This is our 11th week in a cognitive expedition through the notion of Meritocracy. I’ll keep going 11 more because the topic is so salient to reaching the extraordinary (and perhaps controversial) truth about wealth, work and human well-being. The brutally harsh truth about our socio-economic reality is that we live in a hereditary, aristocratic meritocracy, three important aspects of which are: 1) it is not going to change; 2) it is an efficient, rational mechanism for allocating societal resources; and 3) it is moral and just, despite the perceived unfairness, pain, misery (and death) it imposes.
Obviously some very prominent thinkers disagree, so I have painstakingly gathered the logic and philosophy leading to this conclusion. The “you’re just saying that to justify existing inequalities” retort does not diminish the conclusion. I am well aware of status quo bias. Here’s a recent article on that:
I account for possible bias here by being exhaustively thorough and by citing the authoritative work of many others on the topic. We just plowed through every chapter of Sandel’s book and will soon enter Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap (2019). We’ll eventually get to this book, just published 6/3/21: The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World (2021). by English writer Adrian Wooldridge. I have not studied it yet but it is now on the way to me from the U.K. Some of my intellectual heroes (Steven Pinker and Francis Fukuyama) write that it’s a really good book. And The Grumpy Economist (John Cochrane) just wrote about it on his blog. Here’s a link to the Wooldrige article promoting that book:
Next week, we hedgehog down into the book, The Meritocracy Trap – How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, from a Yale Law professor who argues that Meritocracy is a harmful but charismatic fetishization of heavily credentialled, highly skilled, highly paid, elite workers.
Michael J. Sandel’s final chapter and conclusion of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) zeros in on the intensely psychological foundation of work and wealth. It’s not the money. It’s dignity, respect and esteem. Anger and resentment from millions of hard-working Americans are understandable when politicians and snobby academics call them racist rednecks. Condescending elites belittle working class whites with talk of “trailer trash” and “fly over states”. Hillary Clinton’s comment about “deplorables” and Barack Obama’s about people who “cling to their guns and religion” are examples of open contempt for the working class. It’s psychologically damaging to them.
I agree with Sandel’s diagnosis but disagree with his solutions [which are to redistribute money to low-income workers and attack the finance industry]. A more practical solution would be to propagate an honest understanding of the psychology of wealth and work. Books like this one and Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap (2019) along with classic works on the philosophy of capitalism should be widely read (they’re not).
Society will be much better off when people come to terms with the true, honest nature of wealth and work. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904)* should be understood by most Americans (it’s not). And for those who cannot fathom the competitive and changing market for social esteem, Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) is illuminating, particularly in light of modern Game Theory. Markovits’ refers to Veblen in 10 different parts of his book. He digs deeply down into work/wealth psychology. It is to him we shall turn next week.
* The spirit of capitalism is not greed and consumption. It is the creation of order and the best use of resources. We prosper without central planning with the decentralization of knowledge. History, along with the work of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises demonstrate, without a doubt, that Government should not centrally manage the economy. Anyone who thinks otherwise ignores their arguments or is ignorant of human history. Government meddling in the private economy is not only an intellectual error, it’s murderous. Here’s a not-so-subtle article on that:
Chapter 7 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) is “Recognizing Work”. I’ve been writing about the philosophy of wealth and work on this blog since 10/9/14. Here are some sample past points:
7/30/20 Nietzsche on wealth and pretense – only a man of intellect should hold property; otherwise, the owner does not know how to make use of the leisure, which wealth secures.
3/6/20 Work is a calling, not wage-slave drudgery. Any Government imposed right to work or right not to work is not a right worth having.
10/18/19 Wealth is wasted on the dumb.
10/17/17 We should never take for granted our blessings of wealth, intellect and free time.
10/18/16 Idleness is immoral – too many people are succumbing to the sin of laziness.
12/4/14 Wealth and work are deeply interwoven into and are a function of time.
