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Monday, November 16, 2020

Review: The Tyranny of Merit

 In the wake of the 2020 election, there were several events that puzzled me, such as Joe Biden losing Florida despite the $15 minimum wage passing there. It's easy to claim racism, but again, many of Trump's voters also voted for Obama. Fortunately for me, The Tyranny of Merit showed up from my library and does a pretty good job of at least pointing at an approach to solving that puzzle.

There's no question that American society posits itself to be a meritocracy, and the rhetoric and arguments about college entrance (not to mention the scandals) are usually posed as debates about merit. But Michael Sandel points out that this has two side effects that are deleterious:

  1. The winners of the meritocratic sorting believe (and how could they not) that they deserve all their winnings and earnings, and feel neither humility nor the urge to share their outsized gains from education with their poorer off counterparts.
  2. Those who do not win a good position in society as a result of the above sorting not only do not earn as much, their social position is lower and society keeps blathering about the need to improve educational opportunities to rub it in.
This would be one thing if the resulting elites in society have managed society well, but they have not, and Sandel singles out the center-left parties in both the US and the UK for being particularly at fault:

By the time of Trump’s election, the Democratic Party had become a party of technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. The same was true of Britain’s Labour Party at the time of Brexit, and the social democratic parties of Europe. (pg 20)

 Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful. They won World War II, helped rebuild Europe and Japan, strengthened the welfare state, dismantled segregation, and presided over four decades of economic growth that flowed to rich and poor alike. By contrast, the elites who have governed since have brought us four decades of stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, the financial crisis of 2008, a decaying infrastructure, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a system of campaign finance and gerrymandered congressional districts that makes a mockery of democracy. (pg. 28)

As a result, you have the working class supporting policies against the welfare state because they'd already bought into this meritocratic sorting:

For decades, meritocratic elites intoned the mantra that those who work hard and play by the rules can rise as far as their talents will take them. They did not notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising was less a promise than a taunt. This is how Trump voters may have heard Hillary Clinton’s meritocratic mantra. For them, the rhetoric of rising was more insulting than inspiring. This is not because they rejected meritocratic beliefs. To the contrary: They embraced meritocracy, but believed it described the way things already worked. They did not see it as an unfinished project requiring further government action to dismantle barriers to achievement. This is partly because they feared such intervention would favor ethnic and racial minorities, thus violating rather than vindicating meritocracy as they saw it. But it is also because, having worked hard to achieve a modicum of success, they had accepted the harsh verdict of the market in their own case, and were invested in it, morally and psychologically...Trump supporters resented liberals’ rhetoric of rising, not because they rejected meritocracy, but because they believed it described the prevailing social order. They had submitted to its discipline, had accepted the hard judgment it pronounced on their own merits, and believed others should do the same...According to global public opinion surveys, most Americans (77 percent) believe that people can succeed if they work hard; only half of Germans think so. In France and Japan, majorities say hard work is no guarantee of success.32 Asked what factors are “very important to getting ahead in life,” Americans overwhelmingly (73 percent) put hard work first, reflecting the enduring hold of the Protestant work ethic. In Germany, barely half consider hard work very important to getting ahead; in France, only one in four does (pg. 72-74)

I found myself highlighting  segment after segment of this book, because it explained so well the political events of the last 10 years, and also points out that the Democratic party has become disconnected from the working class it wants to represent in terms of policy (universal healthcare, minimum wage, etc) and therefore its candidates now lose the working class despite its policies being much more likely to benefit them than its counterparts. Sandel points out that Democratic representatives are now much more likely to be drawn from the credentialed class than from the uncredentialed:

Turning Congress and parliaments into the exclusive preserve of the credentialed classes has not made government more effective, but it has made it less representative. It has also alienated working people from mainstream parties, especially those of the center-left, and polarized politics along educational lines...Throughout much of the twentieth century, parties of the left attracted those with less education, while parties of the right attracted those with more. In the age of meritocracy, this pattern has been reversed. Today, people with more education vote for left-of-center parties, and those with less support parties of the right. The French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that this reversal has unfolded, in striking parallel, in the U.S., the U.K., and France. (pg. 101)

Just this segment of the book itself is worth reading. The second half of the segment asks the question, what is to be done, and there Sandel doesn't have any magical epiphanies to share. He suggests, for instance, that  elite colleges switch to a lottery system for determining entrance for all qualified applicants. Sure, that could work, but the impact of that would take a long time to be felt. He suggests a system of vocational education and apprenticeship (such as those in Germany) for those who aren't college material, so even bicycle repair or plumbing has dignity and a living wage (of course). He suggests a tax on financial transactions to reduce the outsized gains to the financial industry, which he points out doesn't actually do anything good for people at large. The problem with all these suggestions is that they are already policy statements and goals of The Democratic Party! If the problem is policy, the Democratic party already has those policies. The problem is perhaps that the party has been unsuccessful at getting people who can speak to the working class in representing them and getting those people in front of the voters, and Sandel has no solutions for that.

Nevertheless, the book is full of great points, and has made me rethink my previously unquestioning support for meritocracy. I think it's well worth reading for anyone teasing apart the aftermath of the 2020 elections.

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