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Michał Rzeczycki  10 grudnia 2020

How globalisation stood us up, and how the liberal cult of meritocracy hid it. Analysis of Michael Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit”

Michał Rzeczycki  10 grudnia 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 9 min
How globalisation stood us up, and how the liberal cult of meritocracy hid it. Analysis of Michael Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit” Jordi Martorell/flickr.com

Inequalities resulting from globalisation have led to the Matthew effect, where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. The latter have concluded, in accordance with the meritocratic conviction forced upon them, that their position is a consequence of their personal talents and virtues. In the eyes of those from the ‘top’ of the social ladder, every loser simply gets whatever they deserved. And thus meritocracy has become a façade preserving the progressing social stratification.

We have all heard about structural poverty, where causes of poverty are completely independent of a will of people struggling with the chronic lack of sufficient resources to make a living. Possibly, some people also know a term of ‘structures of sin’, which is present in the Church teachings. The political system can be so riddled with corruption that a bribe becomes a necessary means to gain success in everyday life: from passing an exam to dealing with issues in government offices. In this system, an immoral behaviour, in the form of offering a bribe, becomes a rule for operation, and a failure to observe it becomes very costly for an individual. However, is structural conceit possible?

What can be negative about meritocracy?

This question is answered in affirmative by the American philosopher Michael Sandel in his latest book The Tyranny of Merit. The work, written during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, represents another attempt at answering what happened in American and European politics after 2015. Victories of Trump in the U.S. and Orban in Hungary, and Brexit in the United Kingdom – all these events had a common denominator, of strongly expressed anti-elitarian emotions and rhetoric, that allowed the populist to win power. They referred to large groups in societies that were abandoned both as a campaign target for political parties and as a beneficiary of economic development. The liberal or left-liberal elites were a guilty party in this respect. Was the populist diagnosis correct? And even if the answer is yes, what was the cause underlying a defeat of the previous political elites?

Sandel’s analysis does not treat Trump’s supporters as unreasonable or lacking the correct understanding of the situation. Although the philosopher does not share this solution to the problem, he notices its very existence. It is the ‘tyranny of merit’ stated in the title. The extraordinary nature of this diagnosis results from the fact that, at first glance, it is contrary to our fundamental intuitions.

How can we say that “deserving on a basis of our competencies” can assume a form of tyranny? After all, it is completely obvious that when I need to have a small repair to be performed at home, I will call an electrician with better and not with worse competencies. Tasks should be entrusted to those with better skills and more capable, as by definition they will be able to perform them in a better and more efficient way. The situation is similar in the case of the government. After all, we all want our ministers to be competent, experts in their respective fields, who can rule the country successfully both during prosperity and in crisis, due to their knowledge and experience.

At first glance, it is hard to find any flaws in meritocracy, as meritocracy as a postulate for organising issues in our private and state lives is very strongly correlated with our sense of justice. More is due to those who are better. A more competent person is entitled to a better position, matching their competencies, as otherwise their abilities will be wasted.

If you do not know what the deal is, then it is about prestige

It is worth sparking a discussion about the problem of meritocracy with the story with which Sandel starts his book. In March 2019, federal prosecutors charged thirty-three wealthy parents with engaging in an elaborate cheating scheme to get their children admitted to elite universities in the US, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California. The main villain in this story is William Singer, who ran a business that, as Sandel describes it ‘catered to anxious, affluent parents’. For sufficiently high amounts – the fees ranged from 15 thousand to 1.2 million dollars, Singer helped to falsify exam result, provided fake documents and bribed teachers. This was aimed at helping children of his rich customers to be admitted to selected colleges.

When this scheme became public, it provoked an enormous scandal. What is interesting, the condemnation extended across the political spectrum. Everyone agreed that illicit means were used to gain admission to colleges for people who did not deserve it, while truly talented candidates, who were entitled to a place in Harvard or Yale based on their competencies, were harmed.

Singers protégés got in through back door, by providing fake documents and exam result. However, as Sandel writes, ‘two-thirds of students at Ivy League colleges come from the top fifth of the income scale’. The numbers quoted by Sandel prove two things. First, it is easier for people from wealthy families to get to elite colleges through front door, i.e., by passing exams. Second, many people, even if they fail during the recruitment process, are admitted through back door, i.e., the college creates a place for a child of parents being generous donors to the university.

