THE TYRANNY OF MERIT: WHAT’S BECOME OF THE COMMON GOOD?
By Michael Sandel
In my review of Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites I talked about how hard it is to define just what is meant by a meritocracy. In particular I asked what “merit” consisted of aside from getting ahead or making money. This is a point that I think Michael Sandel also has some problems with, though it’s not one he wants to take on directly. Still, it’s there in his opening chapter. One paragraph suffices to cover the twilight of America’s elites:
Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful. They won World War II, helped rebuild Europe and Japan, strengthened the welfare state, dismantled segregation, and presided over four decades of economic growth that flowed to rich and poor alike. By contrast, the elites who have governed since have brought us four decades of stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, 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 makes a mockery of democracy.
Haven’t governed well? They haven’t done anything well except the one thing they are good at: getting ahead and making money. This is, precisely and I think by definition, what makes them a meritocratic elite.
Put another way, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s a myth, a justification for power and privilege that, outside of a handful of endeavours like some professional sports, has no basis in talent, intelligence, hard work, or the social utility of what one does. Merit does not equal value on any level, however much its ideology insists.
In short, life is a lottery and the meritocratic elite are only the fortunate few. Sandel freely admits as much, drawing authority from as far back as the Book of Job, where the voice from the whirlwind sternly informs us that there is no point to the random blights and blessings that make up our lives, no moral logic or cosmic justice standing behind them. The biggest contributing factor to one’s social status, after all, is the class one is born into. But even in the broader economy it’s basically a crapshoot. The stock market? A casino. Bestsellerdom? A blockbuster movie? Internet stardom? Random lightning strikes. As the screenwriter William Goldman famously put it, when it comes to that kind of success nobody knows anything. Sticking to his own bailiwick, when discussing the increasingly painful process of admissions to prestigious universities, perhaps the key stage in the process of “meritocratic sorting,” Sandel, who teaches at Harvard, proposes that administrators simply “toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them [out of 20,000 – 25,000], and leave it at that.”
The only cure for the “meritocratic hubris” that Sandel sees as being baked into the mix of our current social hierarchy – that is, the tendency of winners “to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way” – is a humility informed by our sense of “the contingency of our lot.” We might reduce this to the form of a prayer: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.”
To recap: It is hard to say what “merit,” when referring to a meritocracy, consists of, but it’s likely to mean nothing useful. Hedge fund operators (who, on average, can’t even outperform the market) and cryptocurrency speculators make thousands of times more than agricultural and personal support workers, who are often little more than slave labour. It’s a readily observable fact that many who have risen to the top through effort and education are in fact no good at what they do, in whatever field, from business to politics to the arts. “Smart America,” as George Packer characterizes it in his more recent book on class sorting, Last Best Hope, is not as smart, or talented, or industrious as the rest of America at all.
Nevertheless, it’s human nature to see any social prominence as earned or deserved, so the language of “merit” automatically gets employed as a way of whitewashing this status. It’s no accident that Packer places himself in “Smart America,” or that David Brooks, writing in The Atlantic, sees himself as a member of a class of people who are wealthier, smarter, more talented, more creative, more open and diverse, and just plain better than the non-elite. They are “our class,” “we” and “us.” People who read The Atlantic. And Brooks wants you to know how much it pains them to have to admit their superiority. But . . . life isn’t fair.
Indeed, to his credit Brooks thinks the current system is insane:
The modern meritocracy is a resentment-generating machine. But even leaving that aside, as a sorting device, it is batshit crazy. The ability to perform academic tasks during adolescence is nice to have, but organizing your society around it is absurd. That ability is not as important as the ability to work in teams; to sacrifice for the common good; to be honest, kind, and trustworthy; to be creative and self-motivated. A sensible society would reward such traits by conferring status on them. A sensible society would not celebrate the skills of a corporate consultant while slighting the skills of a home nurse.
Where I’d differ from Brooks is on the more fundamental point of what the meritocracy consists of. For Brooks meritocracy is a real thing, however invidious and “batshit crazy” it may be as a way of ordering society. I don’t think it’s a real thing, or at least much of one, but rather a myth. It is also worse than useless as a way forward. Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in 2016, enthusiastically spoke of how “I want this [America] to be a true meritocracy. I’m tired of inequality.” This may have been sincere, but as rhetoric it didn’t fool enough people. “The meritocratic ideal,” Sandel writes, “is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.” That is its purpose.
There are two recent developments that are driving a lot of the interest in the meritocracy now, and its “toxic mix of hubris and resentment.” In the first place, while life has always been a lottery it’s becoming even more of a lottery than ever. Second: the prizes for winning that lottery have become ever greater, while runner-up status has come to mean being consigned to oblivion. When Sandel enters into his peroration and offers a prospective vision of “a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity – developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs,” he’s actually looking back to the golden age of the American middle class that entered into palliative care in the 1980s.
So what became of the common good? I don’t think there’s any spoiler alert necessary for the loss of community and the advent of a winner-take-all economy leading to growing levels of inequality, which then needed to find an ideological justification. During the only comparable levels of socio-economic inequality in America (the so-called Gilded Age) the gospel of social Darwinism had its first burst of popularity, and I don’t think today’s prophets of meritocracy are saying much that’s very different from what was said then. The meritocracy is essentially a natural order, the society it creates inevitable. Merit will out no matter what obstacles are placed in its path.
Sandel and Brooks are right in seeing in the myth of meritocracy a mighty engine for the generation of mass resentment. Meritocratic hubris leads to smug self-congratulation among the fortunate and anger among the left behind. “There is reason to think,” Sandel opines, “that popular antipathy toward meritocratic elites played a part in Trump’s election, and in the surprising vote in Britain, earlier that year, to leave the European Union.” People were confused at Trump’s railing against elites when he was himself, at least by his own reporting, a billionaire. But Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, didn’t talk about merit. He talked about winners and losers. And what Trump’s supporters recognized was that Trump was actually a giant loser: a serial bankrupt, serial divorced male, clinically obese, deeply ashamed of being bald, and acting out his various insecurities in giant rages on the most public of stages. His favourite word with which to tag anyone he hated was “loser.” This, like everything else about him, was pure projection. That loser rage, however, struck a mass chord. His anger – and he was anger incarnate – was a kind of therapy. His fear of being laughed at and humiliated was something everyone suffering from a loss of social esteem could relate to.
From politics to pop culture the language of meritocracy is part of the fabric of our lives now, however spurious. The “regime of merit,” Sandel writes, “exerts its tyranny in two directions at once. Among those who land on top, it induces anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism, and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem. Among those it leaves behind, it imposes a demoralizing, even humiliating sense of failure.” I’m not so sure I agree with the psychological cost of hubris here (I think it more often leads to moral blindness and a pathological arrogance), but in any event we are all living under the tyranny of this bullshit now. And can we expect things to change?
Review first published online October 25, 2021.