The term “meritocracy” was coined in 1958 as a term of abuse but has evolved to one of praise and aspiration. In “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” author Michael J. Sandel argues that meritocracy has had an extremely harmful impact on our society. In theory, a meritocratic society is just and distributes income and wealth based on what people deserve. The reality, per Sandel, is much different.
America was historically an aristocracy, where family wealth and privilege was the main determinant of future success. In the 1940s, efforts began toward moving the country to a meritocracy, led by Harvard president James Bryant Conant, who believed universities should not be restricted only to the upper class and that merit should be an admissions factor.
Why was this shift bad? Sandel states that a meritocracy is not a remedy for inequality; it’s a justification of it. Inequality in America has exploded over the past 40 years, and Sandel believes society’s focus on merit is much to blame.
A large part of the problem is the attitude a meritocracy encourages. Our society’s “winners” typically think of themselves as self-made and self-sufficient. Rarely are luck and privilege recognized when it comes to one’s success. Those who land on top in our society believe they deserve to be there and that those who are left behind, well, deserve that, too. Those at the top rarely express humility and gratitude—and without these traits, it’s hard for one to care about the common good.
A meritocracy demoralizes those who haven’t made it. A system that celebrates “the best” implicitly denigrates the rest. Sandel believes this dynamic helped popularize Donald Trump among America’s white working class.
Two-thirds of Americans don’t have a college degree and have seen the chances for a successful career become rare. The people left behind feel the winners are looking down upon them with disdain. Technology and globalization have throttled their career prospects, and as a result, with Trump’s encouragement, his supporters would lash out at immigrants, free trade and governing elites. Desperate people can be drawn to authoritarian populists who rail against elites and promise to reestablish strong national borders. As shown by Trump’s supporters in the riot against the capital, this anger toward elites, felt by those left behind, is now threatening our democracy.
By 2016, the impact of globalization on workers was clear: They lost. Sandel argues that liberal elites like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama fanned the flames of resentment by repeatedly expressing that American workers were responsible for their losing position due to a lack of merit. Liberals promoted meritocracy and markets, stating that “as long as the system is fair, markets give people what they deserve.”
But Sandel asks, “Do we deserve our talents? Do we deserve the rewards that flow from them?” He argues that talents are largely a matter of good luck and not something for which we can claim credit. According to Sandel, income inequalities due to natural talents or luck are no more inherently just than those arising from class differences.
He argues that when we throw fame and fortune at those lucky enough to have scarce talents and condemn those who don’t, it will embitter the working class, leading to a populist revolt.
Sandel’s theme is easily explored in the workplace. Compared to 1980, working class folks make less today in real terms. This is a clear message that their work is less valued. Those with a college degree earn an 80% premium over those without a degree. This has taken a significant toll on the less-educated, with alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide all at high levels. Sandel states that elites who presided over globalization failed not only to address the inequality it generated but also to appreciate its corrosive effect on the dignity of work.
Sandel also goes into great depth regarding meritocracy in education and how higher education is still mostly based on family wealth, privilege and, thus, race. Major universities now only accept a small percentage of applicants. Credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice, says Sandel, and he describes how elites both valorize their education credentials and hold disdain for poorly educated people. Today, one of the deepest divides in the country is between those with and without a college degree, and meritocracy is driving this gap.
In this arena of meritocracy, Sandel suggests potential fixes such as denying private universities tax-exempt status unless at least 50% of admitted students are from the bottom two-thirds of the income scale and eliminating preferences for legacies, athletes and donors’ children. Sandel also promotes using a lottery of qualified students for student admissions.
Sandel argues for a “morally more robust public discourse, one that takes seriously the corrosive effect of meritocratic striving on the social bonds that constitute our common life.” He believes we need to rethink success. We need to question the meritocratic conceit shown by those at the top. Those who do not rise should instead be able to flourish in place, to live with dignity and decency and to develop their abilities with work that is socially esteemed.
Sandel’s core argument is that we need to enable everyone to participate in a culture of learning, bringing all citizens wholly into deliberations about public affairs. Ideally, we need to enable people in different walks of life to encounter one another in common spaces and public places, so that we can learn to negotiate and celebrate our differences.
Sandel makes sound arguments regarding the corrosive impact of meritocracy and leaves the reader with a fresh perspective; however, he could have made his argument more concisely. If you pick up “The Tyranny of Merit,” be prepared to weed through unnecessary history and repetition. But with a strong cup (or two) of coffee, these ideas have merit.
Dave Gamrath is a long-time community activist. He founded and ran the progressive community forum InspireSeattle.org, helped found a neighborhood anti-hate organization and has served on multiple regional boards and committees.
Read more of the May 5-11, 2021 issue.