Saturday, October 24, 2020

Michael Sandel's Tyranny of Merit

I haven't yet read his newest book, but Michael Sandel is everywhere these days promoting his new book. An excerpt from a Guardian interview:

Sandel charts the rise of what he sees as a corrosive leftwing individualism: “The solution to problems of globalisation and inequality – and we heard this on both sides of the Atlantic – was that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their effort and talents will take them. This is what I call in the book the ‘rhetoric of rising’. It became an article of faith, a seemingly uncontroversial trope. We will make a truly level playing field, it was said by the centre-left, so that everyone has an equal chance. And if we do, and so far as we do, then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work will deserve their place, will have earned it.” The recommended way to “rise” has been to get a higher education. . . . 
Sandel has two fundamental objections to this approach. First, and most obvious, the fabled “level playing field” remains a chimera. Although he says more and more of his own Harvard students are now convinced that their success is a result of their own effort, two-thirds of them come from the top fifth of the income scale. . . . "Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults.” . . . [Secondy,] even a perfect meritocracy would be a bad thing. “The book tries to show that there is a dark side, a demoralising side to that,” he says. “The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.” Centre-left elites abandoned old class loyalties and took on a new role as moralising life-coaches, dedicated to helping working-class individuals shape up to a world in which they were on their own. “On globalisation,” says Sandel, “these parties said the choice was no longer between left and right, but between ‘open’ and ‘closed’. Open meant free flow of capital, goods and people across borders.” Not only was this state of affairs seen as irreversible, it was also presented as laudable. “To object in any way to that was to be closed-minded, prejudiced and hostile to cosmopolitan identities.” . . . 
The Covid-19 pandemic, and in particular the new appreciation of the value of supposedly unskilled, low-paid work, offers a starting point for renewal. “This is a moment to begin a debate about the dignity of work; about the rewards of work both in terms of pay but also in terms of esteem. We now realise how deeply dependent we are, not just on doctors and nurses, but delivery workers, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, lorry drivers, home healthcare providers and childcare workers, many of them in the gig economy. We call them key workers and yet these are oftentimes not the best paid or the most honoured workers.” There must be a radical re-evaluation of how contributions to the common good are judged and rewarded.. . . “We need to rethink the role of universities as arbiters of opportunity,” he says, “which is something we have come to take for granted. Credentialism has become the last acceptable prejudice. . . . A new respect and status for the non-credentialed, he says, should be accompanied by a belated humility on the part of the winners in the supposedly meritocratic race. To those who, like many of his Harvard students, believe that they are simply the deserving recipients of their own success, Sandel offers the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding… but time and chance happeneth to them all.” . . . "R.H. Tawney argued that equality of opportunity was at best a partial ideal. His alternative was not an oppressive equality of results. It was a broad, democratic ‘equality of condition’ that enables citizens of all walks of life to hold their heads up high and to consider themselves participants in a common venture."

Sandel is up there with Charles Taylor and several other philosophers concerned with the extreme individualism that we've landed on. One recent study found that the more individualistic a culture, the higher the Covid rate as, 

"people do less social distancing, and are less likely to decrease their activities . . . having quite an individualistic culture is going to reduce compliance with state lockdown policies. . . . If I have a high level of individualism, I don't care as much about how my actions are going to generate negative effects for others. So, I might be carrying the virus, but I don't really factor the negative impact of my behaviour into my decision-making."

So, maybe that will be enough to shift that back closer to a more reasonable area of concern for one another and the common good in general. 

Then the Partially Examined Life also interviewed (and argued with) Sandel (abridged and reworked below), where he clarifies the connection between merit-based ideologies and neo-liberal politics. 

The PEL guys start by describing the book as a genealogy of merit that looks at the history of the words and phrases we use to convey this idea and offers a useful language for discussing it. When it comes to questions of justice, the focus is not just on redistributive justice, but the re-allocation of status and recognition. Meritocracy produces a hubris in winners an a self-deprecation in losers that encourages both ends to believe they deserve what they get based on their talents and ability to produce useful commodities. It's unhealthy for the elites as it leads to a stressful continuous competitiveness that leads to helicopter parenting, and it's unhealthy for people at the bottom as they're actively humiliated if we all believe in a connection between success and effort. The fundamental criticism of meritocracy is that it's just another mechanism with a conceit behind it that once it gets going, it will work automatically with just minor tweaking along the way, but that mechanistic model of society that suggests the possibility of a value-neutral structure is a myth. 


I take up Hayek and Rawls. They are ideologically regarded as opposites. Both reject the idea of meritocracy or that market society and justice is a matter of giving people what they deserve. Hayek says when contributing to the economy, results should not be misunderstood to be based on merit since who makes the most in a market society will reflect the accident of having talents to provide a scare product or service. Rawls says the distribution of talents is arbitrary, so earnings we make reflect contingencies that are no doing of the person. Both reject meritocracy, and yet both offer alternative accounts of who gets ahead that lend themselves to attitudes towards success at the heart of the current anger and resentment. For Hayek, it is hard to tell people that you contributed the greatest value, but don't take that as a reflection of your merit. It's a hard position to sustain with regard to social esteem. Similarly Rawls rejects moral desserts, but affirms entitlements to legitimate expectations. If you fulfill the rules of the game, then you're entitled to winnings even if you don't morally deserve them, but that, too, makes it difficult not to assign prestige or honour to those who land on top. Both the right and left lack the resources to identify and challenge the anger, resentment, and grievance of those the elites are looking down on.

