When Tony Blair declared himself a "meritocrat", the man who coined that term became so frustrated he was moved to put pen to paper to denounce Britain’s then prime minister.
For Michael Young – academic, politician and author of The Rise of the Meritocracy – had always warned that a meritocratic society would be miserable: shorn of solidarity, responsibility and dignity for millions. Blair was too busy "modernising" the country to heed Young’s argument. But as the hollowness of those years became apparent, and as the West’s economic, social and political divides widened, Young’s thinking grew fashionable once more. Western elites – convinced they made it by virtue of their own brilliance and hard work – believe they "deserve to belong to a superior class", and the solidarity and sympathy those elites feel towards their less prosperous fellow citizens is breaking down.
Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel is the latest thinker to pick up Young’s work. "The populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit," he argues in his latest book, "and the complaint is justified."
The Tyranny of Merit is original, lively and no mere critique: unlike many others who have written on the "sorting" of society into winners and losers, Sandel produces a persuasive argument about the kind of community we should seek. Following Aristotle, Hegel and Catholic social teaching, Sandel implores us to seek the common good. "We are most fully human when we contribute to the common good and earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contributions we make," he writes. "The fundamental human need is to be needed by those with whom we share a common life."
The abandonment of the pursuit of the common good is, according to Sandel, the problem fuelling the crises in Western societies. Instead of helping everybody to play a meaningful role in their communities, we have created a society in which all that matters is "credentialism": the desperate and toxic competition to secure the most elite education possible, and the income and status it later brings to the lucky few.
This arms race, Sandel tells us, is deeply corrosive. It makes rich kids with pushy parents depressed and miserable. It declares, in effect, whole swathes of our population unworthy and unvaluable. And it is built on dubious philosophical foundations. Sandel explains how even if a fully meritocratic society was achievable, it would not be just, and even if it was just, it would not be good.
And neither are the existing contemporary alternatives to meritocracy – inasmuch as they really are alternatives – the solution we seek. This is because, while both free market liberalism and welfare state liberalism reject the philosophical assumptions of meritocracy, in practice they "open the way to meritocratic understandings of success that they officially reject".
There is a shortcoming in Sandel’s analysis, which is the lack of attention awarded to the cultural disturbances driving the West’s crises. Our sense of community has declined as a result of the educational and economic changes Sandel explains so eloquently. But also at play is the rapid cultural change experienced across Europe and America. Many studies show a negative correlation between cultural and ethnic diversity on one hand and trust and solidarity on the other. Perhaps Sandel considers this beyond the scope of his study, or perhaps it is simply too sensitive an issue for a centre-Left Harvard academic to raise in these polarised times.
This omission notwithstanding, The Tyranny of Merit is an important work, and makes a profound point that our leaders would do well to understand. The idea that inequality matters little, and that instead all we need to do is build a better meritocracy, educating our way to a bigger knowledge economy, is wrong. It has been tested, and it has failed.
Instead, we need a completely different attitude to education and work. While growth and prosperity matter, it takes the dignity and mutual respect of knowing we are all valued and contributing members of our communities to truly achieve the common good.
The Daily Telegraph