Book Review, Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

Michael Sandel’s most recent addition to an impressive list of influential semi-academic books on the application of moral philosophy to contemporary social issues lives up to the claim implicit in its title: namely to challenge the idea that competition based on merit is intrinsically the fairest way to allocate opportunities in society. According to Julian Coman’s review in the Guardian, the book “is Sandel’s response to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.” It is refreshing that Sandel ostensibly takes the side of neither the progressives nor the populists in these polarised debates, arguing that the former in particular have failed to recognise how, in their pursuit of the “meritocratic ideal,” the western working-class, whose interests have been championed by the latter, have been left behind.

The essence of Sandel’s argument is that meritocracy fails to deliver on its promises. In the first instance he points to how in the US in particular, the opening up of university places to those from all parts of society competing on a level playing field rather than their being mainly reserved for the children of the élite has resulted in a new game where the rich and privileged, by paying for their offspring to be coached, maximise their chances in the entrance competition. Evidence is adduced that there is consequently less social mobility in US society than there was a generation ago.

But Sandel’s more compelling argument is that the ideal of the meritocratic society is corrosive at a philosophical level in relation both to the winners and the losers. First, he argues, it breeds complacency and a sense of entitlement among those who are successfully coached and attain the glittering prizes: whereas in the past there was recognition that the position that the privileged came to enjoy in society was in large part a consequence of the fortune of their birth, those who attain their success through having attained entry to an Ivy League university in an open competition are more likely to see that success as a consequence of their own self-evident merit. This, he claims, is doubly toxic since the logic of this perspective applies equally to the “losers,” who judge themselves as inadequate and so deserving of the lowly status conferred upon them by society. A sense is created that those who have not attained at the highest level of academic distinction, have less to offer to society and so are entitled to less remuneration for the work they do and and less esteem for the services they render to society.

His broad conclusion from the above is that the meritocratic ideal has not only failed to deliver a just society in practice but is intrinsically incapable of doing so. It is his suggestion that we as a society need consequently to embark on a wider discourse about the dignity of work and how we can re-create a greater sense of the value of the contributions of those with more practical skills and the essential contributions which so many of them make, often in demanding circumstances.

As a practical way forward he proposes the idea of modifying the university entrance system so that, rather than trying to make fine distinctions among the most talented and imposing a cut-off, a lottery is conducted among all the candidates deemed adequately qualified and places conferred on that basis. This would serve both to reinforce the idea that success in life is in large part about being fortunate, not just having talent and/or making effort, and at the same time to open up more opportunity to those coming from less privileged backgrounds, so improving social mobility.

It is hard not to find oneself compelled at some level by Sandel’s arguments and the skill with which he deploys them. Nonetheless on reading through his book I retained a nagging sense that there was more to the argument than the skilled practitioner on stage was revealing to us. Having reflected on my reasons for feeling this way, I would present my reservations as being of two types, both related to the way in which the discussion is framed from the outset.

My first objection is that, although the evidence Sandel presents to back up his claims comes over as persuasive, it is at the same time anecdotal and idiosyncratic and does not stand up well to more careful scrutiny. My second, related, objection to Sandel’s argument is that the framing he adopts from the outset, evaluating the meritocratic ideal on the basis of the degree to which it contributes to the concept of a just society which he looks to set out, skews his arguments and consequently his conclusions.

Central to his argument is the role of universities as a “sorting hat.” But, while the role of Ivy League universities in the United State in perpetuating privilege is hard to deny, an equally good argument can be made that this is caused by a departure from proper meritocratic principles. As pointed out by Scott Newman in a recent essay, less than 4% of applicants to Princeton are currently accepted, the decision criteria resting less on academic distinction than on carefully curated value statements and CVs boasting of achievements in extra-curricular activities. Further, the lucrative career choices made by Princeton and Harvard graduates subsequently in financial services and management consultancy belie their profession of commitment to the achievement of social justice:

What I’m describing is a kind of liar’s club. Hopeful high school students lie about their commitment to social justice in a bid to gain admission, while the universities themselves lie about all the risk-taking, world-changing mavericks they’re looking to nurture. Neither side dares to speak the grubby truth, which is that the undergraduate experience will be a pro forma exercise in leftist indoctrination that precedes a march into the hallowed halls of investment banks and management consultancies.

