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Book Discussion - The Tyranny of Merit

Book Discussion - The Tyranny of Merit
In this episode, we discuss Michael J Samuel's book the Tyranny of Merit, which talks about the problems with the ideals of Meritocracy.

In this episode, we discuss Michael J Samuel's book the Tyranny of Merit, which talks about the problems with the ideals of Meritocracy. We take a look at the history of the Rhetoric of Rising, and end with a discussion about why praising people for their achievements feels problematic. Do we really respect people more because of their credentials?

Here are some of the highlights from our discussion:

The Tyranny of Merit broadly considers the spread and relative benefits and misgivings of meritocracy. Meritocracy underpins many institutions in the twenty first century and how we approach many issues within society. Samuel suggests that it’s become one of the key invisible narratives that shape modern times.

The value and emphasis afforded to higher education is cited as one example where meritocracy has had a significant influence. It has become a bastion of meritocracy, and a marker for success and a determinant in how many people feel they can ‘get ahead’ in life. The value afforded to degrees, however, means that swathes of the population feel they’re not afforded the same opportunities or social esteem because they lack any higher education.

The starting point for all these discussions needs to be what is the role of society and the role of people in society. We want to promote human flourishing and the common good but the question is does meritocracy do this? Samuel argues that Brexit and Trump are an inevitability of meritocratic ideals. If you look at the people who voted for both these results, they’re significantly skewed towards not attending university. Far from placing the blame on education or intelligence, Samuel instead suggests these people feel forgotten and left behind and therefore more dissatisfied with the way the current system is constructed.

The author argues that meritocracy makes sense in theory. The idea of getting what we deserve promotes human agency and gives the impression that we’re in control.

Meritocracy is not a recent phenomenon. The idea of meritocracy extends deep into history and Samuel argues that it reflects the moral intuitions of Western culture and he suggests that this dates back to the Bible.

This idea of meritocracy has become a pillar of Western cultures and society. In more recent times it has come to characterise the policies of certain parties and politicians. For example, Obama was very big on rhetoric of rising and this became the big divide between Republicans and Democrats in the US. Trump’s campaign never used any such slogan as part of his campaign and the vision doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as focussed on meritocracy.

“Credentialism prejudice is a symptom of meritocratic hubris”.

It’s very easy to say that we respect every human equally but when it comes to our behaviour, it’s rarely true that we treat every human equally, despite how much we aspire to this ideal. It’s a thought process versus a set of actions and bringing these together takes a concerted and concentrated effort over a period of years.


The Tyranny of Merit

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Not Overthinking is a podcast about happiness, creativity, and the human condition. We talk about things to help us think, do, and be better. Things like social interaction, lifestyle design, mental models...things that are hard to examine, but important to explore. And hopefully, things that make for a fun and interesting chat every week.

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Ali is a junior doctor and YouTuber working in Cambridge, UK. He makes videos about medicine, technology, productivity and lifestyle design. His links: YouTube, Blog, Newsletter, Instagram

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