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Meritocracy on Trial

It undermines equality and the common good.

In 1958, a British sociologist named Michael Young, in a book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, portrayed a dystopia. He imagined a society in which the old class system of Britain had been swept aside; instead of inherited wealth or family connections, it was exceptional ability that propelled individuals into the elite. This new system, designed to reward the most talented, was just as rigidly hierarchical as the old one, in Young’s depiction. And in important ways, it was worse: In the past, at least, those born into a high rank could not reasonably convince themselves that they had earned their position in the social hierarchy; likewise, people in the lower classes would be aware that they were not inferior in ability to many of those who ranked above them. By contrast, in this new system of meritocracy, individuals who reached the top positions would feel superior to those who fell short, while those at the bottom would inevitably be classified as failures.

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
by Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $28.00

Young was dismayed, some 40 years after his book’s publication, to hear Prime Minister Tony Blair declare his intention to create a meritocratic society with the goal of “opening up economy and society to merit and talent.” At 85 years old, Young saw that the nightmare he had portrayed was coming true. The term he had coined in a stark warning had taken on a positive connotation, deployed to inspire a generation of voters. In a letter to The Guardian, he wrote acidly: “I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been.… 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.”

The Rise of the Meritocracy was told from the vantage point of a narrator in the year 2033, looking back on recent history. As its story ends, the narrator predicts that a massive populist uprising against the arrogant meritocratic elites portrayed by the book will take place the following year, 2034. In his new book, The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel suggests that, in reality, we may have already passed that endgame. “In 2016, as Britain voted for Brexit and America for Trump,” he writes, “that revolt arrived eighteen years ahead of schedule.” His book traces the history of the idea and its abuses, from theological debates to recent political campaigns. If we want to build a functional democracy, he argues, we need to dismantle the notion of meritocracy, and orient our politics around a renewed sense of the common good.

Michael Sandel views politics as fundamentally a moral enterprise, and to “morally invigorate our public discourse” has been a principal goal of his writings from the beginning of his career in the early 1980s. His first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, written as a Ph.D. thesis at Oxford under the direction of communitarian theorist Charles Taylor, critiqued John Rawls’s great work A Theory of Justice, considered by some to constitute the first significant advance in the philosophy of liberalism since John Stuart Mill. In particular, Sandel raised a strong objection to Rawls’s premise that “the right” should come before “the good,” as opposed to a conception of the good determining what is right. Sandel objected that this stricture precluded the formation of a genuine political community, since the very purpose of politics is, in his civic republican view, to determine what a community’s essential values are and then pursue their realization.

Throughout his career, Sandel has counterpoised the republican tradition in Western political thought, which stresses the common good, to liberalism’s emphasis on individual autonomy. His next book, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, recounted the history of the republican tradition in America from before its founding as a nation up to World War II. In the postwar years, the republican ethic waned, and America was transformed into what Sandel calls a “procedural republic.” This variant of liberalism closely resembled John Rawls’s view of politics, with its premise that the state should be absolutely neutral with regard to people’s values, its only role being to ensure that the administrative procedures it follows are fair to everyone. This liberalism also contains a correlative view of the individual self, attributing to it a completely autonomous will, unconstrained by moral or cultural commitments. The book, written and published in the mid-1990s, cataloged the social and economic problems that Sandel perceived to be accumulating unaddressed in America, most notably its rapidly increasing economic inequality. He described the political situation in the United States as “an epic experiment in the claims of liberal as against republican political thought,” meaning that in a more republican context, matters of that gravity and significance would be openly debated in the metaphorical public square.

Surveying the American scene again today, Sandel finds not only that procedural liberalism has failed to a disastrous extent—bringing the country almost to the verge of chaos and collapse—but that this failure was engineered by liberal politicians themselves, acting on the wildly erroneous assumption that by pursuing the goal of meritocracy, they were engaged in bringing about a more egalitarian economic order. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, he points out, set the stage in the 1980s, purveying dogmas about the magic of the free market. But center-left leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton—whether out of political self-interest or genuine conviction, or a mix of both—accepted the basic argument that markets were the best mechanism for achieving the public good, so long as their negative effects were mitigated by compensatory social programs. And the main social program they had in mind was better access to education. Whenever the subject of inequality was raised, their habitual recourse was to the principle that improved educational opportunities were the solution to the problem.

