Book Reviews

Meritocracy and its Discontents

Michael Sandel says the hoi polloi are mad at the elites—and he thinks they have good reason to be.

By David Madland

Tagged EducationInequalitywhite working class

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good by Michael J. Sandel• Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2020 • 288 pages • $28

Understanding how Donald Trump came to be elected President in 2016 and maintains such fervent commitment among many of his supporters is critical to addressing the underlying challenges that the United States faces today, as well as to preventing further political, economic, and cultural deterioration in the country. According to most analysis, a toxic mix of racial and economic anger among mostly white men, coupled with huge partisan political divides, helped propel Trump to victory. Though researchers don’t completely agree on which of these factors is most important, trying to make sense of the United States today typically requires grappling with racism, sexism, nationalism, and partisanship, as well as wage stagnation and economic inequality.

Yet, Michael Sandel’s important, but uneven and sometimes frustrating, new book, The Tyranny of Merit, instead argues that another factor is primarily at work–meritocracy and its downsides. The Tyranny of Merit aims to show that a rising belief in the justice of supposedly meritocratic outcomes–which leads government to focus on promoting opportunity and reward for the deserving over broadly lifting society—has fueled much of the toxicity in America today and must be replaced with something better in order for the country to be properly governed.

Sandel’s diagnosis is more convincing than his remedies, though even his diagnosis has its weaknesses. Still, The Tyranny of Merit deserves to be read. Readers of this book will gain a deeper understanding of the politics of hubris and resentment and a greater appreciation for why many politicians on the left have become so unpopular with large segments of the white working class.

Sandel argues that the United States, and most Western democracies, have, over recent decades, emphasized the value of meritocracy to such an extent that economic and social success are seen as based much more on talent, education, and hard work than they were in preceding decades. This new meritocracy has been promoted by leading politicians—critically this has included those on the left—as the goal for society because it is supposedly fair and just and enables people to get what they deserve.

In Sandel’s telling, presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (as well as Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Germany) pursued a slightly softer version of neoliberal economics. They justified the unequal world they were fostering based on meritocratic logic, doubling down on the arguments that Ronald Reagan used to promote his trickle-down agenda. Sandel presents interesting bits of evidence for this view, such as the dramatic rise of meritocratic words and arguments in the speeches of leading politicians. Ronald Reagan significantly increased the use of the phrase “through no fault of their own” to argue that government should help only those who have done the right things. As Sandel explains, Reagan weakened the welfare state, arguing that people should be held responsible for their own well-being; government should help only those whose misfortune was not their own fault. Yet both Clinton and Obama employed the phrase more than twice as often as Reagan. Similarly, Reagan popularized the statement “as far as your talents will take you” to justify policies that he argued promoted personal responsibility. Once again, presidents Clinton and Obama used the phrase far more frequently. More broadly, referring to policies as “smart” rather than “dumb” has replaced “just” versus “unjust.” These meritocratic phrases have become so common that readers hardly notice them anymore, but they are new and clearly emphasize a particular kind of logic that stresses individual accountability and undermines the belief that we are all in this together.

Sandel emphasizes that a meritocracy is not a strong basis for creating a moral society. Winners of the meritocracy will always pass on the advantages they’ve acquired to their children; it is, in other words, impossible to create a true meritocracy. Indeed, over recent decades economic mobility has not increased in the United States and is far below that of more economically equal democracies. Critically, even a perfect meritocracy would be unfair. The talents people are born with aren’t necessarily deserved but are rather a matter of at least some luck. Further, because of idiosyncrasies of time and place, certain talents are financially rewarded while others are not. And financial reward should not be the determinant of social worth.

In addition to these important critiques, Sandel adds that winners in the meritocracy come to believe that they have earned their refined place in the hierarchy and therefore look down upon the losers. Meanwhile, losers accept the meritocracy, think they deserve their lot in life, and feel humiliated. Many elites now seem to believe the working class deserves to suffer from over four decades of wage stagnation because they didn’t have the right education—and the working class has mostly internalized this logic of failure and grown distraught. To argue that the working class believes this logic, Sandel cites, for example, polls showing Trump’s working-class supporters are more likely to support meritocratic principles than non-Trump supporters and believe that “U.S. society is equitable and fair,” and “individuals are personally responsible for their position in society.”

In Sandel’s telling, this elite hubris and resulting mass anger has helped spur right-wing populist revolts because meritocratic faith adds insult to injury and leads to our current politics of resentment and humiliation. Importantly, humiliation is more combustible than other politically fueled sentiments and propels populist protest. As Sandel argues, the standard explanations for racism and economic suffering may contain “an element of truth,” but meritocratic attitudes “are at the heart of the populist backlash and Trump’s victory.”

Sandel is clearly on to something about meritocracy and populism—even if the connections may not be as strong as he claims. The disdain many liberal elites show toward people without a college degree is obvious, though not always acknowledged in most publications. Working-class resentment at elites has not always been understood as a direct reaction to being looked down upon by them, but at least some of it almost certainly is. Anger at college professors, for example, is not likely solely about race or wealth. More generally, working-class anger toward college-educated elites (as opposed to the 1 percent) seems disproportionate to concerns solely about financial distance.

Elites believe the working class deserves to suffer from decades of wage stagnation because they didn’t have the right education.

