Monday, April 12, 2021

Michael Sandel's Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?

This excellent read, The Tyranny of Merit, by Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel, actually shifted some of my thinking, and I love a good lightbulb moment provoked by a book! I found the book sometimes a little outside my reach in places enough to need to read a few chapters numerous times, but I think I've got the gist of it all.  

In a nutshell, some of us hope that judging people based on their merit makes for a more fair and just system, and the education system can be used as a sorting machine. The promotion of merit and of the sorting tools we use to determine who deserves to rise to the top are seen as part of an open system of global thinking. Rejecting that position, then, it is believed, is clearly aligned with closed-minded thinking, BUT this is all a ruse brought to you by neoliberal politics. It's born of the illusion that we can create a level playing field of equal opportunity, which is a commonly touted argument. Less common, however, is Sandel's captivating argument around what it means to deserve anything and his claim that, even if we could have perfect equality of opportunity, a meritocracy brings with it some nasty side effects: "It would generate hubris and anxiety among the winners and humiliation and resentment among the losers--attitudes at odds with human flourishing and corrosive to the common good" (120). He ends with some plausible but difficult alternatives to our current way of thinking--in education, work, and through contributive justice--which require an entire overhaul of thinking reminiscent of Charles Taylor's notion of social imaginaries: we have to change our beliefs before we'll ever be able to change our behaviours.


We can't get a fully realized meritocracy. The term was first coined just in 1958 in a dystopian novel; it wasn't originally meant to be seen as a solution or a term of praise. Then in the 80s, Reagan created the belief that "market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good" (21) and deregulated banks and businesses under the belief that, "Provided they operate within a fair system of equal opportunity, markets give people what they deserve" (62). Since, in theory, everyone can compete equally (the rhetoric of rising), government helped out by lowering taxes to remove barriers to success, which then provoked a dramatic rise in tuition fees. We tolerate inequalities because of the American Dream that suggests we can't win without some losers beneath us: Everything we do is fair and just provided people worthy have equal opportunities to access higher education; however, governing elites have the "responsibility for creating the conditions that have eroded the dignity of work and left many feeing disrespected and disempowered. . . . upheavals we are witnessing are a political response to a political failure of historic proportions" (19). We're starting to see the light. 

And I wonder if destreaming is just another attempt at promoting this elusive level playing field by promoting arguments around equal opportunity while ignoring the bigger picture. 

One problem with equality of opportunity is that whatever we offer to help step up disadvantaged kids are swept up by the elites as they find shortcuts through money or connections. The rise we hoped for never came, but those few people who did rise are loudly celebrated as proof that the system works. Check out Adam Ruins IQ Tests and the documentary Operation Varsity Blues about that SAT cheating scandal to see just two ways elites have been able to shift the game in their own favour.

But cheating to get to the top isn't the only problem: meritocracy wasn't ever created as "a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality" (122). It's not about equality but about the potential to rise above your class at birth so that the inequality feels acceptable, and taking more while others suffer feels reasonable. Technically, it means it's also about some people falling through the ranks, but that bit's not promoted as gregariously. "Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults. . . . This faith in mobility may explain why the U.S. has a less-generous welfare state than most major European countries. . . . the rhetoric of rising now rings hollow" (23).   

In some ways, an aristocracy has more going for it than a meritocracy. I made a handy chart of the similarities and differences discussed by Sandel:

We know the problems with an aristocracy: it's "unjust because it consigns people to the class of their birth" (114), but the problem comes when we believe a meritocracy is radically different because it allows people to rise from one class to the next through their own hard work. Many people are just starting to realize that there IS no level playing field that can override all the circumstances of birth regardless the occasional entrance scholarship won by someone living in poverty. And, as Sandel suggests, sorting through the education system isn't the cure-all it was sold to us as.

It used to be that people in the U.S. could have a job without an education, but those days are over and aren't coming back. Sandel says, "globalization brought vast inequalities and stagnant wages for the working class. . . . [Meritocracy] was not a promise of greater equality, but a promise of greater and fairer mobility" (85). Meritocracy rests firmly in the hands of the education system. He quotes Christopher Hayes, 

"Within the framework of a system that seeks equal opportunity rather than any semblance of equality in outcomes, it is inevitable that the education system will be asked to do the heavy lifting . . . And as inequality steadily increases, we ask more and more of the educational system, looking for it to expiate the society's other sins" (88).

For life to be fair, or for those at the top to be able to maintain that their success is morally justified, then the current thinking is that we need people to be able to move up or down from their current status based on effort. We have a dichotomy between open and closed systems: "In an open world, success depends on education, on equipping yourself to compete and win in a global economy. This means that national governments must ensure that everyone has an equal chance to get the education on which success depends. But it also means that those who land on top come to believe that they deserve their success. And, if opportunities are truly equal, it means that those who are left behind deserve their fate as well" (5). Whereas a closed system doesn't allow for movement from one class to another, and this might include any critics of outsourcing, free-trade, or unfettered technological advancement. This narrative suggests that the closed system is full of people who aren't global thinkers, which carries a clearly negative connotation.