This new breed of liberal politician, whose foremost exemplar would turn out to be Barack Obama, engaged in what Sandel calls the “rhetoric of rising.” If the United States was—or at least was on its way to becoming—a meritocracy, then anyone who worked hard and played by the rules could rise in the social order “as far as their talent could take them.” There were a number of problems with this concept. The first was that many people who “played by the rules” found their prospects worsening: The advent of globalization eradicated virtually half the factory jobs that had sustained the American working class for generations, and nothing was being done to replace them. Another problem was a concomitant financialization of the economy, which diverted resources from the production of tangible goods into the arena of financial speculation, of which the financial crisis of 2007 to 2009 was one obvious result.

Meanwhile, higher education was emerging more than ever as the main key to economic success in America. The college degree was being valorized as never before, even though, amid skyrocketing tuition fees and looming student debt, only one-third of the American population actually possessed one. In this situation, the rhetoric of rising was more of a taunt than a source of inspiration for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. It was also a source of political instability, providing motivation to vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, a veritable exemplar of the technocratic elitist liberals, who once took occasion to call Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.”

The extent to which the United States is or is not a true meritocracy is not the central focus of Sandel’s book. Rather, like Michael Young, he seeks to question the legitimacy of the meritocratic ideal itself. A meritocracy does not eliminate inequality, he points out, but merely shuffles the deck by reconfiguring inequality to align with ability. James Conant, the Harvard president who developed the SAT, freely admitted that achieving equality in American society was no part of his program. Quite the contrary, his goal was to create an educationally superior elite to oversee the workings of the nation’s major institutions; to that end, his test set in motion what Sandel calls the “sorting machine,” a mechanism for identifying the students most deserving of admission to top American universities.

When it comes to politics, Sandel expresses skepticism about the pertinence and value of a college degree. He points out that our arguably most recent great president, Harry Truman, didn’t have a college degree, and that a full seven of the members of Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour Cabinet were coal miners. Franklin Roosevelt (himself a Harvard grad) had a very eclectic group of advisers during the New Deal; his chief deputy, Harry Hopkins, was a social worker from Iowa. Governing well, Sandel argues, involves “practical wisdom and civic virtue,” and neither of these capabilities is developed very well in most universities today. He finds little correlation between “political judgment, which involves moral character as well as insight, and the ability to score well on standardized tests.”

A meritocracy, as Young foresaw, is, in effect, really no more equitable than a hereditary order. Being born with a high I.Q. or exceptional skill of some kind is just as arbitrary, in a moral sense, as being born to the Manor. A major difference is that those who make it to the top in a meritocracy are susceptible to self-congratulation and hubris, freed from the notion that they owe anything to those less fortunate than them, while those at the bottom are driven to bitter feelings of inferiority and resentment. This is a dangerous combination in a would-be democracy, in which disillusionment can build support for a figure like Trump, who claims no allegiance to the meritocratic elites.

Sandel and Young follow in a long tradition of critics of meritocratic thinking. As Sandel recounts, a theological debate surrounding the issue of moral desert arose in the early days of Christianity. St. Augustine established the principle that individual salvation could not be earned through strict religious observance or the performance of good works, but could only come from the grace of God. Centuries later, Martin Luther initiated a massive rebellion against a Catholic Church in which this doctrine had become so diluted that its representatives were selling the remission of sins on the open market, while granting it in return for the performance of charitable works on behalf of the church as well. “The Protestant Reformation was born,” Sandel writes, “as an argument against merit.” John Calvin put major emphasis on the doctrine of predestination, which holds that an individual’s salvation (or damnation, as the case might be) is determined by God before that person is even born. This tenet, of course, precluded the possibility that a person might earn salvation through any form of merit. You were either born as one of the elect, or you were not.

Yet the ideal of merit soon crept back in. Calvin preserved Luther’s emphasis on the spiritual importance of working strenuously in a “calling” for the glory of God, which became the “work ethic” brought to America by the Puritan disciples of Calvin. Max Weber, in his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, made two points relevant to Sandel’s thesis. The first was that Calvinist asceticism, with its emphasis on the importance of accumulating wealth while spending little of it on personal gratification, provided the financial basis for launching a capitalist economic order. The second was that the prospect of being damned forever could not but encourage the hope (or presumption) that success in one’s calling was a sign you were among the elect. Sandel extends this point, suggesting it was a virtually inevitable step from there to the conviction that you had earned your superior status and fully deserved it. As Weber wrote, “The fortunate [person] is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate ... he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune.”

