‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?’

24 March 2022

A book review of Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (Penguin, Allen Lane, 2021).

“Those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them.” This catchphrase, a favorite of politicians of all political stripes, captures in shorthand the American idea of meritocracy. More formally, Merriam-Webster defines meritocracy as a “system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit.” In a modern democracy, one would be hard pressed to argue against the idea that life’s major opportunities should be open to all who can prove themselves through talent and hard work.

 

The renowned Harvard professor Michael Sandel is not ready to make that argument. But in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, Sandel nonetheless delivers a searing critique of meritocracy as it operates today, primarily in the United States and
secondarily in Great Britain. Sandel, one of America’s best-known philosophers, begins The Tyranny of Merit by asserting that as an abstract principle, meritocracy has won the day in the United States, dominating the national debate about such matters as access to jobs, education, and public office. “Our disagreements are less about the principle itself than about what it requires,” Sandel writes. “When people complain about meritocracy, the complaint is usually not about the ideal but about our failure to live up to it.”

 

Yet, in this provocative, against-the-grain work, Sandel asks us to consider the possibility that the real problem is not that we have fallen short in trying to live up to the meritocratic ideal, but that the ideal itself is flawed. Sandel’s argument rests on a straightforward premise: today’s meritocracy stratifies society into winners and losers, defined mostly by economic status and university diplomas, generating hubris among the winners and resentment and humiliation among the losers.

 

The winners, our elites, “believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work,” Sandel writes. They view success not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something earned through effort and striving, making success a “sign of virtue. My affluence is my due.” The downside of meritocratic stratification is that those left behind—typically those without a college education—are perceived as being responsible for their fate, with “no one to blame but themselves.” The result is that we have lost a shared notion of the common good and with it a sense of the solidarity that might bind us together in all our diversity.

 

The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, Sandel contends, the “less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves.” Meritocratic hubris “banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for solidarity.” Sandel links meritocracy’s hard edge to rising economic inequality at home over the past four decades, accentuated by what we term globalization—the form of capitalism associated with freer international trade, increasingly inter-dependent markets and, in the United States, the loss of blue-collar jobs to foreign locations with lower labor costs.

 

The jump in economic inequality in the United States began around 1980 with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, while globalization took off after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, Sandel points out, the richest one percent in the United States take in more than the combined earnings of the entire bottom half of the population, with median income stagnating for the past forty years. In 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs of America’s largest public corporations earned about twenty-one times what an average worker in the corporation earned; today, the ratio is 350 : 1. One of Sandel’s key points is that rising economic inequality, combined with market-driven globalization, contributed to Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 in the United States, to the Brexit vote that same year in the United Kingdom, and to the phenomenon known as populism in both countries and elsewhere around the world.

 

Sandel characterizes the Trump electoral victory as an “angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered.” Trump’s victory tapped into a “wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer.” It was also a rebuke for a “technocratic approach” to politics that is “tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind.”

 

The meritocratic promise, Sandel emphasizes, is not one of greater equality, but of “greater and fairer mobility.” Allocating jobs and opportunities according to merit simply “reconfigures inequality to align with ability;” it does not reduce inequality. This reconfiguration “creates a presumption that people get what they deserve.” To be sure, Sandel sees nothing wrong with hiring and promoting people based on merit. In fact, he writes, it is “the right thing to do,” dictated by both efficiency and fairness.

 

But if we are to overcome the “tyranny of merit,” we need to rethink the way we conceive success, question the meritocratic conceit that those on the top have made it on their own, and challenge the inequalities of wealth and esteem that are “defended in the name of merit but that foster resentment, poison our politics, and drive us apart.” To move beyond the “polarized politics of our time,” we must have a “reckoning with merit,” Sandel argues, a reckoning that begins with the two domains of life most central to the meritocratic conception of success, education and work.

 

The downside of meritocratic stratification is that those left behind—typically those without a college education—are perceived as being responsible for their fate, with “no one to blame but themselves.”