The big concern, then, is how easily someone in poverty can get a better education. Our focus is on the wealthy being able to pay for extra lessons or flat out paying for a better SAT score. If the SAT is what gets kids into school, then it's a problem that it's so closely correlated to family income. Something's amiss: "This staggering inequality of access is due partly to legacy admissions and donor appreciation (the back door), but also to advantages that propel children from well-off families through the front door" (11). So we try to ameliorate that through affirmative actions mechanisms, which is just using the exact same principles to fudge the results in a system that doesn't actually work!


Sandel's most interesting arguments are around this notion of deserving: "Allocating jobs and opportunities according to merit does not reduce inequality; it reconfigures inequality to align with ability. But this reconfiguration creates a presumption that people get what they deserve" (117). And then there's a concern that people become so self-important that they lose sympathy with the people beneath them. 

This deserving is tied to what's in our control and what isn't. We make huge allowances when we think someone has barriers that would also stop us were we in that position, but otherwise people are relegated to the lazy or stupid box. They deserve their lot in life because they didn't try hard enough to win. Sandel says, "Central to the case for the meritocratic ethic is the idea that we do not deserve to be rewarded, or held back, based on factors beyond our control. But is having (or lacking) certain talents really our own doing?" (24). A meritocracy suggests that financial success should be strictly based on ability, but what does that even look like? Is it IQ or number of degrees or level of effort? Should hard work inventing make more or less than hard work marketing? We all seem to accept that hard work doing anything physical is lower than more intellectual pursuits regardless the fact that a waste removal strike would have more effect on a city than a strike by corporate CEOs, but that's because merit has nothing to do with the common good. If we think wages should be based on the benefits to society, then grocery store cashiers need a raise! And, if we take into account how much people need the money, then we might decide it's not acceptable to have oodles more than could possibly be spent. 

I find that people see academic abilities in two ways that are tied up with these arguments. Some think there are those with profound cognitive disabilities and then there's everyone else who could all get As if they just tried harder as if disability and ability are different by type, accepting the level playing field. I tend to think they are different by degrees, but not just on a continuum from profound disability to amazingly talented, but on some highly complex three dimensional sphere, since we all know that some people with amazing talents in one area often also have some profound difficulties in other areas. It's not possible to sort us on a flat plane. Intelligence is partly inherited ability, for instance, to understand instructions and follow the steps in a calculus problem, but it's also the inherited interest, ability to focus, and self-motivation to do that, and it's also the many cultural forces (family, teachers, role models, media) that foster or dismiss abilities along the way. When we accept the incredible complexity of what enables someone to rise above their station, we have to accept that sorting through test scores from the education system is either fool's game or a con. 

I've notice, over the past thirty years of teaching, an increase in the use of the term deserve and felt vindicated to find out it really has increased: JFK never used the term "you deserve." Reagan started using it regularly, then Clinton used it twice as much, and Obama three times as often (70). More and more students will insist that they deserve a specific mark because of the effort they put in despite how far they are from meeting the standards. As much as I try to explain the idea that some people just have natural abilities and limitations and some have way more help at home than others, so a test score just tells people where they rank relative to a standard NOT how hard working they are, students still see themselves as a success or failure based on those numbers. I point out that there are always some kids who take no notes and get high marks on content tests because they've lucked into having an incredible memory, or they write perfect math tests because they just get it, or because they were coached by family members, and that there are always others who spend all night studying and don't do nearly as well. There are tips for studying that can help, but only to a degree. So IF it's not always a matter of hard work saving the day, then to what extent do the naturally talented deserve the marks. What does that even mean??

And it's funny, the same students who insist that they deserve the awards and scholarships that come with high marks sometimes have no problem asking me to just give them a slightly higher numbers because they need them. That doesn't conflict in their minds with the idea that they deserve the grades they get because they worked hard. 

When we view success as due to hard work or 'giftedness,' we ignore our own luck and disparage the losers in the game. It was their own fault. But, the ability to sustain effort and to remember well or to just see the answer in a mess of numbers is luck of the draw. Sandel points out that it's also sheer luck to have a talent that fits with a time and place (imagine LeBron James living in Renaissance Italy). Sandel's point is that, "Meritocrats acknowledge that I do not deserve the benefits that arise from being born into a wealthy family. So why should other forms of luck--such as having a particular talent--be any different?" (122). He comments on a point made by a student of his, "Having earned their wealth, rich people are meritorious and so deserve to live longer. . . . In retrospect, I realize that [the comment] is morally akin to the prosperity gospel belief that health and wealth are signs of God's favor" (61). We're still in a hierarchical model, but instead of rewarding the gift of being born to the right family, we honour the gift of being born with talents (but it still really helps also to be born to the right family).

