The Dark Side Of Meritocracy

What began as a principle that seemed to offer an alternative to inequality has become instead a justification for inequality, argues Michael Sandel.

Billy Clark for Noema Magazine
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Until quite recently, the idea of meritocracy was one of the defining ideals of American life. In recent years, however, many from across the political spectrum have taken an increasingly skeptical view of whether America is actually a meritocracy, or even whether it should be. Noema Deputy Editor Nils Gilman recently interviewed Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel about how meritocracy has devolved into a justification for inequality and why we should instead focus on the dignity of work.

Nils Gilman: You argue in “The Tyranny of Merit” that the concept of merit, as it has been deployed within our democracy, has curdled into something that fundamentally undermines social respect. Specifically, you argue that it “invites the winners to consider their success their own doing and the losers to feel that those on top look down on them with disdain.” How does one become a meritocratic winner? Conversely, what or who is a meritocratic loser?

Michael Sandel: It’s important to distinguish between merit understood as competence (which is a good thing), from meritocracy, which is a system of rule, a way of allocating income and wealth and power and honor according to what people are said to deserve.

Let’s first take the perfectly common-sense, unobjectionable notion of merit as competence. If I need surgery, I want a well-qualified surgeon to perform it. If I take a flight, I want a well-qualified pilot to be flying the plane. No sensible person objects to the general idea of competence. But that idea of merit-as-competence is used to defend a much more contestable idea, which is also familiar and influential: the ideology of meritocracy.

Meritocracy, like any “-ocracy,” is a mode of rule, a way of distributing income, power, wealth, opportunity, honor and social recognition. The principle of meritocracy, simply put, says that if chances are equal, the winners deserve their winnings.

So what distinguishes meritocracy from simply aligning people’s skills with social roles for which they are qualified? The idea of moral deservingness. What makes merit a kind of tyranny is the way it attributes deservingness to the successful. As inequalities of income and wealth have widened in recent decades, meritocratic attitudes towards success have tightened their grip and led the winners to believe that their success is their own doing.

When we think of aristocratic or caste societies, meritocracy seems like a liberating idea. It stands for the idea that nobody should be consigned to the fate of birth, the accident of birth. And the meritocratic idea initially seemed liberating in the sense that it said that everyone, whatever their birth or background, should be able to compete along with anyone else for jobs and social roles, for income and wealth and power. So yes, if the alternative is a feudal aristocracy, there is certainly something very attractive about meritocracy.

“What makes merit a kind of tyranny is the way it attributes deservingness to the successful.”

As meritocracy has tightened its hold on our public life, however, what began as a principle that seemed to offer an alternative to inequality has become instead a justification for inequality. What’s more, meritocracy has become a kind of hereditary system, much as aristocracy was. Affluent, privileged parents have figured out how to pass their privilege on to their kids, not by bequeathing them land or estates, as in aristocratic societies, but instead by equipping them to compete successfully on standardized tests and to win admission to highly competitive universities.

The growing awareness of the problems with meritocracy in recent decades is a direct result of the deepening divide between winners and losers. The divide has poisoned our politics and set us apart. This has partly to do with widening income and wealth inequality. But it has also to do with changing attitudes toward success. In this way, a seemingly attractive principle — that if chances are equal, the winners deserve their winnings — by implication comes to mean that those who struggle and fall short must deserve their fate as well.

Now, you could also say, and many people do say, that the real problem is we don’t live up to the meritocratic principles we profess. And that’s certainly true. To take one example: despite generous financial aid policies at Ivy League universities, there are more students from families in the top 1% than there are students from families in the entire bottom half of the income scale combined. So we don’t live up to the meritocratic principles we profess.

But suppose we did? My argument is that even a perfect meritocracy would still have a dark side. Even if perfectly realized, meritocracy is corrosive of the common good and of solidarity. Indeed, the more perfect the meritocracy, the more the winners can say to themselves, “Everyone had a fair chance to succeed and I won. I therefore deserve all the benefits that the market bestows on me.” This way of thinking leads the successful to inhale too deeply of their own success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped him on their way. It also leads them to lose sight of their indebtedness to the people and circumstances who made their achievements possible. In other words, even a fully realized meritocracy would reinforce meritocratic hubris — or rather, hubris among the winners and humiliation and resentment among those who struggle.

Gilman: What makes meritocratic hubris particularly toxic is not just that the meritocratic winners considered themselves somehow morally superior to the meritocratic losers, it’s also that the so-called meritocratic winners are often highly incompetent and yet they seem rarely to pay a price for it.

Sandel: Yes, the meritocratic elites who governed in recent decades haven’t done very well, especially compared to the elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980. The economists who brought us neoliberal globalization, deregulation and the financial crisis were meritocratically credentialed in a way that the earlier generation was not. And yet that earlier generation won World War II, helped to rebuild Europe and Japan, strengthened the welfare state and dismantled segregation. They presided over four decades of economic growth that flowed to all income groups. (The Vietnam War was one of their great failures, but as David Halberstam made clear, this was an early instance of the folly of “the best and the brightest,” brought about by hubristic technocrats.)

