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BOOKS: Are we really all in this together? A review of ‘The Tyranny of Merit’

It’s always worth pointing out that nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have a college degree, and worth remembering that the schools that take up the elite imagination actually take up only a thin slice of the higher education pie.

My family drove to Cape Rosier, Maine, a few weeks ago. Once we got off Interstate 95 and into rural towns like Palermo, Searsmont and Belfast, we started counting TRUMP signs, reaching 31 to BIDEN’s one. While strolling the docks of Stonington, a charming town on the southern tip of Deer Isle, we were particularly struck by one lobsterman’s Trumpian devotion. His boat pulled to a stop in front of us, the cabin dwarfed by an enormous blue flag flying aloft in the breeze: TRUMP 2020: FUCK YOUR FEELINGS.

Having just read Michael Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit” and done a little Googling, I think I understand the president’s appeal to lobstermen now. He sees them. He invited a Maine lobsterman to speak at the Republican convention this year. He just directed millions in federal funds to support the industry and offset tariffs from China. The president acknowledges Maine lobstermen in a way that traditional politicians, in the mode of elite-educated technocrats like Barack Obama, do not.

Sandel’s book is a contribution to a growing oeuvre that’s rethinking meritocracy, including Daniel Markovit’s 2019 book The Meritocracy Trap and Christopher Hayes’ “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.”

Although it may sound as American as apple pie, the term “meritocracy” was actually introduced in a work of satirical fiction by British sociologist Michael Young in 1958. It means, essentially, getting what you deserve in life as opposed to what you’re born with. It was, as he conceived of it, not a good thing.

Young presciently saw the danger in replacing a hereditary aristocracy — in which financial rewards and social prestige are bestowed through family lineage — with a system in which citizens (presumably) start out on equal footing and are rewarded purely for effort. If “you can make it if you try” sounds hollow these days, that’s because it is. Opportunity has never been, and is not now, equally distributed, but our enduring belief in the myth has left us with winners and losers who both believe it was their doing, and their doing alone, that got them where they are.

Michael Sandel presentation at the TED MainStage night, as part of TED2020: Uncharted. Photo courtesy TED.

His guiding question is a tough one: If winners and losers in our meritocratic economy both deserve what they get, and are remunerated and valorized according to how well their skills and schooling align with what the market will bear, where does that leave the idea of a common good? If it’s been lost, is there any way to recoup it?

As a political philosopher, Sandel applies a refreshing moral framing in his responses, going as far back as the Book of Job for a first example of the tyranny of merit. Job, a righteous man in the eyes of God and man, loses his children in a storm, and bemoans his fate. His friends urge him to consider where he must have gone wrong, since sinfulness is, to them, the only way to explain his terrible luck. But God himself, when he finally addresses Job, denounces this paradigm. “In renouncing the idea that he presides over a cosmic meritocracy, God asserts his unbounded power and teaches Job a lesson in humility. Faith in God means accepting the grandeur and mystery of creation, not expecting God to dispense rewards and punishments based on what each person merits or deserves.”

Sandel also points out the eloquent preacher of Ecclesiastes, who understands better the contingencies of life, and therefore knows, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happens to them all.”

Unfortunately, we’re more influenced by the Puritans than by Ecclesiastes. We’ve been trained to believe you win favor— God’s favor, the market’s favor, “success”— through your own efforts rather than through luck of the draw or divine grace. That’s great news for strivers and has the advantage of sounding fair. But it’s an approach to life that distinguishes rather that unites, that disintegrates rather than integrates. Sandel warns: “This logic makes meritocracy corrosive of commonality. Too strenuous a notion of personal responsibility for our fate makes it hard to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes.”

If my success is up to me, your failure is down to you. The distance between the rungs of the economic ladder get further and further apart every year; the top 1 percent now own more wealth than all of the middle class combined; and Warren Buffett is taxed at a lower rate than his secretary. But relegation to the bottom rungs of the financial ladder is only a portion of the pain meritocracy’s losers are subjected to. They’re also made to believe that they should have been able to “make it,” and that the non-elite work they do is not valuable.

Many of Sandel’s insights into our fateful embrace of meritocratic values are derived from his close study of word usage in political speech and popular culture. He calls the language of meritocracy “the rhetoric of rising,” and traces, for instance, the use of terms and phrases like “You deserve,” which more than tripled from 1970 to early 2008. McDonalds’ “You deserve a break today,” was ubiquitous when I was growing up.

John F. Kennedy never said it publicly, but Ronald Reagan used the term more than his five predecessors combined, Bill Clinton used it two times as often as Reagan, and Barack Obama three times as often. Obama is also the one who adopted the term meritocracy, and his policies embodied its spirit. He considered sports to be the perfect meritocracy and called his signature education legislation Race to the Top.

But by 2016, of course, the shine was off the lofty talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The shocking election of Donald Trump, Sandel argues, can be partially explained by widespread resentment of the way in which meritocratic ideals had been communicated by the system’s most devoted disciples, such as Obama and the technocratic experts he surrounded himself with. “They did not notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising was less a promise than a taunt.”

