With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Michael J. Sandel on the Dark Side of Meritocracy

Until quite recently, the idea of meritocracy was one of the defining ideals of American life. In recent years, however, many from across the political spectrum have taken an increasingly skeptical view of whether America is actually a meritocracy, or even whether it should be. Noema Deputy Editor Nils Gilman recently interviewed Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel about how meritocracy has devolved into a justification for inequality and why we should instead focus on the dignity of work.

Gilman: You argue in “The Tyranny of Merit” that the concept of merit, as it has been deployed within our democracy, has curdled into something that fundamentally undermines social respect. Specifically, you argue that it “invites the winners to consider their success their own doing and the losers to feel that those on top look down on them with disdain.” How does one become a meritocratic winner? Conversely, what or who is a meritocratic loser?

Sandel: It’s important to distinguish between merit understood as competence (which is a good thing), from meritocracy, which is a system of rule, a way of allocating income and wealth and power and honor according to what people are said to deserve.

Let’s first take the perfectly common-sense, unobjectionable notion of merit as competence. If I need surgery, I want a well-qualified surgeon to perform it. If I take a flight, I want a well-qualified pilot to be flying the plane. No sensible person objects to the general idea of competence. But that idea of merit-as-competence is used to defend a much more contestable idea, which is also familiar and influential: the ideology of meritocracy.

Meritocracy, like any “-ocracy,” is a mode of rule, a way of distributing income, power, wealth, opportunity, honor and social recognition. The principle of meritocracy, simply put, says that if chances are equal, the winners deserve their winnings.

So what distinguishes meritocracy from simply aligning people’s skills with social roles for which they are qualified? The idea of moral deservingness. What makes merit a kind of tyranny is the way it attributes deservingness to the successful. As inequalities of income and wealth have widened in recent decades, meritocratic attitudes towards success have tightened their grip and led the winners to believe that their success is their own doing.

When we think of aristocratic or caste societies, meritocracy seems like a liberating idea. It stands for the idea that nobody should be consigned to the fate of birth, the accident of birth. And the meritocratic idea initially seemed liberating in the sense that it said that everyone, whatever their birth or background, should be able to compete along with anyone else for jobs and social roles, for income and wealth and power. So yes, if the alternative is a feudal aristocracy, there is certainly something very attractive about meritocracy.

As meritocracy has tightened its hold on our public life, however, what began as a principle that seemed to offer an alternative to inequality has become instead a justification for inequality. What’s more, meritocracy has become a kind of hereditary system, much as aristocracy was. Affluent, privileged parents have figured out how to pass their privilege on to their kids, not by bequeathing them land or estates, as in aristocratic societies, but instead by equipping them to compete successfully on standardized tests and to win admission to highly competitive universities.

The growing awareness of the problems with meritocracy in recent decades is a direct result of the deepening divide between winners and losers. The divide has poisoned our politics and set us apart. This has partly to do with widening income and wealth inequality. But it has also to do with changing attitudes toward success. In this way, a seemingly attractive principle — that if chances are equal, the winners deserve their winnings — by implication comes to mean that those who struggle and fall short must deserve their fate as well.

Read entire article at Noēma