Luck egalitarians argue that "society's obligation to help the disadvantaged depends on figuring out who among the needy are responsible for their misfortune and who are victims of bad luck. Only those who bear no responsibility for their plight, they maintained, deserve help from the government" (69). "If everyone who works hard can be expected to succeed, then those who fall short have no one to blame but themselves, and it is hard to make the case for helping them. . . .  If everyone can succeed through effort and hard work, then government need simply ensure that jobs and opportunities are truly open to all" (74-5). The appeal of meritocracy is that success is our own doing, but "the recognition that our talents are not our own doing complicates this picture of self-making. . . . If our talents are gifts for which we are indebted--whether to the genetic lottery or to God--then it is a mistake and a conceit to assume we deserve the benefits that flow from them. . . . It also seeks to vindicate the faith that, if the competition is truly fair, success will align with virtue; those who work hard and play by the rules will earn the rewards they deserve" (123-4). Instead of granted by God, our success is now granted by genetics and the blessed landing of our talents in the right place and at the right time.

This was a lightbulb moment for me as I thought of our shift in language around addiction. We started looking at addictions as a disease, as a misfortune beyond someone's control, and this shift enabled us to help people. Without this language, then people are just making bad choices, and we're fools to help them because to some extent they must want to live like this. Removing the idea of choice in the matter and we remove barriers to support. The same thing goes for homelessness and anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions. As long as we have a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality, then we ascribe more agency to the person in need than is warranted, and then we deny them any supports since, one argument goes, it will make them weaker to accept diminished agency over their problem. BUT now we have a rash of IEP as parents ensure their students, legally, get extra support at school. I always give extra time to anyone who asks for it because not everyone has the time, resources, or understanding of the system to get an IEP even if they have significant barriers to learning. Here's the problem: for many parents it's not enough that their kids get enough time; they want their kids to have extra time, to have more than anyone else. There's a new desperation in the requests as they recognize marks mean everything to their children's future. But if we're in one of the accepted categories that dismiss our control over our our output enough to get support, then it also removes our own sense of responsibility for our actions, which can erode any sense of curiosity for learning. 

We need to get out of this false dichotomy trap that either people don't have full agency and therefore they deserve help, or they have a measure of control over their actions and deserve no supports. Instead of scrambling for proof that we need help, proof that they can't possibly do it on their own, instead of asking but why is this person homeless, imagine if we just helped people who asked for help or are clearly struggling in any way. We're okay with helping someone with a GoFundMe who lost their home due to fire that their shady insurance company won't cover, but we won't help someone who lost their home due to gambling debts. All the talk we have about addiction and mental health doesn't make us want to support someone whose addiction cost them their home. We want to know that our money is going to a worthy cause even if, in the same breath, we acknowledge that addiction is luck of the draw. Curious.

We can also see the capitalist ideology in all this deserving. There's an underlying narrative that we should be able to have whatever we see. In an Aristocracy, people know from the beginning that they'll never be in the upper class, but in a Meritocracy, we think it's very possible and are driven to make it, to have all the things that the wealthy have. We all deserve everything we want, right down to Incels who believe they deserve a woman. We've lost any concern with the benefits of self-restraint, and we've lost compassion for others who aren't thriving.

SIDE EFFECTS (or intentional results) OF TOXIC MERITOCRACY

Even if it were all perfectly fair and just, Meritocracy has some nasty side effects that the Aristocracy avoided. We're starting to see that it can disintegrate any sense of self-efficacy, from the university sorting hat to the rise of disabling perfectionism. Here is Sandel's three-point toxicity of the tyranny of merit: 

  1. "the message that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get erodes solidarity"   
  2. "insisting that a college degree is the primary route to a respectable job and a decent life creates a credentialist prejudice that undermines the dignity of work," and
  3. "insisting that social and political problems are best solved by highly educated, value-neutral experts is a technocratic conceit that corrupts democracy" (71).

People attribute success to their own doing despite the amount of luck involved. Sandel explains that, "even a fair meritocracy . . . induces a mistaken impression--that we have made it on our own. . .. It is corrosive of civic sensibilities. For the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good" (14). Ten years ago, Leonard Mlodinow wrote about this blindspot around luck in one of my favourite books, The Drunkard's Walk. We tend to think people are worth whatever salary they make despite all evidence to the contrary. Sandel's concern is the effect on society: 
"Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. . . . encourages the winners to consider their success their own doing, a measure of their virtue--and to look down upon those less fortunate than themselves. . . . It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule" (25). 
There's an allure to the attitude because it gives us a sense of freedom that our fate isn't fixed by circumstances outside our control, and it makes us believe we can achieve what we actually deserve to achieve. We are at once built up by and destroyed by this ideology.

