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Debunking the Myth of MeritocracyDebunking the Myth of Meritocracy

Debunking the Myth of Meritocracy

Agree or disagree with Michael Sandel’s new book, reviewer Robert Joustra writes, it makes an eloquent case that Western society is in desperate need for grace.

Robert Joustra
7 minute read

Among my faults that my wife has brought to my attention over the years are that I really – really – love it when “people get theirs.” What can I say? I have a passion for justice. But truth be told it is a petty justice. And I am hardly alone. Most of our most celebrated cultural tropes have at their heart the scrappy underdog who finally gets a break, or the malignantly powerful who eventually get their comeuppance. It’s catharsis and catnip for our meritocratic age, says Michael Sandel, in his new book The Tyranny of Merit: the idea that people get what they deserve, or should get what they deserve, is baked deep into the dish of our social subconscious. 

It is an ironic obsession for a culture with roots in Christianity, and maybe especially ironic for someone like myself – a Calvinist – who is theologically invested in the idea that I am, in fact, not “getting mine.” Grace – by definition an undeserved gift - is not a particularly meritocratic category. And yet, as Sandel argues in his brief though somewhat dubious historical theology of merit, even Christians have theologically sparred about whether the system of salvation might seem a little bit fairer if there were something more meritocratic about it: my choice, my decision, my submission. 

Self-mastery is so basic, so necessary to human psychology, in Sandel’s account of our meritocratic age that one does start to see why classical Calvinism must seem so repugnant to many. But this soteriological spat is the least of Sandel’s worries about merit. He is much more focused on the corrosive effect of this merit on our politics. 

Our religious commitment to the fiction of merit is at the heart of populist discontent, argues Sandel. Yes, there is important causality in nativism, misogyny, racism, nationalism, economic dislocation, uneven globalization, and more. But he says that we have missed a crucial diagnosis if we don’t see the often underlying logic that tethers these forces together in a cocktail of contempt and condescension. It is not only that the technocrats and the globalists have won, that they are rich, credentialed, esteemed, and respected experts. It is that the rhetoric of rising, as Sandel calls it, means that the winners adopt a kind of preening self-praise about their victory. 

I worked hard to get on top. I worked after school to get my grades to get into the Ivy League. I competed exhaustively to get into that exclusive society. I nailed my job interview. I put in long hours. I deserve what I have. And – this is the important addendum – if other people do what I did, they’ll be just where I am. They have no excuses. 

Buried in this rhetoric are a few important truths, but several more important lies. It is true that competition at the top is fierce, and it is true that young people who compete in these gladiatorial meritocratic games do so exhaustively. The rates of depression and suicide that Sandel cites are shocking. But, as has now been chronicled in many places, the game is increasingly fixed; the meritocratic hustle presumes the fiction of an even playing field, and it just simply does not exist. 

The rich and credentialed are far, far more likely to have rich credentialed children, and globalization’s losers stand very little chance of breaking into the top 10 percent, to say anything of the top one percent. Communitarians, conservatives, but especially Calvinists, have known all this for a long time. 

We enter into a drama not of our own making, born into circumstances we did nothing to deserve, with advantages and disadvantages in which we had no choice. Sandel even takes it one step further than the traditional socio-economic complaints against meritocracy: did you deserve the talents you were born with? Many things can be taught, through rigorous study and application, given the right circumstances, but some things can’t be taught. We’re born with them.

Did you deserve what you were born with? And did you deserve to be born with the mix of talents that you have in the time that you were born? Basketball celebrities and baseball players, Hollywood actors and hotshot pop singers, are all the very apex of winners in our media-saturated twenty-first century. Would Taylor Swift have been such a star in the fourth century B.C. Peloponnesus, or Robespierre’s Parisian Reign of Terror (Haters gonna hate)?

So, there are some very good reasons to doubt that the winners deserve, of their own merit, what they’ve gotten. But there is this dark side to the meritocratic story too, and that is that the losers also deserve what they’ve gotten. This is the populist underbelly of merit. America is, after all, the land of opportunity; the land where penniless paupers wash ashore and make their millions with nothing but the strength of their backs and the brains in their head. 

