Inside Story

The myth of merit

Our faith in meritocracy is stopping us from thinking clearly about inequality

Peter Mares Review essay 25 June 2021 3274 words


I couldn’t help but stop and watch. The gardener was teetering on top of a high stone wall, feet spread out to maintain balance, trimming a huge hedge. He twisted sideways, craned his head skywards and then, arms fully extended, set the clippers buzzing at the end of a long pole. Satisfied with his handiwork, he shuffled along the narrow ledge to start a new section.

It was an impressive feat of skill and dexterity. Yet my admiration was mixed with anxiety; one slip and he would have hit the footpath.

I doubt the owners of the hedge intended to expose him to this danger. They almost certainly didn’t think about worker safety when they selected the most competitive contractor to do the work. Spared the extra expense of a scissor lift or a cherry picker, they no doubt got a great deal, loading the risk onto the man with the hedge trimmer.

There is nothing new about low-paid workers clipping leaves for the rich. In centuries past, such differences in power and wealth were explained away by birth. It was one’s station in life either to live in the mansion or to keep the grounds, to be served or to do the serving. It’s bracing to remember that the original 1848 version of the children’s hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” included the following lines:

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
and ordered their estate.

Yet the aristocratic era is long gone. We no longer believe in the privileges of noble birth. Today’s mantra is merit. In the ABC’s recent Australia Talks survey, around 70 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement “In Australia, if you work hard, you can be successful no matter what circumstances you were born into.” It’s a beguiling idea: we make our way in the world through a combination of individual talent and effort, and so end up in the places we deserve — one precariously sculpting a cypress hedge, another playing tennis on the shady court behind. And if we each lie in a bed of our own making, then we need not be much concerned with one another’s welfare. Indifference becomes the rule.

When we order takeaway, most of us probably spend more time thinking about whether we want Indian or Thai than contemplating the experiences of the delivery rider weaving through traffic with our plastic bags of stacked containers. Our biggest worry is whether the food will have gone cold before it arrives. Yet in the space of two months last year, five delivery riders were killed in road accidents in Australia.

We snap up bargains in the supermarket. Asparagus at $1 a bunch. Strawberries at $2 a punnet. If we spare a moment to think, then it’s inconceivable that the workers harvesting the produce are paid a decent wage.

So we live with a contradiction: we talk about creating opportunity and enabling people to work hard and get ahead, while living in a system that consistently generates high levels of inequality and insecurity. This contradiction is masked by the myth of merit.

A century and a half ago, the philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill described how “the ideas of virtue set afloat by the powerful, are caught and imbibed by those under their dominion.” In her time, the paramount virtue of womanhood was loyalty to men, and so “abnegation of self, patience, resignation, and submission to power” were stamped as the pre-eminent feminine duties and graces. “Power makes itself the centre of moral obligation,” concluded Taylor Mill.

In our own era, power resides in the upper echelons of the financial sector, real estate, mining, big retail and big tech, and prominent among the virtues the inhabitants set afloat is the promise of reward for talent and effort.

In this meritocratic system, efficient businesses want the best person for the job, not the proprietor’s incompetent son or lazy daughter. Bright, eager graduates are in; nepotism and the old school tie are out. If you have a go, you’ll get a go. It is an ideology reproduced in popular culture. Shows like The Voice, Masterchef and The Block reinforce the idea that the combination of skill, persistence and opportunity opens the door to success. This meritocratic mindset is so deeply embedded in our value system that it is rarely challenged.

Once you accept all that, then government’s primary role is to ensure equality of opportunity. “In our view,” as treasurer Joe Hockey said in defence of his infamous 2014 budget, “it is the responsibility of government to provide equality of opportunity with a fair and comprehensive support system for those who are most vulnerable. After that, it is up to individuals in the community to accept personal responsibility for their lives and their destinies.” The government’s duty, he added, “is to help Australians to get to the starting line, while accepting that some will run faster than others.”

Labor tends to imbue the idea of equal opportunity with more substance than its conservative rivals do; a fair start requires not just a welfare safety net and anti-discrimination laws, but also positive interventions in the form of education, training, childcare and healthcare so that all citizens are equipped to operate effectively in an increasingly demanding labour market. This dovetails with arguments about productivity — if Australia’s economy is to be internationally competitive then we must invest more heavily in human capital.

Yet, as American philosopher Michael Sandel argues in his latest book, The Tyranny of Merit, this centre-left approach still accepts that market efficiency will produce winners and losers, or to use Hockey’s sporting analogy, that some will run faster than others, even if Labor can level the playing field a little.

