Choose or risk forever surrendering your peace – Why Having Your Own Philosophy Matters

Speak now, or forever hold your peace” could be traced back to the Christian wedding ceremony, where the audience is given the last chance to voice any objections to the marriage. It is one example where it is important to have an opinion and defend it – or else risk surrendering it forever.

Similarly, when it comes to philosophy of life, everyone needs to have their own version of philosophy – we either choose how to think for ourselves now, or risk forever surrendering our peace by letting others choose for us, by letitng others decide what is right or wrong, what makes life worth living, what our course of action should be.

To Swim or Not to Swim, That is the Question

That IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Letter on Finding Your Purpose and Living a Meaningful Life

Almost everything we do is a choice between floating (i.e., default to the curent of others) vs. swimming (i.e., chart our own course). Only those with a philosophy of life of their own knows how to swim.

Thomson goes on to say: “And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Taking a step back, not everyone realizes we are in the water in the first place. There is a joke of two fish swimming along and running into a third fish, which asks them: “Morning, how’s the water?” The two fish stare at each other and ask blankly: “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace’s comment in his 2005 commencement speech “This is Water” is very to the point:

“The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. […] in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.”

Wallace goes on to say “the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre” is that “a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about ‘teaching you how to think.’

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

Ayn Rand on Why Having A Philosophy Of Your Own Matters

As Ayn Rand puts it, everyone has a philosophy of some sorts: “As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation.

In other words, we all have a philosophy whether we consciously acknowledge it or not – the choice we have is whether this philosophy is chosen by ourselves thanks to our mind (“swim”), or chosen for us dictated by others (“float”):

The men who are not interested in philosophy absorb its principles from the cultural atmosphere around them—from schools, colleges, books, magazines, newspapers, movies, television, etc. Who sets the tone of a culture? A small handful of men: the philosophers. Others follow their lead, either by conviction or by default.”

How to Decide Where to Swim Towards?

Choosing a philosophy for ourselves could be harder than it seems. Charlie Munger shares his tip on how to avoid the trap of unclear thinking & decision-making:

I have what I call an ‘iron prescription’ that helps me keep sane when I drift toward preferring one intense ideology over another. I feel that I’m not entitled to have an opinion unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who are in opposition. I think that I’m qualified to speak only when I’ve reached that state.

Charlie Munger

Hunter Thompson shares his advice on how to lead a meaningful life:

A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. […] In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.”

Stop Renting. Start Living: Rejecting the Second-Hander

It’s what I couldn’t understand about people for a long time. They have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand.

– Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead”

What is the most expensive rent you pay?

Ask yourself this question. I reckon most of you would answer one of the following:

  1. Rent for space (e.g., paying a landlord), or
  2. Rent for time (e.g., paying an employee), or
  3. Rent for ideas (e.g., paying a consultant).

Now, what if I tell you the most expensive thing we could rent is our Self? That the most costly is not second-hand clothes, second-hand cars, second-hand flats, but second-hand selves?

What does it mean to live a second-hand life?

What is it like to be a second-hander of life?

One example is Peter Keating – fictional character from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Keating is an architect that is successful by conventional standards. Yet, he is described as a second-hander, in the words of the protagonist Howard Roark:

He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others. There’s your actual selflessness. It’s his ego that he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish.”

Through the mouth of Roark, Ayn Rand defines the second-hander as a person whose wishes, efforts, dreams, ambitions “are motivated by other men”, who is “not really struggling even for mateiral wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion: prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own.”

They (Second-handers) don’t ask: “Is this true?” They ask: “Is this what others think is true?”

Ayn Rand

What if we are all second-handers?

In a way, yes – we are all second-handers. As a baby, we receive almost everything “second-hand”: food is handed to us, stories are told to us, and even thoughts are passed down to us. We are told by our parents and other “grown-ups” on what is right vs. wrong, what to think vs. not to think, what to desire vs. avoid.

On a related note, even our emotions could be “second-hand”. In How Emotions Are Made, professor of psychology Barrett argues that “emotions are not biologically hardwired into our brains but constructed by our minds. In other words, we don’t merely feel emotions — we actively create them.” Emotions could be passed down second-hand – e.g., it is possible to develop feelings of shame at something if we were taught that it is a shameful act. I recommend checking out the podcast episode “We don’t just feel emotions. We make them.” on the Erza Klein Show.

