14 January 2023
In no particular order:
I’ve read a few books on merit now – they should come up if you search my shelves – and I would recommend any of them, but this is a particularly good telling of the ‘anti-merit’ argument. The warnings about the dangers of meritocracy are literally (and I mean literally, not figuratively) as old as the term itself. That’s because the guy who coined the term in 1958, Michael Young, did so as the premise for his novel on a future dystopia. In fact, he was so annoyed that the term was being used for the opposite of his intention that he wrote this article for The Guardian in 2001, pointedly directed at Tony Blair. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/...
How we use ‘meritocracy’ today would be as if people took up Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal by setting up a butcher shop selling “A young healthy child well nursed … (as) a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food.” But then, if history does one thing particularly well, it is irony.
A large part of the problem with ‘merit’ (and its appeal, too, I guess) is that it encourages us to believe we are autochthony – that we belong were we have sprouted and have sprung fully formed without ancestors or obligations. Meritocracy matches the excessive individualism of our age. What I found particularly interesting in this – well, interesting in a deeply depressing way – was the discussion on Chinese students who felt those with more merit ought to be able to buy organs from those with less merit because the lives of the merit-full are worth more than those of life’s losers. We are often told that the Chinese are much more community minded than we are in the west, but creating a dog-eats-dog society inevitably produces dogs that eat dogs – it is hardly surprising.
Many of the books I’ve read on merit refer to Bourdieu and his ideas of habitus and social distinction. That is, that nothing helps to ensure that the already advantaged will remain advantaged than promoting equality of opportunity. Bourdieu’s point is that if you want everyone to think that the game isn’t rigged, you make the game hard. That way, those with the greatest access to the skills and dispositions rewarded by a society will inevitably be more likely to be among the winners, but because they have had to work hard to achieve the benefits of their position, they will assume everyone who matched their efforts would be similarly rewarded. Since this is self-evidently not the case, there needs to be a deeper explanation for social disadvantage, distinction and differentiation – and this proves to be the ongoing appeal of eugenics. While you might have thought the Second World War would have been enough to have dissuaded people from such theories, eugenic beliefs have, instead, proven to morph with every generation: E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker. And the appeal of eugenics is not limited to those on the right. Noam Chomsky’s linguistics depend upon essentially Kantian a priori innate faculties.
All the same, this book owes more to the theories of John Rawls than to Bourdieu. A central idea here is the notion of fairness. What would you consider to be a fair society, and what would that look like if you could decide on the features of those society before you found out where you have been allocated in that society. You know, a feudal society looks pretty damn good if you can be assured of being the king – but pretty crap if you are going to be a serf. We are all too likely to come up with great reasons after the event for why we deserve our position in society, but too often that is based on attributing moral value to what otherwise looks like blind luck. While we smile at ideas like the divine right of kings now, we ignore the fact that being born affluent in the affluent west is about as much a lucky spin of the wheel as being born a lord was in the Middle Ages. Today merit serves much the same purpose as the divine right of kings, also effectively restricting social movement due to the unequal distribution of dispositions, social habits and rewards.
Rawls’s argument is that even being lucky enough to have been born with skills that are highly rewarded in the society you find yourself living in – tennis playing skills or merchant banking skills, say, rather than, say, num-chuk skills or doe hunting skills – is a matter of luck, and few of us would attribute higher moral entitlement or justified reward to ‘the lucky’. The point of ‘merit’ is meant to be that the rewards gained are ‘earnt’. But rewards are always social, (for example, money makes no sense at all outside of a social context) and so the skills you acquire are deeply social and only derive their value from within the social system you happen to be born within. That is, rather than being solely down to your hard work or effort, your success is ultimately related to your social context.
Unfortunately, our society stresses the exact opposite of this situated ‘mutual obligation’ notion of how the world works. Rather, our society stresses the myth that we all begin the race on the same starting line without handicaps and that the places earnt in the race of life are purely down to our own efforts – based solely on hard work, resilience, delayed gratification and other self-serving lies.
