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← The tyranny of merit

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Showing Revision 8 created 08/25/2020 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. Here's a question we should all be asking:
  2. What went wrong?
  3. Not just with the pandemic
  4. but with our civic life.
  5. What brought us to this polarized,
    rancorous political moment?
  6. In recent decades,

  7. the divide between winners and losers
    has been deepening,
  8. poisoning our politics,
  9. setting us apart.
  10. This divide is partly about inequality.
  11. But it's also about the attitudes
    toward winning and losing
  12. that have come with it.
  13. Those who landed on top
  14. came to believe that their success
    was their own doing,
  15. a measure of their merit,
  16. and that those who lost out
    had no one to blame but themselves.
  17. This way of thinking about success

  18. arises from a seemingly
    attractive principle.
  19. If everyone has an equal chance,
  20. the winners deserve their winnings.
  21. This is the heart
    of the meritocratic ideal.
  22. In practice, of course, we fall far short.
  23. Not everybody has an equal chance to rise.
  24. Children born to poor families
    tend to stay poor when they grow up.
  25. Affluent parents are able to pass
    their advantages onto their kids.
  26. At Ivy League universities, for example,
  27. there are more students
    from the top one percent
  28. than from the entire bottom half
    of the country combined.
  29. But the problem isn't only
    that we fail to live up

  30. to the meritocratic
    principles we proclaim.
  31. The ideal itself is flawed.
  32. It has a dark side.
  33. Meritocracy is corrosive
    of the common good.
  34. It leads to hubris among the winners
  35. and humiliation among those who lose out.
  36. It encourages the successful
    to inhale too deeply of their success,
  37. to forget the luck and good fortune
    that helped them on their way.
  38. And it leads them to look down
    on those less fortunate,
  39. less credentialed than themselves.
  40. This matters for politics.
  41. One of the most potent sources
    of the populous backlash
  42. is the sense among many working people
    that elites look down on them.
  43. It's a legitimate complaint.
  44. Even as globalization
    brought deepening inequality

  45. and stagnant wages,
  46. its proponents offered workers
    some bracing advice.
  47. "If you want to compete and win
    in the global economy,
  48. go to college."
  49. "What you earn depends on what you learn."
  50. "You can make it if you try."
  51. These elites miss the insult
    implicit in this advice.
  52. If you don't go to college,
  53. if you don't flourish in the new economy,
  54. your failure is your fault.
  55. That's the implication.
  56. It's no wonder many working people
    turned against meritocratic elites.
  57. So what should we do?

  58. We need to rethink three aspects
    of our civic life.
  59. The role of college,
  60. the dignity of work
  61. and the meaning of success.
  62. We should begin by rethinking
    the role of universities

  63. as arbiters of opportunity.
  64. For those of us who spend our days
    in the company of the credentialed,
  65. it's easy to forget a simple fact:
  66. Most people don't have
    a four-year college degree.
  67. In fact, nearly two-thirds
    of Americans don't.
  68. So it is folly to create an economy
  69. that makes a university diploma
    a necessary condition
  70. of dignified work and a decent life.
  71. Encouraging people to go
    to college is a good thing.

  72. Broadening access
    for those who can't afford it
  73. is even better.
  74. But this is not a solution to inequality.
  75. We should focus less on arming people
    for meritocratic combat,
  76. and focus more on making life better
  77. for people who lack a diploma
  78. but who make essential
    contributions to our society.
  79. We should renew the dignity of work

  80. and place it at the center
    of our politics.
  81. We should remember that work
    is not only about making a living,
  82. it's also about contributing
    to the common good
  83. and winning recognition for doing so.
  84. Robert F. Kennedy put it well
    half a century ago.

  85. Fellowship, community, shared patriotism.
  86. These essential values do not come
  87. from just buying and consuming
    goods together.
  88. They come from dignified employment,
  89. at decent pay.
  90. The kind of employment
    that enables us to say,
  91. "I helped to build this country.
  92. I am a participant
    in its great public ventures."
  93. This civic sentiment
  94. is largely missing
    from our public life today.
  95. We often assume that the money people make

  96. is the measure of their contribution
    to the common good.
  97. But this is a mistake.
  98. Martin Luther King Jr. explained why.
  99. Reflecting on a strike
    by sanitation workers
  100. in Memphis, Tennessee,
  101. shortly before he was assassinated,
  102. King said,
  103. "The person who picks up our garbage
    is, in the final analysis,
  104. as significant as the physician,
  105. for if he doesn't do his job,
  106. diseases are rampant.
  107. All labor has dignity."
  108. Today's pandemic makes this clear.

  109. It reveals how deeply we rely
  110. on workers we often overlook.
  111. Delivery workers,
  112. maintenance workers,
  113. grocery store clerks,
  114. warehouse workers,
  115. truckers,
  116. nurse assistants,
  117. childcare workers,
  118. home health care providers.
  119. These are not the best-paid
    or most honored workers.
  120. But now, we see them as essential workers.
  121. This is a moment for a public debate
  122. about how to bring their pay
    and recognition
  123. into better alignment
    with the importance of their work.
  124. It is also time for a moral,
    even spiritual, turning,

  125. questioning our meritocratic hubris.
  126. Do I morally deserve the talents
    that enable me to flourish?
  127. Is it my doing
  128. that I live in a society
    that prizes the talents
  129. I happen to have?
  130. Or is that my good luck?
  131. Insisting that my success is my due
  132. makes it hard to see myself
    in other people's shoes.
  133. Appreciating the role of luck in life
  134. can prompt a certain humility.
  135. There but for the accident of birth,
    or the grace of God,
  136. or the mystery of fate,
  137. go I.
  138. This spirit of humility

  139. is the civic virtue we need now.
  140. It's the beginning of a way back
  141. from the harsh ethic of success
    that drives us apart.
  142. It points us beyond the tyranny of merit
  143. to a less rancorous,
    more generous public life.