The Tyranny of Merit

The Tyranny of Merit

I was given The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good by Michael J Sandel for Christmas from my sister. It is one of the most important books I have read, charting the rise of ‘meritocracy’ in the US and the UK and arguing that it’s a philosophy that has poisoned society.

Sandel starts by arguing that ‘credentialism’ is the last acceptable prejudice. He points out that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many, with a mismatch between the percentage of the population with a University education (30%) in the UK and the percentage of parliamentarians with one (88%). It’s a similar picture in the US, where whilst Congress has become more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, it has become less diverse in terms of educational credentials and class. Very few members of the working class now make it to elected office. This is a particularly stark shift in British Labour Party MPs – from 59% having a degree in 1979 to 84% in 2017. Government is now much less representative than it once was and people have become alienated from mainstream parties. He argues that one of the deepest divides in politics today is between those with and without a University/College degree and points out that throughout much of the twentieth century parties of the left attracted those with less education, whilst parties of the right attracted those with more. In the age of meritocracy, however, this pattern has been reversed.

The book also sets out how since the 1970s it has become more and more difficult for those without a degree to find good work that pays enough to keep a family, and, in addition, that the dignity of work has been eroded, as meritocratic rhetoric tells those without degrees that the work they do is a lesser contribution to the common good and is less worthy of recognition and esteem. No wonder some working-class people are turning to populist politicians who understand their resentment, and have stopped voting for the ‘class clueless’ who joke about ‘chavs’ in the UK, or ‘flyover states’ in the US. This attitude has briefly changed during the Covid-pandemic, with people focusing on the importance and the value of low-paid, ‘key workers’. But this brief focus has yet to lead to any policy change. It seems so far we’re prepared to clap key-workers, but not to change our economic and social systems to actually value them.

Sandel then takes a justified pop at the ‘technocratic‘ rhetoric (that I am certainly guilty of using). There is often a lazy assumption that ordinary citizens lack enough information, and if they only had better information, they would make ‘good’ decisions and all would be well. This was certainly the view of the Remain campaign in the Brexit referendum. Political leadership becomes less about moral persuasion and more about gathering facts. This technocratic conception of politics has, Sandel argues, more than a ‘whiff of meritocratic hubris’. It places decision-making into the hands of elites and disempowers ordinary citizens, whilst abandoning the project of political persuasion. Incentivising people to act responsibly means you don’t have to bother persuading them.

He argues that Obama and Hilary Clinton were guilty of such a technocratic approach, the former blaming the rise of ‘alternative facts’ for polarisation in politics, rather than considering that the technocratic approach itself may be part of the problem. No wonder those who voted to leave the EU or who voted for Trump were sick of ‘experts’, who often also lack humility and think that their own success is deserved (and therefore that the lack of success of others is due to them not having tried hard enough). We need to question the meritocratic conceit that those on the top have made it on their own. Sandel argues that anger against elites is not only about injustice due to a lack of equality of opportunity, it’s also anger again the sense of entitlement that permeates elites and the lack of respect that they show to their fellow citizens. Sandel argues that the meritocratic elite were so ‘tone-deaf to the mounting resentments of those who had not shared in the bounty of globalisation, they missed the mood of discontent. The populist backlash caught them by surprise. They did not see the insult implicit in the meritocratic society they were offering’.

Sandel reminds us that not all questions can be answered by experts. Some of the biggest questions are about power, morality, authority and trust. These questions are often not put at the heart of political debates by meritocratic elites. There’s something to think about here for those of us working in organisations that argue for evidence-based policy-making. Evidence can only ever be part of a wider political conversation about values. Which brings us onto what, for me, was the most fundamental argument in the book.

At its heart, Sandel argues that meritocratic rhetoric is about mobility, not equality. In this view, as long as people can move up based on merit, then inequality doesn’t matter. As long as the rich and poor can swap places with each other over time, based on merit, leading some to rise to the top, then there is nothing wrong with the yawning gap between the rich and the poor. With everyone focused on climbing the ladder of success, how far apart the rungs on the ladder are, is ignored. Rather than repair the conditions that people want to flee, a politics is constructed where mobility is the answer to inequality. Meritocracy in fact justifies inequality. Sandel reminds us that focusing only on mobility does little to cultivate the social bonds that democracy requires. A good society cannot be premised only on the promise of escape.

Sandel concludes that ‘humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life’. I hope this book leads to a focus on humility and to a renewed focus on reducing inequality and on serious progressive taxation. Perhaps it will help stop the assumption that as long as we focus on mobility, it’s OK to live in a hugely unequal society.