The Liar’s Club: Looking Back on Princeton“, Scott Newman

Is it reasonable to call a competition based on such dissembling for appearance’s sake and to attain future self-advancement a properly meritocratic system? And if not, how is it relevant to Sandel’s moral/philosophical case against meritocracy?

The root problem here seems to be much simpler than suggested, namely a market failure wherein the supply of qualified graduates grossly exceeds the demand arising from jobs requiring graduate-level skills and a principle of “merit” becomes almost impossible to apply. The idea that those who are capable of benefitting significantly from an Ivy League education should be selected over those who aren’t is not challenged by Sandel, only the artificial way in which attempts are made to make finer distinctions among those who satisfy the initial criterion.

The “solution” Sandel proposes here is to introduce “a lottery of the qualified” into the system to make the final decision: among those who are deemed qualified, places are effectively to be assigned at random. This is claimed by Sandel to be preferable in principle since, by avoiding the sorting problem, the stigmatisation associated in his view with the meritocratic principle is thereby also avoided. But this begs the question: what about those who are deemed not to be qualified? While, for those selected to be included in the lottery, there is no shame in failing to win one of the coveted prizes, the stigmatisation of those who apply to be included in the lottery but are deemed not even worthy of consideration will surely be much greater than that of those who failed under the current system in what is known to be a very tight competition. Sandel here only appears to address the “stigmatisation” problem by exchanging it for another.

An arguably more compelling case can be made that it is the role played by the conferring of degrees by the top universities in opening up future career trajectories which is problematic. The number of jobs genuinely requiring degree-level capabilities has not kept up with the number of university graduates. Unless and until this mismatch is addressed, the “supply” of capable university applicants will continue to outstrip the “demand” of employers offering career opportunities requiring the skills which universities bestow. What is needed is a more nuanced way of assessing talent or “merit” which is more organically connected to the career paths being embarked upon. It is not the attempt to assess merit which is misguided but the inadequacy of the “one-size-fits-all” tools which are used in an effort to ensure fairness of the process.

In fact, Sandel does in a sense look to address this issue in his final chapter on recognising work. He makes the valid point that the esteem in which the work of non-graduates is held has been eroded in recent decades, complaining that although the per capita income in the US has increased 85% since 1979, white men without a college degree make less now, in real terms, than they did then. He concludes: “It is not surprising that they are unhappy.” The sleight of hand in this line of argument cannot go unremarked. He writes as if the “unhappy” workers are the same ones who experienced greater wage parity nearly half a century ago. But, when one reframes the situation as a swathe of high-paying jobs which previously did not exist coming into being in the meantime, it no longer appears as a problematic issue: many of those who would have been engaged in manual labour are in the present age doing better-paying graduate work, since the number of graduates is so much higher these days.

Further, if one views the low wages which manual labour currently attracts not as a lack of societal esteem but as a consequence of the economic reality that manual labour has to a large degree been displaced to developing countries where labour costs are cheaper, making it unprofitable for companies to pay US employees wages which are commensurate with those paid to graduates, there appears to be little support for Sandel’s suggestion that this situation requires us to revisit the social-philosophical foundations of our society. His argument only really works if one permits that wage levels should be determined by social-philosophical considerations and not as a contractual matter between employer and employee. But then one is not so much critiquing the idea of meritocracy as arguing against a free market in labour.

