The merit of meritocracy

Harvard’s Professor Michael Sandel is a popular teacher of philosophy. His course on Justice is renowned, as is his related book of that title. His Justice course lectures are available on YouTube. As Deirdre McCloskey concisely put it: “In contemporary terms he is a liberal, though of a decidedly ‘communitarian’ bent.” He’s the kind of academic philosopher who is tailor-made for the New York Times.

Sandel’s new book is an attack on meritocracy titled The Tyranny of Merit. I haven’t read it and probably won’t, but Charles Murray’s positive review of the book in the Claremont Review of Books has set me off.

Murray holds that Sandel fairly assesses the costs and benefits of meritocracy (“Sandel has given us an important meditation, starting from first principles, on how to think about human merit and a meritocratic society”). That it may be. However, one would never know from reading Murray’s review that merit is under assault in the ideological war grounded in identity politics that is wracking our country, our culture, and our institutions. Merit is certainly a primary victim of identity politics.

Murray himself has been a secondary victim of identity politics many times over, so I want to add that I mean no disrespect to him. I hold him in the highest regard. If my opinion differs from his in the matter under discussion, it gives me pause. He is probably right.

The rise of identity politics is inarguably a scourge. Walter Russell Mead observed in a recent Wall Street Journal column: “Alongside the return of great power competition, the eruption of identity politics is the single most consequential political feature of our time. This fateful combination does not bode well.” Mead’s concern is global politics, but on a national level identity politics is an awesomely destructive force all by itself.

Julian Soman’s enthusiastic Guardian column on Sandel’s book helpfully expands on Murray’s review. The tyranny of merit ain’t got nothing on the tyranny that Sandel’s alternative supports. Think this through:

There must be a radical re-evaluation of how contributions to the common good are judged and rewarded. The money to be earned in the City or on Wall Street, for example, is out of all proportion with the contribution of speculative finance to the real economy. A financial transactions tax would allow funds to be channelled more equably. But for Sandel, the word “honour” is as important as the question of pay. There needs to be a redistribution of esteem as well as money, and more of it needs to go to the millions doing work that does not require a college degree.

“We need to rethink the role of universities as arbiters of opportunity,” he says, “which is something we have come to take for granted. Credentialism has become the last acceptable prejudice. It would be a serious mistake to leave the issue of investment in vocational training and apprenticeships to the right. Greater investment is important not only to support the ability of people without an advanced degree to make a living. The public recognition it conveys can help shift attitudes towards a better appreciation of the contribution to the common good made by people who haven’t been to university.”

A new respect and status for the non-credentialed, he says, should be accompanied by a belated humility on the part of the winners in the supposedly meritocratic race. To those who, like many of his Harvard students, believe that they are simply the deserving recipients of their own success, Sandel offers the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding… but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

“Humility is a civic virtue essential to this moment,” he says, “because it’s a necessary antidote to the meritocratic hubris that has driven us apart.”

The Tyranny of Merit is the latest salvo in Sandel’s lifelong intellectual struggle against a creeping individualism that, since the Reagan and Thatcher era, has become pervasive in western democracies. “To regard oneself as self-made and self-sufficient. This picture of the self exerts a powerful attraction because it seems on the face of it to be empowering – we can make it on our own, we can make it if we try. It’s a certain picture of freedom but it’s flawed. It leads to a competitive market meritocracy that deepens divides and corrodes solidarity.”

Soman’s column continues with this paragraph, but I pause here for purposes of emphasis:

There are, he believes, optimistic signs beyond the “clap for carers” moment that an ethical shift is finally taking place. “The Black Lives Matter movement has given moral energy to progressive politics. It has become a multiracial, multigenerational movement and is opening up space for a public reckoning with injustice. It shows that the remedy for inequality is not simply to remove barriers to meritocratic achievement.”

For us, BLM is the reductio terrorist ad absurdum of identity politics. For Sandel, it is a shoot of spring.

In place of “equality of opportunity” Sandel supports “equality of condition.” With its Marxist roots, BLM is a logical way station to Sandel’s destination.

What is the realistic alternative to meritocracy? Drawing on Michael Young, Murray juxtaposes meritocracy with the British class system. The injustice of the class system is given comic exposition in the work of P.G. Wodehouse. In Wodehouse’s novels, Bertie Wooster is the natural inferior of his servant (the great Jeeves). But our system affords Jeeves the resources necessary to rise to his natural level. This doesn’t sit well with Sandel either.

Meritocracy is of course implicit in a regime based on individual rights: “The protection of [the diversity in men’s] faculties is the first object of government.” That is James Madison, in Federalist 10.

Whatever Sandel has in mind, the realistic alternative to meritocracy that lies before us is tribalism. Sandel’s praise of BLM isn’t meant to be revealing in this sense, but it is. For a recent example of the tribalism in action, see Heather Mac Donald’s City Journal column “Ripping Off the Veil.”

Adrian Wooldridge defends meritocracy in his new book, The Aristocracy of Talent (I haven’t read it either). George Will took note of it in his June 25 Washington Post column “Attacking ‘merit’ in the name of ‘equity’ is a prescription for mediocrity.” Will used the book to defend meritocracy in utilitarian terms, but this won’t cut it as a practical matter. Will returned to the book last month in his August 6 column “Rejecting meritocracy clashes with America’s basic premises,” which is exactly right.

The American founders believed in natural aristocracy. It is an idea with deep roots in Western thought. James Hankins explores the roots in his thoughtful Law and Liberty essay “Meritocracy ancient and modern.”

Incidentally, Sandel was a fan of an earlier incarnation of George Will. Sandel reviewed Will’s 1983 book Statecraft As Soulcraft for the New York Times Book Review. Sandel’s review is “Up from individualism.” The headline to the contrary notwithstanding, the prospect is not an ascent.

STEVE adds: It may be worth mentioning that Will repudiated Statecraft as Soulcraft (I actually saw him do it in person once, back around 2000), and his big book from a couple years ago, The Conservative Sensibility, is about as opposite from Soulcraft as you can get. I go through his metamorphosis at length in this review.

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