Historians of Left and Right have tended to agree that Napoleon marked the turning point between the privileges of nobility under the Ancien Régime and the liberal, meritocratic ethos of modern Europe.
In the first volume of his epic account of world history since 1789, the Marxist thinker Eric Hobsbawm ventures to describe the impact of Napoleon’s rise on European consciousness: “All common men were thrilled by the sight, then unique, of a common man who became greater than those born to wear crowns. Napoleon gave ambition a personal name at the moment when the double revolution [of industrial capital and political republicanism] had opened the world to men of ambition.”
In his 2014 biography of Napoleon, the conservative historian Andrew Roberts makes a similar case for the Napoleonic roots of our meritocratic world: “During his sixteen years in power, many of the best ideas that underpin and actuate modern democratic politics,” including meritocracy and equality before the law, “were rescued from the Revolutionary maelstrom and protected, codified and consolidated.”
While the term ‘meritocracy’ was not in fact coined until the late 1950s, the idea that social outcomes should reward merit travelled with the esprit de corps of the Grande Armée. Wherever Napoleon triumphed, so too did this meritocratic ideal: the feudal rights of aristocratic privilege were wiped out and replaced by careers open to talent in the territories acquired and governed by the French Empire. Two centuries later, the belief that the hard-working and naturally gifted are entitled to the fruits of their success continues to reign as a defining assumption.
Indeed, the standard critique of meritocracy is not that it is a flawed ideal, but that it fails to live up to its promise in the real world. Equality of opportunity is a noble ambition, say the critics, but how do we ensure that state-educated orphans and the three children of Bill and Melinda Gates truly compete on an equal playing field? It is no accident that students at elite universities are disproportionately wealthy. From Cambridge to Yale, these institutions pride themselves on being wholly disinterested in their applicants’ socio-economic backgrounds, confessing to no more than a bias in favour of ‘hard work’ and ‘academic excellence,’ but this does not stop affluent families from using their wealth to maximise their offspring’s chances in the battle for admissions. It would be wrong to condemn all these well-meaning parents, but our institutions of higher learning nevertheless reveal how, even within a formal meritocracy, entrenched privilege can co-exist with an appearance of fairness. When the lower rungs of the ladder are kicked away by those already on top, social mobility grinds to a halt and the meritocratic promise loses its capacity to inspire.
But were we wrong to have felt inspired at all? The radical claim of Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit, published last year, is that meritocracy not only falls short in practice, but that even in its purest, perfectly realised form it corrodes democracy and the common good. By assigning the moral category of ‘merit’ to success, the belief that the rich deserve their superior status naturally follows—as does a sense that the poor, being inferior in merit, are equally responsible for their less promising lives. Because talent is both rare and useful, it should be sought wherever it can be found. But when we make too much of natural ability, practical judgements about what works best swiftly turn into moral judgements concerning what people deserve, or merit, as their lot in life.
Gone is any appreciation for the role of chance in the results thrown up by the meritocratic sorting machine. Lionel Messi, by no ‘merit’ of his own, was born with a preposterous level of footballing talent. Certainly, Messi cannot be credited for the arbitrary fact that he lives in a football-mad age, where his gifts are valued at millions, as opposed to medieval Europe when Master Masons were in higher demand than those with electrically quick feet. Describing such accidents of fate with a word like ‘merit’ not only moralizes success; it also vilifies failure, forcing people to believe, as Sandel writes, that “success is their own doing, and that if they fall short, they have no one to blame but themselves.”
In addition to fostering low self-worth among life’s ‘losers’, the meritocratic ethos also breeds an unhealthy pride among those it crowns ‘winners’. This in turn creates a society in which the classical idea of the common good, the notion that we share a public life for a common end, and are therefore bound by duties to one another, gets lost in the noise of private striving and self-congratulation. “The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient,” says Sandel, “the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility.” All of a sudden, where once our political elites would at least feign a social conscience, many of them now sneer openly at vulnerable people whose support they took for granted. It became customary, after 2016, for Brexit and Trump voters to be condemned for their ‘deplorable’ backwardness, their lack of dynamism, their inferior merit.