What should we do if it is not possible to avoid second-handism?

Just because it is a fact that we all acquire (at least some) thoughts & behaviors second-hand (i.e., learn from or imitate others), it does not mean we refuse to acknowledge the fact.

Rejecting the second-hander does not mean rejecting everything we learnt second-hand – that would be going from one extreme to another. It means rejecting things that come to us second-hand without examination. This is analogous to rejecting alcoholism does not mean abandoning alcohol altogether – it means drinking in moderation, knowing our limits and making a conscious effort to honor them.

Howard Roark in the movie “The Fountainhead” (1949)

At the end of the day, what we want to avoid is becoming the ultimate second-hander:

He (The second-hander) can’t say about a single thing: “This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me.” Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.

Ayn Rand

What is the opposite of a second-hander?

An individualist. Defined in the words of Ayn Rand, an individualist is the slave of no one and wants to enslave no one:

The best defense against the second-hander is an independent man:

Notice how they’ll (second-handers) accept anything except a man who stands alone. They recognize him at once. […] The independent man kills them (second-handers) – because they don’t exist within him and that’s the only form of existence they know.”

The man who stands alone is not the same as the man who does everything on his own. The man who is independent is not the same as the man who does not acknowledge dependence on others. He is the man who stands for himself, who says: “This is what I want, this is who I am.”

Defending Selfishness and Questioning Altruism (on Ayn Rand’s philosophy)

“Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”
* * *
To those who ask it, my answer is:
“For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness
Image result for the virtue of selfishness ayn rand

Context: This article looks at the virtue of selfishness & the vice of altruism, according to Ayn Rand‘s philosophy – widely referred to as “objectivism”. Rand is a Russian-American writer and philosopher, best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She has also published two collections of essays: The Virtue of Selfishness and For The New Intellectual. She is a strong advocate for rationality and capitalism (while being a firm critic of mysticism and socialism).

Popular Opinion: Selfishness = A Vice of Negative Value

“Sweetheart, do share your toys with other children, don’t keep it to youself selfishly!”
– parent to child

“How could you be so selfish and only think about yourself when you make decisions?”
– husband to wife

“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
– Bible, James 3:16

“Is selfishness is a virtue or a vice?” If I ask this question, I would not be surprised to see a few folks roll their eyes or stare at me with a isn’t-this-obvious look.

The dictionary definition of selfish often has a negative connotation to it:

The Cambridge Dictionary : Selfish (adj.)
– caring only about what you want or need without any thought for the needs or wishes of other people;
– someone who is selfish only thinks of their own advantage.

It is a popular belief that “selfishness” is a vice to be corrected, and its opposite “altruism” is a moral ideal to be embraced. This narrative is so dominant – in fact, we rarely hear alternatives – that most people have taken it for granted.

However, just because something is “conventional” does not mean it is “wisdom”. Conventional wisdom is no substitute for thoughtful wisdom – and it is time we re-examine what it means to be selfish, and whether being selfish has its own merits.

Ayn Rand: Selfishness is Morally Neutral as a Term

Ayn Rand argues that the negative connotation we assign to the word “selfishness” is misplaced. On the contrary, she argues that the word “selfishness”, at its core, is a morally-neutral term:

This concept (of selfishness as concern with one’s own interests) does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

Ayn Rand

Applying a similar logic, Rand argues the positive connotation assigned to the word “altruism” is misplaced. Being altruistic itself is not necessarily virtuous or beneficial. Rand says there are “two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one ‘package-deal'”, namely:

(1) What are values?
(2) Who should be the beneficiary of values?

Rand is firmly against the cult of altriusm:

Altruism substitutes the second (moral question) for the first; it evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance…the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.

Ayn Rand

In other words, Rand is saying the fact that the beneficiary of an action is someone other than oneself (i.e., altruistic) – this fact alone – does not give us any information about this action is more justifiable than others. We learn nothing about the underlying values associated with this action – and hence we should not jump to a moral judgment too soon, too wrong.

Whether a selfish act (or altruistic act) is morally justifiable or not – this is a situational question that should be looked at case by case. Rand presents this thought experiment: imagine two people – A is a “selfish” businessman who produces goods that society wants in order to earn money; B is a “selfish” robber who loots. A and B are both selfish, but most would argue that A’s selfishness actions are more morally justifiable than those of B’s.