The question becomes if it is possible to separate the question of justice from question of social recognition and esteem and what contributions are valuable. If justice is entangled with those questions, then one way to describe the mistake is in thinking that it is possible to define a just society in a way that rejects the conception of the Good. Once we get into a debate about which contributions to the common good are valuable, we're already trespassing on the conception of the Good. One central point against meritocracy is the idea that the money people make is a measure of their contribution to the common good in a labour market that's fair. But I'd say it's a mistake to assume that money made is an accurate measure at all. We have outsourced moral judgments to the markets. The only way to take up this question is to debate together as citizens around what contributions really are valuable, and then we cannot avoid discussing what purposes and ends we care about.

It's not a matter of engineering or indoctrinating the public, but of rethinking what counts as value and reconfiguring the economy as an alternative to assuming the market can answer the question for us in a morally defensible way. That values are not biologically determined is illustrated by the fact that social valuation changes over time. During the pandemic, we have a much greater appreciation of the importance of contributions of people now called essential workers: not just in hospitals, but delivery workers, truck drivers, etc. not traditionally best paid or most honoured, but now we've seen greater recognition and appreciation of essential workers. This could be an opening for broader public debate around how to reconfigure the economy involving public debate around how to do that.

In so far as we rely on markets to tell us what jobs contribute the most, we make a mistake because markets get it wrong. Outsourcing moral judgement deprives us of language we need around moral reflection and reflecting on social purpose and ends, and deprives us of the habits we need to discuss contestable questions of the common good. We as democratic citizens should reclaim this terrain of moral debate from the markets and economists.

Then he got to the a good bit about where this idea came from, this market version of value. I remember as a kid that we had a whole lot more talk about our character, integrity, being reliable, your word meaning something, all that stuff. It wasn't just from my parents and teachers, but it was in the media. What we owned really didn't matter as much as whether or not we were good people. I don't think I just imagined that. And Sandel explains this new trend as he answers questions around to what extent can we even change all this:

Rhetoric is significant. We need to take it seriously and can learn a lot from it and the way it change in political and public discourse. Ideas can come so familiar and uncontroversial that we forget the questions they express or embody. For example, the rhetoric of rising up: the idea that everyone should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them. We hear it so much that we have an article of faith. Who could be against this idea? And yet it's a relatively recent phrase with a history that is revealing. It only comes in in the 1980s with Reagan and more frequently in the 90s and 2000s with Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Clinton. I tracked the rise in incidents, which is revealing. It is a mainstay of public discourse at exactly the time of deepening inequality, of expanding markets and free movement of capital and people over borders and deregulation of corporations. As inequality deepens, the way the mainstream parties reacted was not by trying to reconfigure the economy, but by offering an individual upward mobility of a college education. This phrase of "upward rising" and going to college, of "what you earn depends on what you learn," reflects a stance towards inequality that was deepening. If you go to college, you too can rise. It offers an upward mobility as an inadequate answer to inequality.

Seen against this backdrop, it is a contestable and inadequate response to deepening inequality to last four decades. Two-thirds of Americans don't have a college degree. It sets up a necessary precondition that most people don't have. 

There's a tendency for the successful to inhale too deeply their own success: a smugness, hubris that contributes to the tendency. Working people who complain that elites look down on them are not wrong. We need to recognize that we woefully underinvest in learning that we most rely on to contribute to society. We need to massively increase investment in vocational training and community college programs and change the skewed honour to universities, like Harvard or Yale. This is more of a problem in the U.S. and Britain than in Europe or Canada. It's not a utopian idea that's contrary to nature, but just the way we chose to organize society to make higher education the arbitrator of opportunity. It doesn't have to be this way, and it's better for colleges and universities to be relieved of this burden. It damages education if it's overly preoccupied with a sorting function. It begins to crowd out the educational mission. The tyranny of merit point in two direction: it's exerted by winners over those left behind, but it's also in the wounded winners who manage, whose high school years are a stress-strewn high pressure gauntlet. It leaves them wounded and obsessed with jumping through hoops and satisfying demanding parents and teachers, so by the time they arrive in college, it's hard for them to step back to think, reflect, and figure out what's worth caring about, to overcome hubris, and have a more generous public life instead of a deeply polarized politics. 

The PEL guys point out that it also affects the millions who went to school and didn't come out with a job, who bought in to the lie and were left behind. Education is not a predictor of usefulness in the job market. Google and other tech companies are now looking at what people can accomplish instead of their school credentials. It used to be that universities exposed people to certain desirable ideas, but now they're more of a factory system. 

Sandel ends with a caution to rethink meritocratic hubris and appreciate the role of luck in life to order to practice humility and a more generous public life. It reminded me of a book I love, published 12 years ago, The Drunkard's Walk, which takes a statistical look at the role of luck in success. If we can just recognize, consistently, that any success or failure is, at least partially attributable to luck of the draw, then it can slowly take us away from the problems of our belief in a functioning meritocracy.

ETA: Just up also "The Myth of Meritocracy" about Peter Mandler's book The Crisis of the Meritocracy, which appears to be more of a history of the British school system than a look at the myths we live by.


Owen Gray said...

Sandel has, for years, taken on some of our favorite myths, Marie. May he continue to do so.

Marie Snyder said...

And he's a fantastic lecturer!