Over the centuries, as this “providential thinking” was secularized, it became, in the view of cultural historian Jackson Lears, “a way of providing spiritual sanctions for the economic status quo.... Providence implicitly underwrote inequalities of wealth.” Lears sees American public culture as “an uneven contest between an ethic of fortune and a more muscular ethic of mastery,” with the ethic of mastery having the upper hand.

Sandel is aware of the appeal of the ethic of mastery, which inspires in individuals a sense of empowerment and responsibility for their own fate. At the same time, he critiques the ethic on grounds similar to those that caused him to question John Rawls’s doctrine of the priority of the right over the good: It is corrosive, if not preclusive, of community, since it enfeebles the sense that “we are all in this together.” In fact, with the ethic of mastery, we are very much in the world of the Rawlsian autonomous individual, who depends on himself alone for his direction in life. In a section titled “Do we deserve our talents?” Sandel illustrates how arbitrary each of our fates actually is: LeBron James, he points out, was born doubly lucky, not only with an extraordinary gift for playing the game of basketball, but also at a time in history when that talent was highly prized and extravagantly remunerated. If he had been born in Renaissance Florence, when fresco painting was a more sought-after skill, he would have been out of luck.

A number of conservative economists—including Friedrich Hayek, a pioneer of the right-wing Austrian School of Economics, and Frank Knight, one of the founders of neoclassical economics at the University of Chicago—have argued likewise that outsize levels of financial compensation have no relation to moral desert. They justify them, instead, on the grounds that they are simply the result of the efficient operation of open markets that give customers the goods they want at the price they can afford. Money, as Knight saw it, is neither a measure of a person’s merit, nor of the value of their contribution to society. Sandel makes this point himself, asking the reader to weigh the comparative contribution to society of the multibillionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, on the one hand, and that of a nurse or doctor on the other. Few, he suggests, would argue in favor of Sheldon Adelson.

John Rawls, in the supposedly egalitarian utopia he conjures up in A Theory of Justice (and in subsequent modified versions thereof), especially rejects making moral desert the basis for justice, because to do so would amount to putting the good (moral desert) before the right (the rules or justice by which the society will be governed), which always takes precedence over any particular concept of the good. Rawls seems to be making a strong case against the idea of meritocracy, and in his essay “Justice as Fairness,” he argued that the wealth of successful individuals should be subject to redistribution among the rest of the population. Yet another one of Rawls’s principles of justice, “entitlements to legitimate expectations,” introduces a catch. Under this principle, successful citizens are entitled to disproportionate financial rewards to the extent their skill and efforts benefit the least advantaged members of society. For Sandel, this deviation from egalitarian principles amounts to sneaking the concept of meritocracy into the mix. One can imagine the range of things the Wall Street Journal editorial page could justify using the concept.

In Democracy’s Discontent, Sandel introduced the phrase “egalitarian liberalism,” which he also refers to as “welfare state liberalism.” Egalitarian liberalism was a revision of classical liberalism developed during the Progressive era. Classical liberalism presented a set of individual rights that came to be called “negative rights,” because they involved prohibitions against interference in a person’s freedom of action and thought. The American Bill of Rights, which begins with a strong prohibition against government interference with either freedom of speech or freedom of religion, is a perfect example of negative rights.

The egalitarian liberals of the early twentieth century argued that the negative rights of traditional liberalism were moot if people did not also possess a set of “positive rights” that facilitated their freedom of action; as Franklin Roosevelt said, “Necessitous men are not free men.” The egalitarian liberals of today (Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Barack Obama) have likewise argued that equality of opportunity requires benefits such as access to health care and childcare, as well as the access to education that they hoped would fuel the meritocracy.

The problem with welfare state liberalism, Sandel finds, is that it “does not challenge the self-satisfaction of elites.” On the contrary, it actively fuels their hubris, while stoking the resentment of welfare recipients and low-wage earners. Three times—first in Democracy’s Discontent, then in his subsequent collection of essays Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics, and now again in The Tyranny of Merit—Sandel has lauded Bobby Kennedy (whom he characterizes as a civic republican rather than the liberal he is most often portrayed to have been) for his opposition to the welfare state. Kennedy, more than once, observed that people without a job have no opportunity to contribute to the public good. “Unemployment means having nothing to do—which means having nothing to do with the rest of us,” Kennedy said on the campaign trail in 1968. “To be without work, to be without use to one’s fellow citizens, is to be in truth the Invisible Man of whom Ralph Ellison wrote.”