Critics miss the big picture when they look outward to a rigged system of influence or cheating. "Protest against humiliation is psychologically more freighted. It combines resentment of the winners with nagging self-doubt . . . Trump understood and exploited this resentment" (26). The system is falling short of its promises with stagnant wages for decades regardless the intensity of effort people are making, but 77% of Americans still think hard work leads to wealth (compared to relatively few in France or Japan) despite the reality that only 4-7% of people have a rags to riches story (73). It happens, but it's rare. Those few are set as the example of how well the system work and stop being seen as an anomaly of the system, as can be seen in Ken Robinson's famous video using Einstein's dropping out as proof that school doesn't teach anything, as if each class is full of little Einsteins. Sandel says merit "begins as an ideal but slides into a claim about the way things are . . . it asserts the hope as if it were a fact. . . . If meritocracy is an aspiration, those who fall short can always blame the system, but if meritocracy is a fact, those who fall short are invited to blame themselves" (79-80).

College and university has been created as the key to success. People feel undeserving if they don't do well in school. "What is striking is not that politicians inflate their college credentials, but that they feel the need to do so" (84). And it masks the economic problems around outsourcing and technology that have made competition for jobs so fierce. "Encouraging more people to go to college is a good thing. Making college more accessible to those of modest means is even better. But as a solution to inequality and the plight of workers who lost out in the decades of globalization, the single-minded focus on education had a damaging side effect: eroding the social esteem accorded those who had not gone to college" (88).

Most Americans don't get a college or university degree, and "meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwittingly promote credentialism--an insidious prejudice against those who have not been to college" (89). I've seen this in my own friend group as giving advice to a friend is becoming seen as something that should be left to professional help, instead of just what happens between friends. I once went to a party with a professional dresser who helped us see which pieces to keep and toss in our wardrobes. She didn't like my insistence on a pretty sundress paired with converse high-cuts or Docs as my standard work outfit! But we're at a place were we think we need to be told what taste we should have in fashion and what to say when a friend is in a bind. Only the experts know how we should live and think. 

Sandel says, "'smart versus dumb' began to displace ethical or ideological contrasts, such as 'just versus unjust'" (93), and "at a time when racism and sexism are out of favor (discredited though not eliminated), credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice" (95). Elites dislike the less educated more than the poor as they "consider low educational achievement to represent a failure of individual effort. . . . relentless emphasis, in a meritocratic society, on the importance of going to college reinforces the social stigma against those who lack a college degree. . . . This makes people more willing to accept inequality and more likely to believe that success reflects merit" (96). The less educated also accept this idea (stuck in DuBois's double consciousness) as it's reinforced by the push to go to college.  

Furthermore, since "the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many . . . very few members of the working class ever make it to elective office" (97); there is less representation of the working class in positions of any influence. "Governing well requires practical wisdom and the 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" (99). Historically, "the left attracted those with less education. . . . In the age of meritocracy, this pattern has been reversed" (101). Democrats have become the professional class and lost their low educated white voters. 

There is a technocratic attitude I see in my classroom: the belief that disagreement is based on a lack of education or information, in which case the solution is more education and facts. Obama thought that a president should impart facts and data, but compare that to earlier presidents who thought the president should impart moral inspiration and exhortation. We now have "smart" policies. Obama ignored concentrations of economic power and any development of a common good. The word "incentivize" was created, which "deployed a financial inducement to bring about a public purpose" (107).  We get people to do right, not because it's the right thing to do, but because it will benefit them financially. We've given up on provoking any moral integrity in people.

This system places all decision-making in hands of elites and disempowers ordinary citizens while, at the same time, public discourse is ineffectively argumentative; it's all insults and abusive statements aimed to win instead of to find the best solution. Both this technocratic attitude and weaker skills in useful argumentation have created a "failure to engage in a substantive way with the moral convictions that animate democratic citizens; neither cultivates the habit of reasoning together about competing conceptions of justice and the common good" (108). Add to this a gross misunderstanding of the scientific method, held up in some circles as a belief system, and the most popular framing of an argument wins and actually influences policy.

"It is a mistake to assume that the more people know about science, the more likely they are to converge on measures to combat climate change. The technocrat's belief that, if only we could agree on the facts, we could then have a reasoned debate about policy, misconceives the project of political persuasion. . . . The appeal of the technocratic position, but also its weakness, is it seemingly frictionless value neutrality" (111).

