Merit and the Hubris of Elitism

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

Farrar, Straus and Giroux/September 2020

by Michael J. Sandel

Reviewed by John Delacourt

November 10, 2020


Michael J. Sandel, the author of The Tyranny of Merit, teaches political philosophy at Harvard. For those unfamiliar with Sandel’s work but familiar with Harvard, that title might seem as discordant as, say, “Stephen Hawking’s The Tyranny of Physics”. Yet Sandel, much like Ta-Nehisi Coates or Masha Gessen, has taken on the role of public intellectual with an unfashionable degree of idealism. His course on justice was the first to be made freely available on YouTube, and his BBC series The Public Philosopher features episodes titled Markets and MoralsMorality in Politics and, for those still with me, Is Dwarf Tossing Morally Acceptable? (spoiler alert: no).

His analysis of merit and the hubris of elitism, much like his belief in the gaining of wisdom, is grounded in the faith that classical philosophy still has much to contribute to contemporary politics. And from his perch surveying the battlefield still scorched and smoking from four years of Donald Trump in the White House, and the rise of illiberal populism throughout the world, he has written one of the most provocative and cogent critiques of the “rhetoric of rising” that, he contends, has contributed greatly to these crises of democracy. Not content to simply diagnose, he proposes how we might find a way back to healing the divisions that threaten to rend vulnerable, western democracies.

For self-declared centrist progressives like this reviewer, who looked to the Obama era as a model for what Canadian politics might become, the idea of a meritocracy — diverse, inclusive, transcending class divides and regional disparities — has been a foundational aspiration that seems widely shared. Sandel charts its contemporary political evolution and identifies it as a relatively new phenomenon in North America. Over four decades, political discourse across the partisan spectrum could be characterized by what Sandel states are meritocratic assumptions. “Even as inequality has widened to vast proportions, the public culture has reinforced the notion that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get,” he writes. “It is almost as if globalization’s winners needed to persuade themselves, and everyone else, that those perched on top and those at the bottom have landed where they belong.”

If this worldview seems evocative of the kind of old-school neoliberalism propounded by the ideologues of the eighties, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s free market conservativism held sway, Sandel deftly charts how centre-left, market-friendly liberalism ingested whole the belief that “market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good.” He states that the progressive agenda aspired to creating markets under the fairest conditions possible, leveling the playing field regardless of race, class, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

Yet to Sandel, it hasn’t worked out that way at Harvard, nor at any of the other Ivy League schools. Those who can and do transcend the barriers that have set the potentially worthy back for generations are markedly few — and getting fewer. And the poisonous trend of the wealthy buying their way in has only flourished, while the “tradition” of second or third generation alumni securing “legacy” places for their children continues apace. This is all compounded by the pervasive notion that post-secondary education in such institutions accords these graduates the highest status and greatest potential for success in a global economy. There is a socioeconomic hierarchy based on credentials with, say, a Harvard MBA at the top and a diploma in nursing at a community college somewhere near the bottom.

He suggests that this is destructive to notions of equality and the dignity of work. And an all-too-human factor corrodes this meritocratic construct even further: hubris. When those at the top of a culture – as defined by their income and status – believe they have risen from their own agency and merit, it also follows that those at the bottom are there because they deserve it. Unfortunately, reserves of empathy from the winners, like the reserves of dignity from the losers in this dynamic, are not a given. If anything, as the competitiveness increases by the sheer number of contestants, Sandel suggests, those reserves are depleted.

The merit of Sandel’s book lies in its rigorous argument for release from our received notions of what work we value, and what merit itself truly means to us as citizens — not simply as consumers.

Historic precedents bolster his argument. At a macro level, when globalization lays waste to, say, a resource-based regional economy, it replicates the same political divide and coarsening of a culture that occurred in northern industrial towns in the UK or the rust belt states in the US a generation ago. Reversals of fortune and the demise of middle-class aspirations intersect with and exacerbate the pre-existing divisions of race, gender and culture to create a potent mix of rancor and frustration that drains all politics of its life-giving oxygen, hope. What rushes in to fill the vacuum is a fear-based narrative of decline, commemorative of a time when exceptionalism shone down like an act of grace. Make America great again. Bring Canada back.

The answer to this, from progressive leaders like Obama (and, for this reader, even from the Trudeau government to a large degree) is nothing more than a technocratic faith that “incentivizing” market-based solutions and propounding “smart” policies is the answer. Economies must transition, labour markets be damned. Everyone would just naturally support these initiatives if they were given the facts without bias (e.g. the strong precedents for a carbon tax), and if they had the critical skills to evaluate them correctly.

Sandel’s riposte to this is worth quoting: “One of the defects of the technocratic approach to politics is that it places decision-making in the hands of elites, and so disempowers ordinary citizens. Another is that it abandons the project of political persuasion. Incentivizing people to act responsibly — to conserve energy or to watch their weight or to observe ethical business practices — is not only an alternative to coercing them; it is also an alternative to persuading them.”

As Sandel notes, there is no evidence to suggest that a government run with such meritocratic foundations governs well or wisely either. Assaying some of the most successful governments over the last century, including those such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s markedly uncredentialed cabinet, who governed through the Depression, he states it plainly:

“Governing well requires practical wisdom and civic virtue — an ability to deliberate about the common good and to pursue it effectively. But neither of these capacities is developed very well in most universities today, even those with the highest reputations. And recent historical experience suggests little correlation between the capacity for political judgment, which involves moral character as well as insight, and the ability to score well on standardized tests and win admission to elite universities. The notion that ‘the best and the brightest’ are better at governing than their less credentialed fellow citizens is a myth born of meritocratic hubris.”

What Sandel proposes as a way to move past this hubris and its effects is, for this reviewer, strong on foundational truths but less convincing as practical policy.

Within the university setting he is familiar with, his observation is that meritocratic objectives have not achieved their intended outcomes for equality. Yet he does not want to abandon merit as the prevailing criterion, he only wants to reform the process by which universities might come closer to achieving its laudable ideal. He states that, all things being equal in merit among candidates, there would be value in creating a lottery for students to get into Harvard. I read no intended flippancy in his argument that such a process would lead to much the same result as there is with the current approach to merit-based acceptance, and that it would affirm how dependent on outside factors, rather than individual agency, such life changing decisions actually are.

For governments, his recommendations are focused on process rather than outcome. Through debate, somehow our very awareness of the limitations of our technocratic approach to policy making will be made clear to us and a change for the better will occur. He suggests that a government open to the principles of contributive justice provide “venues and occasions for public deliberation that would help transform how we think about work.” The example he provides is a debate on a wage subsidy for low income workers, and with it, “some restrictions on trade, outsourcing and immigration.” Another approach for debate would be to “use the tax system to reconfigure the economy of esteem by discouraging speculation and honoring productive labour.” One way of doing this would be to lower or eliminate payroll taxes and raise revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth and, per Thomas Piketty’s recommendation in Capital, financial transactions. These may be laudatory efforts in changing how we think about work but Sandel offers little by way of suggesting what their economic outcomes might be.

Perhaps that is, literally, academic. And yet, given we’re floating without a fiscal anchor here in Canada with a 400 billion-dollar deficit, such policy considerations might have their moment. Still, to read Sandel for granular policy recommendations would be a failure of our own imaginations to grasp his larger democratic purpose. The merit of Sandel’s book lies in its rigorous argument for release from our received notions of what work we value, and what merit itself truly means to us as citizens — not simply as consumers.

Contributing Policy Writer John Delacourt is Vice President and Group Leader of Hill + Knowlton public affairs practice in Ottawa. He is also the author of the novels Ocular ProofBlack Irises and Butterfly.