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:
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