You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: You are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you. If this be arrogance, as some of your critics observed, it is still the truth that had to be said in the age of the Welfare State.—Ludwig von Mises, letter to Ayn Rand
Michael Sandel is possibly the best post-secondary educator in the world. His Harvard University course on justice has been viewed tens of millions of times and the book based on the lectures became a surprise bestseller. Sandel initially made his academic name as a friendly critic of liberal egalitarianism. His 1982 book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice fostered the burgeoning communitarian debate that dominated much of Anglo-American political theory through the 80s and early 90s. His new book, The Tyranny of Merit, is a sequel of sorts to What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, which redirected his critical attention from left to right liberalism and libertarianism. It is an excellent book, which displays Sandel’s well known intellectual generosity and clarity of exposition in spades. While not perfect, and let down by an anticlimactic ending, it is an important contribution to the deepening debates about inequality and meritocracy that have come to define our era. Like What Money Can’t Buy, it is also likely to provoke some virulent pushback from the political right.
The Problem with Merit
There are three questions one can ask about meritocracy or, indeed, any ideal type of social organization. Is it possible to establish in practice? If possible, would it be desirable and on what basis? And how closely does our current social model conform to this ideal? Sandel’s answers are striking. He is skeptical that any kind of meritocracy is possible, and is convinced that, even if it were, it would not be desirable because even a perfect meritocracy would not be a just society—indeed, it might be a deeply unjust one. Moreover, in practice our efforts to create a perfect meritocracy have generated very negative consequences: corroding our common life and creating an undue hubris and a corrosive sense of failure among the winners and losers, respectively, of neoliberal capitalism. As Sandel relates:
The term “meritocracy” was invented under the shadow of this worry [that it imposes a “harsh verdict on those who fail.”] Michael Young was a British sociologist affiliated with the Labour Party. In 1958 he wrote a book called The Rise of Meritocracy. For Young, meritocracy described a dystopia, not an ideal. He wrote at a time when the British class system was breaking down, giving way to a system of educational and professional advancement based on merit. This was a good thing, because it enabled gifted children of the working class to develop their talents and escape a life consigned to manual labor. But Young also glimpsed the dark side of meritocracy … Without defending the classbound order that was passing, Young suggested that its moral arbitrariness and manifest unfairness at least had this desirable effect: It tempered the self-regard of the upper class and prevented the working class from viewing its subordinate status as a failure.
Sandel and Young overstate the novelty of meritocratic arguments, as Thomas Piketty has pointed out in his gigantic recent book on inequality, which Sandel cites approvingly. The argument for meritocracy has deep roots in European and global thought, going back at least to Aristotle’s arguments for a polis governed by and producing virtuous men (who happened to look a lot like Grecian aristocrats). The dark side of this, of course, was that those who failed to make the cut were deemed to be “natural slaves,” fit only for manual labor. But Sandel and Young are right that what distinguishes contemporary arguments for meritocracy from their predecessors are their concessions to liberal egalitarianism. Defenders of contemporary meritocracy argue that, to really achieve the ideal, wealth and status have to be subject to competitive processes open to everyone. Unlike previous hierarchical forms of social organization, predicated on irrational ideological justifications—such as the argument that aristocrats were more meritorious because they were chosen by God, or that whites deserved more because they were the superior race—contemporary hierarchies will emerge from fair competition in the free market. Meritocracy’s defenders claim that because the competition is genuinely fair and upward mobility for all is now possible (at least in principle), the meritocracy that emerges is not only beneficial but just. People really do get what they deserve because everyone has every opportunity to go “as far as their talents will take them,” as Barack Obama would say.
Sandel is deeply skeptical of every part of this superficially cheerful history. He doesn’t believe that it is possible to even conceive of a real meritocracy, or that a society organized on pseudo-meritocratic lines would be particularly just. And Sandel certainly doesn’t think the neoliberal social organization we’ve been stuck with since the 1980s has any business calling itself a meritocracy: indeed, resentment at its failings on that front is one of the reasons for the emergence of populists like Donald Trump, who promise to stick it to smug, technocratic elites who preach the gospel of fair competition but cheat by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure posh positions at Ivy League universities for their children.
Is Meritocracy Possible or Desirable?
One of the reasons for the persistence of meritocratic rhetoric in the broader culture is the elites’ need to vindicate their esteemed status. This has been true of every society, including our own. Such justifications serve both a psychological function—assuring elites that they have earned their social position—and an ideological one—justifying this form of social organization to those who might otherwise feel left out. Max Weber is a major touchstone of Sandel’s book, and his timeless observation in The Social Psychology of the World Religions rings true here:
The fortunate person is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has the right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he “deserves” it and, above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others. He wishes to be allowed the belief that the less fortunate also merely experience their due.
But, as Weber and Sandel point out, what people deserve is an eminently contentious question—so contentious that many of the world’s major faith traditions advise their followers not to worry about achieving justice in this world because a divine power will sort things out in the end. Many of the justifications for various forms of social hierarchy are based on conceptions of merit that have long since been abandoned: for example, that aristocratic titles were granted by God, or that wealthy Puritans earned their good fortune through being God’s elect. Today, the general line is that a meritocratic society is one in which private individuals are given fair equality of opportunity to compete in a capitalist marketplace—for money, jobs, honours or even just the thrill of succeeding where others have failed. Sandel points out that many of the debates between conservatives and moderate liberals like Bill Clinton turn on what constitutes fair equality of opportunity. The most hardline conservatives tend to believe it is enough to secure formal equality for all under the law, while moderate liberals insist that the state has to ensure a minimally egalitarian starting condition by providing universal primary and secondary education and (in most developed states) publicly funded healthcare. For both sides, the idea is that beyond that it is up to individuals to rise or fall by their own merits and, because the initial starting point was fair, they will end up where they deserve.
