Is Meritocracy Just?

Issue Date January 2021
Volume 32
Issue 1
Page Numbers 155-59
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The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? By Michael J. Sandel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 288 pp.

This clever and artfully written book by Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel interweaves sociopolitical analysis with academic-style political theory. It is framed by the now-familiar argument that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were the products of a populist backlash among the losers of globalization. While deploring the nativism, misogyny, and racism that often accompany populism, Sandel contends that populist resentment is rooted in and justified by the failure of democratic elites. In particular, he blames those elites for promoting an ethos that leads the successful to believe that they deserve their success, thus giving rise to what he labels the “tyranny of merit.”

Sandel suggests that this exalting of merit is a relatively new phenomenon—a product of the last four decades, initiated by the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But it is not only conservatives whom he blames for this trend. He harshly criticizes Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama for their emphasis on equal opportunity and for their reliance on the “rhetoric of rising” (p. 59) to promise their citizens success if they “work hard and play by the rules” (p. 67).

About the Author

Marc F. Plattner is a member of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Board of Directors. He was on the NED staff from 1984 until 2020, serving first as the director of the grants program. In 1989, he became founding coeditor (with Larry Diamond) of the Journal of Democracy. He later served as codirector of the International Forum for Democratic Studies and as NED’s vice-president for research and studies.

View all work by Marc F. Plattner

Sandel portrays the immediate post-1945 decades as a halcyon period of civic solidarity. According to his narrative, it is only the past forty years that have brought the triumph of “meritocratic hubris” (an epithet that probably recurs in this volume more often than “rosy-fingered dawn” does in Homer’s Odyssey). The prosperous, having now come [End Page 155] to think that they have earned—and thus deserve—their success, have adopted a condescending attitude toward their poorer fellow citizens. This in turn prompts among the latter resentments that fan the flames of populism.

Sandel is right to take seriously the plight of the white working class in advanced democracies. In the United States, manufacturing jobs surely have been lost due to globalization, and working-class whites have been faring poorly in terms of wage gains and a number of other indicators (especially “deaths of despair” due to suicide, drug addiction, and alcoholism). Yet the emergence of populism has been a global phenomenon, afflicting countries such as Poland, Peru, and the Philippines where its rise cannot plausibly be attributed to globalization or the loss of manufacturing jobs. The deep causes of populist dissatisfaction, which no doubt combine economic, sociological, and cultural factors, are not easy to sort out.

Moreover, in the United States at least, the disjunction between the post–World War II era and more recent decades is not nearly as sharp as Sandel makes it out to be. Exhibit A in Sandel’s case—the subject with which his book begins and which frequently recurs—is the growing competition for entry into elite colleges. The percentage of applicants turned away from these institutions has indeed been rising, but the high-end college-admissions contest was already intense by the early 1960s. More generally, striving for material success is deeply rooted in the United States, as has long been recognized both in serious literature and in popular culture. It suffices to cite Alexis de Tocqueville’s judgment in the 1830s: “I know of no country . . . where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men, and where profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.”

So why did this longstanding American predisposition suddenly give birth to “meritocratic hubris”? Sandel never really makes this clear. But given the fact that he returns repeatedly to the arena of higher education, the center of his concern seems to be testing and sorting in the schools. He even entitles an entire chapter “Credentialism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.” Yet while it is true that deaths of despair are much more prevalent among those without college degrees, this does not mean that the intense competition among the children of the upper-middle classes to get into the most prestigious colleges is somehow the cause of working-class woes.

Sandel tries to draw such a link by arguing that a society that accepts merit as a standard inevitably winds up generating among those at the top a callous and condescending attitude toward those who are less successful, as well as an insufficient regard for the common good. The case he is prosecuting takes aim at the tyranny not just of meritocracy but of merit itself. According to his view, those who reap greater prosperity (or gain admission to elite colleges) generally believe that their success is [End Page 156] due to their own ability and hard work, but that does not mean that they deserve these rewards. This is not just because ill fortune may intervene to deny people the rewards that their ability and effort would otherwise have earned, or because good fortune may give prizes to those who have expended less ability or effort. It is because the very notion that superior ability or harder work deserves greater recompense is mistaken.

Why is that the case? Here Sandel resorts to the argument of the renowned twentieth-century political theorist John Rawls, who holds that the abilities with which people are born depend on the luck of the draw and hence do not confer any just claim to enjoy their fruits. Moreover, Rawls contends that the same is true for the qualities that lead some people to work harder than others. In Rawls’s words: “The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply in these cases” (p. 130).

