A Political Philosopher on Why Democrats Should Think Differently About Merit | The New Yorker
Looming above America’s present struggles over injustice and inequality is the sense that certain self-mythologies are beginning to evaporate. When Barack Obama was in the White House, he often studded his speeches with a favorite pop lyric, “You can make it if you try.” He mentioned it more than a hundred and forty times, even though the facts of declining social mobility rendered that image less and less convincing. In various studies, no more than eight per cent of Americans who are born into the bottom fifth of U.S. households, as measured by income, ever reach the top fifth; more than a third stay at the bottom.
That analysis of Obama’s language is just one of the startling facts in the latest book by the political philosopher Michael Sandel, who has spent decades scrutinizing the tenets of Western liberalism, including beliefs about justice, markets, and, now, meritocracy. In “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?,” Sandel examines how the notion of “meritocracy,” a word coined in 1958 by Michael Young, a left-leaning British sociologist, was torqued into an American shibboleth. Over time, Sandel argues, it fed a “toxic brew of hubris and resentment.” He writes, “It flattered the winners and insulted the losers. By 2016, its time was up. The arrival of Brexit and Trump, and the rise of hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant parties in Europe, announced the failure of the project.” In the final months of Sandel’s writing, he found that the pandemic underscored the political problems he was describing. “The question now is what an alternative political project might look like,” he wrote. Among his prescriptions, he favors some popular liberal proposals, such as introducing a tax on financial transactions, but also some provocative suggestions, such as creating a lottery system for élite college admissions.
In the early days of the pandemic, we often heard the reassuring slogan “We are all in this together.” We heard it from politicians, advertisers, celebrities. The slogan was all around us. It was inspiring in a way because it reminded us of our shared vulnerability in the face of the virus. But I think many people felt that the slogan rang hollow, even in the early weeks, because we knew, and felt, and sensed that we were not truly all in this together. It soon became clear that some of us would ride out the pandemic working from home, relatively removed from the risks, while others—including those whose work enabled the rest of us to work from home—had little choice but to expose themselves to the risks that come from working in stores, and in warehouses, and delivering goods. So it quickly became clear that we were not all in this together.
I should first explain what I mean by “meritocratic hubris.” It’s the tendency of those who land on top to believe that their success is their own doing, the measure of their merit, and, by implication, that those who struggle, those who were left behind, must deserve their fate as well. It’s the tendency to forget our indebtedness to family, teachers, community, country, and the times in which we live as conditions for the success that we enjoy. The more we believe that our success is our own doing, the harder it is to see ourselves in other people’s shoes, the harder it is to feel a sense of mutual responsibility for the fate of our fellow-citizens, including those who aren’t flourishing in the new economy.
In the book, you detail some practical proposals that you’d like to see introduced to confront these problems. But, in the short term, what would you like to see Joe Biden do in the next couple of months, to give life to those ideas, that you think might help?
I would urge Biden to play out an instinct that he has already voiced when he speaks about the “dignity of work.” What the rhetoric of rising has missed is the lost dignity of work that a great many people spend their lives engaged in. Not only in terms of stagnant wages, but also in terms of social recognition. Honor. At the heart of the resentment of many working people is the sense that the work they do isn’t respected in the way it once was. Not only the economy but also the culture has left them behind. If he should be elected, as I hope he will be, he should put the dignity of work at the center of his Presidency, which could make life better for everyone, not only the well credentialled. That could be the starting point for moving beyond the tyranny of merit, toward a politics of the common good.