 

The Tyranny of Merit treats both education and work throughout but builds up to a final chapter on each: “The Sorting Machine,” largely a discussion of the admission process at elite American colleges and universities; and “Recognizing Work,” a plea for restoring some sense of dignity to the work of those without a college or university degree. Linking the two is what Sandel terms “credentialism,” the meritocratic insistence that a college degree is the “primary route to a respectable job and a decent life.”

 

Credentialism and “disdain for the poorly educated,” Sandel suggests, may constitute the last acceptable prejudice in an age when racism and sexism are frowned upon in most circles. The constant call for working people to improve their condition by getting a college degree, however well intentioned, “eventually valorizes credentialism and undermines social recognition and esteem for those who lack the credentials the system rewards.” Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a prerequisite for dignified work and social esteem, moreover, has a “corrosive effective on democratic life. It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less educated members of society … and provokes political backlash.”

 

But if success in today’s meritocratic world is measured primarily by education and economic standing, it is unclear how the two fit together, part of a more fundamental question that runs through Sandel’s analysis: just who are meritocracy’s self-satisfied winners? How do we identify them? Much of The Tyranny of Merit suggests that they are mostly the super-rich, such as Wall Street financiers and high-ranking corporate executives, along with top government officials, such as cabinet officers and leading legislators. Sandel emphasizes—overemphasizes, in my view—the importance of a degree from an elite college or university, defined as one which admits less than 20% of its applicants. But what about the Harvard graduate who goes on to be a high school math teacher? Or the high school dropout who creates a wildly successful construction business and lives at the upper end of the upper middle-class?

 

Credentialism and “disdain for the poorly educated,” Sandel suggests, may constitute the last acceptable prejudice in an age when racism and sexism are frowned upon in most circles

 

“The Sorting Machine,” Sandel’s chapter on higher education, focuses primarily on the differences in today’s meritocratic society between those credentialed with a college or university degree from an elite college or university, and those with degrees from other educational institutions, including community colleges. Degrees from elite institutions are perceived all-too-often as the only reliable prerequisites for dignified work and social esteem—a ticket upward for those aspiring to rise on the economic ladder, and an insurance policy for those already there, that they don’t fall down the ladder. But the majority of students at elite institutions, Sandel notes, still come from wealthy families, due in no small part to the many advantages that well-off parents can provide their children, giving rise to a “pervasive unfairness that prevents higher education from living up to the meritocratic principle it professes.” Still, only about 20% of graduating high school seniors get caught up in the frenzied pursuit of admission to elite colleges and universities.

 

For the remaining 80%, Sandel writes, the “tyranny of merit is not about a soul-killing competition for admission but about a demoralizing world of work that offers meager economic reward and scant social esteem to those who lack meritocratic credentials.” He quotes one of his students, a young man from Texas, who opined that one must work hard in high school to “get into a good college and get a good job. If not, you work in the oil fields.” Becoming a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist, Sandel argues at another point, should be “respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League.” That sentence more than puzzled me.

 

Had Sandel himself succumbed to the elitist conceit that the pathway to meaningful and important work is open only to graduates of a small sliver of higher education institutions, the very credentialism he seeks to discredit? Or was he merely expressing the perception of many of his students, like the young man from Texas? This binary view—the Ivy way or the highway­—may well be how the world looks from places like Harvard, within the belly of the elitist beast, but the real world is awash with leaders, movers, and shakers whose degrees do not come from hyper-competitive, elite American colleges and universities.

 

I am willing to venture that the president of just about any American college or university considered non-elitist would be delighted to provide the names of “famous” alumni and cite a litany of graduates who have gone on to important positions in the community and elsewhere in the world. As one personal example, while assigned to a United States Embassy in Eastern Europe, I worked under two different US Ambassadors, both extraordinary leaders with multiple talents, each a genuine superstar within the ranks of the US Foreign Service. The first was a graduate of Arkansas State University, the second from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, neither likely to be on a list of elitist higher education institutions.

