You Can Make It If You Try!

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. 

Sandel writes:

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.

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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:

Ha, if you can say the words privilege and diversity with an earnest face, you may not be a seeker of moral truth but rather a woke leftist ideologue who wants to control the lives of others. 

Finally, Freddie DeBoer had some interesting observations on social justice:   

Back to our truth quest Tuesday.

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Arc of the Moral Universe

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!

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Hubris and Humiliation

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.

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Aunt Becky and Michael Young

The introduction to Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit – What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020) begins with a discussion of the recent college admissions scandals.   Actress Lori Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky in the TV series Full House, spent 2 months in jail for cheating to get her daughter into a prestigious university.  Sandel points out the irony of coveting displayed merit from a fancy college degree by those who pursue admission without merit – fraudulently.

British sociologist Michael Young wrote The Rise of Meritocracy (1958) coining the term meritocracy in a mocking, pejorative manner – warning of a future dystopian society that will be bad for everyone.  He argued against meritocracy until his death in 2002.  His ideas are discussed at length in Sandel’s book.  Incidentally, Michael Young’s son, Toby Young, was one of the cancelled writers from our last project, Panics and Persecutions (2020), and is now an editor for  Toby’s ideas on meritocracy were discussed in Helen Andrew’s Hedge Hog Review anti-meritocracy article, which I mentioned last week.

Sandel writes in The Tyranny of Merit:

College admission is not the only occasion for arguments about merit.  Debates about who deserves what abound in contemporary politics.  On the surface, these debates are about fairness:  Does everyone have a truly equal opportunity to compete for desirable goods and social positions?

But our disagreements about merit are not only about fairness. They are also about how we define success and failure, winning and losing – and about the attitudes the winners should hold toward those less successful than themselves.  These are highly charged questions, and we try to avoid them until they force themselves upon us.

Let’s force these questions upon us for the next 2 months!  We’ll dig deep down into this harsh aspects of humanity.  We’ll see that human reality is not very nice.  …But it’s all we got – despite lamentations from Ivy League professors.  Maybe Aunt Becky should have contemplated meritocratic moral philosophy during her 2 months in prison?

Stay tuned – things are heating up:

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One of the advantages of writing a blog about the same thing (why it’s moral and rational for my clients to own the wealth they do) every week for 6 years is that you come across the same authors/books/articles/ideas again and again.  Ideas about truth, justice and moral philosophy are all interconnected.  Knowledge on these matters (despite being controversial) continues to be articulated, reinforced and shared by writers who are paying attention.

We’re beginning a new project on meritocracy, a topic getting a lot of press lately.

The Hedgehog Review is a journal out of the University of Virginia.  It gets its name from an ancient Greek aphorism:  “The fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”.  I discovered this most excellent publication after studying the book Science and the Good:  The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (2018), which I blogged through 4/9/19 – 5/28/19 [that book stemmed from an article in The Hedgehog Review].

This Hedgehog piece on meritocracy:

caught my attention and that of blogger Matthew Yglesias

Helen Andrews’ article is still on the front page of The Hedgehog Review web site – and it’s from 2016.  It’s noteworthy.  Yglesias is a smart guy but he misunderstands wealth morality as it relates to the idea of marginal utility [wealth redistributionists think that the marginal dollar taken out of a wealthy person’s pocket and given to someone in need will increase overall human flourishing].

To the contrary, as we’ve learned from Game Theory and Scott Alexander’s Mistake Theory vs. Conflict Theory dichotomy, the notion of overall marginal utility is wrong.  Von Neumann and Morgenstein pointed this out in the 1940’s:  “the popular misunderstanding about this pseudo-maximum problem is the famous statement according to which the purpose of social effort is the ‘greatest possible good for the greatest possible number’.  A guiding principle cannot be formulated by the requirement of maximizing two (or more) functions at once.  Such a principle… is self-contradictory.  One function will have no maximum where the other function has one.”  It’s like saying that a business should pursue maximum revenue and minimum expense.  Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944).

The best articulation on why meritocracy is rational, moral and, in fact, the way things are – is from Scott Alexander:

A new book from Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel sets its cross hairs on meritocracy and is worthy of our attention here:  The Tyranny of Merit – What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020). Sandel is the flute justice guy (remember Aristotle’s flutes?).  He and other academics see justice as utilitarian but underestimate the inefficiency of the corrupt, bloated monstrosity that is our Federal Government.  Government is not a force for good.  It is an insurable hazard (read my 10/13/15 post).  We are each independent moral and rational agents.  The common good cannot be coerced by a collectivist State.  We’ll begin our journey through Sandel’s book next week.

