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Rabbi Tony Bayfield

Rosh Hashana day 1 5782


I was standing at my study window looking at the garden and thinking life isn’t so bad. Lovely house, big study lined with many hundreds of books, West Ham season ticket – admittedly less than half the price of the Etihad or the Emirates but fidelity to one’s roots is a premier Jewish value.1 And then I thought: perhaps it’s only what Jacqui and I deserve – after all, we’ve got a fair number of degrees between us, have worked (you can supply the adjective!) hard and now we’re enjoying the fruits of our labour, getting our just desserts.

You arrogant idiot. Doesn’t it warn you in Deuteronomy,2 Rabbi, against thinking “b’otzem yadi”, by the strength of my own hand have I got all this wealth”. The supreme hubristic fallacy. You’re an ethical disgrace, Bayfield, like so many others today.

Not, for once, the voice of God – though it could have been.3 But that of American Jewish philosopher, Michael Sandel – the lecturer with the most over-subscribed classes at Harvard. Sandel is well known in Britain to Radio 4 listeners as the public voice of reason, the philosopher who uses ordinary language to analyse major problems within society that we all recognise.

A few months ago, Professor Sandel’s latest book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? was published.4 Reading it hit me flush on the jaw and I’ve only just got back to my feet.

We live, says Sandel, both in America and Britain, in meritocratic societies.5 Which are no more fair and no more just than aristocratic societies were in the pre-modern age. In some ways, meritocratic societies are worse because they give people the illusion of being fair and equal when they’re no such thing. And, in addition, writes Sandel: those who land on top believe their success is morally justified; the winners believe they’ve earned their success through their own talent and hard work.6

Which, Sandel argues, simply isn’t true and leads him to the devastating conclusion that we’re not only smugly self-congratulatory, we’re blatantly condescending; we humiliate all those who’ve been less successful than us. So it’s hardly surprising that, today, throughout the modern western world we’re witnessing a populist backlash.

Sandel quotes the number of times every American President, Democrat and Republican, has insisted over the last forty years, that ‘you can do anything, achieve anything; anyone can make it if they try’.7 But, he says, that’s patent nonsense, total rubbish. The American Dream8 of creating a level playing field for everyone who wants to succeed – we call it equality of opportunity - is a delusion. The playing field, Sandel clearly demonstrates, is not getting significantly more level and even if it were level, the players aren’t equal at all. We’re equal in our humanity but not in our genetic inheritance and quality of nurture; we don’t all have the same talents and we aren’t all brought up in the same homes, in the same way.

This sermon features not one Michael but two. The first Michael - Professor Michael Sandel - I don’t know personally but respect considerably.9 The second Michael – Professor Sir Michael Marmot – I do know well and respect even more. Michael Marmot is also Jewish, British not American, and a member of a nearby synagogue which fosters the illusion of being a small town in Scotland but is actually just off Finchley Road in Temple Fortune. You’ll also hear Michael Marmot on Radio 4. He travels the globe relentlessly – recently only virtually10 – with the message that it’s not ill-health that gives rise to poverty but poverty, deprivation that gives rise to ill-health.11 Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL, Marmot reviewed Sandel’s Tyranny of Merit in The Lancet12 and I’m going to draw on his analysis.

First, equality of opportunity in education is constantly thwarted.
In America, the professional middle classes, the graduates of the great Ivy League institutions have roundly defeated all attempts to broaden significantly access to those institutions: a recent widespread scam only underlined the determination of the middle classes to hang on to the privilege for their children.13 Whilst access to universities across the States has improved, the gap between the forty percent who’ve completed four-year degree programmes and the sixty percent who, at best, have done two-year, post-high school courses remains stubbornly consistent.14 As do middle class attitudes to the educationally less well-endowed.15

Michael Marmot concludes: “With outstanding exceptions, [universities] are not engines of social mobility [Sandel uses the term ‘rising’]. The perpetuation of class is now based [not on aristocratic privilege] but on the success of the previous generation.”16 “Education, education, education”17 – though very important – isn’t the panacea for levelling everyone up and creating greater social justice. Because even beyond our determination to promote our own children, lies an even more fundamental obstacle. If you set up a selective school in a deprived area such as Rust Belt, Pennsylvania or Tower Hamlets, London, you may get a hundred children a year into good universities who wouldn’t otherwise have had that opportunity. This benefits the country, enhancing the pool of the successful, the beneficiaries of meritocracy. But the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it does absolutely nothing for the vast majority in Rust Belt, Pennsylvania or Tower Hamlets who remain poor and deprived.