The problem with this American Dream, argues Sandel, is that if it’s not outright dead, it’s on life support. Social and economic mobility has ground to a halt. We imagine a dynamic society where the brilliant and talented float to the top through meritocratic conventions, but the truth is that the cream isn’t rising, it’s stagnating and curdling. Worse still, the story of virtue that we tell – that the winners deserve what they’ve won – rebounds in reverse on the losers – that the losers deserve what they’ve lost. 

It was one thing, says Sandel, when the upper stratus of society knew it inherited its power and privilege by virtue of birth, no special talent or merit of their own, and the lower classes knew they inherited their position by virtue of chance or providence. There is a restless resentment there, but no humiliation, no degradation. But when the upper class believes it merits what it has, and the lower class also merits what it has, then being a winner is a status symbol of personal virtue: hard work, cultivated talent, the American Dream. And being a loser is also a symbol: of stupidity, laziness, humiliation. 

A populist backlash under these conditions is hardly surprising. Michael Young, a British sociologist who wrote The Rise of Meritocracy, predicted that this toxic brew of hubris and resentment would fuel a populist revolt among the less-educated classes by 2034. He overshot by eighteen years.

The meritocracy, in other words, has failed. This is also part of the argument of Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocracy, out of whose wisdom we got last week’s Throne Speech. The meritocracy has calcified and needs a reset, an equalization, a life sustaining transfusion of centralized support before it collapses into a hereditary aristocracy again. But Sandel actually takes this one step further: it is not only that the meritocracy has failed, and in so doing fueled resentment populism, it is that meritocracy may not be that great of an idea in the first place. 

Here Sandel has the educational industrial complex in his sights. Elites are the product of an increasingly homogenous educational complex, argues Sandel, and one without the track record of having produced actual better leaders. Credentialism, he says, is the last acceptable prejudice. But “the notion that the best and brightest are better at governing than their less-credentialed fellow citizens is a myth born of meritocratic hubris.” And “turning Congress and parliaments into the exclusive privilege of the credentialed classes has not made government more effective, but it has made it less representative. It has also alienated working people from mainstream parties, especially the center-left, and polarized politics along educational lines. One of the deepest divides today is between those with and those without a college degree.”

The central questions that are afflicting our politics today, Sandel says, are not scientific ones. They are questions about “power, morality, authority, and trust” which is to say, they are human questions best resolved by democracies, not technocracies. 

Reimagining this “sorting machine,” as Sandel calls the higher education industry, is a crucial place to start healing the divide. He has several concrete suggestions for the Ivy League in particular. But the other, perhaps more fundamental place, is to restore the dignity of work. 

Work is both economic and cultural, he says. We have overstated its financial rewards and understated its social recognition and esteem. It is not simply that our economies has grown lopsided, rewarding the sort of speculations and specious labour that has dubious value to our society. It is also that we have conflated economic reward with social value, when we know this is wrong.

The politics of grievance, as Sandel calls it, is partly a result of the devaluation of non-university educated work. Truth be told, if it’s only money you are after, plumbers and crane operators make a lot more money than most university graduates in English and Media. But the caché, the esteem, and the social recognition are far higher. We want our parents to be proud. We want our friends to think we’re making it. We want to wear the right clothes and tell the right jokes and have Pinspirational outfits and chalkboards for our kids first days of school. There is something worth more than money.

We cannot live together so long as contempt and resentment flow from our meritocratic subconscious. Reforms in work, education, technocracy, these all strike me as great, if lofty ideals. Certainly, Cardus has been on the forefront of many of these ideals for decades. But ultimately, says Sandel, we cannot restore any notion of the common good so long as we all believe we’re getting what we deserve. Some social notion of fate, chance, or providence is necessary to live together well. How, after all, can we owe anything to each other if we’re all getting precisely what we deserve? 

“Such humility,” concludes Sandel, “is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.” 

That sounds, to me, a lot like a culture desperately in need of grace. 

Recommendation: The only thing that makes a book better is putting it in dialogue with an equally brilliant partner. Check out this interview with the author Michael Sandel, hosted by our friend Nick Spencer, at the think tank Theos in the United Kingdom, from “Reading our Times.”

Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!

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