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Sad Offense Archaeologists

This is my last post on cancel culture.  It’s sad and not worth further time.  Next Tuesday, I begin a new research and writing endeavor on meritocracy.  Join me on an 8 week knowledge expedition deep down into the murky waters of moral philosophy and normative economics.

The final section of our current project, Panics and Persecutions (2020), includes the essay, “Sad Radicals”, by a former anarchist, taking us into the minds of those who wallow in cancel culture.   It made me feel sorry for the cancellers.  Hearing from a “deprogrammed” radical social justice warrior provides insight into what goes on in the heads of the woke.  He cites the book Joyful Militancy (2017) in attempting to explain the radical toxicity – a paranoid, depressing morality that “binds and blinds”*.  The toxicity of cancel culture is not a bug to them, it’s a feature.  They operate in a “paradigm of suspicion”.   

Cancellers pore over prior interactions, looking desperately for ways the mundane conceals oppression.  They see every communication as containing hidden violence because of their obsession with power and domination.  Freddie DeBoer calls them “offense archaeologists”.  The canceller’s moral standing can only be maintained by attacking the moral standing of others.  They are trapped in this mindset because of an absolute refusal to engage opposing views.  Ideas that counter their worldview are met with kafkatrap – claiming that opposition to their viewpoint proves their viewpoint. 

Young adults are ensnared by these bad ideas when they see cruelty, malevolence and unfairness in the world, rejecting a society that tolerates oppression.  They cannot contend with opposing ideas, and instead vigorously try to silence them.  They are not seekers of truth; they are guardians of a radical ideology, ready to cancel any opposition in a zealous pursuit of what they think is justice.  But there is no justice without wisdom, and no wisdom without surrender to uncertainty in the pursuit of truth.

After showing us what being in this mindset is like, the author speculates on where it comes from and why it spreads so effectively.  “Does it give purpose to a generation without meaning?  Is it intra-class competition among overproduced elites?  Is it some byproduct of economic precarity?   He concludes that cancel culture will continue despite its incoherence, false assumptions and not knowing where it comes from.  It’s not going away because, as a philosopher once said of capitalism:  “No one has ever died from contradictions”.

* Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (2013).  A canceller’s entire identity and value as human is tied to validating their wokeness.  The fact that they engage in militant cancellations and crave mob approval to be happy is sad indeed.  As one commenter puts it:   “I think it’s a deep sign of personal unhappiness – caused by an inner lack of purpose, meaning and fulfillment through personal and family relationships – which causes someone to heed the clarion call to radically reengineer society using force and coercion to re-order the lives of others. It’s a sign that young people are desperately unhappy that they fall for such nonsense.”

EDIT – This is a great article that gets right down to what’s happening to our culture:

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Can’t Cancel Art

Cancel culture is primarily a project of the political left.  It is an ongoing attempt to forcibly impose ideas onto those who do not share woke leftist views or values.  The essay “Policing the Creative Imagination” from Panics and Persecutions (2020) explains how and why they try to cancel writers of fiction literature.  The publishing industry is so terrified of cancel culture that they are now hiring “sensitivity readers” – people who are assigned to read a yet to be published work of fiction to determine whether or not offense is likely to be caused by the author’s portrayal of characters considered marginalized or historically oppressed.

This is clearly censorship even though the cancellers claim it’s merely a form of fact checking.  But it’s not analogous to hiring experts to check scientific or historical facts because it’s moral – someone’s view of right and wrong is used to censor fictional characters.  There is a critical distinction between fact and value – what is vs. what ought to be.  This is what makes the idea of sensitivity readers so insidious.  Someone chosen by leftist ideologues is given power to evaluate social norms and ideas that are highly contentious and change over time.

These are profoundly important questions about individuals and society, how different groups should live together, how we understand our identities and histories.  Questions about humanity and morality have been around for thousands of years.  These crucial questions are precisely the ones we expect literature to explore.  And it cannot perform this vital mission if it is first filtered through sensitivity readers who believe they already have all the answers – not because of what they know, but because of who they happen to be.

We’ll finish our cancel culture probe next week and then embark on a philosophically more capacious, more controversial notion that I’ve touched on here before – meritocracy.  Newly published material merits a more thorough War Chest exploration of why it’s fair for my clients to have an estate to plan.

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Can’t Cancel Science

This image is a 1633 message from Galileo Galili to today’s cancelers of science.

The 20 cancellation stories in Panics and Persecutions (2020) are quite memorable.  Anyone reading them won’t forget the awful ordeals these people endured after being targeted by the leftist mob.  The tales that struck me as particularly outrageous were when the mob attacked science and math.   It’s one thing to cancel entertainers, humanity academics, fiction authors and people who knit (I’m not kidding – one of the stories is “Knitting Infinity War on Instagram”); …but scientists and mathematicians?!  The essay “Dangerous Life of an Anthropologist” is a fascinating glimpse into the ‘unforgiving battlefield of the science wars’.  A recurring theme throughout cancel culture, as it relates to science, is the Nature vs. Nurture debate.  It’s actually not a reasoned debate – it’s a take-no-prisoners, scorched earth, hill on which leftists die – reason, logic and science be dammed.

