with which we treat our fellow citizens. Ultimately, as writer David Roberts said: “Building a more compassionate society means reminding ourselves of the luck, gratitude, and obligations that it implies.”

Sam Friedman is a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and a former advisorWhat about the education department?

in-depth reading

The tyranny of merit: what is the fate of the common good? By Michael Sandel (Penguin, £9.99)

The Genetic Lottery: Why the DNA of Social Equality Matters by Katherine Page Harden (Princeton, £25)

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Merit Made the Modern World by Adrian Wooldridge (Allen Lane, £25)

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