What Comes After Meritocracy?

The Broken System

What comes after meritocracy?


Last spring, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina explained why, at a pivotal moment in the Democratic primaries, he endorsed Joe Biden for president: “Our problem, it seems to me, is too many candidates spend time trying to let people know how smart they are, rather than trying to connect to people.” Clyburn said he hates it when candidates tell voters they need to be able to send their kids to college. What about the people who want to be electricians, plumbers, barbers? The promise of debt-free college, he continued, offers nothing to the significant part of his constituency that doesn’t want to go to college.

Clyburn’s endorsement played an important role in reviving Biden’s campaign: The former vice president’s thumping victory in South Carolina was the turning point of the Democratic primaries. Clyburn’s focus on higher education and the way it might alienate potential Democratic voters also points to a larger challenge that the party has faced since the 1980s: Despite seeking to protect working-class interests more than the Republicans, it has lost considerable segments of its working-class base. A candidate like Elizabeth Warren may advocate programs that advance working-class interests, including universal child care and pre-K and worker representation on corporate boards, but she failed to draw substantial working-class support. Much the same can be said for Warren’s more centrist colleagues, figures like Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar.

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 Discontent, The 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.

The results have been disastrous. By turning colleges and universities into the gatekeepers to jobs that offer dignity, security, and a decent standard of living, meritocracy has not remedied inequality; as Sandel argues, it has entrenched and justified it. He presents devastating statistics that show how selective schools do much less to promote social mobility than to consolidate privilege. The most elite schools enroll more students from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the bottom 50 percent. And their gatekeeping hardly stops at the admissions office. Colleges and universities erect additional hoops through which students must jump in an endless meritocratic arms race, as they compete for selection in elite extracurricular clubs, internships, academic honors, professional schools, and corporate jobs.

The job of meritocratic sorting and ranking, Sandel continues, also ultimately undermines the mission of education itself. Students feel that they must pile on credentials, grub for grades, and even cheat to succeed, leaving them with little time or energy for exploration, critical reflection, and learning for its own sake. Ruthless competition contributes to rising rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses among college students. By the time they finally make it into the top jobs, many are burned out and cynical. Seeing themselves as having earned their success through their own hard work and neglecting the enormous socioeconomic advantages and supports they enjoyed along the way, they feel entitled to grab all they can for themselves.

In Sandel’s view, meritocracy does more than drive material inequality; it creates a toxic economy of esteem. The winners in meritocratic competition feel entitled to take all they can, while the losers feel humiliated, continually told they deserve the fate to which elites consign them. However socially necessary their jobs may be, their contributions to the common good are disparaged by elites as uncredentialed and “low skill.” This adds insult to the injury of stagnant wages and precarity that many working-class Americans face. A system that imagines itself to be meting out to each person what he or she deserves is instead, as Sandel puts it, a “hollow political project” that pits people against one another and leads to a politics of resentment.

The consequences of the meritocratic age for democracy have proved to be grim. Elites, puffed up by the conceit that their superior positions are entirely due to their own strenuous efforts, lack gratitude for the social advantages that enabled their success and have little sympathy for or solidarity with the less fortunate. Their meager conception of the common good is limited to a technocratic obsession with growth, whether of the GDP or test scores. (Barack Obama’s Race to the Top educational program illustrates this obsession.) The highest praise they can offer for public policies is to call them “smart”—implying that they, the smartest ones, should be in charge of designing and executing them. But “smart” technocratic policies are often most concerned with rigging incentives to get the “right” meritocratic results desired by elites. They abandon the democratic project of constructing a vision of the common good together and focus only on sustaining the meritocratic regime as it exists.

In any event, elites are poorly equipped to reinvigorate democracy, Sandel insists. Colleges and universities, absorbed in the sorting-and-ranking project, have abandoned civic education, while their students, caught up in the credentials race, rarely reflect on the common good and have not learned practical wisdom in the scramble to the top. Living in class-segregated neighborhoods and overwhelmingly marrying and befriending members of their own class, elites are out of touch with the working class and ignorant of its concerns and problems. Those who pursue elected office won’t meet the latter in Congress or state legislatures either. These bodies, which once included many members without university degrees, are now almost entirely filled by the college-educated.