Anyone who is rational can see leftists getting slaughtered on their hill to die on by science and reason.  The vitriolic hostility of the Nature vs. Nurture debate is really the dying screams of an ideological group scrambling to silence what everyone else takes as an incontrovertible fact:  humans, just like every other species on earth, have a nature.  A schism on the intellectual battlefield violently divides those dedicated to the science of mankind – anthropologists; from those opposed to science who still pretend that they are anthropologists (postmodernists vaguely defined or activists disguised as scientist who seek to place advocacy above objective truth).

The cancelers disguise their increasingly anti-scientific activism as research by using obscurantist postmodern gibberish – illogical deception.  Galileo famously said “By denying scientific principles, one may maintain any paradox”.  He recognized the inevitable cognitive dissonance of science deniers.  Science wins.  Cancel culture loses.

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You Say You Want A Revolution


Ben Shapiro wrote on 2/24/21:

Institutional power in the U.S. is dominated by authoritarian leftists who seek top-down censorship and believe their progressive worldview is the only one that matters. These individuals believe in launching a revolution designed at tearing down the so-called “hierarchies of power.”


Claire Lehmann understands that it is NOT a revolution — she writes in the introduction to Panics and Persecutions – 20 Tales of Excommunication in the Digital Age (2020):

The radicalization of today’s progressive left…can’t be described as “revolutionary,” because it doesn’t offer any real alternative to traditional politics.  Look beyond the street protests, the vandalized statues, the cancelation campaigns, the exotic theorems of intersectional identity; and one finds that the actual political demands are either ludicrous (“abolish the police”), meaningless (“decolonize our cities”), or simply represent further extrapolations of established progressive polices, such as hiring quotas, affirmative action in education, and enforced equity-training sessions.


…modern social justice proponents .…dwell on the theme of oppression, but have no realistic theory about how to alleviate it.  And since their power typically extends only to the representational aspects of life – the hashtags we are allowed to use, the books we are allowed to write, the clothes we are allowed to wear, the acceptable names for buildings and streets, the pronouns people must recite – these are the subject of their most passionately expressed grievances.


Political cults (like today’s progressive left) set forth unchallengeable doctrines, which makes them unstable.  They offer a totalizing theory of good and evil that conflates ideological correctness with moral worth.  Cancel culture is the Left’s attempt to control and impose thought.  It is clearly immoral, which is why they do not defend it.  Instead, they are forced to deny cancel culture exists altogether*.  Thankfully, there are thinkers who are not dependent on the coercive purveyors of anti-knowledge temporarily in control of our institutions.


I’m not worried about a revolutionary change to our legal/economic system.  I do, however, share Claire’s concern about the abominable number of arrogant smart people attempting to suppress free thought and free speech in their grubby grab for power.  Fortunately, their power is largely performative, symbolic and inane (cancelling things like syrup, toys and children’s books).  Today’s cancel culture is not like the 1960’s, which led to positive social change and the civil rights revolution.  It’s just a reality denying group of narrow minded individuals who just so happen to be in charge… for now.  It cannot last because of the inherit instability of a Narrative that not only  refuses to engage dissent, but also actively and viciously suppresses, cancels and attempts to destroy anything that runs counter to it.


What’s going on is not a revolution – it’s just an obvious authoritarian collectivist grasp for power via censorship.  I can’t tell you how glad I am that I do not work for a woke university, corporation or mainstream media propaganda outlet that could cancel me if the woke mob found out what I was up to here (independent thought, free and honest expression). How’d you like to work for a corporation that orders you to be less white?  Intersectionality nonsense is not a revolution.  It is a pathological error in human thought. Humanity will soon be cured of it once enough cognition antibodies spread throughout the marketplace of ideas.

The cancelers take themselves extremely seriously, imagining themselves to be social-justice angels whose holy ends justify every imaginable means. Their sanctimonious spirit is something to behold.  I’m glad the insidious conceit is temporary, not revolutionary.


*The articles I see denying cancel culture are ridiculous.  Claire’s book details 20 stories of cancellation.  The National Assoc. of Scholars database cites 128 cancellations.  documents 173 cancelled minds.  …. so far.  Arguing that cancel culture doesn’t exists makes the arguer look silly – part of the self-deluded, immoral, gleeful savagery and joyful militancy that is today’s political left.  They deserve to be mocked.

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