By contrast, elites of the age of meritocracy produced four decades of stagnant wages for most workers and inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s. They produced the Iraq War and a 20-year failed effort in Afghanistan. They brought us financial deregulation and the financial crisis of 2008. A decaying infrastructure, the highest incarceration rate in the world and a system of campaign finance and gerrymandered congressional districts that make a mockery of democracy. This has been the achievement of governing elites in the age of meritocracy.

“Even if perfectly realized, meritocracy is corrosive of the common good and of solidarity.”

I agree entirely that an important source of the resentment and legitimate anger that people have toward the meritocratically credentialed elites of the past four decades is that their record of failed governance doesn’t seem to have diminished their self-satisfaction or their tendency to look down on those who struggle. And a big part of this has to do with the role of higher education. Over these last four decades, higher education has been enlisted in defining merit and conferring the credentials that a market meritocracy rewards. Focusing on the credentializing, networking and merit-conferring has distorted the mission of higher education. Instead of being about teaching and learning and providing a moment for young people to reflect on what’s worth caring about, higher education is increasingly enlisted as the arbiter of opportunity in a meritocratic society.

Higher education is also essential to this story because, in addition to becoming an arbiter of merit, it has also taken an increasingly technocratic form over the last few decades; there is an important connection between the technocratic faith and the meritocratic faith.

The technocratic conception of merit that has brought us this string of follies and calamities represents a stark departure from traditional, even ancient, notions of merit in governance, which, all the way back to Plato and Aristotle and Confucius, connected the concept of merit to the concept of virtue.

In this tradition, to govern well required not only technocratic expertise or scientific knowledge; it also required the capacity for good judgment about human and political circumstances. This in turn required the ability to reason and deliberate with and to persuade fellow citizens and also to care for the common good — that is, to have a certain understanding of what the good of the whole consists in, which cannot be captured in strictly utilitarian or technocratic terms. Aristotle thought that moral and civic virtue, along with reasoning about the public good with fellow citizens, was a necessary component of excellence in governing.

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Unfortunately, all of this drops out during the period that we’re discussing, and merit is narrowly reconceived as technocratic expertise. And this, in turn, has to do with the rise of systems theory and cost-benefit analysis — and more broadly with the rise of economics and the faith in economics, as if it were a value-neutral science of human behavior. The concept of social choice becomes influential during the same period that we’re discussing, and it disfigures and corrupts the idea of what merit or excellence in governance traditionally was understood to be.

Admission By Lottery

Gilman: How does it feel to be making an argument like this while you sit in an institution like Harvard, which is typically considered the acme of the concept of meritocracy?

Sandel: Harvard and the upper reaches of American higher education more broadly are certainly complicit in reinforcing the technocratic, meritocratic tendencies that have enervated American democracy. We in higher education are complicit in fostering this system, mainly by having accepted the role of arbiters of opportunity in a market-driven meritocratic society. Embracing the role of conferring meritocratic credentials comes at the expense of the intrinsic goods that higher education should serve. To rethink meritocracy requires, among other things, rethinking the mission and purpose of higher education.

There are two areas in particular that require rethinking. One of them has to do with the high-pressure, stress-strewn, anxiety-producing tournament that the college admissions process has become.

We’ve discussed the unfairness of higher education being dominated by those from affluent families. In fact, if you look at, roughly, the 100 most selective colleges and universities, 70% of the students come from the top 25% of wealthy families. And those from poor families, from the bottom 25%, are only 3% of the students on these campuses.

But the tyranny of merit also bears heavily on the winners — the young people who win admission — because they are subjected to intense pressure to achieve not only through the adolescent years, but in many cases, from a very young age. By the time they survive this gauntlet, they are so accustomed to hoop jumping, to gathering credentials, to pleasing and performing for parents and teachers and counselors and admissions committees, that they lack the ability to step back and reflect during their undergraduate years on what it is they want to study, on what is worthy of caring about, on what purposes are worthy of them. The alarming statistics about the mental health challenges of many college students and the epidemic of anxiety and depression are directly related to intense pressure to achieve.

“It’s folly to create an economy that sets, as a necessary condition for dignified work and a decent life, a four-year degree that most people don’t have.”

A further problem is that these young people, having survived this meritocratic gauntlet, can’t help but believe their success is the result of their own efforts. They know how desperately hard they have worked. And this leads them to forget the element of luck and fortune and contingency that made their admission possible.

My suggestion here is that universities with far more applicants than they can admit should winnow out those who are not well-qualified to flourish and excel in their courses, and then, from among the rest, admit by lottery. You could weight the lottery based on various elements to ensure diversity, but a lottery would send a message to parents and students: that there’s a lot of luck in this. After all, it’s folly to think that even the best admissions committee can really discriminate among tens of thousands of superbly qualified students — they can’t tell who really will make the greatest impact on society or who will write the great American novel or who will excel in fields of endeavor that are very difficult to predict. The general point is to revamp admissions systems in a way that recognizes that merit is a threshold concept, not a quality that can be maximized or predicted with much certainty for 18-year-olds.