If merit were true, of course, those who lose the race of life would have no claims on those who win. In fact, the opposite would be the case. To reward the less worthy is to remove incentives from the worthy, while incentivising laziness and bad workmanship. The moral obligation is some sort of version of the Matthew Principle, to take from those who have not, and give to those who have in abundance. And this is what we witness all of the time today – with the withdrawal of social supports justified as necessary to provide incentives.
The book spends a lot of time looking at the political consequences of this shift towards the myth of meritocracy. One of those consequences being the shift of allegiance of the white working class in the US towards the Republican party, and the working class in Britain over the Brexit years towards the Tories, and you could easily do the same with ‘Howard’s Battlers’ here in Australia.
In today’s world, merit is also strongly correlated with tertiary education. The author discusses the impact of this – where Clinton went on to overwhelmingly win the college educated vote, but where Trump had good reason to say he ‘loved the poorly educated’. And Clinton went on to describe those how had once been the core support base of the Democratic Party ‘a basket of deplorables’.
Escaping the fate of the poorly educated is a major theme here too – there is an extensive discussion on the various scandals involving college admission and how these are one of the few things that receive cross-party support in the US now. But what is interesting here is that this merely proves that ‘meritocracy’ is a myth that is fundamental across the whole of US society. The reason why people will spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to get their children into a top-ranking college and the sorting machine this implies and the systemic advantages some receive in these tracks to success receive far less attention, but are just as rigged. Do you want proof? Donald Trump and his children attended a top-ranking college. As the book says, “Trump himself reportedly gave $1.5 million to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania around the time his children Donald Jr. and Ivanka attended the school.”
Merit is a myth based on self-satisfaction for the winners and self-loathing for the losers, and this is what sustains the myth. As Bourdieu says of his ‘habitus’, it only works when everyone believes in it, it is not a conspiracy of one group fooling another, everyone is fooled, or no one is.
We are much more intimately connected to everyone else in society than we generally admit. Those connections are becoming a matter of life and death now. To tackle the issues that are likely to end human habitation on this planet: such as, climate change, nuclear war, gross and growing inequality – we are going to need to think less about ‘ourselves’ and more about our communities and our common humanity. It is not at all clear to me that we will ever be able to free ourselves from the myth of merit – it offers many short-term comforts – but if we do not, I cannot see a way out of our current path toward annihilation.
What could possibly be wrong with a political and social structure that allows citizens to rise to the level of wealth and prestige equivalent to their ability? Many politicians proudly proclaim that their country is a place where anyone who goes to college and works hard can have their dreams come true to achieve a prosperous and happy life. In light of all these positive comments many readers of this book will be surprised to learn that the term meritocracy was originally coined in 1958 by sociologist Michael Dunlop Young as a predicted dystopian future worse than the hereditary hierarchy that it replaced. This book postulates that Young's vision was correct.
This book highlights two deficiencies of meritocracy as practiced in the USA and UK. One is that it fails to adhere to meritocratic principles, and this can be demonstrated by the fact that upward mobility does not exist to the level promised. An example of this is the fact that the best predictor of obtaining a college degree is wealth of the parents, not I.Q. Various studies have shown that those born in poverty are more likely to rise to higher economic levels in adulthood in many European countries than it is true in the United States. Even China has greater rate of upward economic mobility than the USA.
The other more important problem with meritocracy is that the winners feel they deserve their position, and the hubris fostered by this belief causes them to be blind to a spirit of the common good. Conversely, the majority of the population without college degrees resent the excessive pride and self-confidence exuded from those with degrees. Consequently, unconscious feelings of humiliation on the part of those at the bottom of the economic ladder makes them feel alienated from any sense of common good. Instead only winners and losers are apparent, and they are the losers. Any spirit of common good is thus lost within the multiple animosities created by meritocracy.
