This post is a reflection on Michael Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? He’s a philosopher at Harvard and this is his analysis of the dangers posed by the American meritocracy. The issue is one I’ve been exploring here for the last two years in a variety of posts (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
I find Sandel’s analysis compelling, both in the ways it resonates with other takes on the subject and also in his distinctive contributions to the discussion. My only complaint is that the whole discussion could have been carried out more effectively in a single magazine article. The book tends to be repetitive, and it also gets into the weeds on some philosophical issues that blur its focus and undercut its impact. Here I present what I think are the key points. I hope you find it useful.
Both the good news and the bad news about meritocracy is its promise of opportunity for all based on individual merit rather than the luck of birth. It’s hard to hate a principle that frees us from the tyranny of inheritance.
The meritocratic ideal places great weight on the notion of personal responsibility. Holding people responsible for what they do is a good thing, up to a point. It respects their capacity to think and act for themselves, as moral agents and as citizens. But it is one thing to hold people responsible for acting morally; it is something else to assume that we are, each of us, wholly responsible for our lot in life.
The problem is that simply calling the new model of status attainment “achievement” rather than “ascription” doesn’t mean that your ability to get ahead is truly free of circumstances beyond your control.
But the rhetoric of rising now rings hollow. In today’s economy, it is not easy to rise. Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults. Of those born in the bottom fifth of the income scale, only about one in twenty will make it to the top fifth; most will not even rise to the middle class. It is easier to rise from poverty in Canada or Germany, Denmark, and other European countries than it is in the United States.
The meritocratic faith argues that the social structure of inequality provides a powerful incentive for individuals to work hard to get ahead in order to escape from a bad situation and move on to something better. The more inequality, such as in the US, the more incentive to move up. The reality, however, is quite different.
But today, the countries with the highest mobility tend to be those with the greatest equality. The ability to rise, it seems, depends less on the spur of poverty than on access to education, health care, and other resources that equip people to succeed in the world of work.
Sandel goes on to point out additional problems with meritocracy beyond the difficulties in trying to get ahead all on your own: 1) demoralizing the losers in the race; 2) denigrating those without a college degree; and 3) turning politics into the realm of the expert rather than the citizen.
The tyranny of merit arises from more than the rhetoric of rising. It consists in a cluster of attitudes and circumstances that, taken together, have made meritocracy toxic. First, under conditions of rampant inequality and stalled mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get erodes solidarity and demoralizes those left behind by globalization. Second, insisting that a college degree is the primary route to a respectable job and a decent life creates a credentialist prejudice that undermines the dignity of work and demeans those who have not been to college; and third, insisting that social and political problems are best solved by highly educated, value-neutral experts is a technocratic conceit that corrupts democracy and disempowers ordinary citizens.
Consider the first point. Meritocracy fosters triumphalism for the winners and despair for the losers. It you succeed or fail, you alone get the credit or the blame. This was not the case in the bad old days of aristocrats and peasants.
If, in a feudal society, you were born into serfdom, your life would be hard, but you would not be burdened by the thought that you were responsible for your subordinate position. Nor would you labor under the belief that the landlord for whom you toiled had achieved his position by being more capable and resourceful than you. You would know he was not more deserving than you, only luckier.
If, by contrast, you found yourself on the bottom rung of a meritocratic society, it would be difficult to resist the thought that your disadvantage was at least partly your own doing, a reflection of your failure to display sufficient talent and ambition to get ahead. A society that enables people to rise, and that celebrates rising, pronounces a harsh verdict on those who fail to do so.
This triumphalist aspect of meritocracy is a kind of providentialism without God, at least without a God who intervenes in human affairs. The successful make it on their own, but their success attests to their virtue. This way of thinking heightens the moral stakes of economic competition. It sanctifies the winners and denigrates the losers.
One key issue that makes meritocracy potentially toxic is its assumption that we deserve the talents that earn us such great rewards.
