In his 1931 Epic of America, James Truslow Adams describes “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” The American dream, he adds, is not merely a dream of material prosperity, but one in which everyone can achieve their potential, unhindered by the artificial barriers of older and more stratified societies. Few Americans today would disagree with this ideal, even if they believe that their country has failed to live up to it. Its imagery runs through the rhetoric of presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.But it has at least one critic in Michael J. Sandel, author of a series of books challenging the basic principles of liberalism. In The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Sandel suggests that America’s problems do not stem from a failure to achieve true meritocracy but from aiming for a meritocracy in the first place. According to Sandel, America has paid too much attention to Adams’ comments about opportunity and not enough to his call for a broad, democratic equality of condition.
Equality of Opportunity
While modern western countries have made a lot of progress in improving social mobility, none of them are true meritocracies. The gains of globalization have not been evenly distributed, and talent and hard work has paid off much better in newer, high-information, capital-intensive industries based in the cities than in older, blue-collar industries in the suburbs and countryside. In the US, for example, a disproportionate share of income growth since 1970 has gone to the top 5% of households.
However, our confidence in meritocracy may have grown. Since the 1990s, Sandel observes, his students have been increasingly inclined to accept that they owe their positions at Harvard to their own efforts. In his words, their “meritocratic faith has intensified.” While he doesn’t doubt the work involved in getting into a top university, he also points out that two-thirds of Harvard students come from families in the top fifth of the income scale and only four percent of Ivy League students from the bottom fifth.
He also points out that Americans overestimate social mobility in their country. In the US, fewer people born into the bottom quintile of income earners make it to the top than in Canada or in most western European countries. Similarly, more Americans born into the bottom quintile die there. However, Americans are more optimistic about social mobility than Europeans.
The Case Against Meritocracy
Sandel’s argument, as he explains in this interview, centers not on economics but on our attitudes towards success and failure. In a traditional class system, nobody believes that they owe their social position to merit. When you touched your cap to the lord of the manor, you never had to ask yourself if your positions could have been reversed had you simply worked harder in school or made better decisions in life. But if we accept that there is broad equality of opportunity, and that the successful deserve their success, then the situation becomes a lot more complicated. Meritocracy, Sandel argues, leads to “meritocratic hubris”—the wealthy, educated, powerful and well-connected look down on the uneducated, poor and parochial. And for the unsuccessful, the meritocratic ethic lends insult to injury. Not only are you poor, you’re also a failure. This “politics of humiliation,” Sandel argues, is the underlying driver of the populist backlash against political, social and economic elites that we have seen across the western world over the past five years. Sandel notes that Donald Trump speaks much less frequently of opportunity than his predecessors, preferring to talk of “winners and losers.” The same is true of Bernie Sanders.
Meritocratic ideology would not be so much of a problem, Sandel notes, if we didn’t see a connection between success, remuneration, merit and a person’s value to society. A casino magnate makes a lot more money than a teacher because the market values her labour more. We can accept this, Sandel argues, without accepting that the casino magnate actually deserves that success.
Sandel argues that much more of our success and failure is based on luck than we would like to accept. He uses the example of LeBron James, who has undeniably worked exceptionally hard to become an elite basketball player, but also got lucky on two counts: he was born with a talent for basketball, in a society where that talent was valued. Had he been born in fifteenth-century Florence, neither his aptitude for basketball nor his years of practice would have done him much good.
Sandel argues that America’s meritocratic ideology has led to credentialism—a prejudice against the poor and uneducated—which he calls “a galling feature of meritocratic hubris” and “the last acceptable prejudice.” If you are an unemployed blue-collar worker in Pennsylvania, you should have just worked harder and got a degree. In line with meritocratic thinking, Sandel argues, governments have misguidedly pushed more and more people into higher education.
Is there an alternative? Sandel does not propose a complete restructuring of society or the economy, but a modest approach that is more liberal than socialist. He recognises that equality of opportunity is “morally necessary” but “a remedial principle, not an adequate ideal for a good society.” Instead, he calls for a “broad equality of condition,” acknowledgement of the resentment of the working class, and contributive as well as distributive justice. He recognises the importance of the dignity of work, and argues that most disadvantaged individuals, given the option, would like to have a job and make a contribution to society. He proposes a tax on stock market trading, whose proceeds could be used for redistributive purposes, like a wage subsidy. This is broadly similar to Andrew Yang’s proposal to use a value-added tax targeting transactions in the high-tech economy to fund a Universal Basic Income (UBI), although Sandel would direct the funds to creating employment and subsidising wages in socially important but low-paying industries. The principle is the same: to recognise the benefits of a market economy and the social value of entrepreneurialism, while using taxes and subsidies to make up for the unequal distribution of talents, the economic value of those talents, and the other bits of good and bad luck that affect how we do in life.
But there are obvious practical difficulties with Sandel’s proposed solutions, as modest as they are. For example, Sandel maintains that consumer preferences cannot dictate the common good, which is fair enough, but how then should we judge that? It seems obscene that a casino magnate should make a hundred times as much as a nurse or teacher, but how do we decide what the ratio should be? And, while UBI has problems, so do wage subsidies and job guarantees. While recognising the dignity of work is critical, a government-funded jobs program runs the risk of hiring people simply to work—to dig holes and fill them in again. And, as with all government programs, there is a risk that funds will be directed for short-term electoral benefit.
Still, there is a lot of merit in Sandel’s analysis. Even if we accept that anyone can make it, this doesn’t mean that everyone can. If we all went to Yale, there’d still be a need for bus drivers, garbage collectors and checkout operators, so we’d just end up with bus drivers, garbage collectors and checkout operators with degrees from Yale. While Sandel doesn’t make this argument explicitly, I suspect that much of the discontent of modern graduates stems from meritocracy’s troublesome side-effects. Many students work hard to go to college, spurred on by promises from their parents and teachers that it will lead to a higher standard of living, and if they find that a good job isn’t available at the end, they naturally feel that society has failed to live up to its end of the bargain.
There are useful lessons for both left and right in The Tyranny of Merit. Progressives would do well to question the credentialism and faith in the intrinsic value of higher education that are commonly accepted in academic circles. And conservatives can benefit from thinking critically about social mobility and the factors behind wealth and poverty over which individuals have little control. As the economy becomes steadily more automated, these questions will become ever more important.
And, while Sandel’s argument is controversial, we should not find it repugnant. We can take pride in the things that we have achieved through our efforts, while acknowledging that factors beyond our control contributed to our success (or, at least, didn’t sink us—consider the situation of those who started businesses right before the COVID-19 lockdown). Indeed, the lockdown has shown us the folly of looking down on those who are doing low-paid, unskilled, essential jobs as also-rans who just didn’t put in the effort to do better. These were the people who cleaned and disinfected buildings, cared for the elderly, delivered food and kept the economy running. And, if nothing else, we can go a bit easier on ourselves when we don’t make it quite as far as we would have liked.