Economic globalization is an example of an issue that fosters this divide in a country's population by failing to address the feelings of loss among the working class when their jobs move overseas. Economists have convincingly concluded that everyone profits when trade barriers do not exist. Their answer to the plight of those who lose their jobs from globalization is that the the economic growth fostered by globalization will make possible programs of training and other adjustments to aid misplaced workers.
Again there are two problems. One is that the promised aid to misplaced workers didn't happen. The second problem is that the economists are promising distributive justice, not contributive justice. Distributive justice is perceived as receiving aid to repair a damage caused by globalization. This diminishes the integrity of the recipients. What blue collar workers want is contributive justice where their work is recognized as being valuable and part of the solution. Only then can there be a sense of common good.
So how is contributive justice achieved? This book offers several potential changes that would promote the common good.
Make entrance into elite Universities by way of lottery. This would take away the sense of deservedness on the part of those who get in. This book suggests additional details to make the proposed lottery workable. Entrance into the lottery would be limited to those prequalified by ability and academic records to assure academic integrity. Additional suggestions are made for ways of maintaining affirmative action for minorities. One detail I found interesting was the suggestion that Universities could continue to attract some large donations by publicly auctioning off a select few entrant positions which would help erase any suggestion of intellectual superiority of the part of the beneficiaries.
Provide a wage subsidy for low income workers. The government would provide a supplementary payment for each hour worked by a low wage employee based on an hourly wage rate. The wage subsidy is in a way the opposite of a payroll tax. Rather than deduct a certain amount from each workers earnings, the government would contribute a certain amount in hopes of enabling low income workers to make a decent living even if they lack the skills to maintain a substantial market wage.
Do away with the payroll tax and replace the lost revenue by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions. This change would show respect and honor the importance and value of labor. It would also treat the investment world as deserving of the equivalent of a sin tax. Currently, capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than labor. This book says this makes no sense. Traditionally financial investments are expected to create jobs, but the financial world has evolved into a world of speculation far removed from creating jobs.
I close this review with the following excerpt from the book which I think serves well as a final summary to the book: The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project. For why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due. A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.” Such humility 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. (p. 227)
The Politics of Humiliation
Anyone familiar with differential calculus can recognise the fundamental logical problem of attributing responsibility for results (pay for performance; test scores; organisation success; etc) to an individual. The contribution of any one factor (person) to a total can only be assessed when all other factors (social background, level of education, genetic composition, ethnicity, etc.) are held constant. So for example, in the question of performance pay, one must be able to discern the relative importance to the salesman’s ‘numbers’ in the context of the entire organisation from the receptionists, secretaries, and researchers, to the scientists, production staff, and managers. Holding these things constant is obviously an impossible task.
Nevertheless we (those blessed for our contributions) seem bent on the idea of assigning personal responsibility for what happens in life. At least when we consider those less well off (and sometimes those better off) than ourselves. We deserve (at least) all that we have. They deserve (and more) exactly what they lack. The psychology and sociology of the meritocracy is pervasive. And the economic, political, and social effects that should have become obvious through masses of academic research over decades have surfaced most acutely in the election of Trump and his takeover of the Republican Party. Hillary Clinton was right - Trump’s followers are indeed the losers in the meritocratic façade. What she didn’t get is that they want to be winners.
Michael Sandel recognises the psychological, social, economic, and political effects of our commitment to merit. But his primary concern is the morality of a merit-based society not its practical consequences. What interests me most about his approach is his identification of Christianity as the source of our effective deification of merit and the main obstacle to our overcoming its tragedies. I think he is justified in doing this; and his brief history of relevant theology is insightful. But I think he is wrong about his inference that personal merit is a Judaeo-Christian idea. Merit is indeed something that appears in Hebrew Scriptures and traditions, but like many other aspects of Judaism, Christianity transformed this idea into something quite unrecognisable in the matrix culture.
