The continuation of the economy by other means

In the last year, the countries of the world have fervently adopted economic measures that until four days ago all published opinion would have called Bolsheviks. Many have been concerned that this statist wave in the wake of the pandemic will serve to erode hard-won individual liberties and normalize authoritarian behaviors, and there is no doubt that this is a real danger. But the grace of the one-time state of emergency is that it has revealed that we actually lived in a state of permanent emergency: the greater or lesser degree of market regulation, as well as the rhetoric with which it is justified, have nothing to do with natural and could change radically overnight if there was political will. In the 1950s, in the United States of America, there were taxes of more than 90% on the income of those who earned more than $ 100,000 a year, which no one would have thought to call “confiscatory.” .

César Rendueles | © Thomas Vilhelm ICUB

We have the problem with the donkey ears that the idea of ​​meritocracy has become. This is the thesis of two books published almost simultaneously by two leading philosophers and public intellectuals: Against equal opportunities (Seix Barral), by César Rendueles, i The tyranny of merit (Debate) by Michael Sandel. The grace of this editorial coincidence is that Rendueles is a left-wing thinker and Sandel is a right-wing thinker. That two especially revered essayists from radically different traditions agree in pointing out meritocracy as the Trojan horse that has desensitized us to inequality could mean that the winds of time are beginning to blow in another direction. If the current degree of tolerance for inequality were a stake, Rendueles and Sandel want us to stretch it from both sides.

In the center and far from being knocked down, is the seemingly neutral idea that whoever contributes the most should make more money. From this perspective, the redistribution of wealth would be justified by a correction of the luck factor: not everyone is equally intelligent, has parents who love him or a well-connected family at prestigious universities, so that it is fair that part of what these advantages entail be returned to the common. But what the common has to do is equalize the entry conditions because, if they are fair, competing with different and tight rewards would benefit us all in the form of an incentive. History shows that during the years that this rhetoric has been in vogue, the idea has failed miserably, producing a grotesque increase in inequality and a placement of inepts and gangsters in positions of power that force us to ask what we are talking about. when we talk about merit. But while the liberal center would cling to the recipe, Rendueles and Sandel’s proposal is that the problem is not the distance between theory and practice, but the theory itself: the ethics of equal opportunity does not it encourages, but destroys the conditions of possibility of a virtuous community.

The difference between left-wing and right-wing argument can be understood as the distinction between disenchanting and re-enchanting. In premodern societies, the arbitrariness of existence was seen as a divine whim that both the favored and the harmed had to humbly accept. The king had a duty to the serfs and the serfs to the king because the respective conditions had been decided by an external and unfathomable force that was better not to question. Modernity knew how to see that there was a deception here: if we apply rational criteria instead of religious to decide who does what and who deserves to earn how much, we will propel ourselves towards a materially better life for the maximum number of people. It was the golden age of merit that lifted humanity out of poverty thanks to an ambition that dissolved suffocating hierarchies. But as is often the case with the unfortunate and dialectical Enlightenment, history has ended up paradoxically revolving around itself: any extrahuman factor in the equation has disappeared, the certainty that the fruit of each individual’s work belongs to him and no one to him, he has just acquired an equally mythological varnish. Contemporary idolatry is believing that if we are successful it is because we are good.

Well, for someone like Rendueles, what is at stake is to disenchant the myth again and prove that things are simply not like that. The book by the Madrid philosopher is full of anthropological and evolutionary arguments to show that deep equality is the natural condition of the human animal and that this explains our social anxieties and dysfunctions when this equality disappears for technological, military and political reasons. The monkeys, babies, and tribes of the Amazon are instinctively far more egalitarian than the men of advanced capitalist societies, and if we stray too far from this savage nobility, the shadow of constitutive dissatisfaction will haunt us. For Rendueles, equal results are more desirable than equal opportunities because it can be shown empirically that the social consequences of one are more beneficial than those of the other and because there is no neutral criterion that justifies winning ten euros. more than ten million: “What could a doctor argue, for example, to tell us that his interest in public health will go down by 20% if his taxes do not go down proportionately? The only justification for these demands is that those who make them are in a position to make them. The only reason to give this behavior is the same behavior.

Sandel makes a more poetic argument that seeks to re-enchant the world through the notion of grace, secularized or not. For the American philosopher, the problem of meritocracy has to do with arrogance: “A perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our ability to see ourselves as part of a common destiny. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes ”. While Rendueles sees equality as a natural state to be aspired to by pure logic, Sandel, who also offers an impressive rake of empirical data in favor of equality throughout his book, ultimately finds that all moral arguments need a supplement of spiritual strength that raw empiricism hinders. For Rendueles, we must banish meritocracy because it can be shown factually that it destabilizes us, while for Sandel it is more important to build a moral language that can reach equality from the sensibility of the spirit, without the need for ultimate justifications of no kind or precisely because believing in these justifications leads to the same vanity that has generated the problem.

The critique of meritocracy is a critique of inertia with which we neutralize values ​​that are not neutral. If the common good were to satisfy the personal preferences of the aggregate people and it turns out that we discover these preferences through consumer behavior in a market economy, it would be enough to refine meritocracy and the welfare state. But that’s just one way to organize ourselves. If it turns out that the market is not only not a neutral way of defining the common good, but it is a particularly bad tool for this need, and, with Sandel, “Democracy is more than the continuation of the economy by other means”, then the common good is not the same as the sum and satisfaction of our preferences, but the result of reflecting critically on these preferences with the aim to improve them.

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