Arguments against climate measures are often not about facts, but about willingness to trust the government to do what they promise. We're missing the forest for the trees.


Plato, Aristotle, and Confucius argue that people governing should have a specific type of merit: "excellence in civic virtue and phronesis, the practical wisdom to reason well about the common good. . . . [They] share the notion that the merits relevant to governing include moral and civic virtue. This is because all agree that the common good consists, at least in part, in the moral education of citizens" (28). Compare that to our current culture in which merit = technocratic expertise, and "the common good is understood mainly in economic terms" (29). This shift in core beliefs hollows out public discourse, elevates the credentialed class, and disempowers ordinary citizens.

"The dark side of the meritocratic ideal is embedded in its most alluring promise, the promise of mastery and self-making. . . . The meritocratic ideal places great weight on the notion of personal responsibility. . . . This is not far from the familiar contemporary view that wealth signifies talent and hard work and that poverty signifies indolence. . . . this meritocratic way of thinking gives rise to harsh attitudes toward those who suffer misfortune. The more acute the suffering, the greater the suspicion that the victim has brought it on himself" (34-36).

It helps us to feel safe from misfortune if we can blame someone else for our problems, but we'll stil accept any accolades for our prosperity. The idea, "I'll never be poor because I'll be smarter than the next guy," leads us to never change any policies that impoverish people. Sandel ties it to the Protestant work ethic in which, "The ethic of mastery and self-making overwhelmed the ethic of gratitude and humility" (41). The problem with this view is that, "the more we conceive ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the less reasons we have to feel indebted or grateful for our success" (42).


Around the 1970s, both Friedrich Hayek and John Rawls illustrated the problems with this system offering what they thought were two alternatives to the principles of meritocracy: Hayek argues for free-market liberalism, arguing that "careers should be open to everyone, but the state should not try to create a level playing field by providing equal or compensatory educational opportunities" (126) since it's unrealistic and coersive, which is the opposite of freedom. He saw that market outcomes are not about merit since there's a distinction between merit and consumer value: "Merit involves a moral judgment about what people deserve, whereas value is simply a measure of what consumers are willing to pay. . . . the differences in reward do not correspond to any recognizable differences in the merits of those who receive them" (127). It's just a matter of luck to have talents that society currently desires. Hayek rejected that money made reflects what is deserved: "wages and salaries are not awards for good character or worthy achievement but simply payments that reflect the economic value of the goods and services" (128). 

From the other side, Rawls argues for welfare state or egalitarian liberalism, focusing on equality of result instead by provoking the winners to share their winnings. He agrees that "differences of talent are as morally arbitrary as differences of class" (128), so, instead of limiting those with talents, we need to redistribute taxation to pay for public services. Since it's by chance that I can sell my talents for more than others, then I should give a portion back to society so all can benefit from this. Rawls's argument clarifies that the rich don't deserve their fortunes, but, as Sandel argues, "It does not establish that the community has a legitimate moral claim to this money, or some portion of it. This would depend on showing that we are indebted in various ways to the community that makes our success possible and therefore obligated to contribute to its common good" (131). We might argue that success is always due to getting help from the community in some way, so everyone has an obligation to pay back society, but Sandel points out a "weakness in the philosophy of welfare state liberalism, which  fails to provide a sense of community adequate to the solidarity it requires" (131). The wealthy don't want to share their wealth. 

Despite their opposing political positions, Hayek and Rawls both agree with the arbitrariness of talents, and that merit, what we deserve, has little to do with market outcome. With different reasoning towards their conclusions, they also share the beliefs about "the difficulty of coming to agreement about which virtues and qualities of character are worthy of reward" (132) and that "basing justice on desert is at odds with freedom. . . . [their] principles of justice do not seek to reward merit or virtue" (133). They both "reject the idea that economic rewards should reflect what people deserve" (133), recognizing too that this idea dramatically opposes to common opinion. We generally think we should get what we deserve, reap what we sow, especially now. "The notion that justice means giving people what they deserve seems deeply embedded in untutored common opinion" (133). We are attached to the idea that rewards align with merit, that some deserve food and shelter based on contribution to society, which leads to thoughtless abandonment of people who can't get into this rigged game. 

Sandel looks at why we continue to think economic rewards should align with merit, and thinks "certain features of free-market liberalism and welfare state liberalism open the way to meritocratic understandings of success that they officially reject" (134). They don't renounce merit as much as it seems. There's little difference in the stories people tell themselves whether they think success is about market value of their contributions or their own virtues. 