There are two reasons to question this assumption. First, my having this or that talent is not my doing but a matter of good luck, and I do not merit or deserve the benefits (or burdens) that derive from luck. Meritocrats acknowledge that I do not deserve the benefits that arise from being born into a wealthy family. So why should other forms of luck—such as having a particular talent—be any different?
Second, that I live in a society that prizes the talents I happen to have is also not something for which I can claim credit. This too is a matter of good fortune. LeBron James makes tens of millions of dollars playing basketball, a hugely popular game. Beyond being blessed with prodigious athletic gifts, LeBron is lucky to live in a society that values and rewards them. It is not his doing that he lives today, when people love the game at which he excels, rather than in Renaissance Florence, when fresco painters, not basketball players, were in high demand.
The same can be said of those who excel in pursuits our society values less highly. The world champion arm wrestler may be as good at arm wrestling as LeBron is at basketball. It is not his fault that, except for a few pub patrons, no one is willing to pay to watch him pin an opponent’s arm to the table.
He then moves on to the second point, about the central role of college in determining who’s got merit.
Should colleges and universities take on the role of sorting people based on talent to determine who gets ahead in life?
There are at least two reasons to doubt that they should. The first concerns the invidious judgments such sorting implies for those who get sorted out, and the damaging consequences for a shared civic life. The second concerns the injury the meritocratic struggle inflicts on those who get sorted in and the risk that the sorting mission becomes so all-consuming that it diverts colleges and universities from their educational mission. In short, turning higher education into a hyper-competitive sorting contest is unhealthy for democracy and education alike.
The difficulty of predicting which talents are most socially beneficial is particularly true for the complex array of skills that people pick up in college. Which ones matter most for determining a person’s ability to make an important contribution to society and which don’t? How do we know if an elite college provides more of those skills than an open-access college? This matters because a graduate from the former gets a much higher reward than one from the latter. Pretending that a prestigious college degree is the best way to measure future performance is particularly difficult to sustain because success and degree are conflated. Graduates of top colleges get the best jobs and thus seem to have the greatest impact, whereas non-grads never get the chance to show what they can do.
Another sports analogy helps to make this point.
Consider how difficult it is to assess even more narrowly defined talents and skills. Nolan Ryan, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, holds the all-time record for most strikeouts and was elected on the first ballot to baseball’s Hall of Fame. When he was eighteen years old, he was not signed until the twelfth round of the baseball draft; teams chose 294 other, seemingly more promising players before he was chosen. Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of football, was the 199th draft pick. If even so circumscribed a talent as the ability to throw a baseball or a football is hard to predict with much certainty, it is folly to think that the ability to have a broad and significant impact on society, or on some future field of endeavor, can be predicted well enough to justify fine-grained rankings of promising high school seniors.
And then there’s the third point, the damage that meritocracy does to democratic politics. One element of of this is that it turns politics into an arena for credentialed experts, consigning ordinary citizens to the back seat. How many political leaders today are without a college degree? Vanishingly few. Another is that meritocracy not only bars non-grads from power but they also bars them from social respect.
Grievances arising from disrespect are at the heart of the populist movement that has swept across Europe and the US. Sandel calls this a “politics of humiliation.”
The politics of humiliation differs in this respect from the politics of injustice. Protest against injustice looks outward; it complains that the system is rigged, that the winners have cheated or manipulated their way to the top. Protest against humiliation is psychologically more freighted. It combines resentment of the winners with nagging self-doubt: perhaps the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor; maybe the losers are complicit in their misfortune after all.
This feature of the politics of humiliation makes it more combustible than other political sentiments. It is a potent ingredient in the volatile brew of anger and resentment that fuels populist protest.
Sandel draws on a wonderful book by Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land, in which she interviews Trump supporters in Louisiana.
Hochschild offered this sympathetic account of the predicament confronting her beleaguered working-class hosts:
You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.
Once consequence of this for those left behind is a rise in “deaths of despair.”
