Full Thoughts on Prof. Michael Sandel’s Meritocracy Discourse: Part 1

I have now finished reading “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good?” by Prof. Michael Sandel which I purchased after watching his panel at the WEF Davos Agenda.

It is brilliant and one of the best-written books that I have had the pleasure of reading.

Firstly let me say that from my perspective Prof. Sandel is accurate on the major points in his book. I believe that I have stated many of the same or very similar views in my own writing, and his conclusions are not only consistent with mine, they are also in tune with my values. However, he brings these points together to form his narrative far better than I have and ever could, and he backs up his views with sound reasoning drawing on his extensive academic experience as an economic philosopher. 

To be clear and forthright, I agree that a society centred on authentic merit, if it were ever truly possible, in the absence of a deeper commitment to social cohesion, is unsustainable on several levels (as discussed previously in much of my writing e.g. “Social Cohesion: The best vaccine against crises” and “The Great Reset“). Thus I agree that the ideal situation for humanity is for social cohesion to be the overriding factor in how we organise our societies. To do that we must continue to work towards eliminating all forms of bias and prejudice, along with all forms of corruption that exist to acquire advantage over others. That is the only way that our various and infinite lots in life are due to unadulterated luck rather than unfairness, and so that the consequences of experiencing less favourable outcomes (fortune) than others are not nearly as significant as they are now.

It is my firm belief that we are in the midst of taking a significant step towards that future in this the Great Reset era, and I believe that the timing of Prof. Sandel’s publishing of “The Tyranny of Merit” was particularly propitious and will prove to be a key event and resource.

Before I go on to discuss some critical issues raised by Prof. Sandel, however, I need to make an important admission.

Like many, I am certain, his compelling reasoning has made it intellectually and emotionally impossible to deny something to myself. Prof. Sandel has shown me that I have become a biased elitist even though I congratulate myself on being less elitist, by virtue of my humble upbringing and my conscious effort, than many who have developed the same level of credentials, and the associated skills, as me.

Understanding how unconscious bias slips into our rationalising I must accept that my writing to this point invariably contains an elitist subconscious bias.

I realised emotion around credentialism from early in my postgraduate studies in the early 90s. On one occasion I realised that I had been describing myself as “only” a student. I noticed how as I continued in my PhD program I began using more complex language with less slang from my regional upbringing and it was beginning to irritate one sibling in particular. Perhaps instead of balancing my academic life with my broader life I allowed the former to dominate in my behaviours which some found confronting. 

I also began to notice how a simple statement about my own educational credentials, a minor detail in a story I was recounting, usually was what people took from the recount and mirrored back at me: “Oh you are studying for / have a PhD – I never went to uni”, said with emotion indicating regret, or with defiance often with a hint of righteousness.

For a while, noting that this truth – if not highly significant for me – invoked negative emotions for the person to whom I was speaking, I began to withhold such information. If I did mention it, in a longer conversation where it appeared ‘safe’ to mention my credentials if relevant to an anecdote or story, I would immediately seek to minimise or even downplay my achievements.

Being a strong empath, I have often observed myself doing such things to minimise emotional impacts for others. But then I have realised that downplaying all of my achievements, for the benefit of others, ultimately impacts me by negatively impacting my own self esteem.

At some point I decided I cannot be responsible for others’ life disappointments or feelings of regret while I am authentic and humble in my dealings with others.

Nonetheless I must admit that my own views of lesser credentialled groups had drifted less favourably and unhelpfully, especially as the cultural gap widened and as a growing proportion of the lesser credentialled became more angry and aggressive. At the same time I recognised the growing lack of humility and compassion amongst many elites.

The genius of Prof. Sandel’s writing is in showing the link between these developments, and in doing so allows greater empathy and understanding by those who seek to remain open to other points of view.

I am extremely pleased that I read this book because it expands on arguments that were mentioned only briefly or not at all in Prof. Sandel’s videos I had watched and discussed in “Merit and Morals: WEF Davos Agenda panel with Prof. Michael Sandel“.

Nonetheless I consider that my commentary in that piece remains highly relevant to the discussion of Prof. Sandel’s views on meritocracy as presented in all of these media.

The fuller picture gained from my reading of his book, moreover, provided the impetus to pick up on some additional points where either I slightly disagree with his view (e.g. the most important factor in the appeal of populists and also views surrounding the future importance of work in society) or where my preference would been for him to have expanded on his views in other critical contexts at the micro (e.g. surrounding the importance of families in society) and macro levels (e.g. surrounding the importance of a global framing of society). 

