How meritocracy entrenches inequality

A conversation with political philosopher Michael Sandel

When we talk about politics, we talk about policies and positions and bills and laws and budgets. We don’t talk enough about emotion. But what people feel about their society and the world, and how they express those feelings at the ballot box, in the streets, and even in their home lives has everything to do with the kind of world we get. And in recent years, a powerful political emotion has spread through our society — on the left, on the right, and among people who don’t care enough about politics to be on the left or the right: the feeling of being mocked by the future. Of humiliation.

Today I have for you a conversation that gets at this all-important question of humiliation, and its relationship to populism and democracy, with the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel.

Michael teaches one of the largest and most popular courses at Harvard, called “Justice.” And he is that great rarity in academia, especially in the field of political theory — a public thinker, who, in his engagement with worldly subjects and his insistence on disseminating his teaching far beyond the walls of Harvard, has done as much as anyone alive to popularize political philosophy.

He is also, I say by way of disclosure, one of the finest teachers I’ve ever had.

And he is the author of a brilliant new book, “The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?”, which provides novel ways into this problem of the politics of humiliation. We talked about that, about how he would reinvent the Democratic Party to do better by citizens and be more populist-proof, and about how parents can protect their university-bound teenagers from the deforming gauntlet of the college chase.


“Shift the agenda from the rhetoric of rising to the dignity of work”: a conversation with Michael Sandel

ANAND: You start the book by making an intriguing claim that the social distancing that we have been required to practice in the pandemic is, in fact, nothing new. We've been living in an era of social distancing. Explain. 

MICHAEL: The pandemic is revealing. It's a crisis, and, like most crises, it reveals the fundamental shape of our social and political lives. Central to the shape of our social and political life in recent decades has been deepening inequality. Not only that, a growing divide between winners and losers has poisoned our politics and driven us apart.

Those who've landed on top have come to believe that their success is their own doing, the measure of their merit. And, by implication, that those who struggle, those who've been left behind, have no one to blame but themselves. 

In “The Tyranny of Merit,” I try to give an account of how a seemingly attractive principle, the principle of merit, has a dark side that's corrosive of the common good. 

ANAND: Can you talk about the moment when merit seemed like an incredibly progressive innovation arriving in societies and then what went wrong? 

MICHAEL: Merit arrived, so to speak, as a progressive ideal, as a way of enabling each person to go as far as talents and efforts would take them. It seemed like a welcome alternative to aristocratic societies, caste societies, societies ridden with racial prejudice and discrimination. And, of course, it represents an advance over those ways of life.

But we became so intoxicated with the ideal of a meritocracy that we came to think that if only we could remove barriers to success, then the winners would deserve their winnings. They would have a right, a claim of moral desert, to the rewards that society heaps on those who land on top. And that's where we've gone wrong.

We've seen deepening inequalities during the last four decades of globalization. And we've assumed, in the grip of the meritocratic ideal, that the only real response to that inequality is to offer individual upward mobility, the chance to rise, typically by going and getting a university degree. And this, I think, has been a woefully inadequate response to inequality. 

Meritocracy is not an alternative to inequality. If you think about it, it's a justification for inequality. That's what it's become, and the effect of this has been to generate hubris among the winners and anger, resentment, even humiliation among those left behind. Because it is not only a way of allocating income, wealth, power, prestige, and recognition; it's also a way of justifying it. And justifying it in a way that almost invites those on top to look down on those who struggle, who haven't prevailed, because they must not have the effort, the drive, the talent to succeed.

ANAND: One of my favorite books is “The Metaphysical Club,” by your Harvard colleague Louis Menand. It was about a group of friends and intellectual fellow-travelers navigating the post-Civil War era. And I was thinking about that book in connection with you and your good friend Tom Friedman. You and Tom Friedman have been in conversation together throughout your careers, and even taught a class together at Harvard about globalization, in which there was vigorous disagreement. It seems to me Tom Friedman was the prophet of a religion that you are, frankly, dismantling on the latter end of an era in this book — markets as having this special salvatory power; globalization and this ideal of placelessness; the inherent flattening and leveling powers of these things. 

