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Here’s why everyone should read ‘The Tyranny of Merit’

I grew up believing that opportunities in life – from job to everything else – should be merit-based. May be you did too. This book challenges all of that. When you do read the book, I hope you find the arguments as fascinating as I did. Let me take you through some of them.

Meritocracy or the idea / philosophy that society should allocate economic rewards according to merit is appealing for two primary reasons – efficiency and fairness. As per the meritocratic ethic, we do not deserve to be rewarded, or held back, based on factors beyond our control. So far so good. But wait a second, do you notice the contradiction? Is having (or lacking) certain talents really our own doing? And if not, is meritocracy really all that ‘fair’?

All of us will agree that our having this talent or that is not our doing. It’s just a matter of luck. We do not merit or ‘deserve‘ the benefits (or burdens) that derive from luck. But what about those of us who ‘work hard‘? Talent or luck is not everything, right? Really? Just look around at any poor person – your maid, your driver, the guy who delivers you Swiggy or Amazon. Do you really believe they don’t work as hard as you do?

For decades, meritocratic elites have believed and propagated the mantra of the “rhetoric of rising” – those who work hard and play by the rules deserve to rise as far as their talents and dreams will take them.

But the same elites often fail to notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising is less a promise, and more a taunt!

In the book, the author sums up the issue beautifully (an eye opener for me): the meritocratic ideal is about mobility, not equality. And that’s where the problem lies. Meritocracy does not say there is anything wrong with yawning gaps between rich and poor; it only insists that the children of the rich and the children of the poor should be able to, over time, swap places based on merits. How often does that happen though?

In reality, the explosion of inequality in recent decades has not at all quickened upward mobility! To the contrary, it has enabled those on top, to consolidate their advantages and pass on to their children. Today’s meritocracy has hardened into hereditary aristocracy.

The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.

There is another consequence – under conditions of rampant inequality and stalled mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate (“rhetoric of responsibility”) and deserve what we get, erodes and demoralizes those who get left behind. The principle of merit can easily take a tyrannical turn, not only when societies fail to live up to it, but also – indeed especially – when they do.

Allocating jobs and opportunists according to merit does not reduce inequality; it re-configures inequality to alight with ability. This reconfiguration creates a presumption that people get what they deserve.

The Tyranny of Merit – Michael J. Sandel

Confusing value with price

The assertion that people morally deserve whatever income a competitive free market assigns them goes back to the early days of neoclassical economics. In reality, what people earn depends less on their native abilities and more on the vagaries of supply and demand! Water is more valuable than diamond but priced at a fraction of what diamond costs.

Isn’t meeting a demand a valuable thing to do, you ask? Sure, but most of the times, the demands which the economic system operates to gratify are largely produced by the workings of the system itself.

Being good at making money measures neither our merit nor the value of our contribution.

All the successful can honestly say is that they have managed – through some unfathomable mix of genius or guile, timing or talent, luck or pluck or grim determination – to cater effectively to the jumble of wants and desires, however weighty or frivolous, that constitute consumer demand at any moment.


Education & Meritocracy

To the liberal class, every big economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future. But it’s really not an answer at all – it’s a moral judgement.

In the mid 1970s, Stanford accepted nearly 1/3rd of those who applied. In the 1980s, Harvard and Stanford admitted about one in five. In 2019, they accepted fewer than one in twenty. It is difficult to emerge from this gauntlet of stress and striving without believing that you have earned – through effort and hard work – whatever success may come your way.

But the fact remains that even the best, most inclusive educational system would be hard pressed to equip students from poor backgrounds to compete on equal terms with children from families that bestow copious amounts of attention, resources and connections.

On this topic I highly recommend you watch the new Netflix documentary on the 2019 US college admission scandal.

Back to the book. See, encouraging more people to go to college is a good thing. Making college more accessible to those of modest means is even better. But as a solution to inequality, the single-minded focus on education has a damaging side-effect – it erodes the social esteem accorded those who have not gone to college. The notion that the system rewards talent and hard work ends up encouraging the winners (wrongfully) to consider their success their own doing and in turn they start to look down upon those less fortunate than themselves.

One last thing – dumb Vs. smart

In every age, politicians and opinion makers, publicists and advertisers, reach for a language of judgement and evaluation. Such rhetoric typically draws upon evaluative contrasts: just vs. unjust, free vs. un-free, progressive vs. reactionary, strong vs. weak, open vs. closed and so on and so forth.

In recent decades, with the rise in meritocratic modes of thinking, the reigning evaluative contrast has become “smart vs. dumb”.

Everything and everybody must be smart – smart city, smart-phone, smart parents, smart students, smart thinking, smart farmers and on and on.

You are opposed to climate change? You are not smart. You are dumb. But is that always true?

If the primary source of opposition to action on climate change were lack of information or a refusal to accept science, one would expect opposition to be stronger among those with less education / scientific knowledge. It so happens that this is not the case really. Studies of public opinion show that the more people know about science, the more polarized are their views on climate change (rather than converging). What about those who oppose government action to reduce carbon emissions, not because they reject science, but because they do not trust the government to act in their interest? Meritocracy creates the illusion that everything can be split into smart vs. dumb.

Sorry for making this post so long. I appreciate your patience. Let me try to wrap it up now.

The term meritocracy was invented by a British sociologist Michael Young who wrote a book in 1958 called The Rise of Meritocracy. But for Young himself, meritocracy described a dystopia, not an ideal. In his book, he already anticipated that the toxic brew of hubris and resentment created from meritocracy would fuel a backlash. In fact he concluded his dystopian tale by predicting (all the way back in 1958) that in 2034, the less educated classes would rise up in a populist revolt against meritocratic elites. I guess his prediction came true 18 years before time (both Brexit and Trump happened in 2016)?

May be the real problem with meritocracy is not that we have failed to achieve it, but that the ideal itself is flawed.

If you learnt something useful by reading my blog, I’d appreciate if you dropped in a comment. Thanks.

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