Particularly pertinent to the latter point is that it is not until page 213 (of 227 pages of text) that discussion turns to suggested remedies and alternative ways of organising within society to achieve cohesion. Perhaps it is understandable that much effort must be expended to counter the deeply entrenched ‘winner takes all’ philosophy to contemporary societies. And as a writer, myself, I often state that I do not have all of the answers – in part to show humility and lessen perceptions of righteousness, and in part because these issues are so complex that no one person can possibly know all answers. As I often say of myself, while he may not be able to provide specifics, his writing provides a robust context to the way we must move forward.

Nonetheless it is a little disappointing that Prof. Sandel did not devote more pages to society moving forward with greater cohesion. Perhaps a sequel is already in the planning.

My first point is minor but still worthy of mention. On credentials, Prof. Sandel highlights how the ‘elected class’ are even more removed from the majority in society on an educational basis now than when higher education was limited to ‘old money’ aristocracy, and draws a direct link to the disaffection with societal progress from many of lesser educated. Substantial examples of highly effective politicians from the past century, without tertiary education, are used to support his contention that people from all walks of life can and should feel able to engage in decision-making, and that when this occurs it is better for social cohesion.

Ultimately I agree with this viewpoint but I believe it relevant to highlight that, while still in most societies more people do not have tertiary degrees than do, a far greater proportion of people now do study for tertiary degrees. In 1982 as I entered high school only 8% of females aged 25-34 had university degrees, while it was 13% for males. I recall by the time I was applying for university how much it was being stressed that we needed to attain high tertiary entrance marks to be selected for our preferred university course such was the competition relative to the number of available places. By 2018 45% of females and 34% of males in this age group had university degrees.

So the relative proportions have changed substantially over that time, and it is little wonder that shows up in the backgrounds of elected decision-makers.

Still, that around half of society (more in some countries, slightly less in others) on an educational basis is entirely unrepresented in the ‘elected class’ is a poor reflection on society, and it definitely does suggest to non-university educated members that their value to society is lesser than the tertiary-educated. This is clearly something that must be addressed since it is self-evident that representative Government should genuinely represent and mirror the society it governs. Moreover, I agree that more diverse decision-making groups will make better decisions for society.

On my first major point, I found especially interesting the discussion at the conclusion of the ‘Credentialism’ chapter on the challenges to achieving consensus on the most significant issues facing societies when some, perhaps a large, proportion of society “do not trust government to act in their interest, especially in a large-scale reconfiguration of the economy, and do not trust the technocratic elites who would design and implement this configuration”.

This is something that I have pondered and written on, most recently in “The Great Reset: Building the bridge” where I essentially stated that we need to regain our respect in and our trust of each other to perform the roles that we have taken up in society. I have also pondered on this in relation to the centrality of the rejection of ‘Obamacare’ to Trumpism, especially in the 2016 election, and I think that most of us fortunate to experience high quality, relatively cheap universal health care in other countries find this difficult to reconcile. I often think to myself, “Why would those who stand to gain the most by the measures most vehemently oppose reform and become the ‘foot soldiers’ to undermine it so that the benefit is lost to them?”

I agree with Prof. Sandel that a backlash against credentialism and the inclination towards technocracy are partly at fault. However, I cannot escape a conclusion that more relevant is the more direct relationship between increased inequality and the extreme form of capitalism that has developed in the US over the last half century (as I discussed in “The Magic Sauce Of American Economic Dynamism Is Not Based On Personal Greed“, “Your Life: Something the elites have always been prepared to sacrifice for their ends” and “How Might Milton Friedman Respond To The COVID-19 Pandemic“). That extreme form of capitalism is more a result of the corruptibility of power and the influence of wealth and greed than of credentialism. 

While I agree that trust in Government is the key issue, I consider that the erosion of trust is more directly related to the increasing precariousness of the lives of many. The ‘have nots’ have witnessed the increase in wealth amongst the elites, and have perceived that it relates to increasing greed by them to skew even further the distribution of wealth and power within society in their favour, so much so that they have become fearful that they might lose what little safety net or societal benefits from being a US citizen remain. In fact, they have become so fearful of a further progression in this direction that they can not even countenance that reforms would improve their lot in life because it is the opposite of their lived experience. That suspicion makes the disaffected highly vulnerable to influence by populists.

Certainly the ‘unrelatability’ of the disaffected to the technocrats, i.e. the senior bureaucrats and their subordinates who are charged with implementation of policies and regulating their use, is an important aspect of perception of a high degree of ‘regulatory capture’ due to power and influence, and ultimately greed, by the wealthy elites meaning that all reform proposals ultimately are viewed as being aimed at increasing their advantage. However, credentialism is likely a minor factor. What really embeds the perception is that all in these groups (politicians, bureaucrats, wealthy elite businesspeople) have undergone the same communication skills training, including for video-rich media, and thus speak the same vernacular, in the same manner, and even use the same or similar (usually forced) mannerisms especially hand gestures. All this does is emphasise to all the heightened state of ‘political spin’ deployed now to benefit the ‘political class’ and the wealthy elites which the middle class and the less wealthy perceive to be at their cost.