The most obvious transformation in Christianity is the notion of personal salvation. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is Israel, a corporate body not individuals as such, from whom YHWH demands obedience. The individuals mentioned are always tropes for the larger society. Everyone in Israel shares both divine favour and punishment. Early medieval Judaism did develop the idea of the Zachuth Avot, the Merits of the Fathers, through which the ‘goodness’ of Israel’s founders was considered somehow available to all Jews in mitigation of their faults. I suspect that this was in response to the emerging Christian doctrine of the infinite merit achieved by Jesus through his death. But the difference in the two is crucial. The Zachuth is an inter-generational assistance to avoid and atone for fault; Christ’s merit, being infinite, is a complete expiation of fault.
Enter the man, Paul of Tarsus, whose interpretation of what he was told about Jesus is keyed precisely on the idea of the infinitely meritorious death of Christ. If this death wipes out the need for God to punish those who transgress (in later ages called the Atonement Theory), then the only thing necessary to assure one’s eternal salvation is the acceptance of this ‘fact’ as a matter of unshakeable belief. This is uniquely Pauline not Abrahamic. Thus begins the persistent struggle in Christianity to explain the problematic relation Faith/Works. Sandel traces this struggle (with the help of folk like Max Weber) in its various manifestations - Grace/Effort; Providence/Just Deserts; Luck/Character - and shows how its resolution in modern culture is a self-confirming doctrine of Whiggish smugness. Success is a mark of both hard work and divine favour. The meritocracy, in other words, is an institutional embodiment of Christianity. It serves to unite the diverse sects into a greater whole that includes even the most ardent atheists.
Isn’t it interesting that the Trump followers are the most conservative (that is to say, authoritarian, racist, misogynistic, as well as Christian) in the population? Despite their tendency toward violence, they really don’t want a revolution. Their ideal is merely to impose the same kind of humiliation which they have been subject to on the current social winners. They don’t want respect; they want revenge. But ultimately they are trapped in the same doubts about respectability/worth/significance as are their more successful compatriots. Meritocracy makes us all losers. But unless the consequences of Pauline Christianity and its secular residue are owned up to, we’re likely to just keep digging that hole deeper.
“The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.” This is the framework for Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. A noble sentiment, it is an attack on the so-called meritocracy the USA runs on. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult read and doesn’t solve any problems. And it is often simply misguided.
Meritocracy is a system in which people rise to their level of incompetence – just slightly beyond where they should be, and are rewarded according to how high they rise. This is as opposed to an aristocracy, in which everyone is born into their role, and cannot move up in society. Both are awful, and neither one of them describes the reality of the USA.
Meritocracy looks good on paper, but in practice it is a disaster. Suicides of despair are soaring in the land of meritocracy, and not nearly as common where aristocracy is the rule. In a meritocracy, those who make it claim they earned it alone and by themselves, and look down on those who didn’t. Those who don’t make it cannot blame the system; they can only blame themselves. Life becomes a race for credentials, from a very young age. Parents take childhoods away from them, packing their lives with classes and memberships. The list of negatives about meritocracy is endless.
Sandel teaches this at Harvard, so a lot of what he has to say pertains to higher education. Rich parents bribe their way into admissions for their kids, or if they went to the school themselves, their kids get a pass to get in. Or they can bribe the administration with a new lab or building or chair to get their kids in. This is really the kind of meritocracy the USA operates.
The whole premise is that a certificate from a top school will keep them in the 1%. So the rich crowd out everyone else to take those spots. It’s all about the résumé and the letters after the name. Doesn’t matter how they got them or if they can even act like they represent what the letters stand for. The whole country is obsessed with credentials. But as Sandel and many others have shown, Barack Obama’s overcredentialed cabinet was incapable of remaking the country, while FDR’s barely high school cabinet changed the whole world. Obligatory fake meritocracy is as rigid as an aristocracy.
There are lots of examples to show credentials are no panacea. Sandel shows that in pro sports, one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, Nolan Ryan, was the 294th draft pick when he (barely) got in. Tom Brady, possibly football’s greatest quarterback was 199th. So demonstrated merit does not automatically mean the best or wisest choice. Meritocracy is like eugenics for the economy.