In the words of Rand, there is “a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery”:

The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value.

Ayn Rand

It is not contradictory to say: (a) man should selfishly pursue his own interests, and (b) some interests are morally justifiable and others aren’t. Being selfish is a means to achieve one’s goal – whether that goal is ethical is a separate discussion.

Nature vs. Nuture: Is Everyone Born Selfish?

Some believe we are born with the natural desire that the world revolves around us – we are born with selfishness.

For Ayn Rand, being selfish requires one to first have a proper “self”. Having a (proper) sense of “self” is the prerequisite to being “selfish”. Rand defines self differently from popular usage of the term:

A man’s self is his mind – the faculty that perceives reality, forms judgments, chooses values.

Ayn Rand

A true sense of self is based on an active choice of values, rather than a passive imitation of what others value. Sadly, the sense of self is lost to those who live everyday being the person they think others would want them to be:

The abdication and shriveling of the self is a salient characteristic of all perceptual mentalities, tribalist or lone-wolfish. All of them dread self-reliance; all of them dread the responsibilities which only a self (i..e, a conceptual consciousness) can perform, and they seek escape from the two activities which an actually selfish man would defend with his life: judgment and choice.

Ayn Rand

Judgment of reality and choice of values – these are the two prerequisite activities that an “actually selfish” man would perform relentlessly – and he would defend with his life the right to define himself. The best of such men are what Rand calls the “New Intellectuals”, i.e., people who are “willing to think” and “who know that man’s life must be guided by reason”:

There are two principles on which all men of intellectual integrity and good will can agree, as a “basic minimum,” as a precondition of any discussion…a. that emotions are not tools of cognition; b. that no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others.

Ayn Rand

Knowing how to be “selfish” in a proper way is a privilege, a skill, a capability – not a trait we are born with, but rather a subject we should study.

Asking the Non-Obvious: What is Wrong with Altruism?

Following a defense of critism, let us switch to the opposite side and look at Rand’s critique of altruism. She calls altruism “the basic evil” that is “incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights.”

As before, let us first clarify what Rand means by the word altruism:

What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Ayn Rand

Importantly, Rand says altruism should not be confused with “kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others”. These are possible consequences, but not defining primaries or traits, of altruism (and altruistic actions). I find this analysis of Rand to be extremely powerful:

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you.

The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

Ayn Rand

Rand goes one step further to challenge the notion that giving makes the giver happier:

Even though altruism declares that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” it does not work that way in practice. The givers are never blessed; the more they give, the more is demanded of them; complaints, reproaches and insults are the only response they get for practicing altruism’s virtues (or for their actual virtues).

Ayn Rand

Even from the perspective of a consequentialist, Rand claims that altruism does not lead to “a recognition of virtue”, “self-esteem or moral innocence.” To the contrary, Rand believes altruism suffocates the giver with guilt – placing a burden on him to give constantly, selflessly, tiringly; casting a spell on him to think it is his moral responsibility to give:

If the giver is not kept under a torrent of degrading, demeaning accusations, he might take a look around and put an end to the self-sacrificing. Altruists are concerned only with those who suffer—not with those who provide relief from suffering, not even enough to care whether they are able to survive. When no actual suffering can be found, the altruists are compelled to invent or manufacture it.

Ayn Rand

Concluding Remarks: Being a New Intellectual

At the end of writing about Rand’s philosophy, I must confess that I am fully aware of this: I am getting ahead of myself in writing about Rand. I have read so little of her writings (or writings about her) that my representation of her philosophy could be missing out key pieces.

Despite being new to Rand School, I did not hold back on writing about Rand, with the most important reason being that few philosophers have hit me hard like she did. It is the feeling of exaltation mixed with exasperation when I turn the pages of her books. It is the realization that there are so many questions out there that I have not asked (consciously or subconsciously), so many meanings out there that I have not pondered. It is the impulse that I must never stop the quest to understand the questions that define what it means to be alive, what it means to be human. These and so much more that I am at a loss of words to describe.

I leave you with words of Rand discussing The New Intellectual. I aim to live up to her definition and expectation of what it means to honor one’s intellect:

To support a culture, nothing less than a new philosophical foundation will do. […] The greatest need today is for men who are not strangers to reality, because they are not afraid of thought.

The New Intellectual will be the man who lives up to the exact meaning of his title: a man who is guided by his intellect – not a zombie guided by feelings, instincts, urges, wishes, whims or revelations.

