The Tyranny of Merit Book Cover

The Dark Side of Meritocracy: How We Lost Sight of the Common Good

A meritocracy is a political system in which economic goods and political power are vested in individuals on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than on wealth, social class, or other arbitrary prejudices. 

The principle is simple and easily illustrated with an example. Let’s say you’re hiring someone to perform a job, in this case a mechanic to repair your car. Who should you choose? In the interest of both efficiency (the mechanic’s capacity to quickly make affordable, quality repairs) and fairness (rewarding people for quality work), you would want to select the mechanic with the best reputation and ability—in other words, on the basis of merit.

Choosing a mechanic along any other dimension—race, social class, religion, political orientation, gender, etc.—would be both unfair and inefficient for both you and the mechanic, who, through his or her own talents and effort, has established a reputation for quality work. 

This principle, applied to the whole of society, including to its governing classes, constitutes the foundation of a meritocracy. Isn’t it obvious, then, that meritocracy is the ideal to which every society should strive?

The answer, according to political philosopher Michael Sandel, is no. In The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel explores the often-ignored societal costs of living within a meritocracy. While Sandel is not making the claim that the merit-based allocation of jobs and capital should be eliminated entirely, he is making the case that it should be tempered by a richer conception of equality and the common good. 

So, what are the problems with meritocracy? First, the ideals of meritocracy are nowhere near being met in practice, at least not in the United States. Despite assertions from politicians across the political spectrum, the idea that “you can make it as far as your talents and efforts will take you” is nothing other than empty rhetoric. As Sandel wrote:

“The American faith in the ability to rise through effort and grit no longer fits the facts on the ground. In the decades following World War II, Americans could expect that their children would do better, economically, than they had. Today, this is no longer the case. Of children born in the 1940s, almost all (90 percent) earned more than their parents. Of children born in the 1980s, only half surpassed their parents’ earnings.”

Sandel goes on to show that there is far less economic mobility in the US compared to several other European countries, including Germany, Spain, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. The stark reality—what the statistics clearly show—is that if you’re born into a low-income family in the US, the overwhelming odds are that you will remain a low-income earner. This is not because talent and effort are the exclusive reserve of the wealthy; rather, it is because the wealthy have advantages and privileges that the poor simply do not. 

This is due to a host of factors, including the fact that wealthy parents can buy their children better education, personal tutors, and test prep courses in preparation for admission to selective colleges, and, once their kids get accepted, can actually pay for the absurdly expensive tuition bills these colleges charge. Then, upon graduation, these privileged kids get priority in the job market for the most prestigious, high-paying jobs, often forgetting all the help they received along the way and arrogantly attributing their success solely to their own efforts while looking down on those who did not receive the same assistance. 

To ascend to the top ranks of society does often require prodigious talent, intellect, and effort, but oftentimes, it conspicuously does not. Who would seriously make the claim that the majority of current US politicians represent the best and the brightest the country has to offer, in terms of intelligence, morality, or civic virtue? People obtain positions of power and economic advantages for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with their own efforts or talents, and more to do with lineage, luck, and connections. 

And so the US is a “meritocracy” in name only. This fact suggests to some that the task at hand is simply to implement policies that seek to expand equality of opportunity and to get more disadvantaged youth in positions to succeed. 

But Sandel notes that while expanding opportunity is a worthy cause, it is not a permanent solution. A good society cannot simply be founded on providing opportunities to escape poor conditions, but rather should be founded on trying to eliminate poor conditions in the first place. So it is not just that we are not living up to the ideals of meritocracy (where social mobility allows people to swap places with each other); it’s that the concept of a perfect meritocracy is antithetical to notions of equality grounded in civic responsibility and the common good. 

Here’s the reason: even if everyone did achieve what they “deserve” based on talent, who is to say that having the talents that any particular market-based society happens to value entitles those individuals to outsized economic rewards? A key argument of the defenders of meritocracy is that people should be fairly compensated based on factors within their control and that they should not be punished for things outside of their control. But if inborn talent is largely outside of one’s control (along with being born to wealth or to advantageous circumstances), then why should those without those talents be punished with economic disadvantage? 

Further, market value is not a good proxy for moral or social value; if it was, you would have to accept the conclusion that a meth dealer contributes greater value to society than a high school chemistry teacher (who stands to make significantly less money in the market). The vagaries of supply and demand do not override what the citizens of a democracy collectively determine to be of greater social value, and no democracy would ever assign greater social value to dealing drugs over teaching kids or healing the sick. 

