It’s probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you’ve got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage — you, too, could start a major thing. The consequences of this problem make themselves felt in bookshops. When you go to a large bookshop and look at the self-help sections, as I sometimes do — if you analyze self-help books that are produced in the world today, there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you, “You can do it! You can make it! Anything’s possible!” The other kind tells you how to cope with what we politely call “low self-esteem,” or impolitely call, “feeling very bad about yourself.”
There’s a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem. So that’s another way in which something quite positive can have a nasty kickback. There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious — about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it’s, again, linked to something nice. And that nice thing is called meritocracy.
Now everybody, all politicians on Left and Right, agree that meritocracy is a great thing, and we should all be trying to make our societies really, really meritocratic. In other words — what is a meritocratic society? A meritocratic society is one in which, if you’ve got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top, nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea. The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.
You know, in the Middle Ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an “unfortunate” — literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a “loser.” There’s a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods, it’s us. We’re in the driving seat.
That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not. It leads, in the worst cases — in the analysis of a sociologist like Emil Durkheim — it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed, individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally — they own their success, but they also own their failure.
Is there any relief from some of these pressures that I’ve been outlining? I think there is. I just want to turn to a few of them. Let’s take meritocracy. This idea that everybody deserves to get where they get to, I think it’s a crazy idea, completely crazy. I will support any politician of Left and Right, with any halfway-decent meritocratic idea; I am a meritocrat in that sense. But I think it’s insane to believe that we will ever make a society that is genuinely meritocratic; it’s an impossible dream.
The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it should be, is impossible. There are simply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people’s heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should.
I’m drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in “The City of God,” where he says, “It’s a sin to judge any man by his post.” In modern English that would mean it’s a sin to come to any view of who you should talk to, dependent on their business card. It’s not the post that should count. According to St. Augustine, it’s only God who can really put everybody in their place and He’s going to do that on the Day of Judgment, with angels and trumpets, and the skies will open. Insane idea, if you’re a secularist person, like me. But something very valuable in that idea, nevertheless. In other words, hold your horses when you’re coming to judge people. You don’t necessarily know what someone’s true value is. That is an unknown part of them, and we shouldn’t behave as though it is known.
There is another source of solace and comfort for all this. When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure, one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status. What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists.
The number one organ of ridicule, nowadays, is the newspaper. If you open the newspaper any day of the week, it’s full of people who’ve messed up their lives. They’ve slept with the wrong person, they’ve taken the wrong substance, they’ve passed the wrong piece of legislation — whatever it is, and then are fit for ridicule. In other words, they have failed. And they are described as “losers.”