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People Like Us

John Fanning

Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) is currently enjoying a renewed lease of life as we struggle to understand the 2020s and the rising tide of sullen resentment and at times violent anger that is a feature of so many societies today. Young’s dystopian book envisaged a future Britain in 2034, following a revolution a year earlier in which an underclass rose up against an elite meritocracy who had been ruling the country for decades.

Young used the term “meritocracy” in a pejorative sense but over the years it became an accepted concept signifying a fairer way to allocate societal rewards than more antiquated class- or cast-based systems. While the book represented a warning against meritocracy, in the intervening years it has come to be seen as a desirable goal, particularly among progressive politicians. Young himself was so outraged by this misrepresentation that he wrote a long rebuttal in The Guardian in 2002 saying he was “deeply disappointed” in Tony Blair’s constant references to meritocracy through “education, education, education” as the answer to all societal ills. His book was a warning about the problems that would ensue when a small minority favoured by the educational system effectively became a new ruling caste. Now, over sixty years after the publication of Young’s dystopian tale, that caste has become so embedded in Western societies that it has provoked the populist backlash he predicted. The consequences and possible remedies are now being discussed from a wide range of angles in a variety of new books on the subject.

One that has attracted headlines in the US is Deaths of Despair, by the husband and wife team of Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, which concentrates on one sub-group, 45-54-year-old white working class Americans who have been badly hit by the impact of globalisation on industrial jobs. Case and Deaton stress in particular the impact of loss of self-esteem arising from not only being unemployed but a feeling of inadequacy in not having a third level education degree. Mortality rates stopped falling in America around the turn of the century. The authors calculate that if the figures had continued to fall rather than halting, over 600,000 middle aged Americans who died of drug abuse, alcohol-related liver disease and suicide would have been saved. The authors are bitterly critical of the US healthcare system, which costs more and delivers less than most other countries, but they also blame the economic system, “more a racket for redistribution upwards than an engine of general prosperity”. Their proposed remedies include “remaking the system”, but apart from some minor tax changes, an increase in the minimum wage and increased taxes on the wealthy, they don’t suggest how this might be done.

David Goodhart’s Head, Heart, Hands covers similar ground from a UK perspective and he is particularly exercised by the graduate/non-graduate issue and its effect on the self-esteem and subsequent well-being of those who didn’t make the university cut. He divides human aptitudes into three categories, head (cognitive), hand (manual and craft) and heart (caring and empathetic). His main point is that cognitive skills have been overrated in relation to the other two, resulting in an undermining of the self-esteem of hand and heart workers and leaving the head sector with an over-inflated view of themselves. Apart from the now familiar cry for more attention to be paid to vocational education, this book, like most in this rapidly growing genre, is more of an attempt at diagnosis than cure.

Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit also examines this subject. Of the three books considered here it is not only the most comprehensive but the one that offers the most hopeful guidelines for a more equitable future. He is also the best known of the authors, referred to by The Irish Times as a “rock-star philosopher” (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). He has written before about the incompatibly between high levels of inequality and democracy and about the dangerous encroachment of market values into too many areas of modern life. He begins his new book with an account of the recent admissions scandal in the University of Southern California, where the triumph of meritocracy is illustrated by the increasingly desperate lengths American parents are going to in an effort to secure places at prestigious colleges for their children. In another case involving Yale University, a family paid $1.2m to secure their daughter’s admission as a soccer recruit ‑ despite the fact that she didn’t even play soccer. This is the inevitable consequence of an educational meritocracy determining winners and losers in a society where there are a decreasing number of elite jobs and an increasing disparity between the payment levels for those jobs and everyone else’s. Sandel argues that today’s meritocracy has hardened into a new hereditary aristocracy, the very outcome it was supposed to supplant, through a combination of associative mating ‑ doctors now marry doctors not nurses ‑ and a vice-like grip on the top jobs for their children through attendance at elite colleges and the securing of prestigious internships.

Sandel blames the education system for what he terms “the rise of credentialism”, where degrees and diplomas are weaponised to reward a minority and condemn everyone else to effectively second-class citizenship. He echoes some of the other writers on the subject by emphasising that the grievances felt by the left-behinds are not just economic but cultural and include a severe loss of self-esteem. The winners suffer from the opposite condition; hubris and a tendency to inhale too deeply on their own success, accompanied by a refusal to accept that their social elevation might owe a lot to luck. This leads on to a philosophical discussion between two alternatives to meritocracy, free market liberalism as championed by Friedrich von Hayek and welfare state liberalism as advocated by John Rawls.

Sandel is sceptical about both, believing Hayek to be too crudely dependent on market forces and Rawls to be taking insufficient account of people’s need for self-esteem as well as material welfare. He does offer his own redistributive proposals: some form of wealth tax and an attempt to curb the ludicrously inflated rewards in the financial services sector by a tax on high frequency trading. However, his most eye-catching suggestion is to award places in the elite third level colleges by lottery, which he argues would lower the stakes of winning admission making people who didn’t qualify feel less demeaned. The equivalent in Ireland, where it is the private secondary schools who are the main engines of inequality, would be a lottery for admission to the likes of Clongowes and St Michael’s.

This book makes it clear that an education system based on supposedly meritocratic principles is compounding rather than solving the problem of inequality. But the underlying radical message is that any solution will require a fundamental reappraisal of our economic and political assumptions. Sandel suggests that we are living with two flawed assumptions: that “education, education, education” will create more equality and that increased economic growth will lead to a more flourishing society. Most of the book is taken up with demolishing the first assumption but there is also a continuous thread throughout that the common good can only be revitalised by the adoption of a more vigorous civic republican philosophy. This branch of philosophy traces its roots back to Aristotle and the Greek polis. It requires the active participation of citizens to debate and create a flourishing society, putting the public good above private interests and placing less emphasis on individual rights or on homogenising communitarian values.

Sandel only alludes briefly to civic republicanism as a philosophy but there are regular references throughout to its precepts: Our social bonds and respect for one another have become unstuck ‑ we need to reimagine a politics of the common good ‑ the common good is about reflecting critically on our preferences, ideally elevating and improving them so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives, which can’t be achieved through economic activity alone and needs the cultivation of civic virtue.

One Irish politician who echoed Sandel’s concerns and sentiments was Bertie Ahern. He immediately grasped the significance of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which described the loss of civic engagement and community involvement in the US and he invited the author to address a Fianna Fáil meeting in Ireland. As a result of this commitment, he set up the Taskforce on Civic Action, whose report was published in 2007. The report began by acknowledging the problems that still existed in Irish society in spite of the economic transformation of the preceding decade; Many of the economic and cultural changes are welcome. Some are less welcome, especially those that have eroded aspects of community spirit and wellbeing. For example, concerns exist about the level of inequality in Irish society and its impact on solidarity between individuals and communities. It is not obvious that we are today more caring, engaged, friendly, relaxed and happier than we were in the recent past. Unfortunately, the report was buried under the avalanche of the 2008 recession. Perhaps it should be read again in conjunction with Sandel’s new book.  

Books referred to in this essay:
The Tyranny of Merit. What’s become of the Common Good? Michael Sandel. Allen Lane 2020.
Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Anne Case & Angus Deaton. Princeton University Press. 2020.
Hand, Head, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Esteem in the 21st Century. David Goodhart. Verso 2020.
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Robert Putnam. Simon & Schuster 2000.
Report of the Taskforce on Active Citizenship. Government Stationery Office Dublin. 2007.

John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the Smurfit Business School in Dublin.