In other words, the ‘show’ has trumped substance and authenticity, and those less practised in these skills consider those who are a part of the ‘show’ are fake and insincere. That is why the populists are listened to – they are perceived to be authentic and thus honest about the views they express. It is true that Trump is perhaps one of the greatest ‘showmen’ politicians of recent times, but he has developed his own unique style of show and vernacular, including his own style of hand gestures, which separates him from the others, and his followers believe he is authentic and honest about his views.

It is all of these developments over recent decades that have emphasised that the groups within society that once balanced the ‘greater good’ with the influence of power and wealth in a more equitable manner have been corrupted to favour the elites. Importantly that perception pertained to both sides of the political aisle. Trump took this growing perception of the link between wealth and political power, which of course is real and many academics agree it has grown in most developed nations, and he turned it on its head. He told the disaffected that he was on their side. Moreover, he told them that by virtue of his wealth, only he was so powerful that he could stand up to the ‘political class’ and other wealthy elites, which he referred to as the ‘swamp’ and which he excluded himself from, to drain away from them their power and influence.

Trump told the disaffected that he would save them from the tyranny of greed by the elites as did Robin Hood, and they loved him for it.

The emergence of the populists was aided by both sides of the aisle in another very critical point which relates to the technocratic style of governing.

A technocratic style of governing is an obvious consequence of the narrowing of the ideological differences between political foes. If both the left and right agree that free market capitalism, with minimal government regulation, is the preferred manner for society to organise, then the political discourse is reduced to arguing about less and less significant issues of only tangential relevance.

Leaving aside for a moment whether the majority of society truly believes that the consensus actually delivers for them in the manner they expect, let’s examine in isolation how society perceives the actions of the political class and the consequences of that perception. 

If all of the major debates have been had and are settled, then the only truly relevant work is that of the technocrat in making the minor adjustments at the periphery to ensure that the system stays fit for purpose, through technological changes for example.

So if the ‘machinery’ of society has reached its final ‘perfect’ design and only routine ‘maintenance and servicing’ is required, is there any longer a serious purpose for the designers – the decision-makers – and if not, what exactly are they doing with all of that power and influence that still resides in their hands?

It is my contention that these questions are behind the growing perception globally that there has been a dearth of political leadership in recent decades. I began writing about this in Australia over a decade ago and had a letter read out on our 60 Minutes television program in 2010.

Last year, much to my surprise – no, to my amazement – an Australian elite from the ‘political class’ confirmed all of this for us in a very public manner, but little has been made of it in the Australia press. Joe Hockey was a Minister in the Howard Government for 6 years, was Shadow Treasurer for 4.5 years, and was Treasurer of Australia for 2 years under Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull. Mr. Hockey was then the 28th Ambassador to the United States for a four year term until January 2020.

Speaking on 7.30 shortly after his return to Australia from his Ambassadorial duties he had the following exchange with Leigh Sales:

LEIGH SALES:  Do you think that ministerial standards are at the same height that they were 20 years ago?

JOE HOCKEY:  I mean, it’s all changed, Leigh. Social media has changed everything. Social media has made the voice of the critic much, much louder than the voice of the advocate.

And the second thing that’s changed is disruption.

Everyone keeps calling for government to initiate reform, but really, what’s happening is the private sector is initiating reform, on a scale that we’ve never seen before.

LEIGH SALES:  Is there something fundamentally wrong with that though, if Government is not leading?

JOE HOCKEY:  No. Because it empowers individuals and we all believe that individuals should be their best.

So one of the most important political decision-makers of the recent era in Australia admitted that the Government has essentially given up on leading and have left the future of the nation to the ‘market’ or the (social media) ‘mob’. Now most close observers had long suspected this; that readings from social media and focus groups in the mornings were setting the agenda for the day. But for it to be confirmed was rather astounding.

This opens up a number of important issues. Firstly, if the ‘political class’ no longer leads then they are not really making the critical decisions for society like they did in the past because they no longer see that as their role. If that is no longer their role than why as a society should we spend so much on the political administration of the nation – surely we could save significantly by reducing the number of MPs and associated staff, as well as by reducing their remuneration. After all, Mr. Hockey has admitted that they have left the leadership of the nation to the private sector. So all those who are occupying positions that formerly were ‘decision-makers’ are clearly enjoying the trappings of their status while not adding value for the nation. If they object and say that they are indeed working hard, then who are they working for since they are not working for the ‘common good’ – working at maintaining their status in Government is not the ‘common good’.