What follows is a polarised public sphere in which, Sandel observes, “inequalities of income and wealth are so pronounced that they lead us into separate ways of life” and undermine “the obligations of a shared democratic project.” How to address all of this? Sandel himself struggles to find remedies for the toxic sentiments bred by our meritocratic culture, let alone ways to solve inequality itself.
One thing that keeps our meritocratic culture in being is the lack of any obvious alternative. Drawing on Churchill’s quip about democracy, meritocracy is perhaps ‘the worst possible economic system—except for all the others that have been tried.’ Abolishing the tyranny of merit would require a worse, even more arbitrary tyranny: governments with the power to control social life and dictate economic outcomes. Compared to the rest of us, Lionel Messi will always be the superior footballer, Sheryl Sandberg the greater business executive, Sir Roger Penrose the more inspired physicist. For the time being, we look set to continue living in societies which value and reward these exceedingly rare gifts. Unequal outcomes will persist for as long as this remains the case, unless thwarted by laws designed to suppress successful for unearned talent. Supporters of such laws, if there are any, would have a difficult task proving that these unearned talents are more threatening than the powers required to abolish them.
However, while the prospects of political reform look grim, there are changes that we can encourage at the level of culture. Sandel hints at this towards the end of his book (which concludes with a call to humility and generosity as “the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart”), but the idea is not pushed very far. He is right that we must rediscover the virtues which make for a strong, public-spirited communal life. What Sandel fails to mention is that properly redeeming the tyranny of merit would commit us to nothing short of a counter-revolution against liberal morality.
“Tamburlaine and Bajazet” (ca. 1700), an oil on canvas painting by Andrea Celesti (1637-1712).
PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN.
The liberal ethic of autonomy and self-authorship finds powerful expression in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Notoriously, the play’s title character vaunts his control over the destiny of the world: “I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains, and with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about.” Considered a pagan irreverence in the sixteenth century, today Tamburlaine’s pride speaks for a merit-obsessed modern age. Fed on a constant diet of individualist self-striving, we are taught, like Tamburlaine, to view success as the reward for ambition and failure as the natural outcome of moral indolence. Very little, if anything, is left to the bewildering randomness of life captured by Ecclesiastes: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
The Judeo-Christian vision is being attacked from two sides—by an ideology of collective shame on the social justice Left and an obsessive pride on the meritocratic Right. We teach whole identity groups to feel guilty for deeds they never committed while also telling individuals to expect rewards for talents they did not choose. Then we wonder why, increasingly, we live in a culture saturated by tribal identity politics and an economy where private enclaves of self-interest have crowded out the common good.
Policy ideas will always have their place, but they are unlikely to prove sufficient even to soothe these wounds, let alone heal them. Only by restoring the values of our cultural and religious inheritance to the heart of our families, schools and civil institutions can we redeem the arbitrary tyranny of talent. Investment in teaching the importance of caritas and piety may suffice to foster a sense among Westerners that, whatever the accident of their merits, they should feel less enthused by good fortune than haunted by the duties to which it binds them.
In order to possess a valued place in our society, the working classes should not need to go to college or ‘learn to code.’ Rather, it is the elites that should learn to rediscover the old aristocratic spirit of noblesse oblige. This means rejecting the very idea of celebrating our winnings in the sweepstakes of life, and instead working to identify and fulfil our duties to people whose position might easily have been our own. That does not mean showering the poorest with money, which is unlikely to rebuild the sense of self-worth that meritocracy has eroded. The new aristocrats must take part in our shared public life—not as a separate class, but as fellow citizens intent on using their privileges to create meaningful opportunities, so that everyone can be recognised for making some contribution, however modest, to the common good. At that point, perhaps, we can begin to pride ourselves on building a society which truly merits the name just.