Other criticisms can also be made of the “sending a message” argument he deploys, not least that what is broadcast is not determinative of what is heard and believed as a consequence. In particular, if someone fails in their efforts to attain a university place or job, they may as Sandel suggests interpret that as a sign of their personal inadequacy. But they might equally interpret it as unfairness of the university entrance system or job interview process and/or inadequacy of the criteria used for determining success.

Clearly Sandel himself believes that failed applicants are mistaken in interpreting rejection as indicative of personal inadequacy. But rather than trying to allay the self-doubt, he seems happy to use it to his advantage as ammunition in his crusade against the idea of meritocracy. So his argument is not really about the inhabitants of a meritocratic society believing themselves to be inadequate, but is an attempt to transform their sense of disappointment into a grievance against the meritocratic society itself. But this is no longer a philosophical argument against the idea of meritocracy so much as a socio-political critique of society’s alleged failure to embody the meritocratic ideal satisfactorily.

But even if places at Ivy League universities were assigned by lottery, those who graduate from these universities would still command the best salaries and jobs, and for good reason if they have received a superior education. The graduates would then continue to believe they have won the best jobs on merit. Such a mistaken sense of entitlement can only be prevented if the cachet currently enjoyed by these universities and their graduates can be ended. This would of course require dismantling the standards of academic excellence which gave rise to it in the first place. Indeed a good argument can be made that this process has already begun as Ivy League universities increasingly emphasise the pursuit of social justice over standards of excellence. As pointed out by the authors of a recent essay provocatively titled As US Schools Prioritize Diversity Over Merit, China Is Becoming the World’s STEM Leader, the highly meritocratic Tsinghua and Peking Universities in mainland China already outrank Columbia, Princeton and Cornell in the top 20 of the QS World Rankings.

So, as well as moving the goalposts by narrowing the argument about the idea of meritocracy down to the question of whether it contributes to his idea of social justice, Sandel also changes the rules, making empirical observations about public dissatisfaction to back up what is supposed to be a philosophical critique of meritocracy. In this his reasoning is reminiscent of the Marxist “false consciousness” argument which is offered as an explanation of why the working class are kept in poverty by the oppressive capitalist system yet do not rebel against capitalism itself. In this case it is ordinary people’s failure to see how their oppression is caused by meritocracy which is the false consciousness.

But of course, if one takes a properly philosophical approach to judging the merits of the meritocratic principle, there is no compelling reason to make one’s observations through the prism of social justice theory. One is equally free, like Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek, to take an instrumentalist approach arguing for meritocratic competition on the basis that it leads to optimal distribution of opportunities and resources for the betterment of society as a whole. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics makes a similar point, employing utilitarian and teleological arguments to support the clearly meritocratic idea that the best flutes should be given to the best flute players, not just to reward the talented players but for the sake of society more widely. Indeed Sandel cites Aristotle’s argument with apparent approval in his “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to do?” (Penguin Books, 2009):

The purpose of flutes is to produce excellent music. Those who can best realize this purpose ought to have the best ones.

Now it’s also true that giving the best instruments to the best musicians will have the welcome effect of producing the best music, which everyone will enjoy—producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But it’s important to see that Aristotle’s reason goes beyond this utilitarian consideration.

His way of reasoning from the purpose of a good to the proper allocation of the good is an instance of teleological reasoning…Aristotle claims that in order to determine the just distribution of a good, we have to inquire into the telos, or purpose, of the good being distributed.

Excerpted from Chapter 8 on Who Deserves What?

Much more could be said on this topic and for those so interested I would recommend the excellent recent book on The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World (Allen Lane, 2021) by Adrian Woolridge. But probably readers will ultimately find themselves persuaded by Sandel’s arguments in his latest book to the degree to which they have imbibed the social justice agenda he espouses and are willing to accept the framing of his argument against meritocracy in terms of it. For myself, I confess I found his earlier works present a tapestry so much richer than the clearly more polemical approach he has chosen to adopt in his most recent offering.

About the Author

Colin Turfus
Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 12 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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