Michael Sandel begins The Tyranny of Merit by reminding his readers of the college admissions scandal of 2019, where it came out that several public figures had paid a fly-by-night admissions counselor to give their children an unfair leg up on tests like the SAT. The outrage sparked by these revelations, he points out, is rooted in an opinion that we now nearly always take for granted. According to it, our social and economic position should be dictated solely by whether we deserve to have that position; people should be allowed to rise (or fall) exactly as far in the hierarchy as their talents and initiative can take them, and no farther. In short, society should be meritocratic.

As the title suggests, Merit is above all else an invitation to rethink this seemingly self-evident thought. Accordingly, its first half is an attack on what Sandel sees as the most insidious form of meritocracy yet developed. This is what he calls “technocratic meritocracy,” which developed in the United States before spreading to rest of the Western world, where it is still often taken for granted today. Although Sandel never explicitly defines the term meritocracy, his slogan “our fate reflects our merit” gives an important clue to how he conceives of it. On this conception, a society is meritocratic if (or rather, insofar as) the actual fortunes and social stations of its members—how well or badly off they are, how much esteem they get from their fellow citizens, and so on—match the fortunes and social stations they merit (deserve to have).[1] Technocratic meritocracy is distinguished from other forms of meritocracy by its conception of merit. While earlier forms of meritocratic thought typically held that merit is a function of moral virtue, technocratic meritocracy is uncomfortable with morality-talk. Instead, it sees merit as a function of scientific and administrative expertise.

As already suggested, the idea of meritocracy is far older than technocratic meritocracy. Sandel sketches out a history of meritocratic thought before it went technocratic, and argues for a particular account of where the wrong turn happened. In doing so, he emphasizes two points. First, he argues that in many ways, the wrong turn happened immediately: many of the bad aspects of technocratic meritocracy were already at least partly present in earlier forms of meritocratic thought and practice. Second, these earlier forms have deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For Christians sympathetic to Sandel’s attack on technocratic meritocracy, this should be troubling.[2] Must a Christian society be a meritocratic society? Must it have the deep flaws (if they are deep flaws) that Sandel sees in technocratic meritocracy? In short, is it possible to be both a good Christian and (at least with respect to meritocracy) a good Sandelian?

Sandel on Providentialism and Cosmic Meritocracy

According to Sandel, the idea that fate should match merit began as a religious notion. For pre-modern, pre-scientific people, he writes, it came naturally to see the universe as a “cosmic meritocracy” where good things only happen to good people and bad things only happen to bad people. For Jews and Christians,[3] this view of the world was often underwritten by what Sandel calls providentialism—the view that all good fortune is the result of being favored by an all-good, all-powerful God, while bad fortune is a form of punishment from the same God. Unlike technocratic meritocracy, which tends to shy away from justifying itself in openly moral terms, providentialism makes virtue the main measure of merit. Since God is all-good, He will disfavor vicious people and favor virtuous ones, so that the morally best of us end up on top. Every stroke of good fortune becomes a reward, and every misfortune a punishment. As Sandel points out, this seems morally problematic. It encourages a harsh and unsympathetic attitude toward the less fortunate, and hubris and pride on the part of the fortunate.

Moving on to Christianity, Sandel connects his project to debates in the early church about free will and salvation. In particular, he pegs Pelagius, who thought humans could earn salvation through good works alone, as a meritocrat. For Pelagius’s contemporary Augustine, this was to put to the cart before the horse: Pelagianism, he argued, does not take original sin seriously enough. It also puts God’s sovereignty over creation in jeopardy since it entails that we have the power to affect how He acts. It doesn’t follow, however, that a person in a state of grace can be morally vicious; he can’t. But this virtue is the result, not the cause, of saving grace, and is therefore just as undeserved as saving grace. Although Pelagianism lost out and was condemned as a heresy, Sandel claims that Pelagian assumptions soon crept back into the practice of the church. For many Christians, it was tempting to see the fruits of faith as rewards rather than as unearned gifts. This culminated in the Medieval trade in indulgences, which many at the time saw as a way of buying one’s way into Heaven.

Thus, the Protestant Reformation, which was in large part a reaction against the creep of Pelagianism, was also a revolution against providentialism; the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is a particularly extreme example. But once again, providentialism crept back in. Following Max Weber, Sandel argues that Calvinism encouraged a combination of thrift and secular industry, leading Calvinists to accumulate wealth. But as before, many were tempted to think, against their own religious convictions, that they had earned this wealth.

The Puritans brought Calvinist theology and its unintended providentialist consequences to America, and even as that country became more secular over the centuries, providentialism remained popular. In particular, it became associated with the idea that free, globalized markets tended to reward people in a way commensurate with their talents and initiative. Since the qualities needed to succeed in these markets were not mainly moral qualities, technocratic meritocracy was born.