Work, wealth and time are different aspects of the same thing – sources of human flourishing. Life is brutally competitive. Meaningful work and ennobling leisure are vital to happiness and wealth, which gives one dignity, esteem and an intellectually stimulating life, enriched with moral and cultural astuteness. But not everyone can or should control the level of wealth required for this. Most people waste wealth, whether they get it from a government handout or lucky windfall. A majority of humans do not handle wealth prudently. Shakespeare’s adage “beggars mounted run their horse to death” comes to mind. I’ve seen it every day for last 26 years as a trusts and estates lawyer. Every estate plan I create provides careful wealth restrictions for the young, dumb and improvident.
I agree with Sandel that Meritocracy is mean, dooming millions to despair and listless idleness, but that is the human condition – has been for eons. You cannot “fix it” by shoveling other people’s money at the poor, which is 1) immoral; 2) inefficient; and 3) irrational. Inequality is here to stay. Sandel quotes Larry Summers (pg. 79): “One of the challenges in our society is that the truth is kind of a disequalizer. One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated close to the way that they’re supposed to be treated”.
Sandel complains about the lack of esteem in the masses but, by definition, esteem is respect and admiration from others. If everyone had esteem, it would not exist. Intellectual dignity is reserved for a minority of humans because its supply is limited. We shall delve deeper into this psychological reality in the coming weeks and see how non-cooperative game theory and free markets explain how who gets, earns or is lucky enough to win in the bloody boxing ring that Sandel calls “the economy of esteem”. [spoiler alert – cross generational wealth levels have reached Nash and Rat Race Equilibriums. It would take a global Black Swan Event to change things.]
More on work, the conclusion of this book and a companion book on the same topic next week.
EDIT – Here’s Arthur Schopenhauer on why only the wise should control wealth:
Chapter 6 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) is “The Sorting Machine”. Sandel has some interesting conclusions on meritocracy as it relates to: 1) higher education; and 2) work (the next chapter). These are fascinatingly intriguing issues being fiercely debated right now.
For example, Freddie DeBoer recently summarized his book The Cult of Smart (2020) here:
Despite DeBoer and Sandel’s moral outrage, there is sadly no alternative to having the smartest people doing the most important things. Some people are more intelligent and harder working than others. It’s economic reality. There will always be winners and losers. We can only strive to understand how and why via economics, moral philosophy and the growingly important knowledge found in information theory and game theory. Sandel’s book is an effort to temper the unpleasant reality that some people are smart/wealthy and some people are dumb/poor.
Sandel tries to make a case for much less competition and idealization of achievement in academia. He explains how colleges have become human sorting machines The old aristocracy of wealth and birth has been replaced by the “natural aristocracy”, which legitimizes extreme inequalities of merit. But birth still matters because meritocracy as not been an engine of social mobility; to the contrary, it now reinforces the advantages that “privileged” parents confer upon their children. [Endnote 26, Chapter 6 and endnote 14, Chapter 5 cite vast and growing literature documenting meritocratic generational advantage]
Universities have become the arbiters of opportunity in a meritocratic arms race, which Sandels argues is hurting the esteem of those sorted out and wounding those sorted in with unrelenting pressure to perform, to achieve, to succeed. Sandel’s proposal is to place much less emphasis on SATs and to treat merit as a threshold qualification in a “lottery of the qualified” type admissions process, where merit is not an ideal to be maximized. Sandel urges the dismantling of the sorting machine. He repeats the recurring argument that meritocracy leads to hubris among winners and humiliation among losers. He wants to chasten merit’s hubris and get the successful to stop believing those who lose out are less worthy than they.
Next week, we move from education to the second domain of today’s hierarchy of social esteem and economic success: Work.
Chapter 5 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) is “Success Ethics”. Sandel rounds the turn towards his conclusion in the last 3 chapters beginning with this one – a conclusion with which I respectfully disagree. He is a renowned philosopher of morality and justice, so I followed his reasoning carefully. He uses the term “morally unattractive”. A moral system, like physical attractiveness, is subjective, complex and nuanced – loaded with sophisticated individual tastes and preferences. And that is the problem with collectivist moral philosophy.