The second of Sandel’s points which Marmot highlights – and I personally think the most important of all - is that, in a meritocracy, so much depends upon the lottery of genes and upbringing18 – in supplying the talents that society needs at any particular time. In the particular society in which you and I live, our economy is based on skills increasingly related to the internet revolution and its globalisation, rather than on the skills for which the majority of people in both America and Europe (and I include Britain in Europe!) were once valued. Marmot quotes Sandel:

The loss of jobs to technology and outsourcing has coincided with a sense that society accords less respect to the kind of work the working class does. As economic activity has shifted from making things to managing money, as society has lavished outsize rewards on hedge-fund managers, Wall Street bankers and the professional classes, the esteem accorded work in the traditional sense has become fragile and uncertain.19

And further, market driven globalisation and the meritocratic perception of success have unravelled moral ties in society and made us less aware of our reliance on our fellow citizens and less grateful for the work they do.20 Covid may appear to have made a difference – we’ve clapped the carers and the caretakers repeatedly – but that’s all the meritocratic model allows us to do. On its own, applause doesn’t change lives and, ultimately, it’s condescending and humiliating.

Thirdly, Michael Marmot emphasises: “Meritocracy depends for its fairness on social mobility but does nothing about inequality. It says who is up and who is down but nothing about the adverse social conditions associated with being down.21 Whilst the gap in income and wealth has increased almost exponentially, those at the top have made little or no difference to the conditions of those at the bottom. In America the vast majority of wealth is in the hands of a tiny minority of the population. The gap between the owners of large businesses and their employees which was 30 times a generation ago is now 300 times.22 And billionaires vie for the privilege of being the first exhibitionist in space23 whilst trailer parks, high-rise public housing and homelessness increase and refugees from war and climate change surge towards the gated and walled national states of North America and Europe.

Marmot emphasises the issue of what he terms “agency”: particularly but not exclusively in the developing world, the poor lack the means to build any kind of life – being without basic resources and marketable skills. They equally lack the healthcare necessary to sustain their lives. In this country, he points out in The Marmot Review Ten Years On,24 households in England in the bottom ten percent of household income would have to spend seventy-four percent of that income to follow the government’s healthy-eating advice.25

Characterizing the poor as feckless, lazy and deserving of their lot and contrasting them to so-called hard-working families, dividing between shirkers and strivers, is the way so many politicians both in America and Europe have dismissed poverty, suggesting the poor and deprived have only themselves to blame. It’s the cruellest possible way of enabling politicians to spend the limited resources of the state in a different way, in accordance with their economic, meritocratic model. Sandel sees the current crisis of populism, the polarisation of society, the mutually uncomprehending shouting being the result of the retreat of the elite into vacuous explanations of why we have to do what we do, bullying the ‘unwashed masses’ with technocratic talk.26 The derisory, angry alienation and resentment, of those whose lives compare so adversely with those of the elite, is the response. That’s what meritocracy has led to and it’s neither fair nor just.27

It’s also easier to identify the problem than propose solutions – maybe philosophers and rabbis have that in common!
Sandel’s book, though entitled The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, says all too little about ‘The Common Good’, providing only a five-page conclusion which includes the following Sandelian vision of:

a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity-developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs.28

Fine. But how the [you can supply the adjective again] do we get there?

