Tyranny of Merit

If "Disunited Nations" was my book of 2020 for my brain, "Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? (Michael J. Sandel / Farrar, Straus and Giroux)" was the one for my heart. Prof. Michael J. Sandel may be more famous in Korea than in the US. His last book "Justice" was a great hit in Korea. Maybe that's why I picked up his new book, and I could get a fraction of an answer for the incomprehensible disorder of these days.

The author claims that the current political divide is no longer left versus right but open versus closed. During the last decade, the rhetoric of opportunity has been overwhelmed: "You can rise as far as your talents will take you." But on the flip side, it has made winners think they solely deserve their success, which means (implicitly and more critically) those who have failed also deserve their fate as well. The toxic mix of the winner's hubris and resentment of those left behind is the root cause of the current fractious political landscape.

In this way, even a fair meritocracy, one without cheating or bribery or special privileges for the wealthy, induces a mistaken impression—that we have made it on our own.

I was deeply impressed by his interpretation of "The Book of Job." I had thought the central theme of the story was, "Finally, Job was saved and rewarded." It was not. It was the story of how God renounces the logic that he presides over a cosmic meritocracy, how it consequentially asserts God's unbounded power, and a lesson of humility. But I couldn't help being frustrated at the story of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was born as an argument against merit - rejection of the indulgence. However, humans have kept wanting to confirm their salvation. Proving their state of grace through worldly activity brought meritocracy back in. Finally, it leads to the "prosperity gospel" these days. I felt we were doomed as I got to realize how the meritocratic instinct is powerful.

If prosperity is a sign of salvation, suffering is a sign of sin. This logic is not necessarily tied to religious assumptions. It is a feature of any ethic that conceives human freedom as the unfettered exercise of will and attributes to human beings a thoroughgoing responsibility for their fate.

The author does not deny merit itself, but he is concerned the merit becomes a justification of inequality.

What matters for a meritocracy is that everyone has an equal chance to climb the ladder of success; it has nothing to say about how far apart the rungs on the ladder should be. The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.

When I ran my game studio, I usually said that "If we have done our best of the best, now we can participate in a coin flip game - success or fail." Though my emphasis was on the success (and we have to do more) at the time, I get to believe the notion that our success, status, and even failures are NOT solely on ourselves is crucial. However, I know it's tough to execute. Solidarity and a social consensus are way hard to achieve. And this is the problem of politics, which is why we need better politics, especially for the coming decade.

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.