Meritocracy adds mental insult to social injury

Meritocracy is a good thing. Wrong, claims Michael J. Sandel in his book “The Tyranny of Merit”! On the way to proving his point, Mr. Sandel indicts globalization as a culprit for rising inequality and eroding social bonds. Let’s take a closer look at his arguments.

What is meritocracy?

Let’s start with the key concept of Michael Sandel’s book. A meritocracy is a society that rewards individuals based on their talent, work ethic, and achievement – instead of on their ancestry, wealth, or social network. It is an order which enjoys high public approval-ratings because it promotes efficiency and individual freedom while renouncing idleness and discrimination.

In fact, for many people, it is their ideal of what constitutes a fair society. Michael Sandel is not one of them. He argues that meritocracies tend to take a tyrannical turn if they work too well. Far from being a remedy to inequality, they provide a cruel justification for it.

A drag to dignity

To prove his point, Mr. Sandel analyzes what meritocracy does to people’s attitudes and mentality. On the one hand, it gives the well-to-do over-confidence in the deservingness of their own success. It fosters the notion that they have made it to the top all on their own and that they owe their accomplishment to nobody but themselves.

On the other hand, those who do not make it in a meritocratic society feel demoralized and inferior. If success proves virtue, then failure must prove vice – meaning that they deserve their lot. Thus, meritocracy adds mental insult to social injury.

A drag to solidarity

The result is less social cohesion. As Mr. Sandel puts it: “It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny or unjust rule.”

He also claims that meritocracy hollows out our democracy. Far from being a cross-section of the population, legislators now usually have an (Ivy-league) academic background and substitute the Alternativlosigkeit (alternativelessness) of technocratic expertise for political persuasion.

A little bit more humility

For Mr. Sandel, meritocracy does not only have serious social downsides. It also rests on shaky ethical grounds. Ability is a hard-to-disentangle blend of talent and effort. The latter may be in one’s own hands.

The first certainly is not. Living in a society where one’s talent is rare or highly rewarded is also mere luck. Toni Kroos certainly is a fantastic football player. If, however, German society’s appreciation of men’s football and women’s bobsledding were reversed, you would have never heard of him and marvel instead at Olympic champion Mariama Jamanka’s astronomically high sponsorship deals.

Social mobility, anyone?

An additional problem is declining social mobility because it locks in the social positions that meritocracy produces. In Mr. Sandel’s own words: “Mobility can no longer compensate for inequality.”

That is particularly true for the United States, where people constantly overestimate the chances to make it from dishwasher to millionaire. The rhetoric of rising may be ubiquitous, but it is rarely found in practice in the U.S. Other countries, for instance, in Scandinavia, are now beating the U.S. on its former home turf: “[T]he American dream is alive and well and living in Copenhagen.”

Remedies

Mr. Sandel does not shy away from giving recommendations on how to fix the problems of meritocracy. For the education system, he proposes getting rid of standardized admission tests and undertaking more affirmative action for less wealthy students. Universities should set a threshold qualification and stage a lottery for admission among those who meet it. In addition, he advocates for extending vocational education and technical training to make social status and economic prosperity less dependent on a college education. Finally, he proposes to shift the tax burden from work to consumption and speculation.

Blame it on globalization…

Globalization is Mr. Sandel’s prime scapegoat for meritocracy-gone-bad. It has “produced vast inequalities of income and wealth, an economy dominated by finance, a political system in which money speaks louder than citizens, and a rising tide of angry nationalism.”

While proponents of globalization claim that – in theory – its benefits could be used to compensate the losers, that has yet to happen in practice. Far from feeling solidarity with their fellow citizens, the winners from globalization remain aloof: „As [they] pulled away from the losers, they practiced their own kind of social distancing.”

… and center-left parties

In Mr. Sandel’s view, globalization is too often portrayed as an inescapable fate to which one must adapt. Instead of joining in this neoliberal consensus, center-left parties (the Democratic Party in the U.S., the Labour Party in the U.K.) should have argued for reconfiguring in a way to protect workers from its perils.

Instead, they accepted the notion that the individual must be held responsible and that competing on equal terms is compatible with welfare-state liberalism. In doing so, they sowed the seeds of Trumpism and Brexit, which many voters saw as an antidote to their social humiliation.

The GED take

I do not share Mr. Sandel’s sweeping criticism of globalization as the central culprit for social inequality and eroding social bonds. I side with Martin Sandbu’s arguments that globalization is not the primary driver of inequality and that there are ways to turn it into a driver of prosperity for all. (The Economics of Belonging (ged-project.de))

But there is every reason to take Mr. Sandel’s questioning of meritocracy seriously at the national level – and at the international one, too. With COVID-19 and climate change poised to further widen the gap between developing and developed countries, the well-to-do need to be humble about their success, which is often more geographic luck than political skill.