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  • Here's a question we should all be asking:

  • What went wrong?

  • Not just with the pandemic

  • but with our civic life.

  • What brought us to this polarized, rancorous political moment?

  • In recent decades,

  • the divide between winners and losers has been deepening,

  • poisoning our politics,

  • setting us apart.

  • This divide is partly about inequality.

  • But it's also about the attitudes toward winning and losing

  • that have come with it.

  • Those who landed on top

  • came to believe that their success was their own doing,

  • a measure of their merit,

  • and that those who lost out had no one to blame but themselves.

  • This way of thinking about success

  • arises from a seemingly attractive principle.

  • If everyone has an equal chance,

  • the winners deserve their winnings.

  • This is the heart of the meritocratic ideal.

  • In practice, of course, we fall far short.

  • Not everybody has an equal chance to rise.

  • Children born to poor families tend to stay poor when they grow up.

  • Affluent parents are able to pass their advantages onto their kids.

  • At Ivy League universities, for example,

  • there are more students from the top one percent

  • than from the entire bottom half of the country combined.

  • But the problem isn't only that we fail to live up

  • to the meritocratic principles we proclaim.

  • The ideal itself is flawed.

  • It has a dark side.

  • Meritocracy is corrosive of the common good.

  • It leads to hubris among the winners

  • and humiliation among those who lose out.

  • It encourages the successful to inhale too deeply of their success,

  • to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.

  • And it leads them to look down on those less fortunate,

  • less credentialed than themselves.

  • This matters for politics.

  • One of the most potent sources of the populous backlash

  • is the sense among many working people that elites look down on them.

  • It's a legitimate complaint.

  • Even as globalization brought deepening inequality

  • and stagnant wages,

  • its proponents offered workers some bracing advice.

  • "If you want to compete and win in the global economy,

  • go to college."

  • "What you earn depends on what you learn."

  • "You can make it if you try."

  • These elites miss the insult implicit in this advice.

  • If you don't go to college,

  • if you don't flourish in the new economy,

  • your failure is your fault.

  • That's the implication.

  • It's no wonder many working people turned against meritocratic elites.

  • So what should we do?

  • We need to rethink three aspects of our civic life.

  • The role of college,

  • the dignity of work

  • and the meaning of success.

  • We should begin by rethinking the role of universities

  • as arbiters of opportunity.

  • For those of us who spend our days in the company of the credentialed,

  • it's easy to forget a simple fact:

  • Most people don't have a four-year college degree.

  • In fact, nearly two-thirds of Americans don't.

  • So it is folly to create an economy

  • that makes a university diploma a necessary condition

  • of dignified work and a decent life.

  • Encouraging people to go to college is a good thing.

  • Broadening access for those who can't afford it

  • is even better.

  • But this is not a solution to inequality.

  • We should focus less on arming people for meritocratic combat,

  • and focus more on making life better

  • for people who lack a diploma

  • but who make essential contributions to our society.

  • We should renew the dignity of work

  • and place it at the center of our politics.

  • We should remember that work is not only about making a living,

  • it's also about contributing to the common good

  • and winning recognition for doing so.

  • Robert F. Kennedy put it well half a century ago.

  • Fellowship, community, shared patriotism.

  • These essential values do not come

  • from just buying and consuming goods together.

  • They come from dignified employment,

  • at decent pay.

  • The kind of employment that enables us to say,

  • "I helped to build this country.

  • I am a participant in its great public ventures."

  • This civic sentiment

  • is largely missing from our public life today.

  • We often assume that the money people make

  • is the measure of their contribution to the common good.

  • But this is a mistake.

  • Martin Luther King Jr. explained why.

  • Reflecting on a strike by sanitation workers

  • in Memphis, Tennessee,

  • shortly before he was assassinated,

  • King said,

  • "The person who picks up our garbage is, in the final analysis,

  • as significant as the physician,

  • for if he doesn't do his job,

  • diseases are rampant.

  • All labor has dignity."

  • Today's pandemic makes this clear.

  • It reveals how deeply we rely

  • on workers we often overlook.

  • Delivery workers,

  • maintenance workers,

  • grocery store clerks,

  • warehouse workers,

  • truckers,

  • nurse assistants,

  • childcare workers,

  • home health care providers.

  • These are not the best-paid or most honored workers.

  • But now, we see them as essential workers.

  • This is a moment for a public debate

  • about how to bring their pay and recognition

  • into better alignment with the importance of their work.

  • It is also time for a moral, even spiritual, turning,

  • questioning our meritocratic hubris.

  • Do I morally deserve the talents that enable me to flourish?

  • Is it my doing

  • that I live in a society that prizes the talents

  • I happen to have?

  • Or is that my good luck?

  • Insisting that my success is my due

  • makes it hard to see myself in other people's shoes.

  • Appreciating the role of luck in life

  • can prompt a certain humility.

  • There but for the accident of birth, or the grace of God,

  • or the mystery of fate,

  • go I.

  • This spirit of humility

  • is the civic virtue we need now.

  • It's the beginning of a way back

  • from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart.

  • It points us beyond the tyranny of merit

  • to a less rancorous, more generous public life.

Here's a question we should all be asking:

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The tyranny of merit | Michael Sandel

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/11/02
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