There is, I think, not just apple-pie and little else in Sandel’s solution but a gap in the analysis itself. Early on in his book, Sandel sees the origins of the problem in the self-justifying and self-congratulatory Protestant work ethic.29 That may be true, but I was brought up nearly sixty years ago on the evocative phrase describing America’s “rugged individualism”. We’ve seen throughout the western world the rise of individualism, the liberation of the individual from community constraints - and no more so that in the United States. We Jews30 have been brought up on a tradition of community. Louis Jacobs’ book Religion and the Individual: a Jewish Perspective31 is the shortest book in his very considerable list of publications! Though we Reform Jews have gladly liberated ourselves from the stifling pre-modern constraints of community rules,32 we know just how important community is. So likewise, we should be aware of the rights of society and the crucial balance between individual freedom and the common good.33

Quite early on in his book, Sandel says:

One way of thinking about what makes for a just society is to ask what kind of society you would choose if you did not know whether you would grow up in a rich family or a poor one.34

For some while the sentence lodged at the back of my mind until suddenly, I was struck by what’s of course the classical Jewish response: I can’t answer that, and let’s not try. Because, in the end, it demands a detailed human prescription for the ideal society of the kind which begins with Plato,35 was popularised by Thomas More36 and globalised by Marx.37 Utopianism is not only a major human conceit but is, pace many of our recent forebears, far from being the Jewish way.

The mainstream Jewish tradition has always been and remains Messianic rather than Utopian.38 It provides us with glimpses, powerful metaphors for what the ultimate future in this life may look like: each person sitting securely under their vine or fig tree;39 children playing safely close to poisonous snakes40 and, above all, God dispensing justice to all nations as the prerequisite for global peace.41 But in the meantime, we can only struggle together to get there, guided by our Jewish values,42 inch by inch, step by step.

Which leads me to end with a third great contemporary Jewish thinker. His first name wasn’t Michael – I’m not sure whether, had it been so, that would have been Utopian or Messianic – but Karl, Karl Popper.43 Popper was, like so many recent Jewish cultural giants, from Vienna. He narrowly escaped the Nazis, fled to New Zealand and, in 1945, came to London where he became Professor of Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics.

In his hopeful, life-affirming book The Open Society and its Enemies,44 Popper lists amongst those enemies: the utopian, the advancement of a single viewpoint and its imposition.45 Central planning and disallowing dissent are the ultimate evils. As in post-Einstein science, so in political life,46 there is no certainty. We, says Popper, must deal with perpetual change. Society, through democratic government, has to develop policies and expose them to criticism, searching for undesirable consequences before they’re even introduced. Once implemented, we must always critique, always modify, always respond: to make society a little more just, a little fairer. Our task is not to build the ideal school or the ideal hospital but to get rid of the worst and improve the lot of the people who are affected. Popper teaches: we don’t know how to make people happy, but we can and must remove avoidable suffering and handicap. Step by agreed step.

So will I be flagellating myself over the next ten days as a result of Sandel’s critique? No, but I’ll be reflecting on my lack of awareness of (or failure to admit to) my own un-earned good fortune: how many people in the world could say as I can that they wouldn’t change a thing about when, where and to whom they were born?

I’ll also be thinking about the angry polarisation of attitudes in this country as in America and asking myself how I can support the Sandels, the Marmots and the spirit of Popper in re-stating the imperative of acting for the Common Good. And the urgent task of removing avoidable suffering and handicap step by inexorable step. Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE

‘Jaw-dropping’ fall in life expectancy in poor areas of England, report finds - The Guardian, 20 June 2021

1 Forgive the obligatory football reference. However, when you get to the end of this sermon, you might like to consider whether the ownership of football clubs, the buying and selling of players and their salaries has any relevance to Sandel’s thesis.

2 Deuteronomy 8:17

3 The reference here is to my idiosyncratic arguments with God in Being Jewish Today: Confronting the Real Issues. Bloomsbury, 2019. Now in paperback!

4 Michael J Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What Became of the Common Good? Allen Lane, 2020

5 A meritocratic society is one ruled by the successful and which rewards financially those who succeed in what the society values economically.