One of the most damaging effects of a meritocracy, whether full-fledged or partial, is the way it denigrates the status of ordinary labor, denying workers the recognition they deserve, while remunerating their efforts at an unacceptably low rate. It is perhaps because liberals have so gravely underestimated this effect that they have failed to anticipate liberalism’s many crises. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama’s essay The End of History? argued that the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union signified the final victory of liberal democratic capitalism over all other forms of government. Fukuyama was following a theory of Alexandre Kojève, who, interpreting Hegel, saw the whole of human history as the quest of the slave class to escape from bondage and gain recognition of their equal worth. In the equal civil and political rights that liberalism ensured, Fukuyama believed that the working class had achieved this quest.

It is clear that civil and political rights have not been enough to satisfy the working class. Sandel draws on a different reading of Hegel, from the German social thinker Axel Honneth, who pointed out that Hegel viewed the capitalist labor market not just as a mechanism for apportioning wages, but also as a system of recognition itself, a way of publicly acknowledging a person’s contribution to society. Honneth argued that, besides providing an adequate wage, the labor market “must give all work activities a shape that reveals them to be a contribution to the common good.” There is a stark contrast between this conception of work as a source of social recognition and the view of economists from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes that work is simply a means of facilitating consumption, one’s own and that of others.

Sandel does not end his book by proposing a sweeping set of social reforms, but by advocating something in its own way even more radical: a profound change in our sense of the purpose of the economy. It is only since World War II, and the advent of Keynesian economics, that the exclusive goal of economic policy has been increasing the annual rate of growth of gross domestic product. Political campaigns routinely revolve around the question of which political party can best accomplish this goal. Questions of how to distribute the proceeds of an increased GDP take secondary status, with the right routinely arguing that any attempt to distribute the proceeds of GDP more equitably would inexorably impede its growth, thereby hurting everyone.

The advantage of focusing on GDP, to the near exclusion of other considerations, Sandel notes, is that it appears to be an apparently morally neutral measurement of success that enables Americans to avoid confronting the more profound and contentious questions that give rise to political conflict. That such questions are contentious in nature is not, however, to Michael Sandel a justification for avoiding them. To the contrary, as we have seen, in the political philosophy he advocates, debating the meaning of the public good, in a serious and conscientious manner, in the metaphorical public square is the basis of real politics. Furthermore, sidestepping the major problems of the era, such as rising economic inequality, has led to greater, not lesser, social conflict. When the technocratic liberal elite, with little public or even internal debate, committed themselves and the nation to economic globalization, they clearly did not consider the possibility that the increase it would bring in overall GDP might be accompanied by social dislocation of a magnitude that would tear the country apart economically, socially, and politically.

The obsession with GDP is not, therefore, morally neutral. As an alternative measure of the well-being of the country, Sandel puts forward the concept of “contributive justice.” Aristotle, the American republican tradition, Hegel, and Catholic social teaching, he points out, have all advanced theories of contributive justice, teaching that “we are most fully human when we contribute to the common good and earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contribution we make.” In this tradition, the most basic human need is “to be needed by those with whom we share a common life.” The dignity of work consists in fulfilling that need. Furthermore, Sandel maintains “a renewed debate about the dignity of work would disrupt our partisan complacencies, morally invigorate our public discourse, and move us beyond the polarized politics that four decades of market faith and meritocratic hubris have bequeathed.”

One of the saddest parts of Sandel’s book concerns students who make it through the gauntlet of Conant’s sorting machine and gain admission to one of the elite colleges whose prestige can propel them into the ranks of the meritocratic elite. He describes the adolescence of these candidates for the meritocracy as a “a highly scheduled, pressure-packed, stress-inducing regime of Advanced Placement courses, private college counselors, SAT tutors, athletic and other extracurricular activities, internships and good deeds in distant lands.” Sandel objects to this process in part because it gives the successful applicants the unavoidable impression that they have earned their success all on their own, and in part because of “the soul-destroying demands that meritocratic striving inflicts upon the young.” As California psychologist Madeline Levine has asserted in her book The Price of Privilege, children from affluent families have now entered the category of “at-risk” youth, experiencing “the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country.” Harvard’s admissions department has described graduates of elite colleges as “dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot camp.” And among them, presumably, are some of the major leaders of our country.

Meritocracy, anyone?