Sandel argues that achieving this goal is impossible—and wouldn’t be desirable even if it could be achieved. Drawing on John Rawls and—more surprisingly—F. A. Hayek, he points out that moral philosophers have long observed that it is extremely difficult to say what a single individual actually deserves, let alone to conceive of a social system that will produce fair outcomes most of the time. Rawls points out that most of the reasons people fall behind are “morally arbitrary.” Many are born with few natural talents, are denied opportunities to develop their skills or lack abilities that happen to be valued by the market. Sandel particularly highlights this last point, arguing that the market value of skills often has little to do with their intrinsic worth. NBA players may make more money than UN aid workers, but few of us would say that basketball is more important than helping children. Hayek points out that the market isn’t designed to reward or punish people according to their deserts, but for the value they produce, based on subjective consumer demand. This might mean that those who do well deserve some praise for producing something that consumers value—but even that doesn’t necessarily follow. As Sandel points out, Walter White of Breaking Bad created a lot more value of this kind as a meth producer and dealer than as a chemistry teacher, but few of us would praise him for that.
Moreover, even if it were possible to create a society that overcame these steep hurdles and genuinely allocated to people what they deserved through a truly fair competition, Sandel is doubtful that that would make us happy. Invoking Young, he points out that, in such a society, those who lose in the game of life would truly have no one to blame but themselves. The technocratic disdain for their inferiors shown by many neoliberal elites, which generated such intense backlash through the latter half of the 2010s, would have been justified and the result would have been a complete corrosion of what Sandel calls the “common good.” Unfortunately, he never spells out in any detail what this common good is or why we should aspire to it. In the short concluding chapters of The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel suggests that we could prop up the dignity of work by paying more to people who do necessary jobs that are undervalued by the market. This surely resonates with many in our post-Covid world, in which we have—temporarily, at least—became more aware that it is grocery store attendants, nurses and truck drivers who make the world turn. Sandel also suggests more regulations on the financial markets, including a “sin tax” on speculation, which sounds promising. But beyond that too much is left to the reader’s imagination, and I wish Sandel had spelled out the specifics of his alternative vision in more detail.
Much of Sandel’s excellent book is taken up with examining how far our own society is from being a meritocracy, by pointing out everything from the dramatic disadvantages many face from the very outset of life to the ways in which economic elites pass on their privileges through the generations. This is compelling but well-worn stuff.
I have two main criticisms of Sandel’s book. He underestimates the degree to which many non-elites are attached to the meritocratic ideal. And he is surprisingly reluctant to consider a political solution to some of these problems.
Sandel understates his case by not reflecting on how attractive the meritocratic ideal may be even to those who lose out under it. He chastises Rawls and other liberal egalitarians for placing too much weight on talents and skills, since this still frames things in the elitist terms of winners and losers, though the egalitarians want to ensure that the losers are well compensated. But it is very difficult to fully wean ourselves off meritocratic thinking precisely because it appeals to our deep yearning for individuated justice and our sense that people somehow must get what they deserve. That he focuses only on the contemporary history of meritocratic argumentation and rhetoric limits Sandel: Piketty has shown that almost every society has tried to find some justification for inequality, on the basis of some notion of merit and deservingness. This reasoning is so powerful that even radical egalitarians can find it appealing: Marx’s labor theory of value, for example, suggests that capitalists are reaping where they did not sow, by exploiting the fruits of their workers’ efforts. One of the reasons why Rawls and other liberal egalitarians shied way from entirely abandoning an emphasis on talents and skills is that, if circumstances are morally arbitrary all the whole way down, we have no reason to take any pride in our accomplishments. I agree with Sandel that the whole notion of meritocracy is spurious, but empathize with Rawls’ wish to salvage the notion of accomplishment, if only to serve as a basis for self-respect. Perhaps some notion of accomplishment conceived in terms of contributions to the common good, rather than as individual achievements that allow us to feel better than others, is the way to go. If we are unable to provide this, we are unlikely to be able to inspire a shift away from the extremes of meritocratic rhetoric.
The other problem with Sandel’s book—which is surprising given his communitarian credentials—is his failure to examine how democratic reform might help combat the tyranny of meritocracy—a point also made by Elizabeth Anderson in her excellent review of Sandel’s book, which acknowledges its many merits, but chides Sandel for overemphasizing the culpability of stratified university admission systems and the cultural left. Anderson rightly points out that the attack on democratic and redistributive institutions, from unions to welfare, was initiated by the center right in the 1980s and the center left’s primary failing has been that they have not taken steps to redress this. It is no coincidence that defenders of neoliberal meritocracy have always been wary of democracy: routinely insisting that it is at best a qualified good, so long as it doesn’t challenge the distributions produced by market competition. Some of the resentments Sandel detects are due to a perceived lack of democracy: for instance, the notion that money and influence will buy you more clout is offensive to our sense that we should be equal, united citizens in a shared political community. Democratization, including of the workplace, could therefore both ameliorate the effects of economic stratification rightly criticized by Sandel, while fostering a deeper sense of community and connection.