Finally, I think we need to rethink the deep hierarchy of prestige in educational institutions, with four-year higher education at the top. This hierarchy has led to the neglect of forms of learning on which most Americans depend to prepare themselves for the world of work — and for that matter, to be citizens. I’m thinking of community colleges as well as vocational and technical training. The federal government spends $149 billion helping people go get a college education, and only about $1.3 billion to support vocational and technical training. We woefully underinvest in the forms of learning on which the majority of our fellow citizens depend.

This is reflected not only in spending, but also in the inequality of social esteem, which goes back to meritocratic attitudes toward success. Underpinning that difference in spending is the fact that we don’t accord social esteem to career paths that involve vocational and technical training. So, in addition to providing greater financial support, we also have to rethink the way we accord social value to the contributions of those who do important work and who make important contributions to the economy without having acquired a college degree. Those of us who spend our days in the company of the credentialed can easily forget that nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have a four-year college degree. It’s folly to create an economy that sets, as a necessary condition for dignified work and a decent life, a four-year degree that most people don’t have.

The Dignity Of Work

Gilman: Although the examples you use in the book are mostly drawn from the United States, the place where these ideas have already had an important impact turns out to be Germany, where the Social Democratic Party (SPD) won an unexpected victory in the German general parliamentary elections, something they hadn’t done in nearly 40 years. The new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, drew explicitly on the themes of “The Tyranny of Merit” in his campaign. What does the SPD’s victory tell us?

Sandel: In recent decades, center-left parties — the Democratic Party in United States, the Labour Party in Britain, the social democratic parties of Europe, which had traditionally been parties of the working class and middle class — became more attuned to the values, interests and outlook of the well-educated, professional, credentialed classes than to the blue-collar voters who traditionally constituted their base.

Part of this shift is that center-left parties responded to growing inequality by telling workers to go get a college education. But this was an inadequate response to wage stagnation and job loss and the inequality brought about by globalization. Instead of arming people for meritocratic competition, we should shift toward renewing the dignity of work and increasing both the social esteem and financial rewards for those who do not have a professional degree or university credential.

“Instead of arming people for meritocratic competition, we should shift toward renewing the dignity of work.”

Prior to this most recent election, the SPD had fallen to its lowest level of voter support since the end of WWII. But this year, the SPD put the dignity of work at the center of the campaign. Scholz spoke about respect for those who make society work. He shifted the focus, very explicitly saying that we should not valorize meritocratic elites and professional classes but instead should build an economy that responds to the needs of working people and that accords respect and dignity to working people.

Last winter, when most political commentators had written off the SPD’s chances, Scholz’s people contacted me saying he had read the book and wanted to have a public dialogue about it, which we did at an SPD event. Scholz clearly grasped the themes and was working out how to apply them to Germany. He made the dignity of work the main theme of his campaign.

Gilman: What are the lessons here for the United States?

Sandel: The Biden campaign in 2020 was not as explicit about the dignity of work as was the SPD in 2021, but Biden’s candidacy did shift from the meritocratic emphasis of previous Democratic presidential candidates. It’s worth noting that Biden was the first Democratic nominee in 36 years without an Ivy League degree and indeed is the first president of either party since Ronald Reagan without an Ivy League degree. In a way, it was a kind of secret weapon for him in this campaign, because it enabled him to connect a little bit more easily with working class voters that the Democratic Party has struggled to attract in recent decades.

Biden was less invested in the meritocratic way of thinking about politics. In his campaign he spoke less of the idea that everyone should be able to go to university to develop their talents. He avoided the impulse to respond to wage stagnation by telling people to better themselves by getting more education. This had been the standard meritocratic political offer of Democrats and Republicans, but especially Democrats, over the past four decades. Bill Clinton, for example, said if you want to compete in and win in the global economy, go to college. He also used the mantra, “what you earn will depend on what you learn.” Barack Obama also spoke often about higher education being the answer to inequality, using the phrase “you can make it if you try” more than 140 times in his presidential speeches and statements. What all this rhetoric missed was the insult implicit in it. The implication was that if you didn’t go to college, your failure is your fault. You have only yourself to blame.

Joe Biden, though he has been a fixture of Democratic politics for decades, never quite imbibed that meritocratic rhetoric. That enabled him to gravitate more readily to the dignity of work as the central organizing ideal of his candidacy. He was not captive, during his campaign, to the neoliberal economic experts on whom previous Democratic presidents and presidential candidates had relied. It remains to be seen if his more ambitious policy proposals will pass, but Biden certainly appears to be the first Democratic president of the post-Reagan era, in that he does not buy into the idea either that markets are the primary instrument for achieving the public good or that the answer to inequality is individual mobility through higher education.