One argument that market outcome shouldn't reflect merit came in 1921, when neoclassical economist, Frank Knight, wrote Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit. He also argued that talent is luck but went further to suggest that "meeting market demand is not necessarily the same thing as making a truly valuable contribution to society. . . . We cannot accept want-satisfaction as a final criterion of value because we do not in fact regard our wants as final. . . . our most difficult problem in valuation is the evaluation of our wants themselves and our most troublesome want is the desire for wants of the 'right' kind" (138). Hayek conflates the value of economic contribution measured by the market with actual value; Knight separated these two, rejecting the idea that people deserve the product of their labor, calling it apologetic economics. He's in favour of a free market (and opposed the New Deal), but clarified that it doesn't mean the wealth makes someone good: "Being good at making money measures neither our merit nor the value of our contribution" (140). Knight judged an economic system "less by its efficiency in satisfying consumer demand than 'by the wants which it generates and the type of character which it forms in its people. Ethically the creation of the right wants is more important than want-satisfaction" (140). For example, an excellent meth dealer makes way more money than an excellent teacher, but their market value differs significantly from their value to the community.

Rawls "fuels meritocratic hubris" when he tries to make a distinction between moral desert and "entitlement to legitimate expectations" explaining that the rich deserve wealth "not because it testifies to their superior merit but only insofar as these benefits are part of a system that is fair to everyone, including the worst-off members of society" (141). But this false distinction just leads to arguments in favour of trickle down economics: "Imagine how, consistent with Rawlsian principles, a wealthy CEO could justify his or her advantages to a lower-paid worker on the factory floor" (144). So, both free-market and distributive justice economics ride on a meritocratic attitude towards success. 

We tend to honour the rich, especially if we think we have equality of opportunity, which is central to working-class anger against the elites for their disdain towards those without a college degree. Liberals are blind to "the politics of hubris and humiliation. . . . Questions of honor and recognition cannot be neatly separated from questions of distributive justice" (145). Welfare state liberalism is prone to a smart vs dumb dichotomy that maintains a class structure through its prejudices. The luck egalitarian philosophy that evolve from Rawls asked for even more distribution to the poor, but still argued that "people should be compensated only insofar as their misfortune is due to factors beyond their control . . . on whether a needy person is needy due to bad luck or bad choices" (146), which is a morally unattractive way of looking at obligation for two reasons: First, it bases obligation on how people became needy arguing that if you could have acted differently to avoid this problem, then you don't deserve help or else everyone will act recklessly and hope to be bailed out, instead of provoking compassion and solidarity. Secondly, it demeans those who don't qualify for assistance as helpless victims, putting a huge weight on ability to choose well in order to prevent misfortune: "To qualify for public assistance, they must present themselves--and conceive of themselves--as victims of forces beyond their control" (147), which leads to a "rhetoric of victimhood that views welfare recipients as lacking agency, as incapable of acting responsibly" (147), and "defines the deserving disadvantaged in terms of their innate inferiority of talent, intelligence, ability, or social appeal" (148). Sandel explains,

"The notion that we do not deserve the benefits and burdens that flow from luck--including the luck of having or lacking the talents society rewards-seems to undercut the meritocratic notion that, under conditions of fair competition, we deserve what we earn. Advantages due to change, not choice, are undeserved. But the line between chance and choice is complicated by the fact that sometimes people choose to take chances. . . . The contrast between change and choice makes judgments of merit and desert unavoidable . . . Of course, it can sometimes be unclear what counts as genuine choice [like with gambling]. . . . Luck egalitarianism defends inequalities that arise from effort and choice. This highlights a point of convergence with free-market liberalism" (148-150). 

A fellow critic of luck egalitarianism, Elizabeth Anderson, explains, "it is doubtful 'that inferior native endowments have much to do with observed income inequalities in capitalist economics.' Most differences in income 'are due to the fact that society has invested far more in developing some people's talents than others and that it puts very unequal amounts of capital at the disposal of each worker. Productivity attaches mainly to work roles, not to individuals'" (151).

To overcome this toxic meritocracy doesn't mean completely dismissing merit when choosing the best person for a job, but it's about rethinking how we think of success. It's a big problem that "higher education has become a sorting machine that promises mobility on the basis of merit but entrenches privilege and promotes attitudes towards success corrosive of the commonality democracy requires" (155). It started in the 1940s with Harvard's shift from valuing highest those with the best scores on the SAT (originally used in WWI). The President at the time, James Bryant Conant, wrote Education for a Classless Society  about his vision of schools as a means to sort out the best and brightest. It takes a page from Plato's ideal society that tries to find the best fit for various jobs with the keen eye of the education system: "abilities must be assessed, talents must be developed, ambitions guided. This is the task for our public schools" (159), recognizing that talent could be scattered among all classes, and it would benefit society most to root out the most talented to lead the country. He didn't care about expanding education but just making sure that those at the top were the brightest based on standardized tests.


