Thinking. Writing. Philosophising.

Email Github LinkedIn

Merit and Fortune

Posted on January 29, 2021 — 7 Minutes Read

Once I was told that since there is no way for one to reasonably and reliably evaluate if a prospect would be a good match for a position in a job interview, however long or short the interview is and in whatsoever way and setting it is done, one might instead, given that the principal requirements are met, have both the interviewer and the interviewee draw a card from a deck and hire the prospect if he has a higher card, on ground that at least he has in this particular instance more luck than the other person at the table. Joke as it was, the concealed wisdom is the notion of fortune in life that the meritocratic society of today nonetheless leaves no room for.

Most evident of this meritocratic attitude is the hubris and sense of entitlement among those who prevail as well as the disdain and condescension towards those who are left behind, that Harvard law professor and political philosopher, Michael Sandel, explores in his book, The Tyranny of Merit, and traces its undoing to the rhetoric of rising on a false pretence of social mobility of the last four decades. While the notion that each in the society has the opportunity to rise to wealth and power celebrates human agency and freedom, it neglects the moral arbitrariness of market and of innate ability, as well as the unjust reality of class inheritance, that results in, as the British sociologist, Michael Young once writes in The Rise of the Meritocracy, a tyranny of merit, and a polarised public life of late in the United States, that is corrosive of the common good and, most importantly, of democracy.

Foundational to this tyranny is the success ethics developed in a long history of political philosophy and economic policy that aligns social merit or moral desert with market value, despite attempts to detach the two by the Austrian economist and Nobel Prize laureate, Friedrich A. Hayek who once advances free-market liberalism in The Contribution of Liberty that decouples moral desert and trade value, with no account nonetheless for working of the former that honours the distinction, and by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice who depicts instead egalitarian liberalism or welfare state founded on the difference principle which redistributes market rewards from those who prevail on moral arbitrary grounds to the least well-off that however neglects the implicit and demeaning judgement on those on the receiving end.

Further fuelling this success ethics are the meritocratic education institutions and the governing bureaucrats produced, who, among other things, lack the practical wisdom and the civic virtue to deliberate and pursue the common good that are, as Aristotle, one of the most influential ancient Greek philosophers, once writes, the basis of politics. Political disagreement is framed as a lack of information instead of the dissent in value that they are, or as a failure in detaching value-ladened opinions from face facts in negligence that the two of which are hardly divisible in the world as a meaningful whole. Education system on the false pretences of meritocracy and social mobility becomes a sorting machine that vindicates credentialism and induces anxiety, debilitating perfectionism and meritocratic hubris among the privileged tops while instilling a demoralising and humiliating sense of failure in those who are left behind. One remedy, Sandel suggests, to ease the meritocratic conceit and the dispirited sense of defeat instilled by the sorting machine is a form of admission lottery for those who meet a threshold qualification with an aim to reintroduce the element of chance and a sense of indebtedness most often neglected by the affluent even in light of donor influence and hereditary preference, that will for sure incite heated debates from both sides of the fence.

Witnessed also in the last four decades is the gradual increase in income and wealth inequality amid the neoliberal ideal of globalisation that shifts the economic rewards and social recognition from the working class to the well-credentialed the world over. Obsolescence from the loss of work and income, and most importantly, from the loss of a sense of relevance and belonging to the society, results in recent decades the horrifying deaths of despair for the working class left behind. Sandal traces the development of which as far back to the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, echoed by John Maynard Keynes and alike during the years, who once writes that consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer, which with a seemingly value-neutral appeal frames the common good as the sum total of all consumer preferences and interests, and reduces the economic policy and political agenda to distributive justice while neglecting the contributive side of work in a consumerist notion. Long forgotten was the Aristotelian or the civic notion, reinforced in the republican tradition, of human flourishing that depends on realising our nature through the cultivation and exercise of our abilities; that builds on critical reflection on consumption preferences and interests for the purpose of elevation and improvement instead of indulgence; that centres on deliberation of the notion of a just and good society that cultivates civic virtue and enables collective reasoning for the purposes worthy of the political community; that recognises the contribution and value of work for the moral and civic importance of the ends it serves instead of for the salary the market prizes on the contingencies of supply and demand; and that acknowledges the social recognition and esteem that contributive work commands, which resonates with the thoughts and writing of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher most notable for his work on German idealism, who conceives the labour market as a system of recognition and its purpose is to reveal work as a contribution to the common good with each vocation safeguarded by a minimum compensation.

Conversations need to be proceeded, Sandel urges, to recognise the contributions to the common good by all jobs and positions while civic and moral learning need be democratised to bring about morally reflective and democratic citizens that enable egalitarianism in civic informedness and reasoning across all classes and vocations that is most characteristic of America in its early days and is foundational to democracy. Wage subsidy for low-pay yet socially valuable jobs on a renewed political and economic agenda that aims to create a labour market conducive to the dignity of work and social cohesion is one of the many proposed corrective measures. Another is a reformed tax system to reconfigure the economy of esteem by discouraging speculation which by some estimate constitutes most of the financial activities in modern economies that hinders rather than promotes economic growth and by encouraging productive labour that is nonetheless taxed in some countries at a higher rate than financial speculation which raises question about the implicit moral judgment.

Chief of the moral questions underlying any economic and political arrangements are what kinds of work are worthy of recognition and esteem and what one owes to the others as citizens in a shared democratic society. Deliberation of these moral questions requires bonding and cohesion between each in the society as interdependent individuals, indebted to another with a shared common life, whose purposes and ends are to be reasoned together. This is nonetheless impossible in a society polarised by meritocracy, evident of the present age in the United States, on the problematic pretences of equality of opportunity which at best is a remedial principle and not an ideal for a good and just society, and of social mobility which is founded on a premise of escape that is in direct contradiction with the nature of a common life. One alternative to the equality of opportunity or of result, the two of which are as toxic as one another, Sandel suggests, is the equality of conditions of decency and dignity in work, learning, social status, and deliberation of civic and political affairs, as R. H. Tawney once writes in Equality, or as James Truslow Adams once writes in The Epic of America which coins the phrase American Dream, that hopefully will not require another four decades to carry through and that, God willing, will not be too late by then.