The Tyranny of Merit

Michael J. Sandel, the author of The Tyranny of Merit: Can we Find the Common Good, has written something excellent. It is a rapid review of the facts of  and justifications for income inequality, and an equally cogent review of the philosophers and economists who undermine the idea that merit has anything to do with economic success. Sandel has done a great deal of homework. He neatly encapsulates the core thoughts of a number of thinkers; one can educate oneself quickly in the subject matter.

The issue is relevant because everyone talks as if merit were the way to justify income inequality , from Obama to George Bush. Yet, as we have seen, the masses are in revolt against the liberal free trade world order and especially the qualified and presumably meritocratic experts who administer the processes of government. Think Brexit, Trump’s 2016 victory or the Dutch farmer’s revolt.

Sandel echoes something that I have felt for ages: that one of the least tolerable aspects of meritocracy is the necessary concomitant: that one is sitting at the bottom of the heap because one deserves to be there. In the course of Sandel’s review of the subject, he discusses a number of important thinkers  who have seen through the meritocratic arguments.

Some of these arguments dissociate merit from income rewards in a market economy. Others point out that one inherits talents genetically and that a good brain is no more a question of merit than the inheritance of a few million dollars,

Strangely, Hayek Friedrich and John Rawls both come down on the same side: economic rewards have nothing to do with merit. From this basic assumption each draws opposite conclusions. Hayek favours a minimum of governmental interference  in income redistribution, that other, Rawls, advocate for extensive redistribution.

You may recall that Obama got into trouble when he tried to comment on this subject of economic success and just deserts in the 2012 campaign. He attempted, clumsily as it turned out, to point out that success has a lot to do with factors outside of one’s talents and efforts. The Republicans jumped upon his comments because he appeared to denigrate individual effort, whereas he was only saying that success depends a lot on circumstances not built by the entrepreneur himself.

But Sandel dive bombs Obama with greater precision, and it is worth quoting him.

“More than a slip of the tongue, Obama’s awkward attempt to describe the moral debt the successful owe their fellow citizens reflects a weakness in the philosophy of welfare state liberalism, which fails to provide a sense of community adequate to the solidarity it requires.”

I will now address the issue which is on my mind. Who or what generates or supplies the community adequate for the required solidarity?  I am not merely talking about moral debts, as Sandel does, but of the recognition of rights, which are the enforceable aspect of moral debts. My concern is other than income inequality, or rebellion against the experts. The rebellion is coming or is actually underway. And I don’t propose to address growing or shrinking income inequality. I am motivated by a concern that welfare state liberalism, or whatever you call the system of government we have  in North America, fails to provide the sense of community adequate to the solidarity it requires. Ibn Khaldun spoke of this solidarity as as asabiya, the capacity of a people for collective action. That capacity is shrinking, in part because the experts have been so wrong (COVID, global warming etc), and in a greater measure because the current thought revolution, labelled wokeness, sees the very groups that founded liberal society as uniquely unworthy of recognition or respect, and the authors of unforgivable injustice, whose removal and subjugation to yet more experts (DIE, ESG) is official policy.

The principal critique of a rights-based society – as we conceive it now – rests upon the insight that rights are recognized, they are not products of nature. Or as Tom Holland is wont to say, rights are as metaphysical a construction as angels. We recognize rights and we pretend they are derived from a God we no longer believe in. We encode rights in charters and constitutions and we have special institutions of the state, called courts and tribunals, for the recognition of rights. Kind of like institutions of the Church for the recognition of angels.

Now what do rights have to do with community? Good question. They exist in a tension that many find illegitimate or difficult to recognize. According to the absolutists of rights, the community is obliged to recognize my rights, however they are defined by courts and law. The recognition goes in but one direction, as it seems, from the society at large towards the claimant. One speaks of people having rights the way heaven is full of angels. They are recognized because we are obliged to recognize them. Institutions of society may compel my observance of your right. And those very institutions have created, expanded, and compelled recognition of your rights.

I would like to propose that, for the most part, in the modern world, it is the nation that recognizes those rights. At one time it might have been the Church or the Umma, to the extent one can speak of rights existing before the nation state. But in truth one cannot speak of rights existing before they were invented.

George Friedman gave an eloquent lecture on the subject of the relationship of the nation to rights, well worth watching, because Friedman addresses mant central concerns about who or what recognizes rights.

In his lecture Friedman argues that nations are, above all, necessary. They define who your father and other are, what language or languages you speak, and the people to whom you are most closely related. Some of these nations are ethnic, or multiethnic. Some, like the United States Canada and, I would argue, France, are political constructions that form a nation not tethered to ethnicity. Your identity is not something you invented. The nation has not invented you but has rather given birth to you.

We belong to nations, tribes, villages. Formerly we were tied into empires, which cannot co-exist with national self determination.  Liberalism  gave us democracies. And it allows us to choose our leaders. But leaders of what?  asks Friedman. Nations, he answers. The revolutions of the 19th century were for liberties, and the right to self-determine. Language, common mythologies, religions: these are the things that unite us to some and divide us from others.

It is the nation that determines the course you take. Hence, according to Friedman, nationalism is not the opposite of liberalism, it is the essence of liberalism. The nation is the vehicle through which rights are determined and assigned.

Not charters and constitutions, but nations.

If you live in Quebec, as I do, as a linguistic minority, it is more evident that my rights to speak my language in communication with the state, or to record my legal acts in the state registries, is extended or extinguished by act of a parliament composed of people belonging to another ethnicity or nation, and definitely not sympathetic to my own.

So it seems obvious to me that rights depend on the tolerance of the national majority, and much less on the formal adjudicative decision making tribunals of government.

Thus, when we turn to English Canada, whatever can be said to remain of it, we observe a nation in the process of self dissolution, under the direction of its Liberal government. It resembles more than I would like a multi-ethnic hotel. The staff, the maintenance, the heating and cooling people, to extend the metaphor, are those who belong to the vanishing nation of English Canada, while the waves of new immigrants are conceived to be the guests who are expected to fit in as their convenience dictates to the previously existing structure, which has been vitiated by racism, sexism etc. and needs to be replaced. This may be the Liberal government’s idea of Canada. I doubt it it the new immigrant’s idea of Canada.


The essence of the matter is that the social solidarity on which the nation depends – including especially its liberal features – cannot forever endure the attempts of the Liberal party, the party of the Davos men, the WEF,  and the experts, to dissolve the nation which gives meaning and content to those rights it espouses and seeks to promote. Which is why, I think, that the rebellion against the experts by the people is actually underway, and that the coming defeat of Justin Trudeau and his party is the symptom of a much more general rebellion against the experts, the credentialled fools,  across western society. It cannot come to soon. Because, whatever you call this reign we live under, it fails to provide a sense of community adequate to the solidarity it requires.


Post Script:

On the issue of the increasing separation of the meritocrats (the self regarding credentialed elites) from the rest of the people, see this interview with Professor Matthew Goodwin.