You dismantle very eloquently the notion of a world defined by forces. In “The World is Flat,” Friedman talks about the ten flatteners. The flatteners are just working on the world; they're operating autonomously. And you say very clearly: it's not about forces; this is about democratic choices that determine what those forces do to France versus Germany versus the United States. Can you talk about your friendship with Tom Friedman and this kind of intellectual tension that I know is a conversation you both have and how it relates to this public reckoning that we're having now? 

MICHAEL: Tom and I are old friends, actually going back to when we were grade-school kids. We went to Hebrew school together in Minnesota, where I lived until I was 13. For many years, we have had an ongoing friendly debate, sometimes disagreements, about the role of markets, about neoliberal globalization, the role of technology, and politics. There is some degree of overlap in our views, but there's a good deal of disagreement, having to do with markets and globalization.

And what strikes me is now we are reaping the bitter fruits of the project of market-driven globalization. We see this especially if we look at the condition of the Democratic Party in the United States, the Labour Party in Britain, and the social democratic parties in Europe. We've seen a populist backlash coming most dramatically in 2016 with the Trump’s election, with Brexit in the U.K., with the rise of authoritarian populists in France and quite a few European countries.

And I see the success of these authoritarian, hyper-nationalist populists as symptoms of the failure of center-left politics to speak to working people. By embracing the neoliberal version of globalization and the deregulation of the financial industry, contending with the financial crisis of 2008 in a way that went pretty easy on Wall Street and the financial industry, I think that the Democratic Party in the U.S. and center-left parties generally discredited themselves with a great many working people.

This is also connected to the lack of attention to national identity and allegiances during the period of globalization, when it seemed that cosmopolitan values had replaced and superseded old-fashioned patriotism and a sense of national community. This was devastating to center-left parties.

I think that by embracing the market faith of their predecessors, Reagan and Thatcher, those who succeeded them — I'm thinking of Bill Clinton in the U.S., Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schröder in Germany — they did not fundamentally challenge the market faith of those years. Through the ’90s and into the 2000s, they moderated, softened the harsh edges of the market faith, but didn't fundamentally challenge the premise that markets and the market mechanism are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. 

Instead, they dealt with the inequalities by offering a rhetoric of rising, this individual upward mobility and the warning to workers: The answer to stagnant wages and inequalities is to get a university degree. What you earn, they said, will depend on what you learn.

What they missed was the insult implicit in this advice. And the insult was this: if you didn't go to college and you're not flourishing in the new economy, your failure is your fault. You didn't get a college degree; you didn't arm yourself for meritocratic competition. They overlooked that most Americans don't have a four-year university degree; nearly two-thirds don't. The same is true in Britain and most European countries, so it's folly to make a university diploma a necessary condition for dignified work and a decent life. This led to a kind of credentialism, and by 2016 the Democratic Party in the U.S. and social democratic parties in Europe were more attuned to the outlook, values, and interests of college-educated professionals than to the working-class voters who once constituted their base. This created an opening for Trump and similar figures from which these parties have yet to recover, even with the Biden’s election. 

ANAND: One thing I was puzzling over while reading the book was that you talk about two of the dominant explanatory frames that people brought to bear on the 2016 election. One was the economic anxiety thesis, which became a bit of a punch line because, in fact, Trump voters were more affluent than Hillary Clinton voters. Of course, there were geographic elements, places that were harder-up being Trump-supporting places. Then there was the racial resentment thesis, the notion that this was actually about the desire to stay on top as white people, and/or as men, more than a cry for help from the bottom. But you suggest that this notion of humiliation by an elite professional class is also an important factor. How do you see those three things fitting together? Because a lot of Black and brown people are victims of the economic trends you talk about but did not vote for fascism as a result.

