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The Perils of Meritocracy

The Perils of Meritocracy

Thursday, 29 October, 2020 - 05:45

The US is about to elect a president in the most divisive political atmosphere of our lifetimes. Whoever wins will face the unenviable task of trying to bring America together. In Britain, the government faces a similar test of uniting the country, whatever the outcome of its negotiations with the European Union over what follows Brexit.

The divisiveness in our societies has many causes. But its consequences reach further than political disharmony. As Anne Case and Angus Deaton have shown, “deaths of despair” from suicide, drug addiction and alcohol-related diseases have lowered the life expectancy of white Americans. The mortality of college graduates has been broadly stable; the life expectancy of people without a degree has fallen markedly. After the Brexit referendum in Britain, the most frequently advanced explanation of voting behavior was educational attainment.

Education, we all believe, is a good thing. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair famously promised that his top three priorities in government would be “education, education, education.” That’s how you create a classless society in which people advance on merit.

But wait a moment. The people who voted to remain in the EU often characterized their opponents as ignorant and xenophobic. They came close to implying that the votes of the educated should carry greater weight. Hillary Clinton expressed a similar sentiment when she talked about “deplorables.”

The disdain of the educated for the uneducated is not just unappealing, but also dangerous. Say this for the old aristocracy: They knew in their bones that their superiority was just an accident of birth. A meritocracy encourages the winners to attribute success to innate abilities and hard work — and to look down on lesser beings. But why should inherited IQ and unequally distributed educational opportunities be regarded as more deserving of reward than an inherited title?

Perhaps “meritocracy” is not quite what it is cracked up to be. The term was popularized by the British sociologist Michael Young some 60 years ago. Strikingly, his book, far from endorsing the fashionable post-war belief in advancement through merit, was in fact a satire on the idea that we might replace status through the accident of birth by status through genetic inheritance. As Young later wrote, “I wanted to show how overweening a meritocracy could be.”

Why did people ignore his message and imbue meritocracy with positive connotations? Well, winners rarely attribute their success to luck. That is as true in the worlds of business and finance as it is in sport. The thesis that sufficient effort will bring, and therefore justify, success was refuted by the England cricketer Ed Smith in his book “Luck.” And the larger the rewards to success, the harder it is to remain humble and reflect on the old adage, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Worse, not merely do we believe we deserve our worldly success, but we also believe that the unsuccessful deserve to fail. As the gap between winners and losers in our economies has grown, so has the divisiveness in our politics. But the cause of that divisiveness is not economic inequality in itself but the unconcealed sense of superiority of the winners.

Confronting these negative aspects of meritocracy will be a test of our political leaders. A timely and important new book by Michael Sandel of Harvard University tackles these issues head-on. Both parts of the title — “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” — are important in understanding his argument. When I interviewed him for an event at New York University’s Stern School of Business last week, Sandel stressed that while maintaining selection on merit (who wants to be treated by an unqualified doctor or flown by an untrained pilot?), we must find ways to manage organizations that maintain the dignity of all work.

While at the Bank of England I was unsympathetic to proposals to outsourcing because it undermined my belief that everyone who worked in the Bank contributed to its success. Cutting costs is not necessarily the route to a happy and successful organization in which everyone pulls together to improve its operations. Piece rates on automobile assembly lines were abandoned when Toyota showed that superior products could be made by encouraging groups of workers to take pride in their output.

It was pretty obvious to me that while everyone else in the Bank could do at least part of my job (vote once a month to raise, lower or maintain interest rates), I couldn’t do any of theirs because I lacked the knowledge or experience to be a good bank clerk, engineer supporting our backup systems, or cleaner. People accept differences in pay but want dignity and respect to be shown to all. Societies in which good cleaners are granted as much respect as good doctors are happier than those in which disdain for the less talented is on full display. In turn they accept more easily differences in remuneration that enhance efficiency. Many of the ways in which that respect was fostered — through participating in sports or religious services — have declined.

Clearly, improving educational opportunities is, as Tony Blair argued, vital. But if it becomes a fight to scramble up the only ladder to the top in politics or business, meritocracy leads to arrogance, as Young predicted.

A possible counter to my argument is China, a country that has adopted meritocracy as a principle for a thousand years or more. No one can doubt the intellectual caliber of China’s elites — nor their success in securing advantages for their children. When I visited a provincial university in China some years ago, the number two in the administrative hierarchy, a highly respected scientist, bade me farewell and said he hoped to see me in London. “What might bring you to London?” I asked. “My son is just finishing at Eton,” he replied. Will China manage to avoid the divisiveness that has come to plague the West? If it can succeed in combining the advantages of meritocracy without the arrogance of elites, its political model might have staying power.

For the West, the answer does not lie solely in reducing economic inequality. Creating a sense that everyone counts matters just as much.


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