Too many are losers in our meritocracy

Western liberalism prides itself on having achieved a ‘meritocracy’. Like – in a different way – the Greek conception of an aristocracy, a meritocracy allows for rule by the best and brightest. Today’s meritocracy came partly in rejection of the corruption of Europe’s old aristocratic ruling élite seen operating in the ancien régime. The revolutionaries claimed that the remnant aristocratic families held power by dint of birth, and not at all, or only minimally, by embodying the virtues of wisdom, prudence, courage, and moderation.

Instead of promoting the common good these persons sought to accrue and consolidate power and wealth for their own families. The United States of America went much the same way as Jefferson himself favoured a variety of ‘natural aristocracy’ based on ‘virtue and talents’ rather than an ‘artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth’. For all the theoretical benefits of meritocracy, however, there is much to be said about the problems produced by its practical consequences.

Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the Common Good? observes what he calls a pernicious politics of humiliation that arises from meritocracy. The idea that ‘you can make it if you try’ exhorts people to work hard and to take pride in their success, whilst implying that those who have not made it are in some sense the architects of their own demise.

In a world where we are often taught that people with talent or drive will succeed, those who fail are left with no recourse with which to doubt their own inadequacies. ‘Losers’ are denigrated and – lacking the education or skills to thrive in our tech-dominated culture – have their livelihoods stripped to a greater or lesser degree of dignity.

Hilary Clinton displayed meritocratic hubris in a superlative degree, and more explicitly than her allies might usually, at a press conference in Mumbai (2018) when she said, ‘I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward’. Trump, she asserted, drew his support from those who ‘didn’t like black people getting rights’ and ‘didn’t like women… getting jobs’. This is the perception that the ‘winners’ in the globalisation stakes have of the ‘losers’.

This politics of humiliation is compounded by the fact that the current governing élites have not in practice governed well. America, Sandel points out, has had stagnant wages for most workers; inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s; a disastrous military intervention in Iraq and an inconclusive sortie into Afghanistan; the financial crisis of 2008 and after; and the highest incarceration rate in the world. Much of this is rarely addressed in today’s public discourse. Conversations tend to be limited to economic policy and the common good is measured by GDP. A citizen’s worth is measured by the market value of the goods and services he or she sells. Merit is measured in technocratic expertise. 

For all this analysis Sandel concludes that the current circumstances and the misgovernance of the past four decades are the result of mere incompetence. Patrick Deneen disagrees with this. He points out that the sole beneficiaries of this misgovernance have always been the ruling élites. This meritocracy is a tyrant because it accrues power whilst inflicting material, social and spiritual impoverishment on the rest of society. As with any tyranny there lies a deep ‘will to power’.

The four disastrous decades of which Sandel writes are the result of cynical régime maintenance, not of incompetence. If meritocracy is a tyranny, then it must be treated as such. This calls for the overthrowing of the meritocratic outlook and the fundamentally liberal philosophy underlying it.

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