MICHAEL: I think the first two, the standard diagnoses, have a lot of truth in them. So I'm not committed to rejecting them. And there's no denying that Trump's racist appeals and his xenophobia and his misogyny were appealing to many people, sadly. But I think it's not the whole story. I also think that those who assume that, with the election of Biden, it will be possible simply to go back to normal, and consider the past four years a bad dream that has thankfully passed, are making a mistake.

The standard account that breathes a sigh of relief and says “Thank goodness we got rid of Trump; now we can go back to the way things were” lets Democrats off the hook. It spares us the need to reflect critically on why what we were offering was found so lacking. One important number that Democrats and progressives should be thinking about is the number 73 million. Even with the disastrous Trump presidency, even with the incessant lying, even with the violation of constitutional norms and bungling the pandemic, and the list could go on and on, all of these people, 73 million people, voted for this man. Why is that? What does that say not only about him? What does that say about what we have to offer?

And the reason it's a mistake, I think, to assume we can go back to the basic contours of the neoliberal globalization market faith, softened by the meritocratic offer that we will remove barriers to advancement, we will offer the rhetoric of rising, if you get a university degree, then you can rise out of it — the reason that isn't good enough is that that was the recipe that paved the way for Trump, and that is the recipe that is giving energy to hyper-nationalist populists throughout Europe and beyond, in many countries around the world.

ANAND: Let's say Joe Biden is listening. He says, "OK, I'm going to call Michael Sandel in. Come talk to me and others about how we need to reinvent the Democratic Party." What would you tell him? 

MICHAEL: I would say to shift the main political message, the main political theme. To put less focus on arming people for meritocratic competition and to focus more on the dignity of work. On asking what we can do to make life better for people, whatever their credentials. That, however lustrous, however modest their circumstances, they can live dignified lives and be recognized. Not only rewarded, but recognized for the work they do, for the families they raise, for the communities they serve. Be recognized for contributions to the common good.

We've slid into the assumption that the money people make is the measure of their contribution to the common good. But this is a mistake. I would say to Biden, "Shift the agenda from the rhetoric of rising to the dignity of work." [Editor’s note: Biden has leaned on the latter phrase, if not oriented his agenda toward it in the way suggested here.]

And here are a few practical suggestions, just as illustrative of what that might mean. One area we woefully under-invest in is state colleges, two-year community colleges, and vocational and technical training. We underinvest financially, and, more than that, we don't accord those forms of learning and the people who depend on them the honor and respect and recognition they deserve. 

Beyond that, we need to give workers a voice, which means thinking seriously about reversing the decline of unions.

And we need to have this broader debate about what really counts as a valuable contribution to the common good. Here's how we might spur that debate -- a couple of policy proposals that might prompt this kind of public debate. We could ask: Why should we tax earnings from labor at a higher rate than we tax earnings from dividends and capital gains? Why do we do that?

Or another example. The payroll tax, that's how we fund Social Security. It's a tax on labor, on work, paid half by the worker and half by the company. Suppose we reduced or eliminated the payroll tax and made up the lost revenue with a financial-transactions tax on speculative finance, high-speed trading. Now, some might object that what high-speed traders do is very important to the economy. Well, let's have that debate. 

AUDIENCE QUESTION FROM ROGER: Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement has given moral energy to progressive politics?

MICHAEL: Yes, very much so. In fact, I think that, in this very bleak time, if you look at the past year, the brightest moment was really the coming of age of the Black Lives Matter movement as a multi-racial, multi-generational social movement that I think will make an indelible mark. The challenge is really to build on the opening that the Black Lives Matter movement has created.

What it does, among many other things, is it lifts our sights morally. It points us to a more morally robust kind of public debate than the debate we've been accustomed to. It also highlights that racial injustice in the United States is something far deeper and more pervasive than a meritocratic program could possibly address. Of course it's important to remove barriers to advancement so that everyone can compete on an equal basis for professions and admission to universities. This has been a focus of much discussion over the last three, four decades. But when we're talking about police brutality, mass incarceration, these are dimensions of deep racial injustice that a program of meritocracy and the rhetoric of rising can't begin to address. 