 

Sandel advocates more support, moral as well as financial, for non-elitist higher education institutions. But his more pressing concern is to restore dignity to those without a college or university degree: a surprising 70% of the adult American population. His chapter “Recognizing Work” focuses on the role of blue-collar workers in American society, particularly those who voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections—thus mostly white blue-collar workers.

 

Sandel notes that from the end of World War II to the 1970s, it was possible for those without a college degree to find good work, support a family, and lead comfortable middle-class lives. Globalization and the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs have made this far more difficult today. Although overall per capita income in the United States has increased 85% since 1979, white men without four-year college degrees now make less, in real terms, than they did then. Any serious response to working-class frustrations, Sandel argues, should start with rethinking our notions of the common good as they apply to those without a college degree.

 

The “tyranny of merit is not about a soul-killing competition for admission but about a demoralizing world of work that offers meager economic reward and scant social esteem to those who lack meritocratic credentials.”

 

How a society honors and rewards work is “central to the way it defines the common good,” implicating such questions as what counts as a valuable contribution to the common good and what we really owe to one another. Today we operate under what Sandel terms a market definition of the common good, where individual preferences and consumer welfare are paramount. If the common good is “simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences,” Sandel contends, 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.”

 

Sandel seeks to displace the market definition with a civic definition, rooted in the thinking of Aristotle, Hegel, the American republican tradition, and Catholic social thinking. A civic definition is “inescapably contestable,” Sandel warns. We may never come to agree on its substantive terms but nonetheless need to engage in a debate over what those terms could include. This will require “reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives.” Moving the debate about the dignity of work away from the market definition of the common good has the potential to “disrupt our partisan complacencies, morally invigorate our public discourse, and move us beyond the polarized politics that four decades of market faith and meritocratic hubris have bequeathed.”

 

Critical reflection on the common good and a renewed debate on the dignity of work are incontestably fine ideas, but is difficult to imagine any wide-scale debate in today’s United States that would take us in the direction of a wholesale change in the prevailing meritocratic ethos. Yet, several pragmatic steps that could narrow the glaring economic disparities between the very rich and working-class Americans might, in turn, smooth some of the sharper edges of the meritocratic ethos and thereby enhance the dignity of work.

 

One place to start lies in changing tax policies. A political agenda that recognizes the dignity of work, Sandel argues, would “use the tax system to reconfigure the economy of esteem by discouraging speculation and honoring productive labor.” A consumption or ‘VAT’ tax would be a modest step in this direction, along with a “financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy.” A more progressive income tax with higher rates on the highest brackets—top tax rates in the 1950s reached 91%—would also help narrow economic disparities, as would higher estate taxes, which today exempt all estate wealth up to about $12 million. Then there is my favorite: enhanced funding for the IRS to equip the agency to better pursue high level tax fraud and avoidance.

 

Narrowing the economic gap can also be accomplished from below by more generous social welfare benefits, not unlike those contained in President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better Act: universal and free childcare, affordable health insurance, and extending the Child Tax credit and Earned Income Tax credit. More job retraining programs need to be established for workers whose jobs move overseas and higher education—at both elite and non-elite institutions—needs to be made more accessible for young people from lower income families (to include pathways to relief for student debt). Sandel mentions each briefly. Surprisingly, he doesn’t give much attention to the potential of a reinvigorated organized labor movement to diminish some of the most glaring economic disparities in American society, which could at the same time provide a tangible statement of the dignity and value of work. The term solidarity, after all, is closely associated with the American labor movement.

 

Sandel’s trenchant critique of the meritocratic ethos in today’s United States leads—inescapably in my mind—to the conclusion that changing that ethos starts with narrowing the space between those at the top of the economic ladder and the ladder’s bottom half. Until then, The Tyranny of Merit’s eloquently argued case for a more humane version of the common good could be scintillating subject matter for a Sandel philosophy seminar at Harvard, but without much likelihood of gaining traction in the world beyond.

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