A taunt indeed. What’s the likelihood of an American child moving from rags to riches these days? Pretty low. It’s easier to do in Canada or Denmark. (“By these measures,” quips Sandel, “The American Dream is alive and well and living in Copenhagen.”) But these days China is the real land of opportunity, where you can make it if you try. How much you earn as an adult is more closely tied to where you started out as a child in the United States than it is there.

What about education, the great equalizer? College was reconceived as a meritocratic project by Harvard President James Bryant Conant in the 1940s. Up until that point, admission to elite universities depended mostly on your last name. Conant’s mission to undo this trend and democratize the institution was a worthy mission, but we know how smoothly it’s been hijacked by privileged parents. They and an industry of tutors and advisors took every supposedly even playing field — the SAT, athletics, AP classes, the personal essay — and tipped it in their kids’ favor. The results are predictable. More than two-thirds of students at the top 100 colleges come from the wealthiest quarter of the income scale. Only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter.

Furthermore, it’s always worth pointing out that nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have a college degree, and worth remembering that the schools that take up the elite imagination actually take up only a thin slice of the higher education pie. While 46 schools accept less than 20 percent of applicants, the vast majority of American college students — 80 percent — attend schools that accept more than half of applicants.

But the Harvards of the world have a hypnotic hold over devoted meritocrats, who sometimes see an elite educational background as so powerful it can erase other considerations of character. Sandel reminds us of the bizarre example from Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 Senate testimony, when he was compelled to address charges of sexual assault stemming from his high school years. His impassioned defense included the following: “I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school. Captain of the varsity basketball team. Got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School … That’s the number one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.”

None of that had anything to do with the question asked, but Kavanaugh had been raised to believe so fiercely in his meritocratic bona fides that they, in his mind, buffered him from accusations of poor behavior.

Perhaps Sandel’s most controversial contention is that there is one last acceptable prejudice: against the uneducated. Elites find all slurs unacceptable, except the ones about hillbilly rednecks living in flyover country. Liberal skepticism of the existence of this prejudice was revealed by the title the New York Times chose for Sandel’s op-ed of Sept. 2: “Do We Look Down on the Less Educated?

As a case in point for why this might have been framed as a statement rather than an open question, take Joe in New York, whose starred comment to Sandel’s piece in the Times has been recommended 1,999 times. Here’s a portion of it:

“Several years ago while visiting Cleveland, Ohio in the winter, my car battery died overnight. I had to call road service. As the fellow got my car running we chatted. He shared that he had started college, but dropped out because the teachers were ‘trying to make him a liberal.’ Here was a man who did not even feel willing to evaluate and choose from among new ideas. The only option he could imagine was to block out all education in order to avoid even hearing ideas different from those he already had embraced. In other words he did not want education. Much of the problem we face is not from people who disdain the lesser educated. We face a problem from those who disdain information and growth.”

Joe inspired in me some snarkiness. Why, I wanted to point out, was Joe compelled to talk to such a disdainer of information? Oh, right, he didn’t have the expertise necessary to fix car batteries. He needed a mechanic. The irony in what Joe notices— his savior’s lack of education — versus what he is blind to — the value of the work the car mechanic does, makes Sandel’s key point more persuasively than any statistic.

A fundamental human need is to be needed, to know that your work is seen, that it has value, monetary and symbolic, to the community. What tells a mechanic, or a Maine lobsterman, that his work has value? Not the education system. Not our meritocratic hierarchy of work. Not a president like Obama, whose message was “if you quit on school, you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country”?

Trump might, though. Trump, who, by his very presence in the Oval Office, redefines the word “elite” and invites his millions of supporters to join him. “The forgotten men and women of the Unites States are forgotten no more,” he assures them.

For a book this well-argued, and for a time this fraught and demoralizing, the conclusion disappoints. Professor Sandel has two visions for how to rediscover a common good. His first is of Americans from all walks of life sitting together in the great reading room of the Library of Congress, quietly learning together. Lovely, but the image excludes the 1 in 5 Americans who are functionally illiterate as well as, I’d argue, another big chunk who can read but have learned to hate it. You can’t equate dignity with culture if culture is not universally accessible.

It seems Sandel’s greater hope lies in his second vision, that meritocrats will find humility. They should acknowledge, as they consider their success and the failures of their compatriots, “There but for the grace of God go I.” His attachment to this demeaning phrase — it’s mentioned several times in the book, and he reiterated it in his op-ed and interview with Preet Bharara —reveals his own blind spots as a meritocrat.

What makes the work, or the life, of a professor or banker or writer any better than the work of a carpenter or mechanic or lobsterman? Nothing except our attitudes toward that work and life. Non-meritocrats don’t want pity, they want to be respected and valued. Sandel hopes, in “The Tyranny of Merit,” to loosen meritocracy’s hold on our civic life, but his own life exerts a tight meritocratic grip.