6 The Tyranny of Merit, p. 13

7 Sandel calls this, “the rhetoric of rising”. See Tyranny of Merit, pp. 59-80.

8 The phrase was coined by an American writer, James Truslow Adams. Tyranny of Merit, pp. 225-6.

9 His books Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, together with his 2009 Reith Lectures are cogently argued philosophical examinations of a range of societal issues.

10 Michael Marmot would say that his Zoom lectures and conversations are far less effective in conveying his message and furthering negotiations with policy makers than done in person. Are you of the view that the crisis of global warming overrides the arguments for such physical travel? Or, do you think travel for such purposes should take priority? Or do you think that all air travel should continue?

11 You might well enjoy Michael Marmot, The Health Gap: The Challenge of an Unequal World. Bloomsbury, 2015.

12 The Lancet, Vol. 397, 20th February 2021, pp. 660-61.

13 See the astonishing case of William Singer with which Sandel begins. The educated middle classes are so anxious for their children that they pay extortionate amounts for tutors, spend 5x as much time as their parents on helping with homework. Sandel accuses them/us of turning parenting into “product development”: Tyranny of Merit, pp. 178-9.

14 Tyranny of Merit, pp. 165-177: Sandel exposes the obsession with degrees which he terms “credentialism”, [Tyranny of Merit, pp. 81-112] the touchstone for the credibility of anyone in leadership and their authority in moral and political debate. Sandel says, “the weaponization of College credentials shows how merit can become a kind of tyranny.” Tyranny of Merit, p. 83

15 And, lest you think this is solely an American preoccupation, Sandel also tells us:
In a series of surveys conducted in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium, a team of social psychologists found that College educated respondents have more bias against less educated people than they do against other disfavored groups. The researchers surveyed the attitudes of well-educated Europeans toward a range of people who are typically victims of discrimination – Muslims, people of Turkish descent living in Western Europe, people who are poor, obese, blind and [the] less educated. They found that the poorly educated were disliked most of all. [Tyranny of Merit, p. 95]
Sandel cites “Educationism and the Irony of Meritocracy” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 76, May, 2018. For many years, American children have sat a Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT. Sandel tells us:
First, the SAT, it turns out, does not measure scholarly aptitude or native intelligence independent of social and educational background. To the contrary, SAT scores are highly correlated with wealth. The higher your family income, the higher your SAT score. At each successive rung on the income ladder, average SAT scores increase . . . Those in high-scoring categories are overwhelmingly, children of parents with College degrees. [Tyranny of Merit, p. 164]

16 Marmot, The Lancet, p. 661

17 Tyranny of Merit, p. 86 Sandel frequently refers to Tony Blair as a meritocrat who believed that education was the key to “rising” but who also helped foster the pernicious distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor.

18 Rabbi Miriam Berger quotes Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi as saying: “Every other kid would come out of school and their parents would ask ‘what did you learn today?’ But my mother used to say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’” Not only do many homes lack laptops and the study space to use them; many lack parents who ask regularly about school – let alone incisive questions like those of Mrs Rabi.

19 Marmot, The Lancet, p. 661

20 “Over the past four decades, market-driven globalisation and the meritocratic conception of success, taken together have unravelled . . . moral ties. Global supply chains, capital flows, and the cosmopolitan identities they fostered made us less reliant on our fellow citizens, less grateful for the work they do, and less open to the claims of solidarity. Meritocratic sorting taught us that our success is our own doing, and so eroded our sense of indebtedness. We are now in the midst of the angry whirlwind this unravelling has produced. To renew the dignity of work, we must repair the social bonds the age of merit has undone.” Tyranny of Merit, p. 222

21 Marmot, The Lancet, p. 661

22 Economic fortunes during the COVID-19 pandemic are a stark illustration. Two organisations, Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies, reported in December, 2020, that the wealth of America’s 651 billionaires had increased by more than US $1 trillion since the start of the pandemic. It means that these billionaires could write a cheque for $3,000 for each of the 330 million Americans and have the same wealth as they had at the beginning of the pandemic. The appropriate response should be outrage rather then viewing this wealth as somehow the due of the billionaires. Marmot, The Lancet, p. 661.

