Notes On: “The Tyranny of Merit” – Chapter 3

In Chapter Two of his work, entitled “The Rhetoric of Rising”, Sandel considers the negative impacts of the Rhetoric of Rising on individuals and society.

All Excerpt From
The Tyranny of Merit
Michael J. Sandel
This material may be protected by copyright.

“The suggestion that they were admitted due to luck or other factors beyond their control provokes strong resistance.”

Well of course. In an institute in which its student body is going be largely made of of the children of wealth Americans, the same the lead heavily into the rhetoric of meritocracy, any notion that their admittance had anything to do with something other then their own hard work would be to question the fundamental beliefs.

“Since the 1980s, debates about the welfare state have been less about solidarity than about the extent to which the disadvantaged are responsible for their misfortune. Some assert more demanding notions of personal responsibility, others more restrictive ones.
Expansive conceptions of personal responsibility are a clue that meritocratic assumptions are in play. The more thoroughgoing our responsibility for our fate, the more we merit praise or blame for the way our lives turn out.”

This of course is also labeled as having some sort of moral value. As discussed in the previous chapter, failure to succeed is, very often without evidence in support of the claim, a moral failing. Ofttimes all those who fail are seen as lazy.

“But, like all attributions of responsibility, it also has a harsh side. If those who are victims of circumstance deserve our help, those who had a hand in their own misfortune arguably do not.”

I do not, on face value, disagree with this claim. One who suffers economic hardship due to quitting a job simply because it is not enjoyable I do not feel an over abundance of sympathy for. On the other hand, those that follow the American idea of success, and risk everything to become economically independent, should hardly be to blame for their failing. Yet, this too is problematic as how does one measure acceptable risk? Or can we hold a middle class worker to the same standards of the price of failure as we do the wealthy? (Blameworthy and praiseworthy) In that, the real problem is that those who hold this view too often set the threshold of “through no fault of their own” so high that nearly everything can be considered ones own fault.

“If opportunities are truly equal, then not only will people rise as far as their talents and hard work will take them; their success will be their own doing, and they will deserve the rewards that come their way.”

This simple notion itself is merely a dream. Although there is not promise of equal outcome, even those who work hard and apply their talents toward a meaningful outcome, will not succeed. But this is the point of the no promise of equal outcome. It is a built in fact that not everyone will succeed, regardless of opportunity, hard work, and talents.

“Speaking to a group of business leaders in 1983, for example, he said that those who succeed by their own efforts deserve to be rewarded.”

In this sense, and any other sense of deserve, it is one of selfishness. To say that, “I deserve this thing and you do not” is the language of self service. While not necessarily negative, hear thinking about those dealing with mental illness or those that have suffered major hardship, to say that one deserves a healthy, happy, and safe, life is perfectly fine. But when one starts talking about the deservedness of objective wealth, that is squarely at language of greed.

“… I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; ”

And yet that very merit, that success due to working hard, breeds a new kind of privilege. Deservedness is just merit based privilege.

“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.”

A taunt such that, “well maybe if you worked a little harder you’d be better off”, or “well maybe if you focused on saving and not on spending, you’d be better off.” Both points, and all those around and in between, are a smack in the face, and a complete ignoring of the hardships of being on the bottom, of those who have been unlucky enough to not success.

“If, however, the most fortunate members of society are indebted for their success—to good luck or God’s grace or the community’s support—then the moral case for sharing one another’s fate is stronger. It is easier to make the case that we are all in this together.”

Thus the majority of American’s abandoning the later part of Smith when he said the people own the society they live in for their success. For them, it diminishes their preserved ‘hard work’ and adds in an element of luck. It also means that Americans own a great deal to those around them. From family, to coworkers, to employees, or even to the government for offering small business loans. Denying interconnectivity allows one to comfortably live within the greed and selfishness of the American materialistic culture.

“Rich and poor alike realized income gains in China, while in the U.S., the gains of growth have gone mainly to those at the top.”

This is no small part to the economic policies in place that continue to support and feed the lie of trickle down economics.

“Although the rhetoric of rising is aspirational, pointing to a promise that has yet to be redeemed, its articulation invariably turns congratulatory: “Here in America, everyone who works hard can rise.” Like most powerful rhetoric, it commingles the aspirational with the congratulatory; it asserts the hope as if it were a fact.”

Or as George Carlin so clearly stated it, “The American Dream is just that, a dream (sic)”[find citation].

“This is a country where no matter what you look like or where you come from, if you’re willing to study and work hard, you can go as far as your talents will take you. You can make it if you try.”

Not only is this merely aspirational, its very nature requires one to ignore over 100 years of de facto and de juries racism and prejudice that exists in the nation. Women and people of color are required to work much harder then their white male counterparts to find any margin of success.

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