14 Sep 2021

Nights Philosophy- Success and Failure in a Meritocracy

From Nights, 7:12 pm on 14 September 2021

Philosopher Ann Kerwin joined Nights to discuss Michael Sandel's latest book - The Tyranny of Merit.

We think that in a meritocracy anyone can, with hard work and talent - irrespective of race, background or class - be successful. Research shows: increasingly, this is more fable than truth.

Sandel, who lectures at Harvard, started to ponder the idea after listening to comments made by his students.

Harvard business school is teaching classes in its MBA programme on Gravity Payments

Harvard business school is teaching classes in its MBA programme on Gravity Payments Photo: AFP

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Despite not being particularly conservative, more and more these young people felt they deserved the fruits of their efforts for attending such an elite establishment, Kerwin says.

It piqued a theme he had been exploring for a while in books on subjects such as justice - particularly distributive justice.

Who gets what has changed over the centuries, he observed, from royals, to nobility, to factory owners to the emergence of meritocracy gaining traction in the rising democracies.

"It was beginning to be held that people actually are equal inherently even if people are poor and born into straightened circumstances they have talent, they have intelligence, they are willing to work and so a good society allows people opportunity to advance on the basis of their merits," Kirwan says.

The rule of the meritorious offers people, ostensibly, social mobility and opportunity, she says.

And so, it came to be an accepted ideal that each generation would do better than the last, she says.

Sandel has reached the conclusion that meritocracy, however, is far from benign.

For the last 40 years in the US the median income has decreased, he observes, and the cost of living has risen.

The US is more unequal today than it was in the 1950s.

"Now being meritorious means being credentialled having a degree having a marketable degree.

"It's not about talent, a lot of people have talent, it's not about hard work, many of the so-called essential workers are extremely hard workers, they also are resourceful and intelligent."

It's what the market will honour, says Kirwan.

Half of Harvard's students come from the top 1 percent despite income not being a factor to admittance, Sandel says in his book, because credentialled parents offer children other privileges.

Meritocracy is not working, he argues because the results are the opposite and meritocracy leads to 'overwheening hubris'.

"We did make it by our own efforts, we weren't dependent on anybody."

Sandel argues that we need to restore the dignity of labour.

"Stop looking at the venture capitalists and the corporate accountants and specialist lawyers and university people as the top of the heap, because their work is so much more valuable, he says that isn't true," Kirwan says.

Sandel espouses in his book, she says, the building of economies that are for the common good.