Do you believe that we all get what we deserve? If you’ve done well in life, do you believe that your success is due to your own intelligence and hard work? If you’re disappointed with your life, do you believe your failures are due to your own shortcomings?

If your answer to these questions is Yes, then you are subscribing to the tyranny of merit, as described by Michael Sandel in his book of that name.

At first glance, meritocracy might sound like a good thing.

“This was the point of the rhetoric of rising. If barriers to achievement could be dismantled, then everyone would have an equal chance to succeed; regardless of race or class or gender, people could rise as far as their talent and effort would take them. And if opportunities were truly equal, those who rose highest could be said to deserve their success and the rewards it brings. This was the meritocratic promise. It was not a promise of greater equality, but a promise of greater and fairer mobility.”

But it has a toxic side. Your belief – or lack of it – in meritocracy has all kinds of consequences, not just for you, but for society, politics, education, economics, taxation, your opinion of others, your capacity for compassion – even on suicide rates. What could have become an aspiration of fairness has resulted in tremendous inequality. The shadow side of meritocracy can be summed up as the belief that:

“If I am responsible for having accrued a handsome share of worldly goods—income and wealth, power and prestige—I must deserve them. Success is a sign of virtue. My affluence is my due.”


Sorting for Success

The word “meritocracy” was first coined by Michael Young in his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book was a satire, intended to be a warning, but instead has become an aspiration, espoused by politicians and assumed to be a generally good thing. Writing in 2001, Young laments:

“It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

He points the finger at what Michael Sandel calls “credentialism” – the early filtering of children, usually by the age of 7, into those earmarked for success, and those relegated to low status jobs. While a functional society needs a spectrum of people with a broad variety of skills, education values only a narrow range of intelligences – primarily linguistic and logical-mathematical. Not coincidentally, these are the intelligences that will be well rewarded by careers in banking, insurance, and the law, while the very practical forms of intelligence that equip people to be mechanics, plumbers, electricians and builders are comparatively under-valued. This might feel like the way it’s always been, and maybe it is – but it is nonetheless a choice that society has made, and we could make a different choice.

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


Taking Credit Where Credit Isn’t Due

The implications for your political views are significant. If you believe that your success is solely due to your own hard work and natural talent, and that anybody else could have achieved the same, then you’re likely to resent paying taxes to help those less fortunate.

But here are some questions intended to burst a bubble of self-congratulation, to introduce some humility into potential hubris:

  • Who were your parents? Were they supportive of your education?
  • What school did you go to? Was entry to that school open to all?
  • What people are necessary to your success – colleagues, subordinates, customers, suppliers, cheap foreign workers? To what extent are you enjoying the fruits of the labours of others?
  • The current marketplace happens to value your specific range of talents. Are those talents actually making the world a better place? Are there other talents, currently less highly valued, that are also essential to a society?

The danger lies in the assumption that everybody is starting from a level playing field, and has an equal shot at success. This allows the winners to hold onto their winnings with a clear conscience.

“For the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.”

But the playing field is not level, and those with the power to level it have no interest in doing so, because they benefit from its very lack of levelness.

“…those who land on top do not make it on their own but owe their good fortune to family circumstance and native gifts that are morally akin to the luck of the draw.”


A Kinder Philosophy

Recognising our own good fortune is a prerequisite for creating a fairer system.

“For why do the successful owe anything to the less advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient. Finding ourselves in a society that prices our talents is our good fortune, not our due. A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility.”

The real tragedy of believing that you live in a meritocracy falls mostly on the disadvantaged. If they are repeatedly told that anybody can become anything they want to be, then their failure to rise must be their own fault, rather than the result of a rigged system.

“If meritocracy is an aspiration, those who fall short can always blame the system; but if meritocracy is a fact, those who fall short are invited to blame themselves.”

Sandel describes the tragedy that is unfolding among those who do indeed blame themselves for their lack of success – the epidemic of addiction and suicide among the social groups who believed in the American Dream, only to find it has become a nightmare, a system rigged against them.

The meritocratic attitude even spills over into a rather toxic form of spirituality, in which we are told by books like The Secret that we can manifest anything we wish for, if we are sufficiently enlightened and/or holding the right energetic vibration, in a kind of spiritual meritocracy. Even at the same time as it purports to empower, this ethos holds us responsible for anything bad that comes into our lives.

So what is a better, more compassionate ethos? While there was much that was unfair in the pre-meritocratic world, at least it was obvious that the system was rigged, and that success in life depended heavily on the fluke of one’s birth or the vagaries of fortune. Sandel suggests a mantra that reminds us of this fact, there are many variables at play besides merit:

“There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.”


More on this:

Alain de Botton’s excellent and entertaining TED talk on a kinder, gentler philosophy of success

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson

I especially recommend The Tyranny of Merit to Democrat-leaning folks in the US. It offers a plausible explanation for Trump’s ascent that I think is essential reading.


Featured Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

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