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The Tyranny of Merit
pranav jeevan p

Pranav Jeevan P 

Being born with talent is a genetic lottery, especially if it is with a talent that is rare and uncommon and if there is any market or public demand for it during their lifetime. Similar stochasticity is present in the social and economic position we are born into, as that defines whether we get an opportunity to hone these talents as skills, whether we will have the privilege of a supportive family, quality education, and hundreds of similar factors beyond our control that can impact our chances of social and economic success. We have also seen that even if people lack those intrinsic talents at birth, their social and economic position is enough to give them countless opportunities and tune them to succeed through its networks and support systems. Almost all the factors that determine the destiny of an individual lie outside their control, and it is high time we accept this reality and stop admonishing people for their sufferings and misfortunes.

The idea of merit erases uncontrollable structural, social, economic, and political factors and makes success and failure individualistic. Attributing success only to individual skills, hard work, and dedication removes all the other factors and heaps praise upon the individual and humiliation on the others. It protects the gains accumulated by an individual with a cloak of deservedness while simultaneously using the same deservedness to accuse the unsuccessful of the depravity imposed on them. The heart of the meritocratic ethic lies in the belief that everyone is solely responsible for their destiny and deserves everything they receive. Even though this thinking is empowering and provides a sense of control over our lives, the more we image ourselves as being self-made, we are ignoring the other factors that contributed to it. This results in blaming people for their failures and comfortably ignoring the socio-economic and other factors that also contributed, which were beyond the individual’s control.

Meritocracy gives the illusion that hard work or effort put in by an individual is rewarded equally, which makes the successful look down on the others as lazy and undeserving. The truth is that the reward for one’s hard work depends more on the privileges they possess, like their caste, class, religion, gender, and sexuality, which have nothing to do with their own effort and were decided by a completely random accident of birth. People born with higher privileges can achieve higher rewards for their hard work without much struggle, while those without privileges must face many obstacles and injustices along the way.

The meritocratic ideals allow those who are privileged to claim success as their own and not as the result of other uncontrollable factors. This allows Savarnas to dissociate their success from their inherited social, economic, and cultural capital. The essence of meritocracy is the casteist idea that those at the top deserve to be there and that their privileges are justified.

 While ideals like Satyameva Jayate (truth alone triumphs), which attribute virtues to success, can be a powerful motivation for people to be righteous or fight against oppression, meritocracy aids the appropriation of these ideals by the privileged to justify their own success that they have gained in society unjustly. Even though connecting truth and justice to success provides hope to those who keep fighting against all odds, the successful cunningly use it as an opportunity to justify their success by claiming these virtues. It raises questions and even self-doubt for the unsuccessful when they fail to succeed despite their faith in justice. It can sometimes make people accept their failure as due to some lack of virtue or effort on their part. Belief in freedom and justice is a powerful source of hope for people who are struggling against injustice. But the belief in a moral universe that rewards justice with victory, even though it might inspire the oppressed, can also prompt arrogance among the powerful, as their success can be used as a justification for their virtues. Success should never be associated only as a reward for individual virtues and hard work, but as contributed by privilege, luck, opportunities, and circumstances beyond individual control.

In the meritocratic view, failure is considered an individual failure rather than an institutional one. This toxic meritocratic argument is most often used by educational institutions to whitewash student suicides, brush all institutional responsibility under the carpet and claim that everything is the student’s individual fault. Success or failure of an individual does not attribute an individual’s virtue but points to much deeper structural and institutional failures. It is most often used by Savarnas who use merit as an argument to cement their privileges and gatekeep the institutions away from access for DBA. We see the weaponization of merit in the most prevalent anti-reservation stance of Savarnas.

People may argue that the current society is far from a true meritocracy and all injustices we see will somehow vanish into an ideal one. One may even argue for a society where we magically remove all the structural unfairness, eliminate discrimination, and allow equal opportunity for everyone irrespective of their socio-economic factors—an ideal meritocracy where everyone has the opportunity for upward mobility and is rewarded solely based on their talent and hard work. Meritocracy does not promise equality of outcomes; it only promises greater and fairer competition in a world where inequality is rising. Even in such a meritocratic society, whether people were born with certain gifts or not will mostly decide their social mobility or success, and this genetic lottery itself is outside their individual control. Whether someone is born with mathematical intelligence, an exquisite voice, athletic abilities, etc., which are highly sought-after qualities, is completely a random chance event, and the question of deserving does not have any meaning. People who use these genetic gifts to rise above the rest are not more deserving than the others who missed the genetic lottery.

Instead of addressing the widening inequalities through policies such as democratization of workplaces and social institutions, redistribution of wealth, and universal basic income, meritocracy gives undue importance to (exclusive) higher education, projecting it as the sole solution for escaping poverty. Moreover, even access to education that promises social mobility is made competitive through unfair exams, which, while claiming to objectively select for merit, actually select for economic, social, and cultural capital, thus favoring the privileged. Further, they use their performance in their skewed examinations to claim that they deserve the success that comes with it more than others. Social mobility remains out of reach for the majority, who are pushed into marginalization while their lack of education is used as a justification for their status. This fulfills the dual objectives of reestablishing the deservedness of the privileged and shifting the responsibility of reducing inequality from the government onto individuals. Giving equal opportunity to the population to pursue higher education is necessary to combat inequality. The prized higher education should not be gatekept to a few institutions that pick and choose candidates through skewed elimination processes in the name of fairness and merit. Rather, higher education should reach every citizen through democratization.

Meritocracy also gives the illusion that the people who are highest paid, such as investment bankers, big tech CEOs, stock traders, etc., deserve their wealth, as these are often the people with elite degrees. However, they neither work as hard nor is their work indispensable for humanity, as compared to workers who are paid the lowest, such as farm laborers, sanitation workers, etc., whose work is actually essential for the survival of civilization. Yet, meritocracy assigns higher status to the ineffectual work of capitalists and looks down upon the working classes. In his book The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel writes how toxic meritocracy reiterates the message that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get. It also insists that people in power with “elite education” are better suited to solve all the socio-economic and political problems that we face as a society, as they know better than the citizens. The so-called rule by meritorious technocratic experts, which is proclaimed as ideal, is a corruption of democracy and disempowers the citizens of their rights. In a society with social hierarchies that cripple any hope of upward mobility for the vast majority, where inequality is rampant, meritocratic ideas erode all solidarity and democratic spirit.

Acknowledgement: Sulochana R, Research Scholar in Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), TIFR for her insights on meritocracy, caste, and higher education.


Pranav Jeevan P is currently a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay. He has earlier studied quantum computing in IIT Madras and Robotics at IIT Kanpur.

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