However, in the story of Singer’s fraudulent activities, the reasons that prompted the rich to corrupt the recruitment process are of crucial importance. We cannot talk about money or a career path here. Definitely, these were not sufficient reasons. A child whose parent can afford to pay USD 1.2 million for falsifying exams does not have to worry about their prosperity in the future. Therefore, why did it happen?

Sandel has an answer to this question: it is prestige. A phrase „I graduated from Harvard” sounds good, gives a feeling of distinction and guarantees a special status in the meritocratic society.

Globalisation, inequalities, Protestant work ethics and the Matthew effect

The cult of hard work is the foundation of meritocratic beliefs. When we remove the exacting requirements necessary for social advancement, combat discrimination, create programmes for capable students from poor families, an individual must then only demonstrate their talents supported by hard and honest work. In a meritocracy, this is the key to success. However, as it has been demonstrated in real life, the elimination of these barriers is not always easy.

First of all, the advantages of globalisation were not distributed in a fair way; they contribute to wage stagnation and an increase in inequalities. This hinders social mobility, becoming a real obstacle on the path to promotion and desirable prestige. After all, those who succeeded gained their position through their abilities and hard work. And what about those who dropped out from the race in its earlier stages? The meritocratic conceit leads to the meritocratic distribution of respect, disguising an inability to notice that meritocracy as a principle for the functioning of a political society is a harmful utopia.

Inequalities resulting from globalisation have led to the Matthew effect, where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. The latter have concluded, in accordance with the meritocratic conviction forced upon them, that their position is a consequence of their personal talents and virtues. In the eyes of those from the ‘top’ of the social ladder, every loser simply gets whatever they deserved. And thus meritocracy has become a façade preserving the progressing social stratification.

The numbers quoted by Sandel are self-evident. „In the United States, the median income for working-age men, $36,000, is less than it was four decades ago. The richest 1 per cent of Americans earn more than the bottom half combined.” The increasing inequalities are the result of President Reagan’s reforms in the US. The opening up of global markets and the financialisation of economies that occurred in the 1990s, although it actually accelerated the economic development as such, at the same time it left large groups of people on the margin of society.

Physical work lost the value it once had, as now a company wishing to reduce the costs of labour only needs to move its production to a country where labour is cheaper. In these conditions, representatives of the world of finances, marketing specialists, software engineers, and people from new technology industries contribute to the GDP. However, this sends us back to the problem of talents, social mobility and the cult of hard work.

Is hard work alone sufficient for moving up the social ladder? Unfortunately, it is not. In conditions of continuously growing inequalities, getting admission to a chosen college is increasingly difficult. The advancement becomes extremely challenging, similarly as gaining prestige associated with it. The American ethos of work went hand in hand with meritocratic ethics and rhetoric. As Sandel indicates, neither the Democrats nor the Labour Party led by Tony Blair did challenge the liberal paradigm of the 1980s, but only slightly modified it. The unequal chances, and not the pro-market attitude itself were considered a problem. This was the way of thinking promoted by liberals and centre-left representatives until 2016. Only then did they notice that this paradigm does not work any longer. However, from a political point of view, it was too late for them. Trump won.

All that time, meritocracy combined with the pro-market approach and globalisation was accompanied by the social advancement rhetoric. Bill Clinton addressed this concept in his speech: ‘The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one: If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.’ (a speech of December 3, 1993).

This consistent story about work and talent as the key to success is exceptionally convincing because it refers to criteria that very strongly correspond to our sense of justice. And who will deny that those who are talented and hard-working deserve more? However, as Sandel indicates, a technocratic and meritocratic perception of the world is simply a short-sighted one. When you think about politics, you should cease thinking in terms of relations between individuals. You should consider groups of people, the way in which they function and, first of all, their mentality.

When the economy develops, the rhetoric of advancement has been used for 40 years, and successive government programmes aimed at eliminating barriers to social mobility are implemented, and still a significant part of society is not successful, then who is to blame? In the atmosphere of a worship of heavy work, merits, and a talent, and especially from a position of own success and prestige, it is easy to move to an assumption that those ‘at the bottom’ are simply stupid or lazy. And this is the actual conviction that resonated in the speeches of American politicians.

