Why the ideal of meritocracy only deepens inequality

Harvard professor Michael Sandel argues the Western world has 'outsourced our moral judgment to markets' and wrongly assumed that 'the money people make is the measure of their contribution to the common good'

If the Western world has a unifying social concept any longer, it’s the ideal of meritocracy, of establishing an equality of opportunity that allows every individual to rise to whatever level their hard work and innate abilities can take them to. It’s an ideal, however aspirational, that seems both obvious and profoundly moral to contemporary society: we all get what we deserve. Yet it has had its doubters from the start. The very word was coined in a 1958 satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy, by British sociologist Michael Young, which imagined a 2034 uprising by disenchanted proles against an arrogant, credentialed governing elite, all selected to their positions by virtue of their talents and education.

More recently, this foundational notion has come under the critical gaze of several scholars, often—as in the case of Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits, author of 2019’s The Meritocracy Trap—high-ranking faculty at major universities. That seems paradoxical at first, given that the authors’ academic credentials, some of the world’s most prestigious, mark them as significant winners in the meritocratic race. But that perception changes when Markovits’ argument is examined: our meritocracy requires an endless, stress-filled, life-consuming competition even among the winners. It is perhaps even less paradoxical once the role major universities play as engines of increasingly hereditary privilege and contemporary socio-economic inequality is considered.

None of those previous critiques of meritocracy attracted the attention currently drawn by the newest, The Tyranny of Merit, by Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. Partly that is a matter of timing. Released on Sept. 15, in the midst of one of the most rancorous presidential elections in American history, Sandel’s book primarily explores the political responses of meritocracy’s losers, whose populist backlash helped put Donald Trump in the White House in 2016 and may well send him back for another four years in November. But there is much more than electoral politics involved. The Tyranny of Merit is infused with moral urgency, elegantly written and cogently argued, with a core conclusion both succinct and indisputable: meritocracy does not counter inequality, it justifies it.

Q: There has been extraordinary interest in your book, even before publication. You really hit a nerve, didn’t you?

A: Well, it seems so. I’ve been deluged with responses, so many emails—it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. So it seems to be touching on something that people have been feeling, but haven’t quite worked out or articulated.

Q: Does meritocracy’s support for growing inequality make it the prime source of bitter political discontent, especially in your country?

A: The faults of meritocracy get us to the heart of the failure of mainstream parties to address the frustrations and anger and resentment that have created such deep polarization. The divide between winners and losers has been deepening, poisoning our politics and driving us apart. This divide has partly to do with inequalities in income and wealth, but we’ve been aware of that for a while, right? It also has to do with what we don’t see, the changing attitudes towards success and failure, which have accompanied the deepening inequality. Somehow, those on top in recent decades have come to believe that their success is their own doing entirely. It’s the measure of their merit. By implication, then, those who’ve been left behind must deserve their fate as well. My Harvard students all feel they deserve their place there on the basis of their own efforts. They do not consider the higher-quality schools they attended or the resources their parents put into years of SAT preparation, the role of good fortune in their lives. This is what I call the meritocratic hubris of the elite. And it accounts for the sense among many working people that the elite look down on them. Feeling looked down upon, that’s a source of resentment, of humiliation and anger. And this explains, I think, the populist backlash against elites that we’ve witnessed since 2016, in Brexit as well as with Trump.

Q: It also explains why anti-elitists in America have no problem with the most billionaire-stuffed presidential cabinet in history. They don’t link the elite with money. They link the elite to attitudes.

A: Exactly. That’s why this wealthy real estate developer is able to be the voice of a populist backlash. The one authentic thing about Trump is his sense of grievance and resentment. This he feels viscerally because he feels that throughout his career New York elites, financial elites, intellectual elites, media elites have all looked down on him. So he’s able to connect with the sense of humiliation experienced by the working people who vote for him, despite the fact that most of his policies don’t help them. But it’s not about the policies, it’s about the grievances, and some of the grievances are understandable and legitimate. It’s important to disentangle them from the ugly dimensions of Trump’s appeal—the xenophobia, the racism, the misogyny. Those two streams, the racial and the socio-economic, overlap. It’s worth remembering that there were millions of people who voted for Trump who had previously voted for Obama.

Q: You devote considerable space to American higher education, discussing how something that is supposed to be—and is widely seen as—central to equality of opportunity is actually an engine of inequality in the U.S.

