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Meritocratic Tyranny: Big, If True

But Sandel’s critique of meritocracy runs deeper than lamenting the obvious gap between meritocratic ideals and reality; Sandel takes issue with the ideal of meritocracy itself.”

Writing in the second volume of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put his finger on the downside—the dark underbelly—of American meritocracy: “When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any one of them,” wrote Tocqueville, “universal competition,” “feverish ardor,” and restless striving can ensue. 

In Tocqueville’s eyes, America’s “equality of conditions” held out the promise of knocking down unnatural and unjust barriers to social mobility and human flourishing, but it also could lead to unsavory developments like widespread, exhausted grasping and strained civic bonds. With Michael Sandel’s recent publication of The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, we now have a lengthy, modern version of Tocqueville’s warnings: That American meritocracy might not be an unmitigated good. 

While Sandel’s gripes with meritocratic tyranny are powerful and worthy of our consideration, the upshot of it all is not especially radical, nor should it be. Meritocracy, thankfully, is here to stay. The question is whether we can mend it in a manner that is more just and more conducive to forging the civic solidarity that we sorely lack in America today.   

A Harvard University professor and prominent philosopher, Sandel makes a number of compelling arguments against American meritocracy—the idea that all should be able to go as far in life as their talents may take them and, thus, that the well-educated and advantaged deserve their successes, and those failing to get ahead deserve their lesser lot in life.

Sandel’s critique of meritocracy can be divided into two parts. First, he persuasively pushes back against the notion that the United States lives up to its meritocratic ideals. The nation’s supposed engines of meritocracy—its elite universities—are a case in point. Sandel runs through statistic after statistic highlighting the fact that schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are not, in fact, launching pads into the upper class for extraordinarily gifted students, rich and middle-class and poor alike. He notes that “at Princeton and Yale, more students come from the top 1 percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent of the country.” Meanwhile, though elite schools do usher the low-income students they admit into top socioeconomic spheres, they do not enroll nearly enough of those students to serve as meaningful national engines of upward mobility. “Only 1.8 percent of Harvard students (and only 1.3 percent at Princeton) rise from the bottom to the top of the income scale,” he writes.

If the goal is to serve as engines of opportunity for those that merit it on their own terms, then Princeton’s, Harvard’s, and many other elite institutions’ odes to “diversity” are leaving out its most important form: class diversity.

As a recent Princeton graduate and soon to be Harvard Law student, I have personally benefited from the prestige of these institutions. I am immensely grateful. However, as great as these schools are for those like me who got lucky in the admissions process (and were in the position to be considered for admission in the first place likely thanks to loving parents, teachers, and mentors), they have a long way to go if they are to become truly meritocratic. If the goal is to serve as engines of opportunity for those that merit it on their own terms, then Princeton’s, Harvard’s, and many other elite institutions’ odes to “diversity” are leaving out its most important form: class diversity. Although elite schools continue to make immense strides towards greater accessibility, the reality is that, for the most part, they are functioning as safeguards of privilege where the rich send their children so that they remain rich. With the help of elite preparatory schools, private SAT tutoring, alumni connections and donations, and athletic scholarships for niche sports, well-off parents ensure that their children will stay atop the ladder of success.

But Sandel’s critique of meritocracy runs deeper than lamenting the obvious gap between meritocratic ideals and reality; Sandel takes issue with the ideal of meritocracy itself. Looking out over the troubled American political and social landscape—the populist revolt led by then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016, the decades-long wage stagnation of the working class, the rise of deaths of despair among non-college educated whites, the widening income gap and mortality rates between those with bachelor’s degrees and those without them—Sandel sees meritocracy at the heart of it all.

According to Sandel, the meritocratic ethos inspires feelings of superiority among the winners and a sense of bitterness among the losers. Thus, it “diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule.” 

Under meritocracy, the winners are taught that they, themselves, are the sole creators of their good fortune. The importance of their God-given talents or luck of the draw, their help from parents and teachers, and the advantages they may have derived from their original socioeconomic standing are all discounted. Hard work and individual effort are celebrated as the keys that unlocked their immense successes—their just deserts. Sandel writes: “The notion that we are free human agents, capable of rising and succeeding by our own effort, is only one aspect of meritocracy. Equally important is the conviction that those who succeed deserve their success. This triumphalist aspect of meritocracy generates hubris among the winners and humiliation among the losers.”

