What Liberals Get Wrong About WorkRoundup
tags: economic history, labor, work
MICHAEL J. SANDEL teaches political philosophy at Harvard University.
This article is excerpted from Michael Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
At the heart of the populist resentments that roil American politics are grievances about work. Those grievances are about more than job losses and stagnant wages, though. “Work” is both economic and cultural. The people left behind by globalization haven’t just struggled while others prospered; they sense that the work they do is no longer a source of social recognition.
From the end of World War II until the 1970s, it was possible for those without a college degree to find a good job that enabled them to support a family and lead a comfortable, middle-class life. That is far more difficult today. Over the past four decades, the earnings difference between high-school and college graduates—what economists call the “college premium”—has doubled.
Globalization brought rich rewards to the well credentialed—the winners of the meritocratic race. It did nothing for most workers. Productivity increased, but working people reaped a smaller and smaller share of what they produced. Although per capita income in the U.S. has increased 85 percent since 1979, white men without a four-year college degree make less now, in real terms, than they did then.
The meritocratic age has also inflicted a more insidious injury: eroding the dignity of work. The valorization of those who score well on standardized tests and go on to college or university implicitly disparages those without such credentials. It tells them that the work they do, less valued by the market than the work of professionals, is a lesser contribution to the common good.
This way of thinking about who deserves what is the result of two related tendencies. One is the meritocratic sorting that, in recent decades, has made a four-year college degree an almost indispensable condition of opportunity and success. The other is the neoliberal, market-oriented version of globalization embraced by mainstream parties of the center-right and center-left since the 1980s. Even as globalization produced massive inequality, these two outlooks—the meritocratic and the neoliberal—undermined the dignity of work, fueling resentment of elites among working people, along with a political backlash.
Michael Young, who coined the term meritocracy in the late 1950s—and who used it as a pejorative—observed four decades later: “It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.”
Working-class men without a college degree voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016. Their attraction to his politics of grievance suggests that they were angered by more than economic hardship. One of the reasons mainstream analysts and politicians were shocked by Trump’s election is that they were oblivious to the culture of elite condescension. This culture is a consequence, in large part, of the meritocratic sorting project and the inequality brought about by market-driven globalization, but it finds expression throughout American life. The working-class fathers on television sitcoms, such as Archie Bunker in All in the Family and Homer Simpson in The Simpsons, are mostly buffoons—ineffectual and dumb. Joan Williams, a professor at Hastings College of Law, in San Francisco, has pointed a finger at what she calls “class cluelessness” among progressives. In a 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild gave voice to working-class discontent: “You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored.”
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