Reflections occasioned by reading Michael Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit”, Part 1.

(Part 1 is occasioned by the first 3 chapters)

Irish Elk: Awesome Extinct Animals, Pt 2 – Jon Farrow
The Irish Elk may have been driven extinct in part due to excessive competition to have larger and more powerful horns by the males.
  • It’s obvious once it’s pointed out, but it really is amazing how few noticed “anyone can succeed in America” is a big fuck you to everyone who hasn’t succeeded in America. Some of those people vote!

  • Sandel has gone through Trumps speeches and noticed that there are few, if any, sentiments along the line of “anyone can succeed in America” or “America is a land of opportunity” whereas there are hundreds of such statements in the words of his predecessors. He thinks this is not a coincidence, and I am inclined to agree.

  • Sandel is right that a very interesting feature of political rhetoric is that it makes statements about the essence of how things are as a call for changeparadoxically. He gives the example of Obama saying words to the effect of “America is a land of equal opportunity, therefore we need to give every child a fair child a fair chance at an education”. When you step back for a moment the two halves of this statement are completely contradictory! Yet in political rhetoric nothing could be more natural than to merge them. This trope, of presenting a change as really a reflection of an underlying pre-existing essence is very old. C.f. Spartan political debates where people would interminably argue that their reforms were really restoring things to their constitutional essence.

  • Ultimately there are three political strategies for selling ideas and ideologies to people unhappy with their place in an unequal system, viz: A) The treasure your wins strategy– tell people that they should think instead about being happy to have beaten out those they lapped in the race of life, and get them on the side of maintaining inequality that way. B) The reroll the dice strategy. Say “Yes, you’re right, there are some injustices in the system, so let’s rework the rules to be a little fairer and then you, or at least your children, can reroll the dice- you might win this time! C) The gap reduction strategy Reduce the size of the gap between winners and losers.

  • At first glimpse it might look like A=Conservatism, B=Liberalism, C=Leftism. But it’s not quite that simple- at least not all the time. Conservatives often offer a chance at rerolling the dice- “you’ll be able to compete as a small business owner once big government corporatism is gone”. Liberals sometimes go for a treasure your wins strategy- “those rubes want to devalue your hardwon education- don’t let them, experts like you deserve to run the country”. Leftists mostly focus on C- gap reduction, but do talk about B- rerolling the dice- sometimes.

  • Although many people have heard of the Great Gatsby curve by now, it’s always worth a reminder that the dilemma between “equality of outcome” and “equality of opportunity” is fake because the two are deeply correlated. :
Here is the source for the “Great Gatsby Curve” in the Alan Krueger speech  at the Center for American Progress on January 12 | Economics for public  policy
  • I’ve been thinking a bit about decadence lately- especially thoughts occasioned by Ibn Khaldun, Peter Turchin and my good friend Kieran Latty. I think one window into understanding what most people get wrong about decadence is the concept of “luxury”. People rightly associate luxury with decadence but for the wrong reasons. The reason luxury is associated with decadence is not because it’s decadent to have nice things- at least in any meaningful conception of decadence. No, the defining feature of luxury is not having pretty or scrumptious or fragrant things- it’s conspicuous consumption- trying to outshine your neighbours through your purchases. Decadence is a state of affairs wherein people -elites to be specific- view their primary goal as competing within society, rather than trying to advance society. I think this is Ibn Khaldun’s sense of decadence- and he is right that it does destroy kingdoms and empires. This is also Peter Turchin’s understanding of decline, and he is likely right that it is caused, in part, by an over-production of elites.

  • History isn’t going to rap you on the knuckles because people are having a bit too much gay sex or men have long hair now, history is going to rap you on the knuckles if people aren’t committed to larger projects than themselves. One of the main symptoms of that is luxury- people start buying nice clothes not because they are nice, but because they are nicer than yours. One of the great disservices the right has done us is tainting the concept of decadence- a very important concept- and making it merely a vehicle of bigotry and trad aesthetics.

  • One way to understand this is in terms of a Marxist theory of the state re: America right now yes I promise this will sweep back round to Sandel. So the US is doing very poorly- low growth rates, much unrest etc and a lot of it is clearly a result of poor governance. The Marxist theory of the state suggests that the state is the steering committee of the capitalists as a whole, and this is to my mind, largely true. Only that steering committee is meant to provide a synthesis of those interests. Obviously there will be conflicts between industries, but the state is meant to rise above that, at least “in the main”. However, the US state is failing to do that. It’s not an articulated whole of corporate interests- it’s a sack full of them – many contradictory- stuffed in greedily. That’s political decadence, and it is linked in manifold ways to individual decadence.

  • Sandel’s point can be understood as- meritocracy is the ideology of decadent elites, so obsessed with their internecine competitions that they have forgotten their obligations to the common good and to the weak, so puffed up on their little games that they think fairness within their little club- and fairness in the rules of admission to their club- is the big game of governance.

  • I want to end by reiterating that none of this means that either Sandel or I don’t think every child should have a chance to succeed. On the contrary, if you care about that, paradoxically, stepping back and focusing instead on making sure everyone has decent living conditions might be the best way to achieve your end, because the empirical evidence shows there is a strong correlation between low economic inequality and equality of opportunity. Meritocracy abstracted from this broader social project is- at best- about putting guardrails down to ensure that the children of quasi-elites have a fair shot at becoming full elites.

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Decadence - Wikipedia

4 thoughts on “Reflections occasioned by reading Michael Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit”, Part 1.

  1. Some traits help you succeed. Conscientiousness, g, etc. If they’re hereditary, we would expect in a fully meritocratic society that the children of the rich inherit their parents’ traits (as well as their money), and the traits help them succeed.

    I don’t think you can just point to “children of the poor are more likely to be poor” as strong support for your claim unless you want to claim g is not hereditary.


  2. I’d say hedonism is part of the “not caring about anything larger than yourself” issue, and so belongs in the general view of decadence.


  3. On the contrary, if you care about that, paradoxically, stepping back and focusing instead on making sure everyone has decent living conditions might be the best way to achieve your end, because the empirical evidence shows there is a strong correlation between low economic inequality and equality of opportunity

    I know “correlation is not causation” is commonly trotted out, but when you’re making international comparisons you really need to dig deeper. Even if you avoided the “United Nations fallacy” of treating each country as an equivalent datapoint regardless of size/population*, there would still be serious differences. More relevant would be changes over time (which would still be post hoc rather than a controlled experiment, but getting closer).
    *On that note, Lyman Stone created an index of how much a country resembles a city-state here. I’ll tip my hat to you if you can guess the highest ranking country not normally considered a city-state.


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