Beyond obvious problems with the means of sorting -- "higher education is like an elevator in a building that most people enter on the top floor" (169) -- there are two big problems with the underlying premise: society based on merit legitimates inequalities from merit rather than birth, but still justifies inequalities, and celebrating genius makes it prone to denigrate the rest as rubbish. The system has broken any potential love of learning by "turning higher education into a hyper-competitive sorting contest is unhealthy for democracy and education alike" (172) in a relentless search for stars, which has takes a damaging toll on the winners as the elite "wins its place through strenuous striving . . . soul-destroying demands that meritocratic striving inflicts upon the young" (177).  The price of admission is,

"the cost of transforming their high school years into a high-stress, anxiety-ridden, sleep-deprived gauntlet of Advanced Placement courses, test-prep tutoring, sports training, dance and music lessons, and a myriad of extracurricular and pubic service activities. . . . some of these consultants advise parents to seek disability diagnoses for their children. . . . The meritocratic struggle gives rise to a culture of invasive, achievement-driven, pushy parenting. . .  Among 6-to-8-year-olds, free playtime dropped 25% from 1981 to '97, and homework more than doubled" (178).  

Outwardly successful teens are extremely unhappy, obsessed with opinions of parents, teacher, coaches, and peers. Perfectionism is disabling: a recent study (Curran & Hill) found that "Irrational ideals of the perfect self have become desirable--even necessary--in a world where performance, status and image define a person's usefulness and value. . . . Perfectionism is the emblematic meritocratic malady. . . . jumping through hoops of high achievement wind up as 'dazed survivors of some bewildering life--long boot-camp'" (181). This striving leads to an impulse to re-enact the trauma towards others, and grade obsession leads to large-scale cheating as it induces anxiety on the top and humiliation on the bottom. "This strenuous notion of individual responsibility makes it hard to summon the sense of solidarity and mutual obligation that could equip us to contend with the rising inequality of our time" (184).

Sandel proposes instead to have a lottery of qualified applicants who get into university! "Setting a threshold of qualification and letting chance decide the rest would restore some sanity to the high school years" (186). My immediate reaction was to think that I'd prefer seeing a pass-fail in high school, and an entrance exam specific to each program get you on the qualified list before the lottery draw, but perhaps that just shows how brainwashed I am with the premises of meritocracy. Sandel explains, "More broadly, we should figure out how to make success in life less dependent on having a four-year college degree" (188).  As taxes decreased, tuitions increased and public universities became public in name only as student debt went through the roof. Still only 1/3 of Americans earn a bachelor's degree (191), the rest have jobs that depend on training that's ignored from the discussion: "Despite its aspirational appeal, the meritocratic insistence that a four-year college degree is the gateway to success distracts us from taking seriously the educational needs of most people. This neglect not only hurts the economy; it expresses a lack of respect for the kind of work the working class does. It requires us to rethink the way we value different kinds of work . . . as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores" (191).


"In 1971, 93% of white working-class men were employed. By 2016, only 80% were. Of the 20% who did not have jobs, only a small fraction of them were looking for work. As if defeated by the indignities of a labor market indifferent to their skills, most had simply given up. The abandonment of work was especially acute among those who had not been to college. Of Americans whose highest academic qualification was a high school diploma, only 68% were employed in 2017" (199).  

Currently, for the first time, more people in this group are dying of drugs, alcohol, and suicide than from heart disease. They are deaths of despair that don't correspond to their level of poverty, but to a "slowly unfolding loss of a way of life for the white, less educated working class" (201).  They no longer have what W.E.B. DuBois called a "public and psychological wage"; they're no longer allowed to mingle with the upper class as they once did. Now that reformed to racist policies no longer permit boundaries across those line, it's the less educated that are barred who no longer have an extra benefit from being white (203).

We all need a sense of self-efficacy, a feeling that we have something to offer in this world. Aristotle says, "human flourishing depends on realizing our nature through the cultivation and exercise of our abilities" (209), but we've lost the gratification of a hard day's work. "What counts as a valuable contribution to the common good, and what do we owe one another as citizens?" (205). "The focus on maximizing GDP, even if accompanied by help for those left behind, puts the emphasis on consumption rather than production. It invites us to think of ourselves more as consumers than producers. . . . The elites who presided over globalization not only failed to address the inequality it generated; they also failed to appreciate its corrosive effect on the dignity of work" (207). 

We have two ways of understanding the common good. A focus on consumers rather than producers "defines the common good as the sum of everyone's preferences and interests." We get it by maximize consumer welfare by maximizing economic growth, and it becomes a matter of satisfying consumer preference, so wages are a good measure of who contributed what: people who make the most are the most valuable contributors. But the alternative "rejects this consumerist notion of the common good in favor of what might be called a civic conception" (208), which is "about reflecting critically on our preferences--ideally, elevating and improving them--so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives.  . . . requires deliberating with our fellow citizens about how to bring about a just and good society . . .  [through] "venues and occasions for public deliberation" (209). 

