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Is meritocracy the road to the guillotine?

Written by Alex Massie
10 September 2020

Meritocracy, the belief in social mobility based on hard-work and ability, is both impossible to argue against and so thoroughly misunderstood it becomes necessary, eventually, to argue against it. It is one of the foundational creeds of modern life. Yet the term was originally sardonic. Michael Young, the British sociologist, coined it in 1959 and he meant it as a warning, not a promise. Sixty years on, Young’s analysis is newly prescient and the focus of renewed scrutiny and appreciation.

Explaining the core argument of his new book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political philosopher, argues that the pursuit of meritocracy has merely replaced one old aristocratic elite with a new elite class that is both, in one sense, more deserving and, in another, more dangerous. The old elite, he suggests, at least had some understanding that they owed their advantages to forces not of their creation. Correspondingly, “if you landed on the bottom, your life might be hard and you might say this system is rigged but you couldn’t really internalise the place you found yourself in and say I deserved this, it’s my own fault. You knew it was your bad luck, not your fault”.

You may object that this gives the old aristocracy rather too much credit and I think your objection would not be groundless. Not all of them appreciated the winning lottery ticket birth had bought them; rather more saw the accident of their birth as proof of the universe’s intentions. Nevertheless, the more reflective and self-aware did understand that their privilege was accompanied by a measure of responsibility. It was precisely because they had not earned their advantages that they must act in a benevolent way towards those who, similarly, had not asked for their place amongst the lower orders. Hence the tradition, still observable today in fact, of aristocratic paternalism.

Sandel insists he has “no nostalgia for aristocracy” but he cannot avoid noting how today’s elite have discovered the means by which they may pass on their – earned, doubtless – advantages to their children who, however bright, have not earned that legacy themselves. Systems are there to be gamed and while neither Scotland nor the United Kingdom yet see American levels of “meritocratic” class separation, these differences are more of degree than kind.

Here, some of those who would – for reasons of propriety – never dream of sending their children to private school think nothing of paying the house-price premium required to live in the catchment areas of the country’s top 10 state schools. This is, in essence, a distinction without a difference garlanded by the happy ownership of a valuable asset, to boot. Here, as in the United States, educational achievement is correlated with family income and this effect becomes more pronounced, and concentrated, with time.

Indeed, a perfectly meritocratic society would be intolerable, offering most citizens a daily and soul-crushing reminder of their own shortcomings. It is but a short step from observing that this is how things would be, to arguing that this is also how they should be. In this sense, a measure of randomness – or blind fortune – would be preferable. Thus, subject to meeting certain academic standards, I have long believed there is a compelling argument for awarding places at elite universities by lottery, rather than interview. The benefits of such a policy would be twofold: those who had the grades but did not receive a place would know they were unfortunate, not undeserving; those who gained a place would be compelled to confront, and acknowledge, their good fortune. All of us might, henceforth, pay more attention to the person than their credentials.

As Sandel argues, the triumph of the “meritocracy” has political consequences too. Michael Young once argued that if his dystopian vision were ever perfected there would, by 2034, be some kind of populist backlash against it. Well, I think it possible to argue it happened sooner than that. Linking different, complex, political events and ascribing them common causes is a matter fraught with difficulty, but we may still see some commonalities between, say, the election of Donald Trump in America and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. In each instance, partisans for the revolution asked voters to send a message to the ‘elites’. These people sneer at you and your resentment of them is not only understandable, it is righteous. A revolt of the common man (and woman) against the metropolitan swells who neither like, nor care to like, the common man was overdue. We have had enough of experts, you know.

And there was something in this, and some sense in which the elite, and the causes dear to them, had it coming. Guardian-man really does think he knows better than Daily Mail-woman. This conflates knowing more (which is likely) with knowing better (which is not the same thing at all). No wonder, then, that this occasions some resentment. The culture wars are, in part, created by fakery but they are not wholly contrived and the preoccupations of the upper middle-classes on matters such as race and gender and much else besides are not always those of a working-class that can neither afford, nor bother, with such indulgences.

In the end, a correctly-ordered meritocracy would, as Sandel put it in a recent conversation with Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist, lead “the successful not only to inhale too deeply of their own success but to look down upon those less accomplished than themselves and to believe that they deserve their fate as well”. That is a road which leads to the guillotine.

But the language of meritocracy dominates our discourse and progressive leaders in particular love it. Tony Blair believed in it and so did Barack Obama. Sandel is critical of what he deems this theory of “rising”, best characterised by the belief that “if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to rise as far as your effort and talents will take you”. But this implicitly indicates that “if you don’t go to college and you’re not flourishing in the new economy, it’s your fault”. Those who are left behind have, in some sense, chosen to be left behind. “You can make it if you try”, Obama argued, and so if you haven’t made it, perhaps you simply haven’t tried hard enough?

What if the game is rigged, though? If credentialism is not running amok, it is gaining ground all the time, nonetheless. In most western countries more than 90% of parliamentarians are graduates even though, as in the UK, only around half the population goes to university. Status is everything and graduates have higher status than non-graduates. That helps explain this country’s ongoing shortcomings in technical education and it helps explain why, for example, the police wish to be a graduates-only calling. Fine, you may say, but that’s another job drawing up the drawbridge and excluding many who would previously have been perfectly well-equipped for it. Nursing, likewise, has become a graduates-only career.

In 1959, Young argued, “now that people are classified by ability, the gap between the classes has inevitably become wider. The upper-classes are…no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism”. The confidence exhibited by today’s elite, however, is built upon a misunderstanding of the forces that combined to hand them their advantages. Luck plays a larger part than they appreciate and the failure to appreciate dumb fortune is a debilitating one.

The belief in earned privilege may be even more corrupting than unearned advantage. Sandel, reaching for the stars, argues that “a perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. 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.” Perhaps you think this overblown, but even if you do and even if you think Sandel is only half correct, what do you think that bodes for our society and our future? Nothing good, I wager.

About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie

We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.

To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.

Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of
The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday

We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here

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