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kottke.org posts about Michael Young

The Tyranny of Meritocracy

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 30, 2019

In this quick animated excerpt of a longer talk, political philosopher Michael Sandel critiques the idea of the meritocracy, the notion that innate talent and hard work are the main drivers of personal success and “the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate”.

A lively sense of the contingency of our lot conduces to a certain humility. The idea that ‘there but for the grace of God, or the accident of fortune, go I’. But a perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace or luck; it diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. And so, it leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny.

Sandel’s full talk, A New Politics of Hope, is available online here.

P.S. A reminder that the term “meritocracy” was originally a satirical term invented by writer Michael Young in 1958 to describe a dystopian society. He is disappointed to see how people now wear the term as a badge of honor.

The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.

They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.

(via open culture)

The Satirical Origins of the Meritocracy

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2017

In 1958, Michael Young published a book called The Rise of the Meritocracy as a satirical criticism of the concept of meritocracy. From Wikipedia:

It describes a dystopian society in a future United Kingdom in which intelligence and merit have become the central tenet of society, replacing previous divisions of social class and creating a society stratified between a merited power holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited.

In 2001, Young wrote a piece for The Guardian about his disappointment that the satire had been stripped away from his term and embraced by an elite using it to justify their status.

The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.

They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.

So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves. The old restraints of the business world have been lifted and, as the book also predicted, all manner of new ways for people to feather their own nests have been invented and exploited.

Salaries and fees have shot up. Generous share option schemes have proliferated. Top bonuses and golden handshakes have multiplied.

As a result, general inequality has been becoming more grievous with every year that passes, and without a bleat from the leaders of the party who once spoke up so trenchantly and characteristically for greater equality.

Perhaps the tide seems to be turning slightly of late, but the meritocracy is thrown around pretty regularly in Silicon Valley as a justification for all sorts of things. Maybe the problem is the Valley doesn’t understand satire…after all, they invented a food product called Soylent. (via @mulegirl)