AUDIENCE QUESTION FROM EMMA: How does one as a parent break away from the idea of college education equals success? Isn't there a deep psychological reset that is required?

ANAND: I would just add to that, you're describing a system problem that we would have to fix at the system level. What is an individual actor like Emma supposed to do if everybody else is not moving in this prisoner's dilemma game? Is it an option to individually opt out of the tyranny of merit? 

MICHAEL: Not completely, but I think we as parents can make some changes. We have allowed ourselves as parents — and by "we as parents" I mean those who are in the affluent circles who care deeply about equipping their kids to succeed in competition for admission to selective colleges and universities — we have converted the adolescent years into a stress-strewn meritocratic gauntlet of high-pressure achievement that is not only bad for our society, it's bad for our kids. Because by the time they find their way into college — and I'm talking about those who are admitted, the winners — many are wounded. We see this in the mental-health struggles in a large number of students in colleges and universities: rates of depression and anxiety and the demand for perfection.

By the time that many of these students arrive, they are so debilitated by this hyper-pressurized youth that they can't help but see the college years as a time for further hoop jumping and credential gathering, placing more demands on themselves rather than stepping back and asking what is worth caring about and why. And so I think about trying to tamp down their own tendencies, our own tendencies, to impose such demands on our children that we deform them and their relation to learning for its own sake in the process.

But beyond that, you're right; there's a broader systemic problem. Which is that a market-driven meritocratic society, our society, has converted higher education into the arbiter of opportunity. And we've turned these colleges and universities into sorting machines that dispense the credentials and define the merit that will be rewarded. Apart from excluding a great many people, I think it's corrupting the educational mission of these colleges and universities by so instrumentalizing education.

ANAND: I wonder what you made of the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. 

MICHAEL: I think they were very much on the right track, certainly in criticizing the oligarchic capture of representative institutions. It's interesting, they didn't rely on what I call in the book "the rhetoric of rising." That was not their primary response to inequality. In slightly different ways, they were taking inequality on directly as a structural problem, not as a condition that was simply given by globalization and technology, such that the only question was how to adapt to it through individual upward mobility for some. So in those respects, I think they were on the right track.

The one ingredient I think could be added to their formulation of the project would be to say something about the national community. One of the blind spots of progressive politics, liberal politics, during the age of market faith and globalization was missing the importance of community and national identity and a sense of belonging. A politics that connects the critique of the market faith and neoliberalism to an account of the nation’s role in enabling people to have democratic voice and feel a sense of belonging — that would be an even more potent combination. 

ANAND: You write toward the end of the book that “higher education has become a sorting machine that promises mobility on the basis of merit but entrenches privilege and promote attitudes toward success corrosive of the commonality democracy requires.” Has the journey of writing the book caused you to question staying on at Harvard? Has it made you think about another chapter of your life teaching elsewhere? Has it left any bigger questions for you about how you invest your own time? 

MICHAEL: It has a little bit. Those ideas, I confess, are not well developed. I think it's a serious question how one can make the best contribution. I did this experiment of making my “Justice” course freely available online to anyone, anywhere around the world, without having to pay, with the idea of seeing whether we could use this technology as a platform for global public discourse. But I do wonder and should think more about the question of another chapter and what it might look like in my own life. I think it's a fair question. I haven't fully answered it.

Michael Sandel is a political philosopher and a professor of government at Harvard. His new book is “The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?” This interview, which was originally hosted by the Jaipur Literature Festival, was edited and condensed for clarity.


Thank you, as always, for reading The Ink. Click the orange button below to get these posts in your inbox, free. And if you enjoy them, consider becoming a paid subscriber. Your support for the newsletter makes a big difference in supporting independent thinking and discussion.


Photo: Miguel Riopa/Getty