Why doggedly believing in merit will result in a dystopian future

Equal competition does not mean a sustainable future for all in society.

The Democratic Alliance [DA] held their policy conference over the weekend - and have adopted a position as a party to strictly follow the 'rule of merit'.

What that means is that the DA will drop any policy that attempts to 'redress the injustices of the past' through quotas; both racial and gender quotas.

For the DA - individual appointments, success and prosperity will be based on merit alone.

'The DA continues with their call for a united South Africa, saying "each individual is unique and not a racial or gender envoy".'

DA drops race from redress policy
The DA continues with their call for a united South Africa, saying “each individual is unique and not a racial or gender envoy”.

But as much as this liberal political rhetoric sounds lovely in theory  - in practicality the logical, and the mounting global evidence of its plausibility, is deeply flawed.

So flawed in fact, that much of the global strife that we are now seeing in 'Trumpism' and Brexit is as a direct result of this 'merit-based argument'.

Michael Sandel is a futures philosopher and in his latest book, The Tyranny of Merit, he argues against merit-based policies in favour rather for the common good of society through politics and policies focused on dignity for all.

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?: Sandel, Michael J.: 9780374289980: Amazon.com: Books
The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? [Sandel, Michael J.] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

It is the likes of Donald Trump (who himself has a major chip on his shoulder for being publicly ridiculed for decades by the Wall Street elites) that have found favour with the disenfranchised of America's working classes.

'By championing an “age of merit” as the solution to the challenges of globalisation, inequality and deindustrialisation, the Democratic party and its European equivalents, Sandel argues, hung the western working-class and its values out to dry – with disastrous consequences for the common good.'
'As he talks, the tone is as modulated as ever; the phrasing characteristically elegant and fluent. But a sense of frustration is palpable, as Sandel charts the rise of what he sees as a corrosive leftwing individualism: “The solution to problems of globalisation and inequality – and we heard this on both sides of the Atlantic – was that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their effort and talents will take them. This is what I call in the book the ‘rhetoric of rising’. It became an article of faith, a seemingly uncontroversial trope. We will make a truly level playing field, it was said by the centre-left, so that everyone has an equal chance. And if we do, and so far as we do, then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work will deserve their place, will have earned it.”'

There is no such thing as a level playing field.

Liberals are quick to point out that many of today's successful startups were founded in garages and fuelled on nothing more than bad pizza and cheap coffee.

However, the local technology-enabled, entrepreneurial  success stories - are almost always founded by individuals that were lucky enough to be schooled at St John's, Bishops or Michael House; or these founders have politically- or economically connected parents that give them the step-up that their peers, with far less of a start in life, are just not able to access. They come from money, they leveraged their privilege to get where they are.

'But the main point of The Tyranny of Merit is a different one: Sandel is determined to aim a broadside squarely at a left-liberal consensus that has reigned for 30 years. Even a perfect meritocracy, he says, would be a bad thing. “The book tries to show that there is a dark side, a demoralising side to that,” he says. “The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.” Centre-left elites abandoned old class loyalties and took on a new role as moralising life-coaches, dedicated to helping working-class individuals shape up to a world in which they were on their own. “On globalisation,” says Sandel, “these parties said the choice was no longer between left and right, but between ‘open’ and ‘closed’. Open meant free flow of capital, goods and people across borders.” Not only was this state of affairs seen as irreversible, it was also presented as laudable. “To object in any way to that was to be closed-minded, prejudiced and hostile to cosmopolitan identities.”'

Coming back to the DA - they are sadly on the wrong side of the debate.

Equal competition does not mean a sustainable future for all in society.

Perhaps a better way to unlock the future prosperity of a nation is too 'create the conditions' under which all people and communities have equal access to participate in the opportunities that the economy can offer.

South Africa cannot unite as a nation when South Africa's themselves don't even share a common daily reality. Unlike you address that - policies like the ones that the DA are supposedly so proud of - are not going to yield a sustainable, equitable future.

Read more:

Michael Sandel: ‘The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit’
The philosopher believes the liberal left’s pursuit of meritocracy has betrayed the working classes. His new book argues for a politics centred on dignity