“Merit” vs. Community

An Oxford professor of economics and public policy writes about “meritocracy and its critics” for the Times Literary Supplement:

What is going on with our conception of community? Amid the prevailing cacophony of mutual abuse, serious answers to that question are sorely needed and, belatedly, the cavalry is arriving. Communitarian intellectuals, who see a good society as a web of mutual regard rather than a random accumulation of entitled individuals, are beginning to turn the tide on decades of damaging ideas. Michael Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit, is a valuable reinforcement to this process: Sandel is the most important and influential living philosopher. And Sandel is not alone. For example, in The Third Pillar (2019), Raghuram Rajan, the world’s most respected financial economist, set out a powerful critique of our exaggerated reliance on states and markets: his missing third pillar was community. Many other similar analyses are out or currently in press: an intellectual cascade is under way.

Journalists have also caught up with community. David Goodhart’s new book, Head Hand Heart, critiques the excessive prestige awarded to cognitive skills, relative to equally demanding vocational skills, and the moral strengths needed for care work. In a telling statistic, the author shows that, in contrast to other European societies, the UK spends eight times more on training the cognitively gifted half of the population than on everyone else. . . .

The tide may be turning but Sandel and his fellow communitarians are all building on a long-dead, and mutually acknowledged, pioneer: The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) by Michael Young, the remarkable social activist who wrote the Labour Party manifesto of 1945. Young presciently realized that meritocracy would be even more socially divisive than the then-prevailing class system of inherited status. His essential insight, based on his experience as a social anthropologist in the East End, was that a fully meritocratic society, with widespread ladders by which “the best” could ascend, would create a new class of “the best”, thereby turning those left at the bottom into “the worst”, bereft of dignity.

And so it has proven. The costs are both physical and mental – physical as evidenced by the falling life expectancy recently documented by Anne Case and Angus Deaton in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism; mental as evidenced by the anger harnessed by populist politicians in recent years. For while the intellectual cavalry was still asleep, mavericks spotted it coming and offered snake oil remedies that identified the anxiety while proposing fantasy solutions, leading to the political mutinies that baffled and exasperated so many of the successful. Even in 1958, this argument was uncongenial to many on the Left. The Fabian Society refused to publish Young’s book; denial has since become more entrenched.

Sandel develops Young’s critique of meritocracy by tracing its history back to theological disputes between grace and deeds as the criteria for entry into heaven. In the fifth century Saint Augustine emphasized grace, arguing that we did not earn heaven but were granted it by God’s grace. Yet heaven as the reward for deeds kept reappearing. The sale of indulgences by the Church to finance St Peter’s helped to provoke Martin Luther’s rebellious insistence on grace. The same dispute then rapidly infected Protestants. John Calvin took the power of grace into the cul de sac of predestination: some were born blessed by grace and others were not. How could we tell who was blessed? Because they performed good deeds.

Repeatedly, Sandel argues, societies have veered into exaggerated respect for success. . . . Meritocracy intrinsically over-emphasizes the distinctive individual attributes of “the best”. And as those attributes in modern materialist society are exceptional cognitive ability and exceptional effort, the rich and successful have come to see themselves as uniquely clever and hard-working. And deserving. This attitude is Sandel’s target, and it has been the leitmotif of our times . . .

Yet something is lost in that translation of grace into a secular vocabulary. It is the need to transcend “me” and “now”. In short, Sandel offers a profound critique of individualism, making the case for the move away from self to community, from “my wants now” to “the common good”. By this approach we transcend ourselves neither by the utilitarian calculus of the biggest sum of utilities nor the Rawlsian contrivance of detachment from our place in society by a veil of ignorance, but rather through the satisfaction gained from fulfilling social obligations. . . . A healthy society would aim to equip everyone to be able to contribute in some way to our common good: an objective quite different from “let the best rise”. . . .

An efficient journalistic magpie, Goodhart picks out an eclectic range of telling evidence. On the rise of “my wants now”, he cites the sharp decline in moral language: the use of words such as “gratitude”, “humility” and “kindness”, he claims, drawing on a Google study of words published in books, has dramatically reduced over recent decades, to be replaced by more economic language. On his final page Goodhart cites recent research on measuring wisdom, not a social science concept but one used by psychiatrists. They find it, he tells us, to be unrelated to cognitive ability. Psychiatrists define wisdom as “concern for the common good”, the loss of which being where Goodhart ends and Sandel starts.

I end with my initial question. What Sandel, Goodhart and all the communitarians are lambasting is the recent division of society created by a cognitive route to success that belittles all else. . . . Sandel’s thesis is . . . accurately captured as one of “insiders” versus “outsiders”, a distinction first formulated in the analysis of the labour market. Insiders have habitually defended privilege from outsiders: see the professionals such as lawyers, medics and accountants, whose high earnings are protected by their various associations through control of entry (eg setting entry standards unnecessarily high to prevent delegation to the less skilled). But insider advantage extends far beyond the labour market: many of our aspirations are set by the prevailing narratives of the privileged. In Happy Ever After (2019) the behavioural scientist Paul Dolan . . . showed how unwarranted norms set by the insider class, such as the over-emphasis on cognitive achievement, condemn the outsider class to a loss of respect and self-worth. . . .

Insider privilege has become both educational and spatial: the cognitively endowed, clustered together in the metropolis, have life chances radically superior to those of the outsiders. And insider advantage, just like the class system that it replaced, replicates itself. By assortative mating and hothousing their children, the insiders pass their privilege on: they have rapidly become a hereditary caste. All have the opportunity to succeed but the insiders have decisively rearranged the ladders, while – especially on the Left – bemoaning the “inequality” for which [the insiders] are primarily responsible. Goodhart tells a story about the advice offered by senior civil servants to the Minister of Education during the UK years of austerity. It was to save money by closing the colleges of further education. The 8:1 differential in spending on tertiary education, in favour of universities, would become 8:0. Their justification was that “nobody would notice”. What they meant was that the insiders (such as they themselves) wouldn’t notice, since they sent their children to university.

Not before time, the smugly successful are getting their comeuppance: our understanding of contemporary society is finally changing. An insider with a belated conscience, as these disruptive ideas are absorbed by my class, I will try to resist the pleasures of watching hubris turn to nemesis.


I was suspicious about psychiatrists saying “wisdom” involves concern for the common good, but the American Psychological Association offers this definition

wisdom: the ability of an individual to make sound decisions, to find the right—or at least good—answers to difficult and important life questions, and to give advice about the complex problems of everyday life and interpersonal relationships. The role of knowledge and life experience and the importance of applying knowledge toward a common good through balancing one’s own, others’, and institutional interests are two perspectives that have received significant psychological study.

Will society ever devote fewer resources to cultivating the head and more to helping the hand and heart? Recent appreciation for workers who keep society functioning, not just doctors and nurses and medical technicians but truck drivers, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, nursing home staff, et al. seems unlikely to reorder society’s priorities unless government takes much more control of “the market”. Will more people’s merit be recognized and rewarded? Time and the results of future elections will tell.