No wonder the non-college-educated have erupted in populist revolt. Vividly aware of the reality that hard work does not enable them to rise and resentful of condescending elite judgments, many gravitate toward populist authoritarian leaders who channel their grievances and promise to restore them to their former centrality in the nation and the culture.

To dismantle meritocracy and promote democracy, Sandel argues that we need to do two things. First, we need to reform education. To undermine the relentless sorting-and-ranking function of universities, he suggests that the most elite schools expand enrollment and admit by lottery applicants who pass a basic threshold of academic qualification. This proposal would affect only a small percentage of admissions, however, and does nothing for those who do not aspire to college. For the latter, he recommends increasing support for vocational and technical education. He also recommends a civic education for all, not just for the college-bound, so that everyone can better participate in democracy.

Sandel argues that alongside these changes to education must come a cultural shift: We need to honor all work that contributes to the common good. This requires a focus on contributive justice. It’s a fundamental human need to be appreciated and recognized by others in society. It’s not enough to offer monetary compensation to the unemployed for jobs lost because of global trade. The unemployed need jobs so they can contribute to society and regain the recognition owed to contributors. And they need jobs that pay well enough to support their families and communities.

Finally, Sandel argues that we must challenge the meritocratic assumption that income is a good measure of an individual’s contribution to society. The rich get much of their income from worthless, destructive, or merely extractive activities, especially in the financial sector, where fortunes are made from high-frequency trading, speculating on derivatives, and other kinds of financial engineering that don’t serve the real economy. The tax system should be revised to eliminate the favorable treatment of capital income relative to wage income and to discourage financial schemes that merely extract wealth from others or destabilize the economy.

Sandel insists that we also need to have serious discussions about what activities really do contribute to the common good, and we need to reward those activities accordingly. This discussion may deviate from liberal neutrality about conceptions of the good, but it’s needed to dislodge the morally obnoxious pretense that the market offers a neutral way to value people’s contributions. It may also help to defuse populist revolt by reviving democratic policy-making around broadly shared values rather than the neoliberal preferences of elites.

Thus far, almost everything Sandel argues in The Tyranny of Merit checks out. His two broad ideas—reforming education and honoring work—offer valuable ways to begin the effort of dismantling meritocracy. His recommendations, however, don’t always meet the challenges posed by populism or by what philosophers have come to call “the politics of recognition,” which seeks to create a society defined by the equal dignity and standing of diverse groups. By concentrating almost exclusively on educated elites, he also neglects the role of business elites in degrading workers’ dignity and economic prospects. And by proposing economic policies that recall the working-class politics of the past, which was focused on white men, he neglects the needs of workers today.

Part of the problem comes from Sandel’s identification of elites with the college-educated. By focusing on how professional-class elites flaunt their educational credentials, he overlooks how contemporary partisan politics in the United States and most rich democratic states around the world reflect a rivalry between educated elites and business elites. Thomas Piketty traces the impact of this rivalry on party politics in Capital and Ideology. In the postwar era, he argues, center-left parties represented the working class, while right-wing parties, dominated by businesspeople, represented the better-off. In the mid-’70s, however, center-right parties pioneered the harsh neoliberal policies that eroded the economic and social standing of the bottom half of workers in the rich democracies. Meanwhile, Piketty points out, the center-left parties failed to update their policies in defense of their working-class base and even supported many of the globalization and deregulation policies put forward by the center-right.

These combined failures helped create a partisan realignment in which the center-left parties moved from an overwhelmingly working-class base to a coalition that joined highly educated voters with groups oppressed on the basis of their race, ethnicity, caste, religion, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or other stigmatized identities. Politics in many democracies now features a competition for power between the propertied “merchant right” business class and the highly educated, cosmopolitan class of professional, knowledge, and culture workers who defend diversity but lack a serious working-class agenda. As the socioeconomic policy differences of the two elites have narrowed, politics has shifted to cultural and identity issues. Piketty argues that the center-left’s abandonment of the working class has enabled the right to appeal to working-class members of the ethnic majority through populist appeals that activate fear and resentment of oppressed groups and hence also of the educated elites who defend them.