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "One day our society will come to respect the sanitation workers if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage is in the final analysis as significant as the physician, for if he doesn't do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity" (210). Hegel said that capitalist organization are only ethically justified if they can "give all work activities a shape that reveals them to be a contribution to the common good" (211). The Durkheim added, "the division of labor can be a source of social solidarity, provided everyone's contribution is remunerated according to its real value for the community" (211). Sandel explains, "Unlike Smith, Keynes, and many present-day economists, Hegel and Durkheim did not see work mainly as a means to the end of consumption. Instead, they argue that work, at its best, is a socially integrating activity, an arena of recognition, a way of honoring our obligation to contribute to the common good" (211). 


Something deeper is at stake here: "making economic growth an overriding aim of public policy has a special appeal for pluralist societies like ours that are teeming with disagreement" (211). It spares us the need to debate about controversial questions. "Contributive justice, by contrast, is not neutral about human flourishing or the best way to live. . . . teach that we are most fully human when we contribute to the common good and earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contributions we make. According to this tradition, the fundamental human need is to be needed by those with whom we share a common life" (212). Robert Kennedy recognized this when he said, "'Fellowship, community, shared patriotism--these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together' They come instead from 'dignified employment at decent pay'" (212). 

But in order to get there, we have to "challenge a premise . . . that market outcomes reflect the true social value of people's contributions to the common good" (213). It means understanding things like enabling workers to find jobs with good pay matters more than economic growth. 

"Rather than deduct a certain amount of each worker's earnings, the government would contribute a certain amount, in hopes of enabling low-income workers to make a decent living even if they lack the skills to command a substantial market wage. . . . The advantage of the wage subsidy is that it enables employers to retain workers on the payroll during the emergency, rather than fire them and force them to rely on unemployment insurance" (214). 

Current financing is about financial engineering instead of fostering the real economy: "High-speed trading is not the only financial innovation of dubious economic value; credit default swaps that enable speculators to bet on future prices without investing in any productive activity are hard to distinguish from casino gambling" (217), and which hinders rather than promotes economic growth. We need to shift the tax burden from work to consumption and speculation, and "A radical way of doing so would be to lower or even eliminate payroll taxes and to raise revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions . . . make up the lost revenue with a financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading" (218).

We should openly despise a system that can only be escaped by hitting a home run. "Focusing only, or mainly, on rising does little to cultivate the social bonds and civic attachments that democracy requires. . . . It is often assumed that the only alternative to equality of opportunity is a sterile, oppressive equality of results. But there is another alternative: a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity" (224).

Let's see if this shift is possible!


A Kisaragi Colour said...

I think one difference between the aristocratic elite and the meritocratic elite (which you may have mentioned later on in your post) is the extent that the aristocratic elite valued the concept of noblesse oblige. This moral obligation to show you are a noble by helping those beneath you is also a defining difference between the two. The meritocratic elite cannot be brought into any sort of moral behaviour because they see their success as earned and there is no one beneath them (we all have equal opportunities, you just suck). It is really a very thinly disguised 'might makes right' sort of position.

Anonymous said...

A very cogent look at the societal situation the USA in particular finds itself in. And when they embrace a "disease", the rest of us in the West get roped into the same rut.

Except for this essay/book review/slant, all I've ever got to read is how wonderful meritocracy is, and how unfair it is that racialized minorities and women get an "unfair" leg up. This is US college-educated older white people current Republican thinking (expressed in a technical forum when feelings boil over), and is but a middle class version of the feeling of hopelessness those 20% of the white men who have been discarded by the current system feel. Since they've all made it, these people are worried what society brings for their offspring in its overt "progressive" fiddling around the edges. Harvard no longer admits students on pure merit, for example, or, these people grouch, there'd be only Asians gaining places; thereby the argument about special treatment for minorities is stood on its head. The incongruity doesn't seem to occur to them, so it's eugenics and general BS and IQs and training their kids to make it to the right school against "unfair" odds to the fore instead of reason. A rather broken society now also being foisted on us in Canada.

I think this essay allows one to have a good think about things all the way through because it presents a balanced look. Thank you for writing it.


Marie Snyder said...

@A Kisaragi Colour - That's a good point that Sandel might have made, and I just left it off my chart, but I don't recall him talking about it.

Marie Snyder said...

@BM - I also found this an eye-opening concept. I've also been surrounded by the message that if we can just get a better starting place for everyone, then it will all fall into place. Of course we have to get out of that system entirely, like so many others since the dawn of neoliberal policies! Thanks for reading!