As Sandel points out, a perfect meritocracy does not solve the problem of the allocation of true social value or the problem of inequality; it only justifies inequality by ceding moral authority over to the market, which then assigns individual value based on the vagaries of supply and demand and the morally-arbitrary possession of inborn talent. This creates a new class-based system whereby those at the top of society believe they are superior (ignoring all the contingencies that helped them rise to the top) while those at the bottom come to believe that they also deserve their diminished lot in life. This fosters meritocratic hubris in society’s elites and resentment in those that pursue other ways of life and work that may be valued less in the market, but that are in fact important contributions to the common good.

So what’s the alternative to meritocracy and the rhetoric of social mobility? Is the only alternative complete equality of outcome? As Sandel explains, this is a false dichotomy presented by defenders of the status quo. Rather than turning to communism, we can simply take steps—not to guarantee complete equality—but to make society more equal and less divisive. Specifically, we can do two things immediately: (1) make higher education less meritocratic and (2) restore the dignity of work. 

If education is the gateway to success in our market-dominated society, then you would hope that the student bodies of the best colleges in the country were representative of the population at large. They are not. As Sandel notes:

“More than 70 percent of those who attend the hundred or so most competitive colleges in the United States come from the top quarter of the income scale; only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter.”

Additionally, if you come from a rich family (top 1 percent), you are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than if you come from a poor family (bottom 20 percent). Studies have also shown that even for the kids from poor families that are admitted to the most selective colleges, very few are able to move to higher income brackets. 

Sandel’s solution to expand the diversity in the top US colleges includes eliminating the SAT as a requirement for admissions, as high SAT scores more closely correlate with family wealth than with the ability to excel in college. He also suggests instituting a lottery for admissions, where applicants that are deemed less likely to succeed based on grades and application materials are first eliminated. Then, the remainder are entered into a lottery and randomly chosen, so as not to prioritize the children of alumni, donors, or other arbitrary connections. 

Moving on to restoring the dignity of work, Sandel shows how the market cannot be trusted to answer the question as to which jobs have the highest social value. As Sandel wrote:

“Only an ardent libertarian would insist that the wealthy casino magnate’s contribution to society is a thousand times more valuable than that of a pediatrician.”

We are not simply consumers, concerned only with the total amount of material goods and services (measured in GDP) that we can consume. What matters more to people is being a valued contributor to society, engaging in work that is considered important and respected. What has happened in the meritocratic US is that the market has overemphasized certain positions—particularly in finance—that are not necessarily involved in the production of tangible products and services, while looking down on those jobs that are actually tangibly beneficial (such as plumbing or sanitation work). And because the market overvalues elite, credentialed positions, society’s elites come to look down on those without college degrees working in the trades.

But there is dignity in all work, as everyone plays their part in the contribution to the common good. As martin Luther King Jr. said:

“One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant.”

To re-emphasize the value and dignity of work—and to de-emphasize the inflated value assigned by the market to elite positions in finance and other credentialed positions—Sandel suggests shifting the tax burden away from work and onto consumption and financial speculation. The way to do this is to lower or eliminate payroll taxes altogether and to raise revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions, including high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy (in fact, high-frequency financial trading in most cases extracts money from the real economy to enrich investors who then pass their wealth on to their children). 

Sandel’s suggestions make a lot of sense; by making education less meritocratic, restoring the dignity of work, shifting the tax burden away from workers, reducing inequality, and restoring social esteem among all workers, the underlying source of the politics of resentment (which is largely to blame for the election of Donald Trump) is eliminated.  

I will say I’m surprised that Sandel does not consider political fixes such as sortition, or the random assignment of citizens to political office. Sandel shows how our elected representatives are more credential than ever (95 percent have a college degree) but less representative of the population (only one-third of US adults have a college degree). Further, there is little evidence that having these credentials leads to greater moral character, civic virtue, or ability to govern. Based on this, you would think that creating a system of governance where our elected representatives do not disproportionately represent the meritocratic elite would be more of a priority for Sandel to explore. 

Nevertheless, this is a critically important work that questions the assumption most of us have that society should simply strive to become a perfect meritocracy. We should understand that the constant striving and competition and reliance on the market to value social activity has resulted in extreme inequality and a politics of resentment. We must understand that those that rise to the top of society do so through several contingencies that should foster feelings of humility and gratitude, not hubris, and that the path to a better society includes valuing the dignity of all work and resisting our tendency to allow the market to determine the economic and social value of our jobs.