The Revolt of the Meritocrats

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.

When merit is measured by money, there is no ethical limit to the size of an individual’s paycheck. If I earn ten, a hundred, or a thousand times more than you, it is because I deserve ten, a hundred, or a thousand times more than you.