Books

Clobbered by circumstances?

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on December 20, 2020

Merit is not as meritorious as it seems; luck plays a bigger part

In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin, mentions how life made Joseph Conrad feel like ‘a cornered rat waiting to be clubbed.’ He contrasts his own experience stating, ‘some of us are struck with good luck and that is what happened to me.’

Instead of attributing his phenomenal success as an actor to God-given talent Chaplin had the humility to accept that he owed it all to chance and good fortune. This is a point of view that the Harvard philosopher, Michael Sandel concurs in his book ‘The Tyranny of Merit, What’s Become of the Common Good?

Merit is not as meritorious as we are led to believe as it is conditioned by wealth and power. “Any serious response to the gap between rich and poor,” he states, “must reckon directly with inequalities of power and wealth rather than rest content with the project of helping people scramble up a ladder whose rungs grow further and further apart.”

Society’s emphasis on meritocracy, according to Sandel, “reflects the tendency of the winners to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It is the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs too. This attitude,” Sandel adds, “is the moral companion of technocratic politics.”

The Obama administration’s botched response to the 2008 financial crisis is a case in point. It caused so many to lose their jobs along with their savings, while corporate-friendly bailouts rescued not only big business but also the very ones who caused the financial crisis, the wiz kids of high finance. The mess, Sandel states, was a consequence of Obama’s implicit faith in the infallibility of the self-perpetuating ‘meritocrats,’ many of whom, like himself, had passed out of Ivy League institutions. Sandel believes that “renewing the dignity of work requires that we contend with moral questions underlying our economic arrangements, questions that the technocratic politics of recent decades have obscured.” Many would agree, among them, Amartya Sen.

The well-known social scientist Susan George author of ‘A Fate Worse than Debt,’ and the Oxford economist Kate Raworth, famous for her book, ‘Doughnut Economics,’ challenge economic liberalism and GDP as ultimate measures of progress regardless of the damage it inflicts on people and the environment. They, like Sandel, are emphatic that we need to create conditions in which all, not a few, can lead meaningful lives. Economic liberalisation globalisation and the pursuit of consumption over production have stripped the less educated and marginalised sections of their sense of self-worth and the dignity that came with holding a job and a feeling that they were contributing to society. Is it any surprise then, Sandel asks, if a Trump, voicing the angst of the marginalised, however hypocritically, could rise to power in the United States?

Relevant to India

While the focus of Sandel’s book is America, what it has to say is even more relevant for India, making his book an essential read for our policy makers if only to help fine-tune the country’s myriad welfare schemes to make them more meaningful for those it covers. Unfortunately, this is not the case today.

A work for wages initiative, the MGNREGA has kept the poor where they are. A serious effort to help them rise economically would have meant upgrading their skills but vocational training for the masses remains patchy. A scheme to admit poor children to elite schools has floundered. A ‘reservation’ programme covering India’s historically marginalised has worked better but has yet to address the concerns of the vast majority in the communities it targets. It is time all this changed.

By default, our policy makers are members of the country’s meritocracy. It is their duty more than anyone else’s to create, in Sandel’s words the “broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity — developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, share in a diffused culture of learning and deliberate with their fellow citizens about public affairs.”

This then is the common good of the book’s subtitle.

“A change could follow if we keep in mind that we are fortunate to find ourselves in a society that prizes our talents.” This as Sandel says, should be considered “our good fortune, not our due.” Such humility he argues “is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit towards a less rancorous, more generous public life.” Who would disagree?

The reviewer teaches at IISc, Bengaluru

Published on December 20, 2020

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