Does a merit based society divide us into winners and losers?

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Merit-based success has long been celebrated in America —  the result most say of hard work and dedication. Those who achieve success typically enjoy the rewards: a better income, praise and recognition. Less talked about is the role of luck — like a natural born talent or timing and class. How do we reckon with a meritocratic society that is actually heavily stacked against those who are less fortunate? In his latest book “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” author Michael Sandel questions the concept of merit and how we value human excellence. Could the current pandemic provide an opportunity to truly reevaluate the dignity of the essential worker?

KCRW’s Joanthan Bastian talks with the Harvard University political philosophy professor about the ideals and myths of merit. 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Explain the origins of the word meritocracy and how it was thought to be the great equalizer?

Michael Sandel: “We think of meritocracy as an ideal; an ideal of a just society. The idea that, if chances could only be made equal, then people would advance based on merit and everyone would be able to rise as far as their talents and efforts would take them as the slogan goes. 

But despite its inspiring sound, it was actually coined in the late 1950s as a pejorative - as a warning. It was coined by a British sociologist Michael Young -  “The Rise of the Meritocracy”was a short book he wrote. This was at a time when the class system in Britain was breaking down in the years after the Second World War and more and more, it was thought that it would be possible to level the playing field and people would no longer be tied to their class of their birth. That was a good thing he recognized but he also glimpsed a dark side. 

He saw meritocracy actually as a dystopia because he predicted that eventually in a society where everyone's place and economic rewards match their merit, that the winners would consider that they had earned their place, that they deserved it and the losers, those who struggled would be demoralized, knowing they had had every chance and come up short. So he thought this was a recipe for social discord and sure enough, he glimpsed something that actually has unfolded in our time, because if we look at the last few decades, we see that the divide between winners and losers has been deepening. It's been poisoning our politics, driving us apart, not only because of the widening inequality, but also because of the attitudes towards success that have come with it. Those who've landed on top have come to believe that their success is their own doing, a measure of their merit and by implication that those who fall short must have no one to blame, but themselves. This, I think has contributed to the anger, the resentment, the sense of grievance that we've seen in this country that feeds the polarization and that that had a lot to do with the populist backlash against meritocratic elites.”

You were influenced in this book by someone called R.H. Tawney. Who was he and why is he so important on this issue?

Sandel: “R.H. Tawney was a British social democrat, writing in the 1930s. He wrote about the inequality of condition that he thought was a necessary supplement to equality of opportunity. Often when we have debates about equality for the most part in this country, we talk about equality of opportunity; a chance, not a result, but a chance to compete fairly, not to have anyone held back by disadvantage, class or racial or ethnic prejudice. That's the idea. 

But Tawney wrote, and I think he was right, that even if we could achieve perfect equality of opportunity, we would still fall short of a just society. He argued for something that I also argued for in the book, which is not a kind of equality of result, which some people think is the only alternative to equal opportunity, insisting that everyone has the same income and wealth, but something else; a broad, democratic equality of condition — which means that everyone has an opportunity to have access to education, to learning, and that there is a broad equality of esteem, where as democratic citizens, we can look one another in the eye and feel that we are engaged in a common life with mutual obligations for one another. I think that's the more generous ideal, that equality of opportunity, in a single minded focus on individual upward mobility, misses and falls short of.”

You wrote that the college educated had more bias against less educated people than they did against other disfavored groups. 

Sandel: “We can sense it intuitively, if we listen to the way people speak in politics, and the various cable television shouting matches and so on but some social psychologists have actually studied this and done surveys of college educated people in the U.S., in Britain and in several European countries. They gave the respondents a list of disfavored groups, groups traditionally discriminated against, including immigrants, African Americans, obese, the blind, various disabilities, all sorts of groups that suffer unjust discrimination. On the list, they also included the less well educated and it turns out that well educated, college educated respondents to these surveys, ranked the less well educated at the bottom and said that they like them the least. 

It's almost as if, even though we've not banished other forms of prejudice, at least, there's a general recognition that we should be embarrassed about it. Whereas credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice; the tendency to look down on those who haven't been to college. It shows up in our politics and it helps explain the sense of many working people that college educated elites, professional elites, meritocratic elites, look down on them, don't really respect the kind of work they do and the contributions they make.” 

How would you advise addressing this as a parent, what advice might you have for them?

Sandel: “I think that parents can, in very concrete ways, convey to our children, that however much we encourage them to work hard, to be conscientious, to expend effort and to apply themselves in their studies we also want them to interpret whatever success they have and also whatever setbacks they have, with an appreciation for the contingency in life, rather than coming to believe that their success is their own doing and that their failure is their fault. 

Here's a concrete illustration: take the great basketball player, LeBron James. He practices very hard, he tries hard, and yet his enormous success and the rewards he reaps are not due to effort alone. They're due in large part to the remarkable athletic gifts he has. We could ask our kids: is that his doing, that he is so gifted and has such athletic talent? Or is that, in large part, his good luck? And what about the fact that LeBron lives in a society that loves basketball and heaps enormous rewards on great basketball players? Is that his doing? Or is that also his good luck? If LeBron had lived back in the days of the Renaissance, they weren't all that interested in basketball back then. So he could be just as gifted but he wouldn't reap the enormous rewards he does in our society, because back then they cared more about fresco painters. 

So through examples, through moral teaching, through helping our our children interpret their own success and negotiate their own setbacks and failures, we can go a long way toward having them grow up with a sense of their good fortune when they succeed, the role of contingency whether they succeed or whether they struggle in this or that endeavor, and from this can come a certain humility. I think that humility is a civic virtue in very short supply these days but it can be the beginning of the way back, if we can summon it, from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart.”




Andrea Brody