The best point Sandel makes about credentialization is that “Turning Congress and parliaments into the exclusive preserve of the credentialed classes has not made government more effective, but it has made it less representative.” The fact is only a third of Americans have college degrees, and the weaponization of credentials has totally alienated the populace into “draining the swamp” with a totally uncredentialed and unqualified president. Donald Trump is the best argument against American meritocracy, and is precisely what the founders tried to prevent in the constitution.
The facts, as Sandel finds them, are that inequality becomes so refined in a meritocracy that the rich do not even associate with the common people. They have private jets, skybox seats and numerous homes around the world. They hide their money in overseas trusts so they pay even less in taxes than they are required. They actually are the new aristocracy, so why pretend otherwise? In a real meritocracy, the talented should rise to the top. That’s not how it works in the USA.
The USA has lost the entire concept of the common good. Today it appears to mean only higher Gross National Product. In Sandel’s writing, there is nothing to consider beyond that. It’s just about national wealth. But there should be more to it than that. To me what is missing is that membership should have its privileges. As the richest nation on Earth, the USA should offer special treatment to its members. Healthcare should be a right, for example, not reserved only for the rich. But that would mean equality. Instead, Sandel focuses on how and whether the rich should be forced to pay taxes that might benefit those less successful. That’s not it at all. But it’s his book.
The country is supposedly built on mobility; anyone can get ahead if they try. This is a catchphrase used by politicians, along with “The more you learn, the more you earn” and other totally bogus distillations of meritocracy. Sandel cites “The Lord helps those who help themselves”, and “Being on the right side of history” and others that presidents love to pad their speeches with. Unfortunately, so does Sandel. He spends endless pages showing how and when those phrases are used, the number of times various presidents have used them and which presidents have used various ones of them more than all other presidents combined. He says “When politicians repeat a hallowed verity with mind-numbing frequency, there is reason to suspect that it is no longer true.” But then he repeats his scoring and counting and listing again, and again, as if it were a totally new concept each time. The book could stand a total reorg.
The best point he makes about American mobility is its total untruth. He says “It is easier to rise from poverty in Canada or Germany, Denmark or other European countries than it is in the United States.” Yet 70% of Americans think the poor can make it out of poverty on their own, thanks to America’s unique attribute of mobility. This alone puts the lie to meritocracy in the USA.
Sandel also repeats himself endlessly on other premises, concepts and simple citations. He will introduce the same author of the same book, several times. He will describe the same idea every time he uses it, as if the reader had never seen it before, in the previous chapter.
Even without this book, it is pretty obvious that American meritocracy is a fraud. It stratifies society, increases inequality and solves no problems. America is not better for it. It is a meritocracy in name only.
The common good is a concept that has been off the American table for far too long, and it is the reason I wanted to review this book. But the book skims over and perverts the common good into something unrecognizable. This is not the book to base a better policy on. While Sandel makes some eminently quotable points, the book is mostly annoying. The topic deserves better.
A meritocracy is a political system in which economic goods and political power are vested in individuals on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than on wealth, social class, or other arbitrary prejudices.
The principle is simple and easily illustrated with an example. Let’s say you’re hiring someone to perform a job, in this case a mechanic to repair your car. Who should you choose? In the interest of both efficiency (the mechanic's capacity to quickly make affordable, quality repairs) and fairness (rewarding people for quality work), you would want to select the mechanic with the best reputation and ability—in other words, on the basis of merit.
Choosing a mechanic along any other dimension—race, social class, religion, political orientation, gender, etc.—would be both unfair and inefficient for both you and the mechanic, who, through his or her own talents and effort, has established a reputation for quality work.
This principle, applied to the whole of society, including to its governing classes, constitutes the foundation of a meritocracy. Isn’t it obvious, then, that meritocracy is the ideal to which every society should strive?