Sandel’s theory helps make sense of the elite dismissal of those without a college degree as well as the deep anger the working class demonstrates toward the liberal elite and connects the two phenomena. He helps show how the left’s emphasis on education and opportunity have at best been incomplete answers to growing inequality, and at worst deeply harmful. He provides strong arguments for why politicians should focus more on ensuring that workers have jobs with dignity and promote equality of conditions rather than placing their faith in education and economic mobility. As Sandel explains, the meritocracy is a failed governing ideology because “a good society cannot be premised only on the promise of escape” from poor conditions that prevail for too many. These are major contributions.

Still, the book has some significant shortfalls. Alternative theories—such as the common idea that Trump’s rise was primarily about racial resentment or more traditional economic grievances such as wage stagnation—aren’t given their due. For example, research by such scholars as John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck finding that white racial resentment is the most important determinant of voting for Trump is not really discussed. Similarly, Sandel argues that political debates about who deserves government welfare demonstrate the prevalence of meritocratic views, but he doesn’t discuss the impact on this debate of race, which heavily influences who is considered deserving and who is not.

The book is also naive in its suggestion that the reason the United States doesn’t have a more generous welfare state is that Americans have largely bought into meritocratic views. Sandel cites polls showing that Americans believe that hard work is key to getting ahead, far more so than people in European countries. But he doesn’t mention that polling on this question has been fairly stable for decades, suggesting that this attitude may not be very connected with the rise of meritocratic rhetoric or trickle-down policy changes. Nor does he acknowledge that classic political science research shows that while Americans may be ideologically conservative, they are operationally progressive on a broad range of issues from the minimum wage to better health care. Which is why the most likely reason that many progressive economic policies haven’t been enacted is the anti-majoritarian nature of American political institutions (largely the Senate) and elite capture of the political system, rather than American beliefs about individual responsibility.

The weaknesses of The Tyranny of Merit’s political analysis are most clearly felt in its discussion of possible solutions. Most of the recommendations—such as imposing a financial speculation tax and creating more of a lottery in elite college admissions to highlight the fact that luck, as well as merit, matter—are fine as far as they go. But they are not up to the scope of the challenge that Sandel highlights.

Sandel wants to revalue work—as way for people to earn enough for a life of dignity, have meaning in the world, and be connected to a common project. Massive and critically important goals. Yet, he doesn’t think deeply about what would actually create jobs or ensure they would be good rather than low-wage jobs devoid of benefits or a career path. Sandel doesn’t even mention a jobs program, which is presumably the most direct way to emphasize the value of work. Nor does he consider unions as a solution—which surely are essential to ensuring that work is well paid as well as to providing the voice and political muscle necessary to pass and implement most progressive economic policy. Unfortunately, Sandel’s only mentions of unions in the entire book are to briefly note the role they play in promoting civic education.

The closest The Tyranny of Merit comes to a policy that touches directly on work is the suggestion for a wage subsidy for low-income workers. But a giant earned income tax credit or something similar is not a strategy for creating dignified work for everyone. The policy would improve the purchasing power of the working class, but Sandel’s goal is to revalue humans as producers rather than consumers, something the policy seems unlikely to succeed at doing. Valuing production would require that the work is paid at an appropriate rate, and workers are treated with dignity, rather than merely subsidizing the consumption of poorly paid workers. Further, while Sandel argues that a stronger welfare state is an incomplete answer to the meritocracy, the primary pro-work policy he mentions is an extension of the welfare state. A wage subsidy doesn’t actually require the creation of good jobs, but rather allows employers to continue offering low-wage work, and may not even create many jobs of any kind. The policy also largely leaves power relations unchanged.

Sandel is aware that addressing the gap between the rich and the poor requires dealing with inequities in power, but he ignores this understanding in his discussion of remedies. No solution in the book rebalances power toward the working class. The policies seem to be thought of as something that would be nice for rich people to do.

Sandel is a political philosopher, whose background and expertise are in theories and ideas, so it may be too harsh to criticize his policy recommendations in this way. But he also doesn’t offer enough guidance where his expertise could really shine: providing a robust theoretical framework for the more policy minded to develop a governing agenda that addresses the weaknesses of meritocracy. For example, Sandel argues for a greater focus on achieving a rough equality of outcomes. But how equal should policy seek to make conditions? Presumably, perfect equality of conditions is not the goal. There are many appealing elements to meritocracy—it can inspire people to work hard and develop their talents, break down discriminatory barriers across race, gender, and sexuality, contains elements of fairness, and produces economic gains. How much of the meritocratic value system is worth keeping? What is the right balance between meritocracy and equality? Between socialism and markets?

These are the deep and critical questions that a proper response to the issue of meritocracy should provide. Unfortunately, Sandel provides little guidance.

Still, The Tyranny of Merit does serve a purpose by highlighting many of the problems with our current overemphasis on meritocracy. Sandel’s analysis complements conventional analysis of Trumpian politics that focus more squarely on race, nationality, and economic suffering, and ultimately leads to a deeper understanding of the United States and the world today. Though Sandel doesn’t provide the path forward, he helps demonstrate the pressing need for change.

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David Madland is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of Hollowed Out: Why the Economy Doesn’t Work Without a Strong Middle Class and the forthcoming book Re-Union: How Bold Labor Reforms Can Repair, Revitalize, and Reunite the United States.

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