However, is it not so that in fact political reservations themselves negate the fundamental principle that the talent and hard work are a just criterion for financial and prestige successes? Maybe the fault is in the organisation of a meritocratic society, and not in the assumption itself? Not exactly. Abilities are definitely a significant capital, but they are not sufficient to create a just society.

Firstly, they are distributed in the same uneven and random way as knighthoods in an aristocratic society. We replace the old aristocracy with the heritage aristocracy. However, until we do not agree for a significant part of society to be poor and stripped off its dignity in the public debate, that replacement of elites will not bring us any closer to an ideal of a just community harmoniously implementing the rule of the common good. Secondly, the price of the talent and its importance depend on market needs, and a social advancement based on them has nothing in common with just merit. Talented teachers, nurses, electricians, or firemen perform significantly more important work than many Instagram influencers. However, the former will never share the financial success of the latter. Definitely not in a meritocracy.

If Sandel was right, then we should not be surprised with votes cast for Trump. The losers of globalisation also became losers of meritocracy, and in such world not only do you not have a path for social advancement, but you also become a victim of the system distributing respect. ‘You lost because you are stupid and lazy’, this is a meritocratic explanation of a failure. No other explanation is possible in the country where the removal of barriers, an apotheosis of hard work and an advancement as a reward for merits have been discussed for 40 years.

Towards the common good and political humility

To be precise, the elimination of barriers is good. Increasing chances for success is good. Rewarding of talents, abilities and hard work is good. Meritocracy became a tyranny because it forgot about the common good. A characteristic feature of the meritocratic story is considering politics in terms of an individual and their abilities. Individualism understood as an assumption about an individual’s priority over the community became a foundation of the phenomenon described by Sandel. The author does not have a ready solution to the problem he formulates. He also does not have one for meritocracy understood as a global problem.

In the Sandel’s opinion, in the U.S. this situation can be partly resolved by dismantling the “sorting machine” – a recruitment system deciding who will get to most prestigious universities. How can this be done? At least some or even all students can be admitted following a draw. This is the only way which can solve the issue of the majority of the admitted students being either the children of their graduates or coming from wealthy families.

Furthermore, the devaluation of vocational education as something of lower quality than university education must cease. The majority of Americans, says Sandel, do and will earn their living by physical work, as plumbers, electricians, or carpenters. A postulate of 100% education at the university level would be a harmful utopia. However, all these are just point postulates. A global solution must be sought in turning towards the common good – thinking about the state in categories of the good of a political community and the harmonious development of its components, and not in categories of the good of a talented individual who should win because they deserve it.

Although Sandel focuses on the local context, a Polish reader can easily notice that many mechanisms of the tyranny of merit were also transferred to Poland. The famous slogan from the parliamentary campaign of 2007 – “young, educated and from large centres” – was yet another example of the rhetoric of advancement that makes promises that in the world with removed barriers to mobility the hard work and talents alone are enough to succeed. Furthermore, the devaluation of vocational education in the first period of the transformation, which became something shameful at one time, where every child must have a university diploma. Each of these phenomena is underlain by mechanisms described in the book of the American philosopher, and this demonstrates how common the tyranny of merit and the crisis of the common good are.

In my opinion, Sandel wrote an excellent book because it is not obvious. An attempt to demonstrate that a simple and apparently obvious scheme of merit and award has its limitations is definitely very novel. On its basis, the reader can see that governing the state does not mean the same as governing a company. Politics cannot be subjected to a total economisation, as this way, the aspects of a community, the legitimisation of power and all human aspirations of an intangible nature are overlooked.

On the basis of Sandel’s considerations, it can be concluded that a crucial political virtue of a well-functioning democracy is humility. It is necessary so we can notice a network of mutual relations surrounding us and our common political project. A lack of this virtue results in falling into meritocratic contempt, for which the main point of reference is the success of ambitious individuals. It can be said that in Sandel’s considerations the conclusions reached by Saint Augustine in The City of God resonate: true equality and community are possible only when we all turn towards the same goal, rejecting the conviction that all we have and are is solely a result of our own work. Humility is a condition for all good. Also for the common good.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.