The answer, according to political philosopher Michael Sandel, is no. In The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel explores the often-ignored societal costs of living within a meritocracy. While Sandel is not making the claim that the merit-based allocation of jobs and capital should be eliminated entirely, he is making the case that it should be tempered by a richer conception of equality and the common good.
So, what are the problems with meritocracy? First, the ideals of meritocracy are nowhere near being met in practice, at least not in the United States. Despite assertions from politicians across the political spectrum, the idea that “you can make it as far as your talents and efforts will take you” is nothing other than empty rhetoric. As Sandel wrote:
“The American faith in the ability to rise through effort and grit no longer fits the facts on the ground. In the decades following World War II, Americans could expect that their children would do better, economically, than they had. Today, this is no longer the case. Of children born in the 1940s, almost all (90 percent) earned more than their parents. Of children born in the 1980s, only half surpassed their parents’ earnings.”
Sandel goes on to show that there is far less economic mobility in the US compared to several other European countries, including Germany, Spain, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. The stark reality—what the statistics clearly show—is that if you’re born into a low-income family in the US, the overwhelming odds are that you will remain a low-income earner. This is not because talent and effort are the exclusive reserve of the wealthy; rather, it is because the wealthy have advantages and privileges that the poor simply do not.
This is due to a host of factors, including the fact that wealthy parents can buy their children better education, personal tutors, and test prep courses in preparation for admission to selective colleges, and, once their kids get accepted, can actually pay for the absurdly expensive tuition bills these colleges charge. Then, upon graduation, these privileged kids get priority in the job market for the most prestigious, high-paying jobs, often forgetting all the help they received along the way and arrogantly attributing their success solely to their own efforts while looking down on those who did not receive the same assistance.
To ascend to the top ranks of society does often require prodigious talent, intellect, and effort, but oftentimes, it conspicuously does not. Who would seriously make the claim that the majority of current US politicians represent the best and the brightest the country has to offer, in terms of intelligence, morality, or civic virtue? People obtain positions of power and economic advantages for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with their own efforts or talents, and more to do with lineage, luck, and connections.
And so the US is a “meritocracy” in name only. This fact suggests to some that the task at hand is simply to implement policies that seek to expand equality of opportunity and to get more disadvantaged youth in positions to succeed.
But Sandel notes that while expanding opportunity is a worthy cause, it is not a permanent solution. A good society cannot simply be founded on providing opportunities to escape poor conditions, but rather should be founded on trying to eliminate poor conditions in the first place. So it is not just that we are not living up to the ideals of meritocracy (where social mobility allows people to swap places with each other); it’s that the concept of a perfect meritocracy is antithetical to notions of equality grounded in civic responsibility and the common good.
Here’s the reason: even if everyone did achieve what they “deserve” based on talent, who is to say that having the talents that any particular market-based society happens to value entitles those individuals to outsized economic rewards? A key argument of the defenders of meritocracy is that people should be fairly compensated based on factors within their control and that they should not be punished for things outside of their control. But if inborn talent is largely outside of one’s control (along with being born to wealth or to advantageous circumstances), then why should those without those talents be punished with economic disadvantage?
Further, market value is not a good proxy for moral or social value; if it was, you would have to accept the conclusion that a meth dealer contributes greater value to society than a high school chemistry teacher (who stands to make significantly less money in the market). The vagaries of supply and demand do not override what the citizens of a democracy collectively determine to be of greater social value, and no democracy would ever assign greater social value to dealing drugs over teaching kids or healing the sick.
As Sandel points out, a perfect meritocracy does not solve the problem of the allocation of true social value or the problem of inequality; it only justifies inequality by ceding moral authority over to the market, which then assigns individual value based on the vagaries of supply and demand and the morally-arbitrary possession of inborn talent. This creates a new class-based system whereby those at the top of society believe they are superior (ignoring all the contingencies that helped them rise to the top) while those at the bottom come to believe that they also deserve their diminished lot in life. This fosters meritocratic hubris in society's elites and resentment in those that pursue other ways of life and work that may be valued less in the market, but that are in fact important contributions to the common good.
