What does meritocracy tell us about building a better food sector? 

A guest blog from Trustee and member of the Food Ethics Council, Patti Whaley, on meritocracy and its implications for the food system…

Have you noticed the sudden rush of books about “meritocracy” in the past year? While reading Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit I spotted six more books on Blackwells without too much digging – see the list at the bottom of this blog. Mercy — what’s all the fuss about? What is meritocracy, why are we so worried about it — and does it tell us anything useful about creating a fairer food system?

It all sounded so promising. Meritocracy was meant to replace the old class-and-wealth hierarchy. Given equal opportunity, particularly equal access to a university degree, every one of us would be able to rise “as far as your efforts and your talent will take you.” The luck of being born wealthy would be supplanted by a new aristocracy of the talented and hard-working. Only Michael Young, in The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), predicted that all might not turn out well in the meritocratic future.

And yet, here we are. The new meritocratic upper class turns out to be just as astute at entrenching their privilege as the old aristocracy was. “Credentialism” – the idea that a university degree is the indispensable ticket to a worthy life – shows up, for example, in the UK government: 84% of MPs have a university degree; 25% went to Oxford or Cambridge, and only 4% consider themselves working-class. In the USA, Ivy League colleges take more students from the wealthiest 1% of society than from the entire bottom 50%. Social mobility in the UK has stagnated: most people who are born working-class remain working-class; even if they take a professional job, they will earn on average 17% less than someone from a more privileged background.

If you don’t have a university degree, your chances of a good life have declined; it is increasingly difficult for a non-professional worker to own a home and support a family. The emphasis on a university degree means that talent and hard work only pay off if you do what David Goodhart calls “head work” – white-collar or professional work. If your talents and hard work are directed towards “hand” or “heart” work — the caring professions, personal services, the trades — too bad; unless you become a superstar in the sports and entertainment arena, you’ll probably struggle to make ends meet.

To add insult to injury, in a meritocratic society, you’ll only have yourself to blame: a recent UCL study concluded that even in this once-in-a-century national shutdown, 47% of Britons still think that if you lost your job during the pandemic, it’s probably because of your own poor performance. Those who lose out suffer not only economically, but in terms of social- and self-respect: in the USA, deaths from suicide, drug use, and alcohol have tripled since 1990, almost completely among people without university degrees.

Members of the Food Ethics Council brainstormed over a Zoom lunch about how all this relates to the food system. Here are just a few of our thoughts:

  • A fair deal for food sector workers? In the meritocracy paradigm, those who go to university have earned the right to a good life; those who don’t, have only themselves to blame. But the pandemic has surely reinforced the message that these are the very people who have kept our food sector (and health sector, and transport sector, and sanitation sector, and so many other essential services) functioning. We need a society where these jobs offer people the ability to have a home, raise a family, and feel like a valuable part of society.
  • A fair deal for farmers? Britain is proud of its fishing and farming sectors, and I don’t know anyone who would accuse them of not working hard; but we reward them poorly and routinely allow major food companies to squeeze as much profit as possible out of the farms. We say we value farming; but if, as one Sandel reviewer noted, the ultimate test for a job is whether you would want your child to grow up and become one, few of us would want to condemn our children to the hard work and financial precarity of the current industrial farming or fishing life.
  • We do not live by bread alone. Sandel emphasises that distributional justice is not enough. “Contributory justice”, or recognition that what you do is needed and valued, is also important.  Handing out food to those who can’t afford it, for example, might keep people from starving, but it does not give them the dignity and satisfaction that comes from making a meaningful contribution to society. Even establishing food as a moral or justiciable “right” ignores our need to feel that our lives are useful and dignified. The Food Ethics Council’s work on food citizenship aims to find alternatives to “handouts” for people who are hard up, dignified ways for people to contribute actively to growing, procuring and preparing food through allotments, community kitchens, procurement cooperatives, and other ways of re-establishing our civic agency. Sandel reflects that even for those of us who can afford to buy our food, just being a consumer is not enough; we want to “reflect critically on our preferences so that we can lead worthwhile and flourishing lives.”
  • “Smart” policy vs ethical policy: The emphasis on intellectual power in the meritocratic society has led to an emphasis on “smart” policy – policy that is driven by technocratic solutions rather than ideological views or moral engagement, and policy that reassures the powerful that, while they may be appearing to give something away, they are actually working in their own long-term interests. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with being smart, but being smart should not be the only measure of success; policies also need to be equitable, and to help us build flourishing lives and a sense of the common good. For example, the current trend for solving the UK’s hunger crisis by marrying it to our food waste crisis and distributing surplus, “leftover” food to the poor may seem “smart” on the surface. But it also reinforces the (mistaken) message that the poor somehow have no merit and should only be able to lay claim to food that the rest of us don’t want, and it hardly offers us a long-term solution to the indignity and resentment felt by the working poor.
  • Rethinking “the race to the top.” The problems of a meritocratic society should serve to warn us against too much emphasis on “winners” versus “losers”. We have defined “winners” as those who get a good degree and embark on a high-paying intellectual or entrepreneurial career; but not everyone wants to do that kind of work, and society couldn’t actually function without nurses, care workers, teachers, farmers, and drivers. Surely those people also deserve a stable and dignified life, or, as Sandel says, “even a society more successful than ours at providing upward mobility would need to find ways to enable those who do not rise to flourish in place and to see themselves as members of a common project.” Even if a meritocracy enables some people to go to university, move to the city, and escape poverty, “a meaningful society cannot be premised on the notion of escape.”

What’s true for society as a whole is also true for the food sector.  We at the Food Ethics Council have sometimes used the term “race to the top” to encourage better food standards, but our discussion of meritocracy has led us to re-think whether this terminology is helpful. Too often, criticisms of foods that are unethical, unhealthy or unsustainable have been addressed by creating another layer of more ethical, more sustainable, and correspondingly more expensive “foodie” products. But perhaps, rather than focusing on a niche of more ethical products, we should ensure that all food production meets minimum standards of fairness, environmental sustainability, and good quality.

Of course, there is nothing wrong per se with merit, talent, and hard work. But when we define merit too narrowly, and associate it too closely with a purely financial definition of “success”, we end up with a society that is distorted, unfair, and unhappy. As always, what happens in the food sector reflects what is happening in society as a whole. We can both reward innovation, hard work and great products, and ensure that producers and workers all up and down the food system are able to have secure and dignified livelihoods; doing so would go a long way towards creating a better society for us all.

Recent books on meritocracy:

Michael Sandel: The Tyranny of Merit
David Goodhart: Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century
Peter Mandler: The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War
Selina Todd: Snakes and Ladders: the Great British Social Mobility Myth
Daniel Markovitz: The Meritocracy Trap
Adrian Wooldridge: The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World
Zachary Howlett: Meritocracy and Its Discontents


Patti Whaley