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Elites don’t get Trump or Brexit. They are caught in the meritocratic trap

The educated successful elite in society have an innate subconscious belief that their success in one field can seamlessly transcend to other fields.

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I recall a meeting in January 2017 with a globally renowned Indian economist from an Ivy League university in America. He assuredly held forth on the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh that year, claiming confidently that the polls hinged entirely on the Election Commission’s then impending decision about which faction of the Samajwadi Party would get the ‘cycle’ symbol. The sitting chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, had split from his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and both factions were staking claim to the ‘cycle’ symbol, which would identify the ‘real’ Samajwadi Party for voters in the election. The economist was insistent that if Akhilesh Yadav got the ‘cycle’ symbol, he would handily emerge victorious but expressed scepticism if the EC will be allowed to rule in Akhilesh’s favour.

The EC eventually decided in favour of Akhilesh who subsequently went on to lose the assembly election. But that is not the point.

What amazed me was the confidence that this accomplished economist living in America exuded in opining on the intricate details of Indian politics and his categorical assertions on a subject that was arguably not his forte. He is entitled to his opinion and reputed economists are not the only ones with expressive views on various subjects.

The educated successful elite in society have an innate subconscious belief that their success in one field can seamlessly transcend to other fields. It is this belief that manifests itself as confident proclamations on subjects that they may be close observers of but not practitioners or knowledgeable experts.

Successful businesspeople often preach to cabinet ministers and bureaucrats on how to run the government; successful fiction authors dictate how to manage the economy; senior editors wax eloquent on healthcare policies, and historians seem to know for sure who will be the best leader to lead certain political parties. To be clear, the ideas of all these people are important and such cross-pollination of views from different fields is the cornerstone of a liberal society.

Also read: High family income, not SAT scores, is your real ticket to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

What is merit

Experience and success in a chosen field can certainly help provide valuable suggestions in other areas. But suggestions and ideas are different from prescriptions and preaching. What gives an accomplished individual in one field the supreme confidence and conviction to pontificate about an entirely different subject with bravado and believe that his/her views supersede all others’?

We are all victims of the ‘meritocracy trap’, as espoused by Yale Professor Daniel Markovits and Harvard Philosopher Michael Sandel. It is the notion that one’s success is truly meritocratic and richly deserved out of the sheer dint of their extraordinary talent and hard work.

By corollary, it follows that those who have ‘failed’ also deserve their failures and are mediocre. The class hierarchy in a meritocratic society is one of success and failure. Hence the assumption that the successful elite’s views and opinions matter much more than all others’, the postulation of this ‘meritocratic’ school of thought.

Sandel and Markovits debunk this notion brilliantly, showing how meritocracy is a mere mirage and all success or failure is a plain random draw. They argue that meritocracy is even worse than aristocracy since it provides a useful façade for society to justify and perpetuate deep inequalities. Of course, no successful person would like their success diminished by attributing it to mere chance or luck.

Meritocratic societies shower inordinately more privilege and importance to the deemed successful elites through preferential opportunities to air their views and accord it greater significance, such as my opportunity to publish this opinion article.

In many fields, it may be true that the views of the elite should carry greater weight than others. A successful agriculture economists’ views on the farm laws is perhaps more important than the common man’s, or a historian’s views on the state of the nation should be taken more seriously than of others, or a health scientist’s views on Covid-19 be attached greater weight than others’.

But in a ‘one person-one vote’ democracy, politics is perhaps the one field where everyone’s views or opinions are exactly equal and carry the exact same weight. Regardless of one’s place in society, every single person has the exact same value in an election or a referendum. While this may seem obvious and the emphasis needless, the elite in meritocratic societies struggle to internalise and truly accept this idea. B.R. Ambedkar was perhaps the lone leader to grasp this profound idea and highlight how India’s democracy should be more about equality than liberty.

Also read: Tamil Brahmins were the earliest to frame merit as a caste claim, and it showed in IITs

Meritocratic behaviour

That, in politics, everyone’s views matter and they matter equally, is a very hard notion to imbibe and practise for those who are higher in the social hierarchy. It is for this reason that opinion pages in prestigious newspapers are filled with views of the successful meritocratic elite from other fields, dishing out sermons about politics under the misplaced belief that their views either carry more weight or represent the millions of ordinary others. For example, surely, the views of successful historians or authors or journalists do not carry any more weight than those of the workers of a political party in deciding who their leader should be?

Even political parties often fall into this meritocratic trap when they rely on the opinions of a select ‘meritocratic’ few to make important decisions rather than solicit opinions of thousands of other party workers in a true ‘one person-one vote’ doctrine.

Political events such as the Brexit vote, the election (and the almost re-election) of Donald Trump seem to have befuddled the meritocratic elite since their views are distinctly opposite to those of the larger public. They are ordained to believe that their views matter more and carry greater weight than the rest, which may be true in other spheres but not in a one person-one vote democratic context. The elite’s struggle to comprehend contemporary politics in democracies with universal adult franchise can be explained by the ‘meritocratic trap’.

Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and Chairman of the Data Analytics department of the Congress party. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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