So what’s the alternative to meritocracy and the rhetoric of social mobility? Is the only alternative complete equality of outcome? As Sandel explains, this is a false dichotomy presented by defenders of the status quo. Rather than turning to communism, we can simply take steps—not to guarantee complete equality—but to make society more equal and less divisive. Specifically, we can do two things immediately: (1) make higher education less meritocratic and (2) restore the dignity of work.
If education is the gateway to success in our market-dominated society, then you would hope that the student bodies of the best colleges in the country were representative of the population at large. They are not. As Sandel notes:
“More than 70 percent of those who attend the hundred or so most competitive colleges in the United States come from the top quarter of the income scale; only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter.”
Additionally, if you come from a rich family (top 1 percent), you are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than if you come from a poor family (bottom 20 percent). Studies have also shown that even for the kids from poor families that are admitted to the most selective colleges, very few are able to move to higher income brackets.
Sandel’s solution to expand the diversity in the top US colleges includes eliminating the SAT as a requirement for admissions, as high SAT scores more closely correlate with family wealth than with the ability to excel in college. He also suggests instituting a lottery for admissions, where applicants that are deemed less likely to succeed based on grades and application materials are first eliminated. Then, the remainder are entered into a lottery and randomly chosen, so as not to prioritize the children of alumni, donors, or other arbitrary connections.
Moving on to restoring the dignity of work, Sandel shows how the market cannot be trusted to answer the question as to which jobs have the highest social value. As Sandel wrote:
“Only an ardent libertarian would insist that the wealthy casino magnate’s contribution to society is a thousand times more valuable than that of a pediatrician.”
We are not simply consumers, concerned only with the total amount of material goods and services (measured in GDP) that we can consume. What matters more to people is being a valued contributor to society, engaging in work that is considered important and respected. What has happened in the meritocratic US is that the market has overemphasized certain positions—particularly in finance—that are not necessarily involved in the production of tangible products and services, while looking down on those jobs that are actually tangibly beneficial (such as plumbing or sanitation work). And because the market overvalues elite, credentialed positions, society’s elites come to look down on those without college degrees working in the trades.
But there is dignity in all work, as everyone plays their part in the contribution to the common good. As martin Luther King Jr. said:
“One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the ﬁnal analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn't do his job, diseases are rampant.”
To re-emphasize the value and dignity of work—and to de-emphasize the inflated value assigned by the market to elite positions in finance and other credentialed positions—Sandel suggests shifting the tax burden away from work and onto consumption and financial speculation. The way to do this is to lower or eliminate payroll taxes altogether and to raise revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions, including high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy (in fact, high-frequency financial trading in most cases extracts money from the real economy to enrich investors who then pass their wealth on to their children).
Sandel’s suggestions make a lot of sense; by making education less meritocratic, restoring the dignity of work, shifting the tax burden away from workers, reducing inequality, and restoring social esteem among all workers, the underlying source of the politics of resentment (which is largely to blame for the election of Donald Trump) is eliminated.
I will say I’m surprised that Sandel does not consider political fixes such as sortition, or the random assignment of citizens to political office. Sandel shows how our elected representatives are more credential than ever (95 percent have a college degree) but less representative of the population (only one-third of US adults have a college degree). Further, there is little evidence that having these credentials leads to greater moral character, civic virtue, or ability to govern. Based on this, you would think that creating a system of governance where our elected representatives do not disproportionately represent the meritocratic elite would be more of a priority for Sandel to explore.
Nevertheless, this is a critically important work that questions the assumption most of us have that society should simply strive to become a perfect meritocracy. We should understand that the constant striving and competition and reliance on the market to value social activity has resulted in extreme inequality and a politics of resentment. We must understand that those that rise to the top of society do so through several contingencies that should foster feelings of humility and gratitude, not hubris, and that the path to a better society includes valuing the dignity of all work and resisting our tendency to allow the market to determine the economic and social value of our jobs.