These are obvious and uncomfortable questions that should be put to the Government as a consequence of Mr. Hockey’s comments.

In recent weeks Peter Dutton has threatened that he will pursue users of social media for what he considers defamatory statements and has initiated one such action. Besides the obvious mismatch of power, I find this an especially troubling development given that these political ‘non-leaders’ have now admitted (with Hockey’s comments) that social media is the new form of governing. As such, when debating political issues, a certain level of parliamentary privilege should be afforded to bloggers trying to have their voices heard amongst the mob. Frankly a politician who can not stand up to that level of scrutiny only proves my point above – that they are not nearly worth the money we are paying them.

Journalists have not really taken on these issues as yet, notwithstanding the other serious issues going on in the world right now, but it would be letting Mr. Hockey and the remainder of the political class off lightly to just centre on those questions. Of course there have been serious issues that have required leadership all along over the last few decades, from all of the factors that affect a cohesive society right through to the greatest long term challenge humanity faces in climate change. Mr. Hockey’s final speech to parliament provided a perfect example of this where he admitted all of things that he and the Government that he was a part of should have done.

What sort of leadership is that, setting out a vision on the way forward as he heads out the exit, never to be in such a strong position again to argue for his vision and effect the necessary change? 

The lack of willingness from the ‘political class’ to even set out a vision for the future has deep implications for societies, in my view.

I suggest that without a real contest of ideas by the political leaders of many nations the majority in society feel insecure. Everybody is well aware that technology has brought on significant and rapid change, and can easily predict that it will continue to do so. The lack of leadership creates a perception in society that we are on a rudderless ship where nobody has any real idea on where we are heading. Worse still, nobody is speaking up with conviction to outline a plan on where it might be good to head, let alone displaying any suggestion of possessing the wherewithal to lead us there. The majority agree on a direction to head in the morning, and that decision is open for revision at lunch and in the evening (for the 24 hour news cycle), and it is little wonder that many suspect that we are meandering directionless in the middle of the ocean.

Representative democracy is a wonderful gift to humanity, but it only works if leaders are courageous enough to spell out a vision for the future and argue for it, accepting that they may fall out of favour with the citizenry if they fail to convince enough of the virtues of their vision. Those elected to lead have largely set out to be small political targets – the least bad option – and have outsourced decision-making to the masses. 

As I said in “How Might Milton Friedman Respond To The COVID-19 Pandemic“:

I see social media platforms as modern day arenas; Facebook the Colosseum… The truth is that individuals can not fill that void and that is creating widespread insecurity and thus anxiety (no matter how much I and others, like Brene Brown, might attempt to inspire and\or cajole all to have the courage to lead). That is why behaviour on social media often resembles that of a mob.

This lack of contest of ideas and leadership, and the anxiety that it caused within society, made many nations ripe for the emergence of populists. Populists like to be political targets as it plays to their strengths and allows rapid, widespread and cheap promotion of their platform. Trump stood up and proclaimed he had a vision and that he was not afraid of being a target – in fact he said that he was so powerful that he could withstand being a really big target, which only emphasised to his growing legion of supporters of how ‘right he must be’. 

Ultimately I consider the lack of trust in technocratic government to be more a consequence of the withdrawal of leadership by the political class than suspicion of the highly educated.

As with any good book, I was left wanting more. I believe that Prof. Sandel’s discourse is an excellent portrayal of where societies could have been at this point in time, thus pinpointing where we departed from the better path. However, the ‘more’ that I wanted to read related to the future with an understanding that the conditions underlying society are changing rapidly and can reasonably be expected to do so for the foreseeable future. 

I believe that all sobre-thinking people realise that solidarity and cohesion in society is absolutely vital for humanity to address the serious challenges that we must to ensure sustainability. However, it is important that it be understood that that cohesion must be at all levels from regional right through to the global society, and so I respectfully suggest that Prof. Sandel has chosen the wrong great US President to champion – instead of highlighting JFK’s more domestic focus (in his dignity of work theme), we need to focus on FDR’s more global focus (in highlighting that we are foremost ‘citizens of the world, members of the human community‘).

Then again, thinking globally we must act locally, not just in relation to the environment but in the values that we choose to live our lives by. 

This is where I felt Prof. Sandel missed an opportunity to ensure that “The Tyranny of Merit” was even more impactful. Perhaps a sequel is already planned to give more specific indications of Prof. Sandel’s views on how society can achieve that solidarity.

In the second and final part of this essay I offer three specific areas important for consideration in achieving more cohesive societies, two discussed by Prof. Sandel in education and the workplace, and another area left untouched by Prof. Sandel, the family.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

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