Skip to main content

4ed9440346f86f400c2d3b04_dr4370c.jpg

The Revolt of the Meritocrats

The bailout of the financial system was a bizarre moment in economic history, for it benefited those who benefited most from the markets’ irrational exuberance – the bosses of financial firms. But, while the bailout forced them to abandon their belief in individual merit in favor of solidarity and interdependence, they are now quickly reverting to their old ways.

PARIS – The bailout of the financial system was a bizarre moment in economic history, for it benefited those who benefited most from the markets’ irrational exuberance – the bosses of financial firms. Before the crisis hit, however, redistribution of wealth (and the tax and social security payments that make it possible) was considered the biggest obstacle to economic efficiency. Indeed, the values of solidarity had given way to those of individual “merit,” judged by the size of one’s paycheck.

The paradox is that a part of this evolution may be attributable to two positive factors: the slow work of democracy, which liberates individuals but at the same time leaves them more isolated; and the development of a welfare system that shares risks and makes individuals more autonomous. With this isolation and autonomy, people increasingly tend to believe, for better or for worse, that they alone are responsible for their own fate.

Here lies the conundrum. An individual is free and autonomous only because of the collective decisions taken after democratic debate, notably those decisions that guarantee each person access to public goods such as education, health care, etc. Some sense of social solidarity may remain, but it is so abstract that those for whom the wheel of fortune has spun so favorably feel little debt. They believe that they owe their status purely to merit, not to the collective efforts – state-funded schools, universities, etc. – that enabled them to realize their potential.

We hope you're enjoying Project Syndicate.

To continue reading, subscribe now.

Subscribe

Get unlimited access to PS premium content, including in-depth commentaries, book reviews, exclusive interviews, On Point, the Big Picture, the PS Archive, and our annual year-ahead magazine.

https://prosyn.org/mpeFabS;
  1. campanella17_Ryan AshcroftSOPA ImagesLightRocket via Getty Images_englihs Ryan Ashcroft/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

    Back to Little England?

    Edoardo Campanella

    The United Kingdom's bid to withdraw from the European Union is typically characterized as a dramatic manifestation of British nationalism. In fact, it has almost nothing to do with Britain, and everything to do with English national identity, which has been wandering in the wilderness ever since the fall of Pax Britannica.

    1

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated Cookie policy, Privacy policy and Terms & Conditions