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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Merit and Its Discontents

Political philosopher Michael J Sandel argues that the smug conviction of elite meritocracy is tearing our social fabric apart

Written by Ajay Singh | New Delhi | November 8, 2020 6:55:44 am
Brexit UK, Donald Trump election victory in 2016, The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J Sandel, meritocracy, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express newsPerhaps, the rising doubts about the metrics of merit would have remained confined to academic realms had it not been for the recent publication of The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J Sandel.

Author: Michael J. Sandel
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 288
Price: Rs 799

In this college-admission season, Pune’s Chirag Falor not only topped the advanced joint entrance exams for the Indian Institute of Technologies (IIT) — a dream for countless youngsters — but went a step further and said no to the IITs as he has already secured admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the midst of this celebration of merit, another news story that was barely noticed was the death of Arif Khan, an ambulance driver who relentlessly ferried the bodies of COVID-19 victims from Delhi’s Hindu Rao hospital to crematoriums for over three months. The sole breadwinner of his family, Khan slept in his van all this while so as to save his wife, two sons and two daughters from the infection. However, he eventually fell prey to the virus. His accomplishments were as crucial to our society as those of any super-achiever, if not more. His job, though, is not considered to require merit.

Merit — presumably a mix of nothing but intelligence and hard work — can open the right doors; first, in education, then in career. But in this maddening race of life, those who qualify to be called meritorious leave behind a sulking majority by monopolising economy and political power.

It is nobody’s argument to undermine the importance of merit and glorify privation. But it is equally important to take a hard look at the manner in which we view society in a binary of winners and losers. In 1958, British sociologist and politician Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” with his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. He predicted that a society based on meritocracy would eventually mutate into a dystopia. Young’s thesis found few takers until French economist Thomas Piketty’s widely acclaimed Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), elucidated the widening gap between the affluent and the poor. Just as wealth is largely inherited and remains accumulated in a few hands, so could be the case of merit.

Perhaps, the rising doubts about the metrics of merit would have remained confined to academic realms had it not been for the recent publication of The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J Sandel, a doyen of political philosophy at Harvard. The starting point of his argument is the admission scam that rattled the US last year. The federal prosecutors charged 33 wealthy parents with cheating in securing admission of their wards in elite universities like Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California. In almost all the cases, parents had devised a workaround in collusion with an agent. They subverted standardised tests like SAT by boosting scores of their children after faking them as “recruited athletes” by bribing coaches. Pictures were photoshopped to make the claims look genuine. In such an extreme case of “helicopter parenting”, rich and powerful parents can easily tweak the terms of merit to get their wards admitted in the world’s top-ranking institutes.

These irregularities point to deeper anomalies in the system that identifies those with merit. Sandel offers a new insight into what exactly defines merit. Take, for instance, the manner in which he describes the tests that are meant to devise the exact measure of merit. He concludes with authority that “standardised tests such as SAT purport to measure merit on its own, so that students from modest backgrounds can demonstrate intellectual promise. In practice, however, SAT scores closely track the family income. The richer a student’s family the higher the score he or she is likely to receive.”

What is particularly galling in this maddening race is the humiliation of those left behind. Those who reach the top see their achievements as well deserved. Such a sense engenders untempered hubris that causes a sense of loss for the vast majority of underachievers. As Sandel puts it succinctly, “For more we think of ourselves as self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility.”

This lack of humility at the individual level leads to wider ramifications at the social level. In Sandel’s assessment, the two most significant events that are reshaping the world — Brexit in the UK and the victory of Donald Trump in the US in 2016 — were the direct result of a rebellion by an overwhelming majority that does not qualify as meritorious. In effect, the tyranny of merit has driven a vast majority to the wall and forced them to hit back with a vengeance. In Sandel’s world-view, a politics bereft of the “language of moral and spiritual purpose” is primarily responsible for the hubris of the elites and humiliation of people not belonging to the ruling “superclass”. This has triggered an unprecedented outrage among the majority which sees privileges of meritocracy as nothing but “a hereditary aristocracy” — a term that resonates with Piketty’s thesis.

Busting the myth of the US being a land of opportunities, Sandel comes out with a grim conclusion: “The American faith that, with hard work and talent, anyone can rise no longer fits the facts on the ground.” Luck and good fortune play an important role in assisting those who reach the top. Underlining the importance of merit in technocratic terms and appreciating its benefits for the national economy is a flawed approach which has been consistently imposed on society. For building a nation, the dignity of labour and quality of employment matter more than the rising GDP concentrated in a few hands.

Sandel is concerned that the political discourse, devoid of moral and ethical content, has been debased beyond redemption. As an antidote to the pernicious toxicity that has crept into social life, he prescribes supplanting hubris by humility in public discourse. In essence, Sandel’s palliative to “the tyranny of merit” is to encourage an attitude that sees individual success as the outcome of a collaborative effort of the society. Till then, he predicts, merit will remain a distant promise that cannot be redeemed.

(Ajay Singh is press secretary, President of India, Rashtrapati Bhavan)

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