In The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Michael Sandel eloquently argues a sobering idea: America can pursue meritocracy or the common good, but not both. But while his takedown of the rhetoric of merit is refreshing for exposing the moral shortcomings of our political discourse, it’s also ultimately disappointing. His conclusion is too anodyne, arguing for a return to the language of the common good without mentioning the cultural conservatism that undergirds it. Still, the book deserves four out of five stars for its castigation of meritocracy, an idea so ubiquitous that examining it recalls the swimming fish who asks, “What’s water?”
Thomas Jefferson hoped that a “natural aristocracy” would arise in America, based on “virtue and talents” instead of an “artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth.” The term meritocracy, however, wasn’t coined until 1958 by sociologist Michael Dunlop Young, who conceived of it satirically only to see it adopted unironically. Aristocracy, despite its negative connotations, refers to the most admirable or virtuous ruling. Rule by the meritorious, in contrast, is by the most intelligent, capable, and competent—not necessarily the most civically and morally virtuous.
The meritocratic paradigm is predicated on twin appeals to efficiency for society and fairness for individuals. Across the political spectrum in America and the United Kingdom, this was the dominant framing from the 1980s until Donald Trump and Brexit. Yet this paradigm has resulted in populist revolts. The ubiquitous appeal to economic growth and efficiency presumes a technocratic view of the common good that “is understood mainly in economic terms… less about cultivating solidarity or deepening the bonds of citizenship than about satisfying consumer preferences as measured by the gross domestic product.” This trend “can be seen in the growing role of economists as policy advisors, the increasing reliance on market mechanisms to define and achieve the public good, and the failure of public discourse to address the large moral and civic questions.”
In a pluralistic society without a thick, shared conception of the common good, the default has been to frame policies in terms of managerial, technocratic, and economic jargon. Political questions cease to be moral, and instead they become matters for experts to choose what’s best for everyone else in an ostensibly value-neutral way.
The other argument for meritocracy, that it’s fairer for individuals, also fails under scrutiny. A highlight of the book is Sandel’s tracing of the concept of merit from the Old Testament to modernity, borrowing from Eric Nelson’s Theology of Liberalism. Sandel describes an uneasy dialectic of merit and grace throughout the history of Christianity; Christians cannot merit God’s grace, yet it’s psychologically difficult to believe works are unconnected to salvation. Martin Luther and John Calvin saw Catholicism as over-emphasizing good works, giving the sense that salvation was merited. The Reformation reaffirmed mankind’s inability to earn salvation, yet ultimately led to Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic; without spiritual works to turn to, “secular moral-strivings” took the place of Catholic sacred rituals. Meritocracy becomes a secularized belief in Providential fairness, where esteem and wealth are heaped on the cosmically deserving while the less virtuous suffer.
This reveals the fundamental problem with meritocracy’s appeal to individual fairness. In addition to many Christians, liberals like John Rawls, Friedrich Hayek, and Frank Knight believe that there is no intrinsic relationship between merit and moral deserts. Whether it’s God’s will or pure luck, being born with superior intelligence in an environment to use it is necessarily rare. Meritocracy therefore “ignores the moral arbitrariness of talent and inflates the moral significance of effort.”
Yet meritocracy has deeper problems. Those at the top gain a sense of hubris and disconnect from the majority. “The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient,” Sandel writes, “the less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves.” Meritocracy actually increases inequality, just with a deserving elite who competently run the country. Inequality and elites aren’t intrinsically wrong, yet it’s unsustainable for America’s ruling class to become so detached. Alexis de Tocqueville predicted as much in Democracy in America, Book II Chapter XX, where he warns of a commercial elite “with no real bond between them and the poor” that would be “one of the harshest which ever existed in the world.”
Responses to these issues by Democrats and Republicans are either more meritocratic competition or a greater social safety net. Both miss the point. While every society has inequality, meritocracy pronounces a moral judgment on everyone but elites. Instead of improving life for those at the bottom, our answer to inequality has been mobility for the few who can rise, yet “a good society cannot be premised only on the promise of escape.”
The usual leftist response to meritocratic inequality is wealth redistribution, yet this also fails for its materialism. Populist discontent is only partially about living standards. The real cause, Sandel believes, is the changing terms of social recognition and esteem. The problem is not just material inequality, but a sense that the upper class, the decision-makers, have become disconnected from everyone else.
Sandel returns to his thesis at the end of the book to discuss what an alternative to the rhetoric and policies of merit might look like. Interestingly, Barack Obama was lauded and quickly rose to prominence for “show[ing] that progressive politics could speak a language of moral and spiritual purpose” in contrast to “the managerial, technocratic discourse that… characterized liberal public discourse.” Yet, as president, “smart” and “dumb” were his primary evaluative terms, with smart invariably entailing appeals to expert opinion and efficiency. Some believe Obama was bought off after the Wall Street-friendly response to the 2008 financial crisis, yet Sandel argues it was really about merit; Wall Street was such a place of prestige that heeding its representatives had to be the “smart” thing to do.
Against prevailing thinkers like John Maynard Keynes and Adam Smith, who describe the economy as a means to consumption, Sandel argues for “contributive justice,” which declines:
neutral[ity] about human flourishing or the best way to live. From Aristotle to the American republican tradition, from Hegel to Catholic social teaching, theories of contributive justice teach us that we are most fully human when we contribute to the common good and earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contributions we make.
Though not a policy wonk, Sandel points to Oren Cass, author of The Once and Future Worker and executive director of American Compass, as an exemplar of what contributive justice could look like. Cass prescribes a “focus on policies that enable workers to find jobs that pay well enough to support strong families and communities.” A wage subsidy is one example, but the guiding principle is viewing economics “from the standpoint of workers, not consumers… [and] shifting our focus from maximizing GDP to creating a labor market conducive to the dignity of work and social cohesion.”
I agree with Sandel’s desire for a new science of politics, one that combines economic insights with a thick sense of human anthropology and the common good, as I’ve written. The problem is that Sandel doesn’t discuss any deeper sense of solidarity beyond vague patriotism and economic nationalism. These are desirable, yet the rejuvenation of civil society isn’t purely a function of the economy. He declines to discuss the sexual revolution, breakdown of families, secularization of America, or any of the other factors that erode cohesion.
At one point he highlights the Library of Congress as a pure expression of the democratic ethos, with readers “old and young, rich and poor, black and white, the executive and the laborer, the general and the private, the noted scholar and the schoolboy, all reading at their own library provided by their own democracy.” Sandel should consider how mainline Protestant and Catholic churches promoted solidarity and mixed the classes. He also speaks approvingly of the opportunities for civic engagement and education provided by the Knights of Labor’s reading rooms. Churches also provided reading rooms, not that Sandel mentions it.
Ultimately, Sandel gets many things right. The meritocratic paradigm was always destined to leave most Americans behind, and redistribution isn’t enough to restore national unity. Yet he fails to discuss cultural contributors to our decline in solidarity. Christians must recognize that the dissolution of economic and social institutions are two sides of the same coin; both must be addressed to preserve democracy in America.