[…] He will be an integrated man, that is: a thinker who is a man of action. He will know that ideas divorced from consequent action are fraudulent, and that action divorced from ideas is suicidal.

Ayn Rand

I part with two quotes (callings) from Rand at the end of her essay:

“Gentlemen, leave your guns outside.”

“The intellectuals are dead – long live the intellectuals!”

Does meritocracy lack merit? A critique from “The Meritocracy Trap”

Context: The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite is a book by Professor Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School, “attacking the false promise of meritocracy”. An insightful read – packed with elaborate arguments backed up by research & case studies. For those who are short on time, you could get the big ideas from Daniel’s sharing on the Erza Klein Show podcast, or from this article in The Atlantic.

The bold claim: merit is a counterfeit value

Merit itself has become a counterfeit value, a false idol…what it was invented to combat. A mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. A caste order that breeds rancor and division. A new aristocracy, even.

Daniel Markovits

The meritocratic ideal, i.e., “social and economic rewards should track achievement rather than breeding,” is a mainstream ideal that is often taken for granted and rarely even questioned. In his book, Daniel not only questions meritocracy, but goes one step further to challenge and critique it.

Image result for the meritocracy trap

His central, unconventional claim is meritocracy is a form of aristocracy in disguise – just like the aristocratic system it aims to replace, “merit is not a natural or universal value, but rather the upshot of prior inequalities“.

The setup: meritocracy constructs the “elite class” via meritocratic competition

Daniel argues that meritocracy constructs what is commonly referred to as “the elite class” via two ways:

“First, meritocracy transforms education into a rigorous and intense contest to join the elite.
* * *
Second, meritocracy transforms work to create the immensely demanding and enormously lucrative jobs that sustain the elite.”

(1) The education race: the meritocratic inheritance

“Although meritocracy once opened up the elite to outsiders, the meritocratic inheritance now drives a wedge between meritocracy and opportunity.

Inheritance under the old aristocratic system is largely viewed as “unjust” – the (relatively cost-free) inheritance of capital, such as passing down money or real estate, is widely viewed as unfair birth lottery. In layman terms, it is unfair that some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth.

Proponents of meritocracy believe that “merit” is the right answer to encouraging social mobility – build an education system that selects based on merits of the students, they say, and let the truly talented make their way up the ladder.

Daniel argues the reverse:

“Education assumes the role in meritocracy that breeding played in the aristocratic regime.”

Today, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford & Yale accept more students from households in the top 1% of the income bucket than from households in the bottom 60% combined. Students with parents whose annual income exceed $200K score ~250 points higher on the SAT compared with students whose parents make $40K-$60K.

The statistics on social mobility do not show a more optimistic picture. As The Atlantic reports:

“Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor.”

In the meritocracy system, parents in the elite class pass on “inheritance” in forms other than direct capital transfer – these parents invest capital heavily into the education of their kids, at orders of magnitude that middle-class parents cannot expect to match.

When we hear educators advertise “equal opportunities to education” for children, we should pause and ask ourselves: what does the word “equal” mean here? It is not sufficient to apply the same (equal) screening criteria to applicants. The pre-requisite to equal opportunities comes from equal access to opportunities. This means the resources that a child has access to should not be constrained by the wealth of the family he or she is born into.

(2) The jobs race: “compulsive overwork” of the elites vs. “enforced idleness” of the middle class

The meritocratic competition “pervades elite life” and extends far beyond school into the professional lives of those who want to sustain their position at the top:

“Evaluations that were once quarantined to exceptional moments like college admissions season or promotion to partner or managing director now infect every step of a meritocrat’s career. Every year, from preschool through retirement, includes some contest or assessment that filters, tracks, or otherwise influences his opportunities.”

Daniel points out an interesting shift in the work paterns of the elites: the “once-leisured rich” work harder than ever before today. Along with a change in work behavior comes a change in values:

“Elite values and customs have adapted to suit these new facts (of compulsive overwork). High society has reversed course. Now it valorizes industry and despises leisure. As every rich person knows, when an acquaintance asks ‘How are you?’ the correct answer is ‘So busy.’
* * *
Meritocracy makes effortful and industrious work – busyness – into a sign of being valued and needed, the badge of honor.

