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The word merit spelled with Scrabble pieces
Bloom Blog

Do we get what we deserve in life? Political philosopher Michael Sandel says no

By Louise Kinross

A new book by Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel challenges America's most cherished ideas about success and the ability of anyone to "make it" through hard work.

"We want to believe that success—in sports and in life, is something we earn, not something we inherent," he writes in The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? 

This is because in a meritocratic society, people are supposed to have an equal shot at becoming wealthy based on talent and effort. The idea is that we get what we deserve in life. If we prosper, we have earned it, and are entitled to it. If we fail, we can only blame ourselves. 

The problem, Sandel writes, is that this assumption ignores several realities. In today's economy "Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults," Sandel writes. Higher education, which promised to level the playing field, has, instead, consolidated privilege. "If you come from a rich family (top 1 percent), your chances of attending an Ivy League school are 77 times greater than if you come from a poor family (bottom 20 percent)," Sandel writes. 

And then there's the pesky fact that success in a market-driven society doesn't result from effort alone. "Natural gifts and the advantages they bring embarrass the meritocratic faith," Sandel writes, because unusual talent is something you're born with, not something you create. "My having this or that talent is not my doing but a matter of good luck, and I do not merit or deserve the benefits (or burdens) that derive from luck." 

This hit home for me. It reminded me of how, when I was at university, I think I felt that I was somehow responsible for my intelligence. That I'd chosen to be "smart," while others made choices to be athletes or runway models or building contractors.

It's taken me all of these years, and the birth of my son with an intellectual disability, to realize that I didn't in any way "earn" my intelligence, or "work hard for it," and it certainly wasn't a choice.

It was an aptitude bestowed on me at birth. It was luck, in the same way that it was a random error that caused my son's rare genetic condition. 

Dan Wells, a University of Houston scientist, explained how my son's deletion occurred during something called "unequal crossing over."

When my husband's chromosome eight exchanged parts with my chromosome eight, to ensure more genetic diversity, a tiny piece was left out. He likened it to a green ribbon and a yellow ribbon binding together to become a 150-inch, green-and-yellow ribbon. But two inches were cut out in the middle and the ends reattached. Chromosome eight has about 150 million genetic letters and my son's is missing about two million. "There are some places in the genome where you could cut out two million letters and it would have an almost unnoticeable effect," Wells told me. This wasn't one of them.

The cause of my son's genetic condition, he said, was a fluke and couldn't be linked to an identifiable cause.

The intellectual ability I was born with, that enabled me to do well at school, was as random as the intellectual disability my son was born with, which caused him to struggle at school. There was no "equal opportunity" in this allocation of ability, no justice.

Sandel talks about the moral arbitrariness of the talents we're born with as part of his larger look at how globalization, an over-valuation of professional vs. blue-collar work, and the idea that the market determines social value, have created inequality and friction between the so-called winners and losers. "You can make it if you try," is a line Barack Obama said in speeches and statements over 140 times during his presidency, Sandel writes. But that no longer matches "the facts on the ground."

Globalization has enabled the rich to get richer, and widened the earning gap between college grads and nongrads. Until the 1970s, it was possible to land a good job and be middle class without a college degree. By the 2000s, Sandel reports, college grads made 80 per cent more than nongrads. Sandel says "credentialism"—or prejudice against people with less education—is at an all-time high. It's no longer possible for someone in the working class to make it to elected office. "Governing well requires practical wisdom and civic virtue—an ability to deliberate about the common good and to pursue it effectively," Sandel writes. "But neither of these capacities is developed very well in most universities today, even those with the highest reputations. And recent historical experience suggests little correlation between the capacity for political judgment, which involves moral character as well as insight, and the ability to score well on standardized tests and win admission to elite universities. The notion that "the best and the brightest" are better at governing than their less-credentialed fellow citizens is a myth born of meritocratic hubris."

In this climate, college-educated professionals feel morally superior, and people working so-called unskilled jobs feel devalued and resentful. This contributed to the populist backlash that resulted in Donald Trump winning the 2016 election, he writes.

Success is not a solo endeavour, Sandel says. "Measures of merit are hard to disentangle from economic advantage. Standardized tests such as the SAT purport to measure merit on its own, so that students from modest backgrounds can demonstrate intellectual promise. In practice, however, SAT scores closely track family income. The richer a student’s family, the higher the score he or she is likely to receive."

In the 2019 college admissions scandal that saw wealthy parents pay huge sums to have their child's SAT answers corrected, or fake athletic histories concocted, Sandel says parents were buying more than an elite education: They were buying their child the status of having earned their success. "If all they really cared about was enabling their children to live in affluence, they could have given them trust funds. But they wanted something else—the meritocratic cachet that admission to elite colleges confers." Success has come to reflect moral virtue.

University education has become conflated with human worth, Sandel says, quoting John W. Gardner, who served as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in Lyndon Johnson's administration: "Today attendance at college has become virtually a prerequisite of high attainment in the world's eyes, so that it becomes, in the false value framework we have created, the only passport to a meaningful life." 

Sandel argues that we have to reevaluate how we define a good life and renew the dignity of all kinds of work.  "We now realize how deeply dependent we are, not just on doctors and nurses, but delivery workers, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, lorry drivers, home healthcare providers and childcare workers, many of them in the gig economy," he said in this interview in The Guardian. "We call them key workers and yet these are oftentimes not the best paid or the most honoured workers.”

I agree. We also need to expand our conceptions of a meaningful life—separate from work and university education. Our vision at Holland Bloorview is "The most meaningful and healthy futures for all children, youth and families."

But how do we define meaningful? I think we would say that youth and families define what a rich life looks like to them. But it's hard to do that without unconventional models. In 2017, occupational therapist Yani Hamdani won first prize in our Pursuit Awards for her study that looks at how Western ideas that equate adulthood with independence, work and education marginalize young adults with developmental disabilities—and their parents.

In thinking back to her time working with families whose children were becoming adults, Yani said, “I needed more education and training on what a good life could look like if a person wasn’t going to go to work or college. And I needed to be able to talk about these possibilities in a way that didn’t imply they were less valuable than traditional paths.”