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21 May, 2022
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Op-ed: How meritocracy reinforces inequality

Renowned Harvard political philosopher talks to Kathimerini about challenging established norms and conventional wisdom

Kathimerini Greece Newsroom

We normally have unexamined certainties to guide us through daily life. But few people are so gifted at shaking those certainties than Michael Sandel. The Harvard political philosopher is approached almost like a rock star – albeit one who speaks with humility, kindness and clarity in packed amphitheaters across the world. He is also no stranger to global media, including BBC Radio 4, on which he has repeatedly taken part in debates centered around questions about what is right and wrong.

Professor Sandel, whose signature Harvard course, titled “Justice,” is attended by thousands of students each year, is a prolific writer who constantly challenges established norms and conventional wisdom regarding social life and modern politics. US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are avid readers of his books and their political manifestos have been influenced by his thoughts.

His latest book, “The Tyranny of Merit,” has just been published in Greece by Polis Editions, in a translation by Michalis Mitsos. Is our progress in life solely our own achievement or failure? Do we deserve all credit (and all the money) for our success? If we fail, do we only have ourselves to blame? And where does politics stand in answering these questions? Professor Sandel talked to Kathimerini about the moral issues raised in his books as well as the most pressing issue of our time, which is the war in Ukraine and its many repercussions.

‘There are flaws in the ideal itself. And among these flaws are the attitudes toward success that the winners have embraced’

I greatly appreciate your academic contribution and your participation in global public dialogue, but I can’t get one thing regarding your latest book. Why aren’t merit and meritocracy good? You have personally excelled in our meritocratic society. How can we say that a system which produced a prominent professor like yourself is so flawed?

I plead guilty to being a beneficiary of the meritocratic system that I criticize. But seeing it from the inside enables me to notice certain flaws. First, we fail to live up to the meritocratic ideals we profess. But there are also flaws in the underlying ethic, in the ideal itself. And among these flaws are the attitudes toward success that the winners have embraced. The self-congratulatory attitudes towards success that we see all around us. I call it meritocratic hubris. The belief among the winners is that their success is their own doing and that they, therefore, deserve all the benefits that flow from it. These attitudes prevent us from adequately addressing the deepening inequalities that the last four decades have brought.

Why is it not fair that soccer player Lionel Messi earns so much more than a nurse?

Messi is lucky to have great athletic talents. He also practices hard and that’s admirable. But much of his success is due to the luck of being a gifted athlete. He is also lucky in the sense that he lives in a society where everybody loves football. If he had lived in the days of the Renaissance, or in the days of Aristotle, he might have been just as gifted but with no earning power. There are two concepts of meritocracy. First, we can see it as a system providing incentives and rewards to cultivate talent. This is correct and healthy. The second concept is the idea that someone deserves all his winnings despite it being evident that much of them are due to the luck of having been born in a certain society at a certain time. This leads to meritocratic hubris and this is what I attack in my book.

Could we say that meritocracy is a narrative designed to morally justify inequality?

It is certainly what it has become today in practice. Meritocracy can be understood as an alternative to a feudal aristocracy, hereditary privilege, nepotism, and corruption in the allocation of offices and social positions. Then of course meritocracy is liberating. All the above has made meritocracy seem like a friend of equality. But today meritocracy has become a justification of inequality. There’s also an implicit insult in meritocratic messages.

What do you mean?

Bill Clinton said that what you earn will depend on what you learn. Barack Obama said that “you can make it if you try.” This approach seems inspiring. It offers individual upward mobility as a solution to inequality. But it is also a way to avoid structural reforms over how globalization works. In addition, there’s an insult implicit in this seemingly inspiring message. The insult is this: If you didn’t get a university degree, your failure must be your fault, not the fault of the structure of the economy. This is the source of the grievances that have prompted the backlash against elites and mainstream political parties.

What could realistically replace meritocracy then? Can we trust the state to measure merits and rewards more than the market?

We, as democratic citizens, have to reclaim from markets the responsibility of deliberating about what counts as a valuable contribution to the common good. We should answer the question of what contributions to society should be honored and recognized and rewarded the most. That’s a question about values that should be debated and deliberated by democratic citizens, not decided by markets.

Do you fear the markets more than the state?

Both markets and states are systems of power. And therefore we need to be skeptical of both. This skepticism should be accompanied with a certain fear and recognition of the risks of the abuse of power of both the markets and the state.

If we seek more justice, do we risk ending up with less freedom?

Freedom is always at risk in politics – and is at risk, most obviously, with authoritarian politics. But freedom is also at risk when in the name of a kind of neutrality we outsource our moral judgments to markets. Because it enables economically, powerful interests, and technocrats too, to replace the role of the democratic citizens.

Civic freedom

Do you think that social democracy could address inequality better than market-based meritocracy?

Social democracy can be one preferable alternative to a market-based meritocracy. That’s because social democracy by definition insists on the mutual obligations of citizens. It challenges the kind of meritocracy that encourages people to assume that they are self-made and self-sufficient and, therefore, don’t owe anything to their fellow citizens. But there are other alternatives that emphasize the dignity of work and honor and recognize the contributions of everyone in society, regardless of their elite credentials. We can go back to the civic conception of freedom. Any politics that emphasizes the civic dimension of freedom and the importance of participating in shaping the forces that govern our collective lives as democratic citizens is an alternative to a market-based meritocracy.

Russia, NATO and Ukraine

It has been said that Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine because he’s surrounded by people ready to tell him whatever he wants to hear. Could we say that the war was caused by a lack of meritocracy in the Russian state?

It is a factor, yes, but I think the war is the result of much broader forces and Putin’s desire to reassert Russia’s imperial role.

What should be done in Ukraine?

I think Biden has handled the issue reasonably well. I think that the United States and Europe should continue to do everything possible to enable Ukraine to defend itself militarily. At the same time, Biden has been careful to try to avoid provoking a wider war. Prudence is important given that Russia is a nuclear power, and it’s hard to know what Putin would do if he were forced to acknowledge that he is trapped against the wall.

In your book, you emphasize the notions of honor and dignity as an issue at the heart of the clash that we are seeing in societies. Did Russia go to war because its national dignity was hurt?

I would go further and say that despite our emphasis on economic interests, a far more powerful explanation of global competition and global conflict has to do with the struggle for honor and recognition. And we see this within societies in the populist backlash against elites, but I think that there is also a global parallel. I do think that the struggle for honor and recognition is at least as potent a motivation for global struggles and competitions as economic interests, which is why I think that the sanctions that the US and European countries have imposed on Putin, justifiable though they are, will not bring an end to this war.

Do you agree with the view that the expansion of NATO was handled in a way that offended Russia?

I think it may have been a mistake for NATO to have expanded as it did to the extent that it did. George Kennan had said that as Russia was weak it would have to accept it but in time it would lead to Russian aggression. Kennan had a point when he suggested that NATO expansion may have been a mistake. I think that you can believe that and you can also believe that right now it’s very important to stand up to Putin and to make sure he doesn’t prevail in Ukraine.

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