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.

The Broken System: What Comes After Meritocracy?

Michael J. Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, gives us a deeper view into some of the reasons why many ordinary workers have become suspicious of the highly educated elites who seek to represent their interests in the Democratic Party. In providing a damning critique of meritocracy, Sandel also documents how, as both an ideology and a set of practices, it has become a driving force within the party as its members have become more highly educated. He argues that, in stressing education as the primary means to get ahead in society, the party’s educated elites have come to offer an increasingly narrow pathway to a decent life. In doing so, they have rationalized the rampant inequality of the past four decades and often demeaned less educated people and their contributions to society. Their meritocratic focus on technical expertise in policy-making has also excluded the less credentialed from participating in this process and displaced democratic discussion of the common good, a fundamental project in which all should be included. Even the focus of the more left-wing educated elites on distributive justice, Sandel argues, doesn’t remedy the ways that meritocracy has undermined what he calls contributive justice—fair opportunities for everyone to contribute, and be recognized for contributing, to the common good.

As a critique of meritocracy and an explanation of today’s populist resentment toward educated elites, The Tyranny of Merit is a compelling book. But Sandel’s tentative suggestions for remedying the harms of meritocracy focus far too much on liberal elites, while failing to address the much more significant ways in which business elites have harmed workers. In addition, by focusing on remedies rooted in the past, his vision also neglects the increasing diversity of workers by race, gender, and immigration status. Effective policies for workers must attend to the needs of America’s diverse workforce, and they can only be achieved by a politics that brings workers together and empowers them through democratic practices that extend into the workplace. This requires a 21st-century social-democratic agenda.

Sandel began his career in Harvard’s Department of Government in 1980, where he quickly became known as a leading communitarian critic of liberalism, especially as articulated by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. His first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, was dedicated to developing this communitarian critique. In it, Sandel challenged Rawls’s commitment to neutrality when it came to questions about the good life. He argued that neutrality led Rawls’s theory of justice to be excessively individualistic. Distributive justice, Sandel insisted, could only be understood in collective terms and through shared conceptions of the good that are tied to citizens’ identities.

Since Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Sandel has spent much of his career developing these communitarian arguments, which have also evolved into republican ones. In works like Democracy’s DiscontentThe Case Against Perfection, and What Money Can’t Buy, he has consistently stressed the centrality of a republican concept of the common good to democratic politics.

In The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel continues his critique of liberal individualism. But he does so now by considering the ideology of meritocracy, which conceives of life as a race in which individuals scramble over one another to reach higher rungs on the ladder of success by demonstrating their superior talents and work ethic. Presenting a long bill of indictment against meritocracy, Sandel demonstrates not only how the liberal promise of equality of opportunity has not been fulfilled but also how the very conception of life as a relentless competitive race unjustly denigrates the losers, produces a cynical and arrogant elite, corrupts the institutions of higher education, and replaces democracy with technocracy. Unwittingly, it thereby gives rise to a populist backlash.

Sandel recognizes that other factors besides meritocracy have undermined the working class. Globalization, technological change, and the economic policies initiated since the 1970s have reduced the prospects of many American workers without college degrees, he argues. Meritocracy has justified these shifts by claiming that they reward workers in proportion to their productive contributions to society: In the new information economy, highly educated professionals and especially those in the STEM fields contribute far more than others. As a remedy for increasing inequality, meritocracy promises broader opportunities by opening access to higher education and allowing more people to enter these fields.

Sandel shows how that promise is a lie. Inequality has skyrocketed since the ’70s, while intergenerational social mobility has declined. The top tier of workers has turned itself into a self-reproducing elite, flattering itself as a natural aristocracy superior to the losers in the race to succeed. And it has recruited the institutions of higher education—especially elite colleges and universities—to perform the task of sorting, ranking, and credentialing individuals to feed the meritocratic job-allocation machine.

Read entire article at The Nation