Daniel shares a “standard disciplinary joke” amongst investment bankers that “they will be lucky to get any day off besides their wedding day. Nor do the hours necessarily improve with seniority.” In a similar humorous fashion, the Wall Street Journal puts up an advertisement that reads, “People who don’t have time make time to read the Wall Street Journal.”

On the flip side, just as much as the elite class today take pride in being busy, they also look down on idleness & leisure. Daniel notes bankers often compain about the “outside (non-elite) world,” where “people leave work at five, six p.m.” and “take one hour lunch breaks”. These people are perceived as “just are not motivated in the same way” as they are.

The compulsive overwork of elites is “the same alienation that Karl Marx diagnosed in exploited proletarian labor” with “an added twist”, in the words of Daniel: “The elite, acting now as rentiers of their own human capital, exploit themselves, becoming not just victims but also agents of their own alienation.” Daniel believes the “busy” elite who takes pride in never creating time for one’s true self “places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others – he uses himself up”.

An analogy is made with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard:

“The ancient orchard that gives the play its name yields its greatest rents by being cut down to make way for holiday villas – which is to say through its own absolute destruction and the destruction of the way of life that it once sustained.”

It is hard for elites to break out of this cycle of overwork, as long hours often is one of the reasons used to justify the (extremely) high pay of those at the top:

“As a dean of Stanford Law School recently observed in a letter to graduates, elite lawyers are caught in an intensifying ratchet: higher salaries require more billable hours to support them, longer hours require higher yet salaries to justify them, and each increase generates another in a seemingly endless cycle. Whose interests does this serve? He lamented. Does anyone actually want it?”

Goldman Sachs has renamed its personnal department “Human Capital Management” – the irony is not lost that the human labor itself today is one of the most exploited forms of capital:

“Unlike land or factories, human capital can produce income – at least using current technologies – only by being mixed with its owners’ own contemporaneous labor.”

While elites are stuck in compulsive overwork, the middle class are idled. Note that the middle class are not idle by active choice, as in “reluctant to work”. Rather, they are idled as a passive outcome, as in “denied opportunities to work.” Daniel attributes this to “technological transformation” that “shift(s) the center of production away from mid-skilled and toward super-skilled labor”.

As an example, Daniel says the middle-tier manager has gradually faded out from the labor market, replaced by a much smaller number of top executives (the overworked elite class with higher pay) and a large number of lower-end workers (the squeezed middle class with lower pay):

“The managerial control stripped away from production workers and middle managers has been concentrated in a narrow cadre of elite executives, who are separated from production workers by differences of kind rather than degree. The technologies that underwrite such concentrated managerial power – not just the information systems that monitor organizations and gather & manipulate data, but also the ideas and analytic frameworks employed to make sense of the data – are enormously complex. Only intensively trained managers can possibly acquire the sophistication needed.”

The result is the labor market is divided into “glossy jobs” of the elites vs. “gloomy jobs” of the middle class. Glossy refers to jobs whose ” outer shine masks inner distress”, whereas gloomy refers to jobs that “offer neither immediate reward nor hope for promotion.”

The product of meritocracy: Nativism & Populism in the middle class

Daniel argues meritocracy is the culprit behind nativism. Take white privilege as an example, he thinks the mere idea of white privilege itself irritates whites out of the elite class, because “they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand. You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it.”

“The meritocratic suggestion that a white man who cannot get ahead must be in some way deficient (i.e., lack of merit) stokes this anger…and the meritocratic fixation on diversity and inclusion channels the anger into nativist, sexist identity politics.”

Nativism allows the “native” group to blame all their problems on the “foreign” group. This finger-pointing on “aliens” is a mask for the insecurity of “natives” – sense of guilt even – that they themselves are the reason to blame: they are not good enough, they do not have enough merits, and hence they are behind where they would like to be in this (supposedly) “meritocratic” system. The “natives” seem to be on guard against the “aliens”, but what they are really pushing back against is their own sense of inferiority.

Daniel goes on to argue meritocracy is also at the root of populism: “a deep and pervasive mistrust of expertise and institutions.”

“Class resentments in America aim at the professional classes rather than at the entrepreneurial or even hereditary super-rich: not at oligarchs but rather at the doctors, bankers, lawyers, and scientists that working and middle-class Americans feel…’are more educated’ and ‘are often looking down on them.'”

