15 October 2020, The Tablet

Who cares wins


Who cares wins

Michael Sandel, left, and David Goodhart
Photos: PA/Gtres; PA/Empics, Isabel Infantes

 

Two studies of success suggest that our hearts should count more than our heads

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
MICHAEL J. SANDEL
(ALLEN LANE, 288 PP, £20)
Tablet bookshop price £18 • Tel 020 7799 4064

Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century
DAVID GOODHART
(ALLEN LANE, 368 PP, £20)
Tablet bookshop price £18 • Tel 020 7799 4064

One of my more shaming memories is of my father (a brilliant mental arithmetician) asking my 10- or 11-year-old self what, say, 17 x 17, or two-thirds of five-sevenths, was while my younger brother played in the corner. Midway through the exercise he started listening in. Dad turned enquiringly to him and said, “stick to your bricklaying, lad.” Needless to say, what’s ­shaming about this incident isn’t my father’s snobbery, nasty though that was, but my ­relishing it. I’d always known I was going places and my brother wasn’t. How lovely to have it confirmed by a parent.

And how unlovely, some years on, to have Donald Trump in the White House and the not so United Kingdom working up to self-slaughter by leaving the European Union. Yet both these disasters, Michael J. Sandel argues in The Tyranny of Merit, were engendered by a zillion instances of intellectual hubris like my own. Following Michael Young, the sociologist whose 1958 dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy predicted that the less-educated would rise up against the self-styled elites in, ahem, 2034, Sandel believes that meritocratic societies cannot but be polarised societies.

Though they might seem fairer, societies organised as hierarchies of talent are quite as unjust as aristocratic societies. There is no more virtue in being born with a talent for maths than there is in being born the Duke of Marlborough. Indeed, says Sandel, meritocracies might be more unjust than aristocracies because they foster self-loathing and license self-regard. In an aristocracy those on top can never be certain they deserve to be where they are. Those at the bottom, meanwhile, need not regard their status as evidence of personal failure. In a meritocracy, though, everybody knows their place precisely because they earned it.

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