F. A. Hayek taught us that socialism can never work. Socialism (or any large-scale Government intrusion into private affairs for the “common good”, which is what Sandel urges) is morally unattractive no matter how sexy you dress it up. Morality based entirely on the “common good” always ends up with bad guys in charge doing bad things. Why? Higher intelligence and moral views in a person means their views will differ more – and the less likely they will be to agree on one hierarchy of values. Therefore, uniformity among collectivist thinkers requires descent into lower intellectual and moral standards – the lowest common denominator. Meritocratic attitudes about success and failure may be morally unattractive but collectivist solutions are even uglier.
Sandel relies on Rawlsian reasoning, which is utopian. We know our position in the economy. Pretending to be under a veil of ignorance is a make-believe world. Sandel is correct that meritocracy is unattractive psychologically – but there is no viable alternative. He argues that hubris and anxiety among the winners and humiliation and resentment among the losers are attitudes that are at such odds with human flourishing and corrosive of the common good that something must be done. But moral reasoning based on “you didn’t build that” (pg. 131) has no limiting principle – it’s a sinister slippery slope.
Here are some quotes from the chapter along with my reaction:
“Success rarely comes from hard work alone.” – obviously, but some of it does.
“Natural gifts and advantages embarrass the meritocratic faith.” – no they don’t; both natural gifts and hard work lead to a success.
“Being good at making money measures neither our merit nor the value of our contribution”. Really? None, not even a little?
“If success in a market economy depends heavily on luck, then it is hard to claim that the money we make is a reward for superior merit or desert.” Heavily does not mean entirely.
“…the affluent cannot legitimately object to redistributive taxation by claiming that their wealth is their due, something they morally deserve.” Yes we can. I do that here every week.
Sandel’s solution is substantially more Government intervention in the economy. But Government cannot be trusted. Re-read that quote from last week on climate change action objectors – it applies to wealth redistribution objectors as well. Wealth redistribution is morally unattractive. What’s morally attractive? The sexy Schelling fence protecting our wealth from Government confiscation and redistribution urged by slippery slope arguing academics.
Next week, on to the The Sorting Machine and Sandel’s prescription for higher education.
Chapter 4 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) is “Credentialism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice”. Upon reading it, I turned to my wife and asked – “Do you look down upon people who do not have a 4-year college degree? – Absolutely not”, she responded. And I fully agree with her – we have many close friends who never went to college and in no way do we think any less of them. Apparently, our smug leftist elites in power don’t feel the same way.
My parents, wife and both children have college degrees (my daughter’s graduation is May 23!). That does not make us morally superior. Chapter 4 of Sandel’s book and this article show that to be undeniable:
College credentials have been “weaponized”, as Sandel puts it, and are used as an all-purpose rhetoric of credibility, which is deployed in moral and political combat. Elites moralize success. If you are an economic winner, you are good person. If you are an economic loser, you are bad person; it’s your own fault for not going to college. Credentialism is an insidious prejudice against those who have not been to college.
Sandel explains that elites believe all economic problems can be solved by education; but that’s no answer at all; “it’s a moral judgment, handed down by the successful from the vantage of their own success. The professional class is defined by its educational attainment, and every time they tell the country that what it needs is more schooling they are saying: Inequality is not a failure of the system; it is a failure of you.”
There is no connection between prestigious academic credentials and practical wisdom or moral and civic virtue. That Tablet article I cited on 4/30/21 proves this point. The educated elite exhibit a careless detachment from the everyday lives of most Americans. Their conceit blinds them to reality. I pointed to Charles Murray’s diagnosis of their misunderstanding of human worth here on 2/23/21 from the end of his book Human Diversity (2020).
Elites just don’t get it. They deceive themselves into believing that they have a monopoly on truth and facts. Their technocratic conceit prevents reasoned debate and occludes what should be moral persuasion. Sandel ends the chapter on climate change. Most oppose government action on it not because they reject science, but “because they do not trust government to act in their interests, especially in a large-scale reconfiguration of the economy, and do not trust the technocratic elites who would design and implement this reconfiguration. These are not scientific questions to be answered by experts. They are questions about power, morality, authority and trust, which is to say they are questions for democratic citizens.”
Why would anyone trust the arrogant, morally vapid elites in government, academia and mainstream media who look down upon their fellow citizens with unearned condescension?
