Merit Can Be Toxic

“Even a fair meritocracy, the one without cheating or bribery or special privileges, induces a mistaken impression – that we have made it on our own… the more we think of ourselves as self made, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. Without these qualities, it is hard to care for the common good”

–Michael Sandel

In his latest book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the Common Good, renowned political philosopher Michael Sandel debunks popular narratives on merit. He exposes how an obsession with merit has fuelled inequality and asks if a meritocracy is a moral ideal.

Although Sandel’s analysis of inequality and merit is rooted in the American context, his propositions on equality are germane to India as well. The book raises many uncomfortable questions.

Merit and equality

Over time, the notion that merit ought to determine what a person deserves emerged as a facet of equality. The idea was to ensure that factors such as race, caste, class, etc imposed at the time of birth do not decide an individual’s fate and that meritorious people are to be rewarded irrespective of these factors.

‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good Michael J. Sandel Macmillion Publishers (2020)

Sandel wants us to realise that this so called ‘meritocracy’ still retains characteristics of a hereditary aristocracy. He substantiates by drawing attention to admissions to universities in the US. Despite formally abolishing barriers such as race, gender and class by introducing entrance tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and providing scholarships, not many from disadvantaged families make it into Ivy League colleges. This is because wealthy candidates attend expensive coaching classes to crack these tests, hire consultants to embellish applications, attend sports coaching to pass off as sportspersons – which significantly improve their chances of getting in. Also, the children of alumni and donors find it easier to get admitted into these colleges.

The situation is not very different in India. It was reported that only 2% of the students who got into medical colleges in Tamil Nadu after cracking the NEET had not attended coaching. It is pertinent to note that students from rural India struggle to access coaching facilities. Students from government schools are disadvantaged as many of these schools do not train students to answer these tests. This being the case, is it fair to label these students as ‘non meritorious’ and overlook the underlying reasons why they could not perform well?

Candidates who don’t perform well in these tests have the option of availing the ‘management quota’ but the fee for such candidates is usually exorbitant. This means that privileged candidates can gain a back door entry despite their mediocre performance.

Meritocratic hubris

Sandel vehemently argues that those who are successful in proving their merit by cracking tests tend to overlook the role of luck and privilege in their success. They tend to attribute their success only to their effort and talent. He feels that meritocracy generates hubris in winners while those who lose out, internalise a sense of failure by assuming that they lack the skills and talent to succeed.

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In India, measures taken by the government to improve access to education have failed in eradicating hubris and a sense of failure. For instance, students who avail the benefit of reservations are often branded as undeserving by the others who take pride in having made it without reservations. The constant humiliation often creates an inferiority complex and has even driven students to die by suicide.

Merit and democracy

Sandel opines that the ‘meritocratic age’ has eroded dignity of work as those who perform low paying jobs are looked down upon – as people who didn’t make use of the opportunities before them. He points out that people with low paying jobs feel culturally displaced as their jobs do not generate social esteem. The resentment in the working class was expressed in the form of support for populists like Donald Trump, who attack the elite and globalisation for instilling a sense of obsolescence in the working class. In the UK, Boris Johnson harnessed populist nationalism and xenophobia, and portrayed himself as a saviour of the working class.

This indicates that neglecting dignity of work and looking down upon certain classes have encouraged the rise of demagogues and this is dangerous for democracy. Ambedkar had foreseen this a long time ago. In his last speech to the constituent assembly, he cautioned that political democracy would not survive without social democracy. For him, democracy meant a mode of associated living characterised by an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow citizens. It is pursuant to this ideal that the Preamble to the constitution declares that the people of India have resolved to assure dignity of the individual through a feeling of fraternity among citizens.

It is time to reflect on the impact of meritocratic hubris on the ideal of fraternity in India. The obsession with credentialism, glorification of certain jobs and contempt for manual labour has brewed into a toxic fervour which has eroded fraternity and dignity. There is a pressing need to ensure that credentialism does not strike a death blow to the upward mobility of individuals without degrees.

It is equally important that ‘winners’ are not smug, but instead acknowledge that along with their efforts, the arbitrary allocation of natural talents (luck), and privilege have played an instrumental role in their success.

Rahul Machaiah holds an LLM in Law and Development from Azim Premji University.

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