Benefits of Meritocracy

It should be noted that Sandel is certainly no unqualified enemy of meritocracy. Choosing the best man for the job tends to yield the best results, and giving people more or less than their due is unfair. Further, a meritocratic society encourages the spread of a morally wholesome view of human freedom, on which “our success does not depend on forces beyond our control.”

So why be wary of meritocracy? Since it encourages people to believe that they deserve their station in life, it encourages arrogance and self-congratulation among society’s winners, and a toxic mixture of self-loathing and resentment among its losers. It also inhibits people from seeing the world in terms of “gift and gratitude.” In its most insidious, technocratic form, meritocracy inevitably creates conflict between winners and losers. Such conflict, Sandel thinks, is the source of many of the worst ills of our society. On the losers’ side, it has led to populist movements that he regards as dangerous to democracy. Since technocratic merits (unlike moral merits) are the kinds of skills you can learn in a college classroom, technocratic providentialism has also led to a disastrous credentialism, where it is practically impossible to advance socially or economically without a college degree.

Christian Tension with Providentialism and Meritocracy

It is difficult to hear this story and not conclude that its principal (albeit often unwitting) bad guy is Judeo-Christian theism. Seen with modern eyes, the tradition’s supposed tendency toward providentialism and cosmic victim-blaming was morally questionable from day one, since it encouraged a harsh and unsympathetic attitude toward the less fortunate. Even figures like the Protestant Reformers or the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes, whose hearts were at least in the right place, couldn’t make anti-providentialism stick, at least if Sandel is to be believed.

None of this seems to particularly bother Sandel, who doesn’t appear religious and who seemingly regards the secularization of the West as a done deal. But it does bother me, and for Christians who see some things to like in Sandel’s critique of technocratic meritocracy, then it should bother them, too. The problem here is not that the spread of Christianity happened to have some unintended bad consequences. Rather, the problem is that the same unintended consequences keep happening over and over. Practical Pelagianism creeps into the church, then hops from the church to society at large. Once it hops to society and is stripped of its Christian foundations, who’s to say that it won’t turn technocratic again? But if spreading the Gospel is to set society up for the evils of unchecked meritocracy, our duties as Christians would seem conflict with our duties as citizens. In the long run, we can have the Gospel or a common good, but not both.

Short of completely rejecting Sandel’s genealogy of technocratic meritocracy, is there anything the Christian can do to ease this tension?

A point is worth stressing here. Although Sandel doesn’t draw attention to it, there is a telling difference between the spokespeople he chooses for Christian providentialism and those he chooses for Christian anti-providentialism. On the side of providentialism are low-rent televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and heterodox movements like Pelagianism and prosperity theology. On the other side are Augustine, the New England Puritans, and God Himself. On that authority, I conclude, as Sandel seems to do, that Christianity properly understood is a non- or anti-providentialist religion, in theory. It is perfectly possible to be a good Christian and a good anti-providentialist. The problem, in other words, is not that Christianity properly understood commits us to the belief that providentialism is true; it doesn’t. Rather, the problem is that Christians tend to pridefully and unreasonably believe in providentialism anyway.

But to what extent is this a problem? Isn’t it exactly what we should expect if Christianity, including the doctrine of original sin, were true? Granted, the apparent tension between Christianity and the common good may be a reason to think that Christianity is false. But paradoxically, Christians’ failure to live up to their faith may be a reason to think that Christianity is true. I see no clear grounds for thinking that the former reason must be stronger than the latter.

Further, Sandel undersells how radically the New Testament rejects providentialism, and how deeply this continues to affect Christian practice. Far from, say, striking people blind for their sins, the God of the New Testament gives them their sight back. This, among other things, led to the church’s long history of almsgiving, caring for the sick, housing widows and orphans, and so on. This tradition can be seen as one long rejection of providentialism—one that’s still going strong 2,000 years later. But this is hard to square with the claim that providentialism always and inevitably infects the life of the church.

This leads me to a final point. We can ask:

  • How plausible is Sandel’s critique of meritocracy’s history, or how much of the story he tells is true?
  • Does Sandel’s moral critique of meritocracy stand or falls with that story?

Since I am not a historian, I won’t try to address the first question, except to point back to my previous reservations about some of Sandel’s historical claims. Moving on to the second question, as I suggested previously, I’m attracted to (parts of) Sandel’s critique of technocratic meritocracy as it exists now. His story of how we got there came as an add-on, and I think it’s an expendable add-on. “What’s wrong?” is a separate question from, “Where did things go wrong?” If technocratic meritocracy is bad, then it is bad independent of its history. For the Christian friend of Sandel, the best option may therefore be to take his ethics and leave his history.

[1] Following normal usage, I will use the word meritocracy to refer both to a society structured in this way and to the claim that our society ought to be structured in this way.

[2] As we will see, the same goes for Jews, but I’ll focus on Christianity here.

[3] And presumably Muslims too, though Sandel doesn’t mention them. As he also notes, the idea of a cosmic meritocracy also can be and has been justified with reference to non-Abrahamic religions, such as Japanese Shinto.