The overall death rate for white men and women in middle age (ages 45–54) has not changed much over the past two decades. But mortality varies greatly by education. Since the 1990s, death rates for college graduates declined by 40 percent. For those without a college degree, they rose by 25 percent. Here then is another advantage of the well-credentialed. If you have a bachelor’s degree, your risk of dying in middle age is only one quarter of the risk facing those without a college diploma.
Deaths of despair account for much of this difference. People with less education have long been at greater risk than those with college degrees of dying from alcohol, drugs, or suicide. But the diploma divide in death has become increasingly stark. By 2017, men without a bachelor’s degree were three times more likely than college graduates to die deaths of despair.
Sandel offers two relatively reforms that might help mitigate the tyranny of meritocracy. One focuses on elite college admissions.
Of the 40,000-plus applicants, winnow out those who are unlikely to flourish at Harvard or Stanford, those who are not qualified to perform well and to contribute to the education of their fellow students. This would leave the admissions committee with, say, 30,000 qualified contenders, or 25,000, or 20,000. Rather than engage in the exceedingly difficult and uncertain task of trying to predict who among them are the most surpassingly meritorious, choose the entering class by lottery. In other words, toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them, and leave it at that.
This helps get around two problems: the difficulty in trying to predict merit; and the outsize rewards of a winner-take-all admissions system. But good luck trying to get this put in place over the howls of outrage from upper-middle-class parents, who have learned how to game the system to their advantage. Consider this one small example of the reaction when an elite Alexandria high school proposed random admission from a pool of the most qualified.
Another reform is more radical and even harder to imagine putting into practice. It begins with reconsideration of what we mean by the “common good.”
The contrast between consumer and producer identities points to two different ways of understanding the common good. One approach, familiar among economic policy makers, defines the common good as the sum of everyone’s preferences and interests. According to this account, we achieve the common good by maximizing consumer welfare, typically by maximizing economic growth. If the common good is simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences, then market wages are a good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution to the common good, by producing the goods and services that consumers want.
A second approach rejects this consumerist notion of the common good in favor of what might be called a civic conception. According to the civic ideal, the common good is not simply about adding up preferences or maximizing consumer welfare. It is about reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives. This cannot be achieved through economic activity alone. It requires deliberating with our fellow citizens about how to bring about a just and good society, one that cultivates civic virtue and enables us to reason together about the purposes worthy of our political community.
If we can carry out this deliberation — a big if indeed — then we can proceed to implement a system for shifting the basis for individual compensation from what the market is willing to pay to what we collectively feel is most valuable to society.
Thinking about pay, most would agree that what people make for this or that job often overstates or understates the true social value of the work they do. Only an ardent libertarian would insist that the wealthy casino magnate’s contribution to society is a thousand times more valuable than that of a pediatrician. The pandemic of 2020 prompted many to reflect, at least fleetingly, on the importance of the work performed by grocery store clerks, delivery workers, home care providers, and other essential but modestly paid workers. In a market society, however, it is hard to resist the tendency to confuse the money we make with the value of our contribution to the common good.
To implement a system based on public benefit rather than marketability would require completely revamping our structure of determining salaries and taxes.
The idea is that the government would provide a supplementary payment for each hour worked by a low-wage employee, based on a target hourly-wage rate. The wage subsidy is, in a way, the opposite of a payroll tax. Rather than deduct a certain amount of each worker’s earnings, the government would contribute a certain amount, in hopes of enabling low-income workers to make a decent living even if they lack the skills to command a substantial market wage.
Generally speaking, this would mean shifting the tax burden from work to consumption and speculation. A radical way of doing so would be to lower or even eliminate payroll taxes and to raise revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions. A modest step in this direction would be to reduce the payroll tax (which makes work expensive for employers and employees alike) and make up the lost revenue with a financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy.
This is how Sandel ends his book:
The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project. For why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due. A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.” Such humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.