A: Yes. Even though we think of universities as the means to individual upward mobility, few disadvantaged applicants get into the most selective schools, and fewer than two per cent of the students in some 1,800 colleges and universities overall came in poor and rose to the top 20 per cent in income. The universities have become sorting machines, and I worry that their credentializing function is beginning to crowd out their educational mission. You saw how Brett Kavanaugh pleaded his Yale credentials as his defence during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing? That was remarkable. What bearing did that have on the question of whether or not he committed sexual assault while in high school? The college admission scandal was telling, too: parents willing to cheat their kids through a “side door” into highly selective institutions whose front doors they couldn’t have passed through on their own—because it wasn’t the education that mattered, it was the credentials. And even the front-door students needed an enormous investment of resources unavailable to poorer kids—hereditary privilege is digging its way back in.

Q: That brings us to the idea that has brought the most media attention to The Tyranny of Merit: university entrance by lottery. Once Harvard and its peers have gathered all their applications—multiples larger than the available places—just pull the names out of a hat. You had a lovely line to justify this lottery: “It summons chance to chasten hubris.”

A: The lottery idea arises in part out of an awareness of how impossible it is to make fine-grained judgments about future achievement at age 18. I don’t care how good the admissions office is at Harvard. No one can predict that. But more than that, it’s also to send a much-needed message to the students and their parents, the students who get in and the students who don’t, to remind them of the role that luck, accident, contingency, fortune play in life.

Q: You argue that meritocracy and its discontents have resulted in a politics of humiliation, more combustive and more corrosive than the politics of injustice.

A: Complaints about injustice in policy and law are a familiar part of everyday politics. But the politics of humiliation are different. They run deeper because they’re about one’s self-esteem and standing in society and anger at being looked down upon, at the feeling that the work one does is not appreciated by the wider society. As well, part of the politics of humiliation involves the sense—our meritocratic society can encourage this sense—among those who are left out that, well, maybe those on top are more hardworking and talented than me. Maybe I just didn’t make it. Maybe I share the blame for my condition. When meritocratic assumptions take hold to that extent and shape the self-understandings of those left behind, then along with the sense of exclusion comes a nagging sense of self-doubt, which creates a toxic politics.

Q: Looking back over recent political history, you find the root of this malaise 30 or 40 years ago, when most parts of the political spectrum, including the centre-left, embraced market-driven solutions for social and economic issues. And when the centre-left did that, it then had more in common with the professional classes than with its former working-class base.

A: Exactly, and that’s why it took the brunt of the backlash from the working class. Otherwise, it’s very hard to explain why the backlash was primarily right-wing in expression. Part of the problem can be seen in the credentialism of political representatives. FDR’s cabinet was not very credentialed, and Clement Attlee’s post-war British government—one of the most successful in British history, creator of the national health service—had seven cabinet ministers who had been coal miners. The idea that only the so-called best and the brightest, as proven by their credentials, can govern well is belied by this history—actually, the elites from 1980 to 2020 have done a far worse governing job than the elites in the 40 years before.

Q: A crucial difference lies in the makeup of those governing elites.

A: Yes, yes. In 1979 41 per cent of Labour MPs in Britain did not have a university degree, now that’s 16 per cent; 37 per cent of them had backgrounds in manual occupation, now that’s seven per cent. In Congress, 95 per cent of House members and 100 per cent of senators are college graduates. The credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many—but it wasn’t always this way. In the early 1960s about a fourth of Congress hadn’t a college degree. Congress has become more diverse in race, ethnicity and gender, but less in class—and therefore in life and working experience. It’s true across the Western world, which has reverted back to the way things were before most workers had the right to vote, when parliaments belonged to aristocrats and landed gentry.

Q: What about meritocracy in the pandemic? COVID is certainly exposing fault lines: the rich are getting richer (consider the stock market), the affluent, working from home, are staying affluent, and the working class gets to lose their jobs or their lives. Do you see any hope in our new awareness?

A: I think the pandemic offers a possible moment for rethinking, because it shines a bright light on the divisions that were already present, and highlights the gulf between those who can work relatively removed from risk and those who have little choice about exposing themselves to risk. It’s made us aware of our deep dependence on workers we often overlook—we call them essential now. So this could be a moment for rethinking the dignity of work and in trying to reconfigure the economy so that it better rewards and better honours people on whom we all depend. It’s just possible that when the pandemic recedes, we could use this growing awareness to try to create a better kind of politics, a politics of the common good.

Q: What other possible positive developments do you see?

A: The other hope that I see in the current crisis is Black Lives Matter. I do think this movement has become a multiracial and multigenerational one that is opening up possibilities for a public debate about what makes for a just society. That would be a morally engaged kind of public discourse of a kind that we’ve not really had in recent decades. We have outsourced our moral judgments to markets. We have assumed that the money people make is the measure of their contribution to the common good. And this is a mistake, but it’s a mistake that arises from having outsourced our moral judgment to markets.