Book Reviews

Review – Tyranny of Merit by Prof Michael Sandal

What kind of world would you want if you didn’t know whether you will be born to a rich or poor family?

This is a question few of us ask today, especially if you are a wealthy or a high earner, from the right side of the tracks.

The latest book by Harvard Professor of Philosophy Michael Sandal is a timely warning that a well-meant focus on meritocracy has gone wrong. Inequality has deepened, opening wide rifts in society. People in despair, failed by traditional politicians from both right and left, have flown to the extremes. Dark clouds of dictators and demagogues are threatening democracy.

People in despair, failed by traditional politicians from both right and left, have flown to the extremes.

Adverse impacts of meritocracy have been exacerbated by other trends over the past 40 years. Globalisation and automation have reduced the number of higher-paying manufacturing jobs traditionally filled by blue-collar workers. The power of multinationals and high-earners has increased due to well-funded lobby groups and laws allowing unlimited spending on political contributions in the USA. The financialisation of the economy has seen obscene income and wealth flowing to a few traders in financial products that add little or no value to the economy. Reducing levels of taxation for high earners, investment incomes and capital gains have increased income and wealth gaps.  Lower tax revenues and demonising the poor have reduced social benefits and services like health and education. The reduced power of unions has slowed growth or decreased the real wages of workers.

Meritocracy, Globalisation, Automation, Financialisation, Tax changes, Reduction of welfare benefits, Lobby Groups have widened rifts in our society.

The current wave of meritocracy started with Reagan and Thatcher. They believed that markets will deliver both economic growth and the fruits of the economy to all willing to work. Those who failed did so due to lack of effort and deserved to be poor. The problem deepened with Clinton and Blair, who tried to soften the impact on low-income earners rather than challenge the premise of a market-driven meritocracy. Both Liberal and conservative politicians have focused on meritocracy and education as the primary vehicle for advancement to achieve a good life in society

The economic and social policies adopted by Anglo-American democracies veered sharply away from those of Scandinavia and mainland Europe to an economy and country of winners and losers.

Achieving pure meritocracy, equality of opportunity is a fallacy. A wealthy family has many advantages; their children start miles ahead in the race of life. Better schools, private tutors, more parent support and access to resources far greater than a child from a low-income family. However, those reaching the top in our economy strongly believe that they did so due to hard work and merit, thus deserve outsize rewards. While those espousing meritocracy envisioned a society with higher social mobility and lower inequality, the actual results have been directly the opposite. More students come from families in the top 1% at Princeton and Yale than the bottom 60%. Two-thirds of admissions for Ivy league universities have come from families with earnings in the top 20%.

Pure meritocracy is a fallacy, children born in a wealthy family start the race of life miles ahead of the rest.

Parents of both rich and poor tell their kids that they will reach their goals if they work hard. The reality is different with sluggish economies, struggling families, poorly funded schools and the high college cost. Income mobility is low, leaving many stuck in these jobs, which are poorly paid and insecure. Profit maximisation rarely takes into account the social cost of laid-off labour.

The relentless focus on merit has impacted those on high incomes as well. Anxiety, depression and alcoholism have taken a toll.

While politicians from both right and left wings have repeatedly spoken about education as the primary vehicle for advancement, opportunities for a better education have decreased for those on lower incomes. Lower tax revenues reduced funding, lowered the quality of education, and made it more expensive by levying higher fees.

Whilst retraining has been promoted as the way forward for those displaced due to globalisation and offshoring, funding provided for this has been minimal. Economies of rural areas and small towns have been decimated. Deaths of despair have soared, along with social ills like drugs and alcoholism.

The rapid escalation of rewards flowing to winners of our society has sharply increased inequality between the elites and those on the bottom rungs, diminished the middle class. Manufacturing jobs that paid a reasonable wage have been replaced with low paid service and retail work. Earnings of blue-collar workers have declined or stayed stagnant while those for top ranks have surged ahead.

Low-income earners are looked down upon as losers by the elites and, at times, by themselves. The dignity of work and respect for them diminished. The value placed on middle-class jobs like teachers, nurses and police have reduced along with their salaries. College degrees are increasingly tied to income and prestige.

Higher wages and tax advantages are hardening into wealth passed onto the next generation. Establishing a hereditary aristocracy.

We need to reverse the trends of the past four decades, raise taxes, provide better essential services and pay better wages for those at the bottom. The lessons of history are clear; we ignore them at our peril.