What’s luck got to do with it? Pretty much everything (review of Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit)

Three things have yet to happen as I hit the 28-year mark in my career.

I’ve never been laid off, fired or had a daily commute beyond 20 minutes.

What’s been the secret to my success?

Dumb luck and good fortune.

I’ve been blessed with patient bosses who’ve believed in second and third chances. I’ve worked with kind colleagues who’ve had my back and shown me the ropes. And when it’s been time to move on, a local employer always posted a job that somehow matched my skills and experience.

Around the same time I started on this 28-year run of good luck, Michael Sandel noticed a trend among the students he taught at Harvard.

“Beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present, more and more of my students seem drawn to the conviction that their success is their own doing, a product of their effort, something they have earned,” says Sandel, author of The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good. “Among the students I teach, this meritocratic faith has intensified.”

That faith is a problem because it leads to both hubris and humiliation.  The winners in a meritocracy fool themselves into believing they deserve the good life. They’ve earned their pay, perks, performance bonuses, golden handshakes and the right to fly off and lay on a beach during a pandemic.

“Meritocratic hubris reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way,” says Sandel. “It is the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too.”

So we don’t lose sleep over growing income inequality and widening gaps between winners and losers. We’re not outraged when we hear that Canada’s 100 highest-paid CEOs made 202 times what the average worker earned in 2019. If anything, we’re a little envious and hopeful that, with the same drive and determination, we too will get a fair shot at grabbing the brass ring.

“The notion that your fate is in your hands, that ‘you can make it if you try,’ is a double-edged sword, inspiring in one way but invidious in another. It congratulates the winners but denigrates the losers, even in their own eyes. For those who can’t find work or make ends meet, it is hard to escape the demoralizing thought that their failure is their own doing, that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed.”

The end result is an abandonment of the common good. The smug winners in a meritocracy are indifferent to those who are struggling. The demoralized losers are grow resentful of elites and throw their support behind populist leaders.

So what’s our solution? Sandel says we need to start appreciating the dignity of essential frontline workers in places like hospitals, long-term care homes and grocery stores. If these workers left their posts to join senior executives on the beach, we’d all be in serious trouble. Yet in a meritocracy, there’s rampant credentialism. We’re told that the only way to realize our full and true potential is by earning a degree or diploma. This diminishes both the value of work that doesn’t require a credential and worth of the people doing these jobs.

We also need to rediscover a much-needed sense of humility. It’s time we remember how to count our blessings.

“A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility. Such humility is the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond a tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.  

“Why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due,” says Sandel.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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