Chapter 3 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) is “The Rhetoric of Rising”. Meritocratic assumptions have deepened their hold on public discourse and the rhetoric of politicians. Sandel admits this is not all bad. If success is something we earn through effort and striving, then it’s empowering. Meritocracy celebrates freedom to control our destiny with hard work. If people are responsible for their position in life, not victims of forces beyond their control, then they deserve their self-made, self-sufficient success. But then he turns to the dark side.
The rhetoric of rising lost its luster in the 2016 populist backlash of 74 million angry Trump voters. They resent meritocratic elites, experts and professionals who celebrate free market globalization and reap the benefits, while those in the working class are left behind. The rhetoric of rising for them is less of a promise than a taunt. And astoundingly – they do not reject the rhetoric of rising because they reject meritocracy – no – they fully embrace it! Having worked hard to achieve a modicum of success, they accept the harsh verdict of the market and are morally invested in it.
But when politicians repeat something over and over again, people begin to suspect that it’s not true. The idea that effort and talent will carry you far now rings hollow. It produces two kinds of discontent: 1) frustration – when a system falls short of its meritocratic promise and those who work hard are unable to advance; and 2) despair – when people believe the meritocratic promise has already been fulfilled, and they lost out. They are demoralized because it’s their own fault.
Rhetoric is language intended to persuade and inspire but it is often regarded as lacking sincerity. Did the rhetoric of rising simply deceive people about social mobility? No. Rhetoric preys on their hopes and fears. To defend the rhetoric of rising one might argue that it is really about the opportunity to compete on equal terms, an ideal worth aiming at, not the way things are. But the rhetoric of rising overreaches. It begins as an ideal then slides into a claim about fact – starts out aspirational, then turns congratulatory.
This tendency to move from fact to hope and back again is not a slip of the tongue or philosophical confusion but a characteristic feature of political rhetoric. It plays out with special poignance in the rhetoric of rising. Its commingling of hope and fact muddies the meaning of winning and losing. If meritocracy is an aspiration, those who fall short can always blame the system; but if meritocracy is a fact, those who fall short are invited to blame themselves.
The rhetoric of rising elicits hubris (‘you can make it if you try’ from someone who has already made it); and humiliation (if you can’t make it, you are a failure). Next week, we turn to the diploma divide during this month of college graduations.
I’ll pause my perusal of Sandal’s book for a parenthetical on meritocracy and wokeness as it relates to the word “privilege”, and its social justice obverse, “diversity”.
Studying moral arguments sharpens an individual’s moral position, which is why I’m spending so much time on Harvard’s Sandal (and soon to be on his Yale fellow anti-meritocrat Daniel Markovits). There is a moral obligation to be intelligent and it takes effort. Here is an article on meritocracy and wokeness that gets right down to the nittty gritty of why individual morality is so essential, yet sadly eschewed by our arrogant elites in power and Ivy League college students:
I highly enjoy voluminous voluntary reading and writing about complex moral and economic issues. Unlike the author’s students in that article, I carefully read tons of books and articles for pure enjoyment and also to build a better moral sense – a sense that must be painstakingly built over a long period of time to produce a cohesive, mature, sophisticated personal ethic that is resistant to leftist social justice propaganda.
Many writers have now caught on to the moral emptiness of being “woke”. Legacy media continues to advance its deceptive agenda as other new and transformed online magazines like Quillette, Tablet, and many others, pursue moral truth. David Brooks recently wrote that there is a swelling wave of new publications pointing out the excesses of the social justice movement and distinguishing between those who think speech is a mutual exploration to seek truth and those who think speech is a structure of domination to perpetuate a system of privilege:
Here’s an article on the loaded word “privilege” from 2018:
Michael Sandel concludes Chapter 2 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) with a reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous line: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. Barack Obama loved that quote so much he cited it 33 times and had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. Merit is the quality of being good or worthy so as to deserve praise or reward. This chapter explores the history of whether or not merit is a moral and just way of allocating resources, praise and power among humans.