Since the distribution of both talent and effort is “arbitrary from a moral point of view,” those who possess them in greater amounts have no moral claim to the enhanced benefits that they bring (p. 130). Since that is the case, Rawls can construct a vision of the just society in which “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.” Given that individuals do not deserve their natural talents, these can in effect be collectivized through the redistribution of income and used to improve the situation of the poor.

Sandel acknowledges that, despite the growing scholarly consensus denying the justice of rewards based upon merit, the academic philosophers have not succeeded in dislodging “the widely held conviction that what people earn should reflect what they deserve” (p. 134). This view is particularly strong in the United States (Sandel cites a poll in which Americans overwhelmingly select hard work as the most important factor for getting ahead in life). But it also seems to prevail elsewhere in the world. Sandel notes, for example, that among students whom he has taught in China over the past decade, “the notion that those who prosper deserve the money they make runs deep”—a standpoint that he attributes to that country’s “hyper-competitive market society” (p. 62).

Indeed, Sandel laments the fact that most people object to rewarding merit only if they see the competition as unfair—that is, if there is not real equality of opportunity. Perhaps for this reason, his presentation often proceeds in a curious two-step fashion. First, he describes an arena of competition that is marred by unfairness. For example, Sandel opens his book with a discussion of the March 2019 cheating scandal in which some wealthy parents were found to have paid bribes to secure the admission of their children to top U.S. universities. He of course deplores [End Page 157] this outright cheating, and then goes on to catalogue other ways in which competition for college admissions is unfair, including the advantages given to athletes and to children of alumni or big donors. But his next step is to conclude that the deeper problem with meritocracy lies not in the failure to level the playing field but in the standard of merit itself and the culture of “striving” and “sorting” that it fosters. In similar fashion, he offers an analysis showing that the American poor benefit very little from social mobility, but he then concludes that even if genuinely equal opportunity could be achieved, a system that allocates financial returns on the basis of talent and effort would still be unjust.

Despite Americans’ strong belief that their country offers upward mobility to the talented and hardworking, the idea that the children of the rich have an unfair advantage in the quest for success is also a frequent theme in U.S. culture. A political opponent of President George H.W. Bush, the scion of a rich and politically prominent family, quipped: “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” According to Sandel’s outlook, however, this jibe would have to be recast into something like the following: “He hit a triple and thought he deserved to be on third base.” This version of the putdown is unlikely to resonate with most Americans, who think that someone who has hit a triple has fully earned his way to third base.

What is most distinctive about Sandel’s critique of meritocracy is that it focuses less on its injustice than on its allegedly harmful psychological effects. The distribution of rewards according to merit breeds “morally unattractive attitudes,” he says—“hubris among the winners and humiliation among the losers” (p. 150). By allowing the winners to think that they are responsible for their own achievements, it fosters smugness. For “the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility” (p. 14). Meanwhile, the less successful feel denigrated. Workers sense that their contributions are not appreciated, “eroding their social standing and esteem” (p. 29). Sandel fears that if a society were truly meritocratic, its less well-off citizens would be crushed by the feeling that they have no one to blame but themselves.

Yet in any modern society, people who are well off (especially if their riches are self-made) are liable to have self-inflated notions of their own merits, and the poor are more likely to feel looked down upon. Unless we impose equal outcomes for all, it is hard to see how this can be avoided. But this does not entail that the successful will necessarily be callous toward the disadvantaged. As Sandel himself notes, the fact that his Harvard students are “staunch meritocrats” does not make them “selfish or ungenerous. Many devote copious amounts of time to public service and other good works” (p. 61).

In any case, what reason is there to think that the last four decades have radically changed things for the worse in this respect? Certainly, [End Page 158] public sanction for giving extra rewards to the rich has virtually disappeared. Property or educational qualifications for voting have long been rejected (John Stuart Mill not only opposed extending the franchise to illiterate persons and welfare recipients, but also advocated that the educated and professional classes be awarded multiple votes). And concern for not wounding the self-esteem of the less successful is given increasing priority in our schools and elsewhere. To be sure, fierce competition for positions at the top persists, but that is the result of human passions that would be impossible to extirpate.

It remains true, however, that doubt about the justice of the distribution of rewards in market societies remains a serious problem for defenders of liberal democracy. Sandel is right to call attention to the fact that leading champions of free markets such as Friedrich Hayek (he might have added Milton Friedman as well) abandoned the attempt to show that the distribution of rewards under capitalism is just. Instead, they based their defenses of the free market on the grounds that it promotes individual freedom and overall prosperity. During the early post–Cold War era, when faith in free markets was at its height, the absence of a strong defense of the justice of capitalism did not seem so consequential. But that period is over, and this book is only one of many signs that the debate over inequality is intensifying. During the years ahead, the fate of free societies may well depend on whether their defenders can offer a deeper and more persuasive account of why they are not unjust. [End Page 159]