The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel

How has the pandemic exposed our need to recognise all professions and skills as contributions to the greater common good? Image: Shutterstock/Octus_Photography

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This extract from The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel (Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, the United States, like many other countries, was unprepared. Despite warnings the previous year from public health experts about the risk of a global viral contagion, and even as China contended with its outbreak in January, the United States lacked the ability to conduct the widespread testing that might have contained the disease. As the contagion spread, the wealthiest country in the world found itself unable to provide even the medical masks and other protective gear that doctors and nurses needed to treat the flood of infected patients. Hospitals and state governments found themselves bidding against one another to acquire testing kits and life-saving ventilators.

But beyond its lack of logistical preparedness, the country was not morally prepared for the pandemic. The years leading up to the crisis were a time of deep divisions—economic, cultural, political.

Morally, the pandemic reminded us of our vulnerability, of our mutual dependence: “We are all in this together.” Public officials and advertisers reached instinctively for this slogan. But the solidarity it evoked was a solidarity of fear, a fear of contagion that demanded “social distancing.”

The public health required that we express our solidarity, our shared vulnerability, by keeping our distance, by observing the strictures of self-isolation. The coincidence of solidarity and separation made sense in the context of a pandemic. Apart from the heroic health care providers and first responders whose help for the afflicted required their physical presence, and the cashiers in grocery stores and the delivery workers who risked their health bringing food and supplies to those sheltering at home, most of us were told that the best way to protect others was by keeping our distance from them. But the moral paradox of solidarity through separation highlighted a certain hollowness in the assurance that “We are all in this together.” It did not describe a sense of community embodied in an ongoing practice of mutual obligation and shared sacrifice. To the contrary, it appeared on the scene at a time of nearly unprecedented inequality and partisan rancor. The same market-driven globalization project that had left the United States without access to the domestic production of surgical masks and medications had deprived a great many working people of well-paying jobs and social esteem.

More on the Forum Network: The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, by Adrian Wooldridge, Political editor & Bagehot columnist, The Economist

From the end of World War II to the 1970s, it was possible for those without a college degree to find good work, support a family, and lead a comfortable middle-class life. This is far more difficult today. Over the past four decades, the earnings difference between college and high school graduates—what economists call the “college premium”—has doubled. In 1979, college graduates made about 40 percent more than high school graduates; by the 2000s they made 80 percent more.

Although the age of globalization brought rich rewards to the well-credentialed, it did nothing for most ordinary workers. From 1979 to 2016, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States fell from 19.5 million to 12 million. Productivity increased, but workers reaped a smaller and smaller share of what they produced, while executives and shareholders captured a larger share. In the late 1970s, CEOs of major American companies made 30 times more than the average worker; by 2014, they made 300 times more. The median income of American males has been stagnant, in real terms, for half a century. Although per capita income has increased 85 percent since 1979, white men without a four-year college degree make less now, in real terms, than they did then. It is not surprising that they are unhappy.

But economic hardship is not the only source of their distress. The meritocratic age has also inflicted a more insidious injury on working people: eroding the dignity of work. By valorizing the “brains” it takes to score well on college admission tests, the sorting machine disparages those without meritocratic credentials. It tells them that the work they do, less valued by the market than the work of well-paid professionals, is a lesser contribution to the common good, and so less worthy of social recognition and esteem. It legitimates the lavish rewards the market bestows on the winners and the meager pay it offers workers without a college degree. This way of thinking about who deserves what is not morally defensible.

It is a mistake to assume that the market value of this or that job is the measure of its contribution to the common good. But over the last several decades, the idea that the money we make reflects the value of our social contribution has become deeply embedded. It echoes throughout the public culture. Meritocratic sorting helped entrench this idea. So did the neoliberal, or market-oriented, version of globalization embraced by mainstream parties of the center-right and center-left since the 1980s.

Even as globalization produced massive inequality, these two outlooks—the meritocratic and the neoliberal—narrowed the grounds for resisting it. They also undermined the dignity of work, fueling resentment of elites and political backlash. Since 2016, pundits and scholars have debated the source of populist discontent. Is it about job loss and stagnant wages or cultural displacement? But this distinction is too sharply drawn. Work is both economic and cultural. It is a way of making a living and also a source of social recognition and esteem. This is why the inequality brought about by globalization produced such anger and resentment. Those left behind by globalization not only struggled while others prospered; they also sensed that the work they did was no longer a source of social esteem. In society’s eyes, and perhaps also their own, their work no longer signified a valued contribution to the common good.

Find out more about The Tyranny of Merit, by Michael Sandel (published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2020)

Book cover Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel

We do not have much equality of condition today. Public spaces that gather people together across class, race, ethnicity, and faith are few and far between. Four decades of market-driven globalization has brought inequalities of income and wealth so pronounced that they lead us into separate ways of life. Those who are affluent and those of modest means rarely encounter one another in the course of the day. We live and work and shop and play in different places; our children go to different schools. And when the meritocratic sorting machine has done its work, those on top find it hard to resist the thought that they deserve their success and that those on the bottom deserve their place as well. This feeds a politics so poisonous and a partisanship so intense that many now regard marriage across party lines as more troubling than marrying outside the faith.

It is little wonder we have lost the ability to reason together about large public questions, or even to listen to one another. Merit began its career as the empowering idea that we can, through work and faith, bend God’s grace in our favor. The secular version of this idea made for an exhilarating promise of individual freedom: Our fate is in our hands. We can make it if we try. But this vision of freedom points us away from the obligations of a shared democratic project. If the common good consists simply in maximizing the welfare of consumers, then achieving an equality of condition does not matter in the end. If democracy is simply economics by other means, a matter of adding up our individual interests and preferences, then its fate does not depend on the moral bonds of citizens. A consumerist conception of democracy can do its limited work whether we share a vibrant common life or inhabit privatized enclaves in the company of our own kind. But if the common good can be arrived at only by deliberating with our fellow citizens about the purposes and ends worthy of our political community, then democracy cannot be indifferent to the character of the common life. It does not require perfect equality. But it does require that citizens from different walks of life encounter one another in common spaces and public places. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences. And this is how we come to care for the common good.

The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project. For why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due. A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.” Such humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.

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Tackling Covid-19  New societal contract  Integrity

Michael Sandel

Political Philosophy Professor and Author, Harvard University

Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University. His writings—on justice, ethics, democracy, and markets--have been translated into 27 languages. His course “Justice” is the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and on television.  It has been viewed by tens of millions of people around the world, including in China, where Sandel was named the “most influential foreign figure of the year.” (China Newsweek). Sandel’s books relate enduring themes of political philosophy to the most vexing moral and civic questions of our time.  They include What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets;  Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?;  The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering;  Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics;  Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy; and Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Sandel has been a visiting professor at the Sorbonne, and delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Oxford, the BBC’s Reith Lectures, and the Kellogg Lecture on Jurisprudence at the U.S. Library of Congress.  In 2016, East China Normal University (Shanghai) convened an international conference to explore points of contact between Sandel’s work and the Confucian tradition.