23 I suspect I’m not the only person who isn’t convinced by the justification that it promotes economic growth and employment.

24 Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On. The Health Foundation, Feb. 2020.

25 Sandel makes a different but illuminating comment relating to health. In America, the increase in life expectancy has actually stalled and begun to fall in the 45-54 age group. This is due to the extraordinary number of “deaths of despair”, manifested in suicide, drug overdose and alcoholic liver disease. See Tyranny of Merit, pp. 119-200. Sandel also notes the impact of pressure on middle class children describing them as a generation growing up afflicted by “anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem.” Tyranny of Merit, p. 183.

26 Tyranny of Merit, pp. 104-8

27 Sandel peppers the book with references to challenging his classes at Harvard, telling them how lucky he considers them to be in their genetic and social background and that that they’re there through no merit of their own but only by good fortune. I’m not sure whether he’s being ironic or is genuinely surprised when they prove hostile to this suggestion. A philosopher’s analysis isn’t always palatable. To tell Olympic medal winners that, yes, they did work hard but, ultimately, it was their genetic inheritance that was responsible for their success; to tell A Level students this year that they didn’t deserve their grades despite what they’ve been through – neither is socially acceptable. But is it fair?

28 Tyranny of Merit, p. 224

29 Tyranny of Merit, pp. 37-41. Sandel stresses the moral and religious endorsement invoked by Americans to justify their way of life – the insistence that the US is “on the right side of history”, that “the ark of American policy bends towards justice” and, even more explicitly, the endorsement of a Prosperity Gospel in many Evangelical churches – ‘God wants you to be wealthy and your wealth is a sign of God’s blessing’. For me, this attitude is best summed up by the following: asked how he could defend his lavish pay at the time of the 2008 financial crisis, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, replied that he and his fellow bankers, “were doing God’s work.” Tyranny of Merit, p. 45.

30 Although Sandel is a committed Jew, like so many Jewish intellectuals, his Jewish knowledge appears to be at the level of the high school dropouts at the bottom of his meritocratic pile! See Tyranny of Merit, p. 35-7. He doesn’t draw on mainstream Jewish sources or on a Jewish theology which doesn’t share the dilemma that led to the Protestant work ethic.

31 Louis Jacobs, Religion and the Individual: A Jewish Perspective. Cambridge UP, 1992.

32 Halakhah imposed a level of protective conformity on pre-modern Eastern European communities that has, unsurprisingly, proved stultifying in more open societies.

33 I express this by placing the individual within a triangle, one of the sides of which is community/society and asking what implications the individual action has on the wellbeing of the collective – i.e. the Common Good. Being Jewish Today, p.192.

34 Tyranny of Merit, p. 114

35 Plato’s Dialogue The Laws sets out the detailed political and legal structure of the ideal city.

36 Sir Thomas More 1478-1535, Chancellor of England, beheaded by Henry VIII, wrote the book Utopia
37 Marxism is a utopian political philosophy in that it gives a highly prescriptive account of the goal of society and how to get there.

38 In a heavy-weight intellectual study, the French academic Pierre Bouretz considers each of the defining Jewish thinkers of the 20th century: Hermann Cohen, Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, Scholem, Buber, Ernst Bloch, Leo Strauss, Hans Jonas and Levinas. The book is called Witnesses for the Future: Philosophy and Messianism and each is seen as being a messianist. [Johns Hopkins UP, 2010].

39 Micah 4:4

40 Isaiah 11:8

41 Micah 4:3

42 I indicate what I mean by Jewish values in Chapter 7, sections 1 and 2 of Being Jewish Today.

43 Karl Popper, b. Vienna 1902, d. London 1994

44 Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies. Routledge, 1945.

45 For a characteristically acute and enthusiastic evaluation of Popper, see Bryan Magee, The Story of Philosophy. DK/PenguinRandom House, pp. 220-4.

46 And, I would add, religious life too. Being Jewish Today, pp. 33-4.

Sun, 26 September 2021 20 Tishrei 5782