Daniel makes the interesting comparison of Obama vs. Trump: Obama (and also Hillary Clinton) as “a superordinate product of elite production”, i.e., someone who rose and triumphed in meritocracy, and Trump as “a ‘blue-collar billionaire'” who rejects the meritocratic elites – the group that Obama & Clinton are both members of.

Trumpism – and Trump’s own rise – exposes the incumbent elite’s meritocratic contempt for ordinary citizens and its own disenchanted weakness…When Hillary Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters a ‘basket of deplorables,’ she said aloud what the broad elite, regardless of party, had long thought in private. Indeed, Trump’s rise not only reconfirmed but redoubled the condescension that elites feel toward the Americans whom meritocracy excludes.

The philosopher’s angle: Meritocracy and individual rights

According to philosopher Ayn Rand, the fundamental right of the individual, which is the pre-requisite & root of all other rights, is one’s right to his own life:

“There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life…which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

By Rand’s definition, in the meritocratic system we live in today, neither the middle class nor the elite class have fully realized the fundamental right to one’s own life – neither is free to pursue their happiness. The curse of the meritocratic competition – starting from education all the way throughout one’s professional life – enslaves the poor & the rich alike: the former locked in their class with little hope of upward social mobility, the latter willingly enslaving themselves in work with brutal hours that they derive little pleasure from.

“A worker can quit his job. A slave cannot.” This is the curse fallen on the elites, who deceive themselves into believing they owe it to their expensive education to hold high-paying jobs with long hours, even those that they have little interest in.

“Man cannot be forced to devote his life to the happiness of another man nor of any number of other men.” This is the curse fallen on the middle class, who see themselves as producing for the consumption of the elites, whereas not moving up the social ladder themselves.

The collective illusion: Why it’s hard to critique meritocracy

Although the middle class and the elite class alike are harmed by meritocracy, both groups blame each other rather than critiquing the meritocratic system itself:

Fragile elites disdain middle-class habits and values as a defense mechanism to ward off self-doubt. Meritocrats lionize achievement, or even just distinction, and disparage ordinariness as a bulwark against rising insecurity. They cling to any attitudes and practices – ranging from the absurd (food snobbery) to the callous (corporate rightsizing) – that might confirm their merit and validate their advantage, to others and, above all, to themselves.”

It leads one to wonder: why have we heard so little critique of the meritocratic system itself? Here is Daniel’s explanation:

“Mankiw sums this up when he observes, ‘When people can see with their own eyes that a talented person made a great fortune fair and square, they tend not to resent it.‘”
* * *
“The meritocratic transformation entails, bluntly put, that equality’s champions must justify redistribution that takes from a more industrious elite in order to give to a less industrious middle class. This makes meritocratic inequality difficult to resist.”

The success of a few in the meritocratic system has been used as the poster child to justify the merit of the system itself. The real danger of meritocracy lies not in it being unequal, but in it being justly unequal. It is white-washed to such an extent that those enslaved by meritocracy believe the way out is via the meritocratic system itself – the middle class believe in realizing the “American dream” via “meritocratic education” despite not even competing in the same arena as the elites; the elites cling to their high-paying jobs attained via “meritocratic job selection” despite physical fatigue and emotional voidness for work they feel little attachment to.

We are blindfolded, and yet we believe the way to see is to put more blinds over our eyes. Such is the irony. Such is the power of the meritocratic illusion – it not only makes us not see, it makes us refuse to see. This has to be the most ingenious form of slavery.

The way out: How should we fix the problems?

Daniel suggests we should go back to tackle meritocracy at its two major forms of manifestation, i.e., education & jobs.

For education, he suggests: ” Private schools and universities should lose their tax-exempt status unless at least half of their students come from families in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. And public subsidies should encourage schools to meet this requirement by expanding enrollment.”

For the job market, he suggests: “favoring goods and services produced by workers who do not have elaborate training or fancy degrees. For example, the health-care system should emphasize public health, preventive care, and other measures that can be overseen primarily by nurse practitioners, rather than high-tech treatments that require specialist doctors.”

As Daniel admits, change will not come easy: “Any victory will be long-fought and hard-won.” The key first step is acknowledging the problems of meritocracy, and the need of a united force to tackle them. I leave you with the last sentence from the book:

To update an old slogan: the workers of the world—now both middle-class and superordinate—should unite. They have nothing to lose but their chains, and a whole world to win.

Daniel Markovits