The double shock of Donald Trump’s election and Leave’s referendum victory in 2016 prompted political commentators to rush for an explanation. Much of the blame was placed on members of a smug liberal elite, who had become so convinced of their own status and opinions that they ignored the growing discontent of their fellow citizens. Trump’s victory and Brexit were, in their own way, a reason and an opportunity for those who had been “left behind” to relax.
There is a lot to this argument. In Western democracies, modern center-left and right-wing political parties have increasingly emphasized merit as the basis on which society should be organized. The promise of “equal opportunity” – which involved a massive expansion of higher education – was that it would alleviate the inequalities produced by the market economy. But too often the reality of meritocracy has been that the rich use their privilege to monopolize the most prestigious schools and universities and acquire the skills that allow them to succeed. Those without a degree have seen their access to high-level jobs blocked. The rich have gotten richer and richer while the incomes of non-graduates have stagnated.
Worse yet, the plutocrats in charge now believe they earned their privilege through intelligence and hard work, rather than inheritance. Yet these highly skilled elites have left their nations with a series of impossible wars, a financial crisis, accelerating climate change, and rates of economic growth far below those of the post-war decades.
However, there is no monopoly on error here. Those who voted for Trump and Brexit have a different but equally dubious idea of what a meritocracy should look like. Leaving voters, for example, are more likely to take a tough stance on the “undeserving” poor, whose benefits they see as undeserved, and on immigrants “skipping the line” for housing. They may believe that their efforts deserve greater reward and oppose the advancement of those above and below them on the ladder. After becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May, speaking to Brexit voters, presented a “vision of a truly meritocratic Britain… ordinary working class people… deserve a better deal”. Politicians from all parties speak of “hardworking people who play by the rules” with catechism frequency.
The best of post-populist reaction books, such as Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel, admit that today’s elites do not represent true meritocracy, but take the argument a step further. Even if we could somehow organize society to ensure true equality of opportunity and allow everyone a fair chance to succeed, would we want to? After all, the term “meritocracy” was coined by sociologist and politician Michael Young in his 1958 book, who envisioned it leading to a dystopia where a high IQ elite, certain its position was justified, dominated it over. everyone until a rebellion ensues. .
Sandel’s point of view is that our talents are no more deserved than the perks afforded by wealthy, well-connected parents. They are also an accident of birth. In her recent book, The Genetic Lottery, Kathryn Paige Harden notes that there is a 1 in 70tn chance that a given child will emerge from the combination of genetic material from its parents. None of us control the genes we are born with, or the environment we are born into. You might think that no matter what your natural talents are, you still had to work hard to be successful. But it’s also our genes that help determine how conscientious we are, how well we can focus, etc.
Sandel points out that the same logic applies even if you are religious and do not accept a purely biological account of human behavior. If your talents were bestowed on you by an omnipotent god, then your achievements are no more due to your personal merit than if it were a genetic accident.
But fully accepting 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 own actions had no bearing on their eternal destiny, so they ended up viewing their good works as proof of God’s plan to save them. They “deserved” it after all.
It is the same in our more secular world. Although people could in theory accept the logic of Sandel and Harden, it would be very difficult to organize society if, in practice, people were not enticed by the prospect of a reward for what looks like theirs. efforts. And both authors struggle to offer pragmatic suggestions on how to reduce the fixation on merit. Harden, writing for an American audience, is simply proposing the type of welfare state common in Europe, which, while obviously preferable, still leaves huge inequalities. Sandel is pushing for a redistribution of status based on civic and moral worth rather than just financial success, which simply changes the definition of merit to one he is more comfortable with.
Meritocracy as an organizing principle is an inevitable function of a free society. We are designed to see our accomplishments as worthy of recognition, and any politician who tries to suggest otherwise will soon take office. But the Limits of Merit series of books is an important correction to the arrogance of contemporary law and an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of luck, or grace, in our political thought. The more we are able to accept that our accomplishments are largely beyond our control, the easier it becomes to understand that our failures, and those of others, are too. And that in turn should increase our humility and the respect with which we treat our fellow citizens. Ultimately, as writer David Roberts said, “Building a more compassionate society means remembering luck, and the gratitude and obligations that come with it. “
Sam Freedman is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government and a former advisoruh at the ministry of education.
The Tyranny of Merit: What Happened to the Common Good? by Michael Sandel (Penguin, £ 9.99)
The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA is Important for Social Equality by Kathryn Paige Harden (Princeton, £ 25)
The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by Adrian Wooldridge (Allen Lane, £ 25)