Sandel rightly argues that many concerns of white working-class voters in the United States should not be dismissed, even if some of them are moved to vote based on bigoted and racist appeals. His critique of meritocracy shows how they too share in the legitimate complaints that all members of the working class have with respect to their declining economic prospects and social standing. Any future social-democratic politics, he notes, will require a program that focuses not only on the redistribution of income and wealth but also on the dignity of all workers and their right to a decent and honored job. Yet in pinning the blame on highly educated elites, Sandel lets the merchant right, the chief peddlers of right-wing populism, off the hook. Although the meritocratic center-left is complicit in working-class decline, the pivotal practices behind it—union-busting, outsourcing, and wage theft; the privatization of public services; the construction of monopsony in labor markets; the rise of asset-stripping private equity; skyrocketing executive compensation; the replacement of regular employees with temporary workers, independent contractors, and precarious gig workers; the end of corporate pensions and promotion ladders; and so on—have been aggressively pursued by business elites. Sandel offers no counter to such policies, which have cast many highly educated workers, including academics, journalists, and lawyers, into the ranks of the precariat.

Sandel passes by most of these developments in silence. While his account makes right-wing populist revolt against liberal elites understandable, it also obscures how business elites turned working-class jobs into shit jobs—poorly paid, insecure, dead-end, and despised. He thereby reinforces the same patterns of attention preferred by the merchant right, which fans the flames of resentment against the highly educated to divert our attention away from how it is robbing workers blind.

Because Sandel ignores most of the merchant-right policies that undermine working-class prospects, his discussion of ideas for restoring dignity to work is limited, tentative, and based on false assumptions. He mentions, without endorsing, the recommendations of Oren Cass, a conservative policy wonk, who calls for wage subsidies, rollbacks of environmental regulations, and immigration and trade restrictions that would bring back something close to the 20th century’s family wage. Yet there is little evidence that immigration reduces working-class wages, and in an era of catastrophic climate change, destroying the environment is hardly a viable way to restore decent working-class jobs. More generally, policies that were originally designed for heterosexual white working-class men can’t serve the working class as it is constituted today. Sandel doesn’t consider important core issues faced by many contemporary workers, such as the feminization of poverty, the lack of paid family leave and affordable dependent care, and our failure to honor dependent-care labor as an essential contribution to the common good—not only when it is wage labor but also as unpaid family labor. He never mentions the gross exploitation of immigrant workers or the precarity of those who are (or whose families include) undocumented immigrants. He doesn’t consider how the residential hypersegregation of Black workers causes unemployment or how mass incarceration is used to create a substantial class of unpaid prison laborers exploited by major corporations.

As Sandel rightly stresses, a politics that detaches access to material goods from claims to the dignity and honor of work fails to deliver the kinds of recognition that workers deserve. But to deliver that, it isn’t enough to repudiate the condescension of meritocratic liberals or to take higher education out of the meritocratic sorting-and-ranking game. The whole battery of merchant-right strategies for disempowering workers must be dismantled as well. Wage subsidies that partially compensate for these strategies while leaving them intact won’t deliver the recognition workers need.

There is a close connection between respect and power. For workers to regain respect, they need the power to exact it from their employers. This requires strengthening and expanding labor unions, as Bernie Sanders has proposed, and empowering workers to elect board members at top corporations, as Elizabeth Warren has urged. But it also means directing more of our attention not only to meritocracy but to capitalism itself. Without an empowered working class, democratic institutions will remain in the grip of disdainful elites—not just the highly educated elites whom Sandel criticizes, but also the wealthy business elites who promote populist authoritarian politics to escape accountability for the damage their actions inflict on everyone else. To move forward, we need to build on the ideas of Sanders, Warren, and younger Democrats and radicals to reconstruct social democracy for the 21st century.

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