Sociologist Michael Young, who coined the term meritocracy in his 1958 satire, shown here in London in 1994. Neil Turner/Alamy

Sandel recognises the attractions of the meritocratic ideal. For a start, it is empowering: “It encourages people to think of themselves as responsible for their fate, not as victims of forces beyond their control.” It also aligns market outcomes with the application of talent and effort, providing a justification for manifest inequality. “In a society where opportunities were truly equal, markets would give people their just deserts,” he writes.

In The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel updates the work of sociologist Michael Young, who played a lead role in drafting Labour’s manifesto for the 1945 British election, and then worked for Clement Attlee’s Labour government, whose achievements included founding Britain’s National Health Service. It was Young who popularised the term “meritocracy” in his prescient 1958 satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Little did he anticipate that his linguistic innovation would become firmly established in the political lexicon, let alone that it would be wielded without a hint of irony, including by those on his own side of politics.

As Young wrote in the introduction to a new edition of his book in 1994, the twentieth century had room for the word meritocracy because it bolstered the self-image of those wielding power and enjoying its privileges. Leaders were all too ready to believe that society was ruled “not so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.” Even in 1958, though, Young had seen how sad and fragile a meritocratic society could be.

Young’s satire took the form of a sociologist’s report written in 2034, when Britain’s fully matured meritocracy is being buffeted by an upsurge in wildcat strikes and protests. In attempting to explain why “the Populist movement” is revolting against a near-perfect system, the report’s author traces the development of the meritocracy through the course of the twentieth century. He begins in 1914, when Britain was still squandering valuable resources by “condemning even talented people to manual work.” A handful of clever people from working families might climb the ranks, but the majority were held back by their subordinate class position. Equally, the top echelons of society carried the dead weight of the intellectually incompetent members of the elite who had attained their positions solely on the basis of family connections.

Young’s fictional sociologist describes how, in the latter part of the twentieth century, Britain’s suboptimal social arrangements were transformed primarily by mass education. Schools acted as a sorting mechanism, with the bright sent to grammar schools, while the rest were consigned to a vocational track (though in fairness to late bloomers there was a fallback system of adult testing). Results were inscribed on a national intelligence card that accompanied citizens throughout their lives. Those displaying the requisite intellect would receive education and employment opportunities shaped to match their “high genetic destiny,” thus increasing their power to do good for society. Intelligence tests became “the very instrument of social justice.”

Once the meritocracy was fully established, aptitude was rationally distributed across society, regardless of birth, with brilliant minds managing the crucial work at the top while the slow mopped their floors. Young’s sociologist sums up the meritocratic achievement in the following sentence: “The talented have been given the opportunity to rise to the level which accords with their capacities, and the lower classes consequently reserved for those who are also lower in ability.”

The first part of Young’s fictional assessment is familiar. Ahead of the 2019 federal election, Labor’s national platform proclaimed that “a university degree is an opportunity earned on merit, not a privilege conferred at birth” and family wealth “should not determine your ability to grow to your full potential.” In a Facebook post made around the same time, Scott Morrison promised more opportunities and described his vision of an Australia where everyone had “the chance to realise their full potential.”

There is nothing objectionable about such aspirations, but in 1958 Michael Young drew attention to the second part of the imaginary sociologist’s sentence — the unspoken corollary of the meritocratic equation: that “the lower classes” would be “reserved for those who are also lower in ability.” As Young wrote in his introduction to the 1994 edition, “If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and, if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage.”

Philosopher John Rawls saw this danger too. He pointed out that political and economic inequalities “encourage those of lower status to be viewed both by themselves and by others as inferior” and warned that this “may arouse widespread attitudes of deference and servility on one side and a will to dominate and arrogance on the other.” These were “serious evils and the attitudes they engender great vices.”

This is what Sandel calls the tyranny of merit. At the heart of the meritocratic ethic, he writes, is the idea that success is the result of personal effort and striving, and therefore a sign of virtue: “If I am responsible for having accrued a handsome share of worldly goods — income and wealth, power and prestige — I must deserve them.” The dark side of this credo is what gives rise to our contemporary indifference: “The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves. If my success is my own doing, their failure must be their fault.”

Sufficient air remains beneath the wings of the meritocratic ideal to give it flight. Because it takes skill and effort to slog through a competitive university course or clamber up the corporate, bureaucratic or political ladder, it’s easy to believe that we made it to the top under our own steam, and that others fell by the wayside because they didn’t work as hard.

But this perception corrodes our civic sensibilities: “For the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility,” writes Sandel. “And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.”

At the end of Michael Young’s fictional sociologist’s report, unrest is growing at both ends of the political spectrum. With like marrying like, the meritocratic elite is in danger of becoming a self-replicating class. Its conservative members are pushing to restore the “hereditary principle” so that their own children will be guaranteed a place in the upper echelons of society, even if the genetic lottery hasn’t done them any favours. Among the lower classes, the Populist movement is pushing in the other direction, with a manifesto for a classless society.

“Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation, and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes,” say the Populists. “Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes superior to the lorry-driver with unusual skill at growing roses?” Among the rebels’ concrete demands is an end to educational segregation and the introduction of “common secondary schools for all.”

The sociologist of 2034 is confident that their uprising will be a flash in the pan. Not only do the Populists lack a coherent political program, but the meritocratic system has brought about such “a far-reaching redistribution of ability between the classes in society… that the lower classes no longer have the power to make revolt effective.” Besides, they are challenging an elite that has “all the wise distinction that any heart can desire.” A publisher’s endnote informs us that the author was killed in the subsequent riots.

We don’t live in a meritocracy, of course. The idea that we simply need to get everyone to the starting line and we’ll all have the same chance of winning is demonstrably false — not least because some of us come equipped with the latest running shoes and are well trained in the art of sprinting, while others arrive barefoot with no knowledge of how the race works. Connections and pedigree still open doors, and the lottery of birth remains a powerful predictor of future prospects.

Nor can opportunities and outcomes be easily disentangled. During the pandemic year 2020, the net worth of Australia’s billionaires increased by more than 50 per cent.

The cultural embedding of the idea of merit runs parallel with stagnating average wages and rising private wealth. The rhetoric of opportunity and reward for effort gets louder even as Australia becomes less equal and the likelihood that hard work and talent will truly be rewarded diminishes.

A society that shifts wealth upwards and pushes risk downwards cannot lay claim to being fair, and nor is it likely to be sustainable. It will lack the coherence and common purpose to tackle problems like climate change because it separates us from one another spatially and experientially. When inequality is masked by the language of merit, it breeds arrogance and entitlement at the top and resentment at the bottom.

Sandel blames the tyranny of merit for the failures of social democracy and the triumphs of populism: “For decades, meritocratic elites intoned the mantra that those who work hard and play by the rules can rise as far as their talents will take them. They did not notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising was less a promise than a taunt.”

This is the tin ear that had Hillary Clinton labelling Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.”

If the promise of reward for effort proves empty, and my efforts to shape my destiny fail, then I might be easily persuaded that others are to blame, like the educated progressives who stacked the system in favour of minorities, or the immigrant who stole my job. Trump, the Brexit campaign and similar populist movements won over disaffected citizens not with pledges of greater opportunity and social mobility, writes Sandel, but through “reassertions of national sovereignty, identity and pride.”

Michael Young didn’t live to witness Brexit, but he too was concerned with the failings of centre-left politics and the hollowing out of democracy. Young’s fictional sociologist foretold the future of the British labour movement, describing how the manual workers and tradespeople who once led both party and unions were gradually replaced by university graduates with no experience on the shop floor.

In 2001, just months before he died, Young lamented the accuracy of his prophecy: “With the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; as time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.”

Yet on both the right and the left, mainstream politics adheres to the view that the failings of meritocracy result from flaws in implementation rather than theory. In other words, we just need to get better at building equality of opportunity. We need to invest even more in education. At best, says Sandel, this amounts to an offer to make the ladder-climbing competition fairer, even as the rungs are being pushed further apart by growing inequality. At worst, it tells those struggling in a globalised economy that they are failing because they didn’t try hard enough in school.

The alternative would be to tackle inequality itself: to focus not just on creating opportunities, but on adjusting outcomes. This is what Michael Young suggested in 2001. Along with urging Tony Blair to drop the word meritocracy from his public vocabulary, or at least admit its downside, he called on Labour’s prime minister to increase taxes on the rich.

We tend to think of taxation as a necessary evil, a way of raising public money to invest in schools, health services, social welfare, security forces and physical infrastructure. We may pay our taxes gladly or grudgingly, but the focus is on equipping government to do its job. Young’s point is that we need to use tax as a tool to narrow inequality too.

This may sound like class warfare, but the intent is not to punish the rich. After all, business executives and high-salaried professionals rarely claim to be in it for the dollars — they say they thrive on challenge and the opportunity to add value. Let’s take them at their word and trim their share portfolios and their hedge funds. At the same time, we could boost the wages, conditions and prestige of underpaid workers like gardeners, delivery riders and fruit pickers — not to mention cleaners and carers.

Even if it’s not quite true that “we’re all in this together,” the pandemic has sparked a conversation about the true value of different types of labour and generated mutual experiences of staying home, of being unable to visit loved ones, of wearing masks, of anxiety and hope.

There is a lesson here. When we no longer encounter one another in ordinary ways and places, indifference grows and may blossom into arrogance on one side and resentment on the other. To overcome these corrosive tendencies, we must reduce inequality.

None of us deserves our luck or merits our starting place in life. The key to a better society is to pool our luck and share it around. •

Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.