I enjoyed the chapter but disagree that meritocracy is purely evil. Sandel begins by explaining why meritocracy is a good, desirable, beneficial way of allocating resources: Efficiency, fairness and most importantly, human agency (freedom). But then he takes a contradictory turn towards tyranny, arguing that meritocracy is very bad. Why? His answer – human agency – too much of a good thing.
The promise of freedom, mastery and self-making is good… up to a point, Sandel argues. But holding people responsible to think and act as moral agents assumes we are wholly responsible for our “lot in life”. Sandel says the phrase “lot in life” is telling; like drawing random lots, our life is also determined by fate, fortune and faith. He discusses religious salvation and the Protestant reformation when Martin Luther got fed up with the Catholic Church letting people buy their way into heaven. Theology on whether humans determine moral reality or whether it’s solely God’s grace parallels today’s debate about whether people deserve their success or are just lucky. It’s obviously both. Sandel, and others who want to confiscate our wealth, slide down that all or nothing, “you didn’t build that”, slippery slope argument again and again. It’s like the nature vs. nurture fight. Humans are both nature and nurture and it’s silly to argue otherwise. We have and undeniable human nature and we are also at least partly, maybe not solely, responsible for our own successes and failures.
I wrote here on 9/24/19 regarding Obama’s “you didn’t build that” nonsense; quoting George Will:
“Something quite sinister is being done here. The banal fact that no person lives or thinks or works in a “vacuum” – the fact that everyone is situated in a society – becomes the basis for asserting a “vital dependence” of the individual on society. This, in turn, is said to justify declaring that there can be no suitable individual property right to intellectual work. The products of such work are, because of the individual’s immersion in society, properly regarded as inherently socialized. So individualism is attenuated to the point of disappearance, and society can claim ownership to whatever portion it feels entitled to of what individuals produce.
Obama and others are “pyromaniacs in a field of straw men”. They energetically refute propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context and all attainments are, to some extent, enabled and conditioned by contexts that are shaped by government. The more that individualism can be portrayed as a chimera, the more that any individual’s achievements can be considered as derivative from society, the less the achievements warrant respect. And the more society is entitled to conscript – that is, to socialize – whatever portion of the individual’s wealth it considers its fair share.”
That’s what makes the “you didn’t build that” argument fail so badly – there is no constraining idea that limits how much it can confiscate and redistribute – no moral or rational principle preventing autocratic tyranny. Anyone who is enough of a polemicist can take a slippery slope argument, erect a field of flimsy, flammable straw men and then mow them down with a flamethrower. But what makes this particular argument so egregiously evil is that it is used in an attempt to hurt people – to attack what they and their families have worked so hard and so long to build.
Next week, we move to the “rhetoric of rising” – you can make it if you try!
Arguments against Meritocracy are usually made in order to lay the groundwork to further argue for massive Government redistribution of wealth. That’s why it’s important to address them here (on a blog that relentlessly argues against the irrational, immoral coercive confiscation of private wealth in order to redistribute it to those deemed worthy by statist bureaucrats).
Chapter 1 of The Tyranny of Merit – What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020) by Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel is “Winners and Losers”. It lays the foundation for the rest of the book. His overarching thesis is that meritocracy results in a brutal psychological malady. Meritocracy’s winners exude striking arrogance and hubris while the losers are humiliated, depressed and deprived of social esteem. And that’s pretty much it. Sandel repeats and then builds on this thesis over and over again throughout the book. It is nonetheless worthy of our War Chest time to hedgehog down into the details because the moral, cultural and economic ramifications are astonishing. Meritocracy is an important, civilization quaking idea not just because of ballooning wealth inequality, but also more importantly because it breeds morally repugnant and psychologically unhealthy attitudes.
Today’s meritocracy has hardened into a hereditary aristocracy. The wealthy consolidate their advantages and pass them down to their children; because they can. Wouldn’t you? Sandel explains that the “morally unattractive” new attitudes that a meritocratic ethic promotes is not the result of inexorable forces (globalization, etc.). It is the result of how our technocratic elite have run things. They have produced a populist backlash, stagnant wages and undermined the dignity of honest work. The loss of social esteem and respect for those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder is a sad cause for concern.
Next week, we move on to chapter 2 – a brief moral history of exactly what ‘merit’ is.