Thus, on the flip side of the meritocratic coin is the worrisome effect meritocracy can have on the left behind, those who do not come out on top. To illustrate this dynamic, Sandel contrasts the sense of self-worth among the lower classes of a society organized under hereditary aristocracy and a society that is self-consciously meritocratic like our own. In the case of hereditary aristocracy, those in the lower class are aware that their lot in life is, by no means, entirely of their own making; they are quite obviously not responsible for their lack of success.

That said, those who do not climb the ladder are left with the nagging feeling that they themselves are to blame.

In a meritocracy, Sandel acknowledges, lower class citizens are supposedly unshackled to rise, and indeed many still do. That said, those who do not climb the ladder are left with the nagging feeling that they themselves are to blame. Moreover, this diminished sense of self-worth and social esteem among the lower classes is further compounded by the prejudices of those at the top of the heap. Those on the bottom cannot help but feel that those above are indeed looking down with scorn—because more often than not, they are. 

That this is a troubling dynamic, one that erodes the civic solidarity necessary for a democratic republic like ours to flourish, is beyond doubt. The question, though, is what is the alternative? What is better than meritocracy?

Despite critiquing the very core of the meritocratic project, it seems that Sandel is not comfortable with any alternatives that would actually displace meritocracy. By way of recommendation, he offers some changes to the college admissions process (such as making a certain level of merit solely a qualification for consideration, then choosing among the many qualified applicants at random), a proposal to reduce payroll taxes and increase financial transactions taxes, and Oren Cass-style wage subsidies to further recognize and elevate the dignity of work. 

All of these ideas have merit, but they do not strike at the core of our merit-based socioeconomic sorting system; they merely ameliorate some of the more destructive impacts wrought by the coupling of meritocracy and globalization in the past few decades. Thus, if we take Sandel’s recommendations seriously, we might be correct to think that he is not, in fact, trying to upend the entirety of the meritocratic project. 

Doing so would be misguided, anyways. As writers such as George F. Will have pointed out, the meritocratic project is very much the American project. The “rhetoric of rising” and  individual responsibility are baked into our history, culture, and founding documents. They are not going away, and that is a very good thing.

Like Tocqueville before him, though, Sandel is correct to point out that there are real, harmful downsides to this reality. So if tearing down the system is not the way forward, what are we to do? 

The first step in pushing back against some of the corrosive effects that the meritocracy can have on the American psyche would be to heed Sandel’s closing plea: Practice humility. Adding a dash of grace and a sprinkle of humility to the pot of upper class and highly educated America would go a long way. Humility and grace are the grounds upon which we can begin to build the renewed sense of democratic solidarity that Sandel envisions.

Beyond personal attitudes, there are the piecemeal public policies mentioned above that could ease the corrosive “diploma divide” and class-based antagonisms to which meritocracy gives rise. Wage subsidies—via Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansion, perhaps—stand out as a no-brainer, as do greater governmental investments in trade and vocational programming. Cutting middle-class and lower-class payroll taxes also makes sense. But is that all that politics has to offer?

Perhaps not. When reading The Tyranny of Merit, one might think of Michael Walzer’s 1983 book, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. Walzer called for a “regime of complex equality,” in which “no citizen’s standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good.” This reality, Walzer wrote, would be “the opposite of tyranny.” In Walzer’s eyes, our possession of certain social goods—like wealth and education—ought not exert undue influence on our access to and possession of other social goods—like political power and social prestige. 

Without descending into full bore socialism and a rejection of the market economy, the gist of Walzer’s insight is worth considering. There ought to be ways to push back against the undue, perhaps tyrannical influence that one’s performance in the meritocratic races of education and (relatedly) wealth accumulation exerts on the social esteem one enjoys. 

For example, those serving in public office garner social prestige and honor by virtue of their service. It should trouble us, then—as Sandel points out—that the ranks of the United States Congress and Western European parliaments have lost vast numbers of non-college educated, working-class members over the past few decades. 

This is but one example of how the playing field of meritocracy is overextended, stretching into certain spheres of life in which it has no rightful place. Atop individual-level changes in attitude and technocratic policy fixes, then, deeper deliberation on the question of how much influence meritocratic winnings in education and wealth ought to exert over our wider civic, social, and cultural life is needed. With its critiques of meritocracy that are sometimes biting and sometimes overblown, Sandel’s book can serve as a sound starting point for reasoned, good-faith debates about the limits, pitfalls, and virtues of our imperfect meritocratic order.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98

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