Sandel’s just deserts

Provoked by Charles Murray’s laid-back admiration of Harvard Professor Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit, I touched on the issues that seem to be raised by Sandel’s book in “The merit of meritocracy.” Sandel’s book is now out in paperback and the Washington Free Beacon has just published Peter Berkowitz’s review of Sandel’s book. Placing the book in the context of Sandel’s career and the tradition of political philosophy, Berkowitz’s devastating review comes under the understated heading “Michael Sandel’s Vain Quest for the Common Good.” Berkowitz’s review is 4,000 words long, but it warrants reading in its entirety. It bears on critically important issues that confront us every day. It makes an important contribution in its own right and makes for worthwhile weekend reading. I have pulled excerpts below:

Harvard professor Michael Sandel has a talent for talking about equality—and gesturing at community, invoking the common good, and appealing to justice—that has lifted him to the top of his profession and brought him fame and fortune. Although his velvety prose and adroit equivocations tend to obscure the premises and implications of his reasoning, he has consistently maintained over the course of a long career that the greatest threat to equality, community, the common good, and justice in America is freedom in America.

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In the 1980s, Sandel launched a Harvard class called “Justice” that quickly surpassed the competition in popularity. In the spirit of his writings, the course has tended to cast aspersions on individual freedom in the name of equality, community, justice, and the common good. At the same time, the class has elevated the professor’s status and boosted demand for his services. In the 1980s, the course served as a star vehicle for Sandel within Harvard. In the internet age, Harvard made the course available online, turning him into an international intellectual celebrity, not least in the People’s Republic of China.

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The Tyranny of Merit refines, extends, and updates Sandel’s career-long effort to expose the oppressiveness and delusions of individual freedom. America’s “market-driven, meritocratic ethic” replaces his first book’s culprit—”the unencumbered self”—as the principal adversary. Rooted in the commonsense American conviction that individuals should be free to develop their talents, advance their interests, and enjoy what they earn and acquire, the meritocratic ethic, according to Sandel, has been embraced and purified over the last four decades by the left as well as the right, and, thanks to the support of both parties, has achieved ascendancy within American politics.

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The contest for admissions to elite colleges and universities, according to the longtime Harvard professor, epitomizes the tyranny of merit. By basing admissions on students’ ability and talent, higher education sends a toxic message: The admitted are winners who have earned the social status and remunerative and prestigious jobs conferred by a degree from a top institution of higher education while the rejected are losers who deserve an inferior social rank and lower incomes.

Sandel has a point—about the elites. Harvard does exude a sense of superiority. And the propensity to equate success in one endeavor—say graduation from, or a perch on the faculty at, an elite university—with excellence in many domains and the entitlement to status, wealth, and power is a common human failing.

But Sandel’s depiction of the balance of power in higher education bears little relation to elite campuses. At Harvard and elsewhere, an expanding dictatorship of grievance increasingly enfeebles the commitment to merit, at least insofar as merit is understood in the spirit of liberal education—that is, acquiring knowledge, pursuing the truth, thinking independently, and maintaining a community devoted to free and open inquiry.

Consistent with familiar progressive concerns, Sandel himself calls attention to the longstanding practice at Harvard and elsewhere of relaxing standards to admit the children of wealthy alumni. He does not so much as mention, however, the multiplicity of assaults on merit at our best universities spearheaded by progressives to promote intellectual homogeneity.

These include the attacks on free speech—from the policing of microaggressions to the harassment and disinviting of outside speakers; the gutting of due process; the hollowing and politicization of the curriculum; the disparate evaluation of highly qualified Asian candidates in the apparent effort to meet affirmative-action targets; the inflating of grades; and the allocation of substantial resources to build diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracies the purpose of which is to achieve proportional representation of races by discriminating based on skin color. A modicum of attention to his own university would have revealed to Sandel that far from exercising tyranny, merit—grounded in talent and drive—is in danger of subjugation by the forces of social justice, progressively understood.

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Sandel generally overlooks that many Americans are more likely to disdain Harvard for its haughtiness and for the pretensions of its faculty and graduates to impose their progressive views and preferences on the entire nation than to aspire to send their children there. He fails to consider that substantial numbers of Americans are proud of their local way of life, have no yearning to live in Manhattan or Silicon Valley, and mostly want progressive elites to mind their own business. And for the most part he ignores the abundant evidence that the anger and the resentment of the people who live beyond urban centers and the wealthy suburbs that surround them stem from the political class’s faulty conduct: Many members of communities in red America believe that elites have recklessly opened the southern border and suspended immigration laws; promiscuously spent taxpayer dollars with little concern for the long-term effects on the nation’s fiscal health; tarnished America’s good name by bungling wars and diplomacy; converted much of the mainstream media into a propaganda arm of the Democratic Party; mobilized powerful government agencies—the IRS, the FBI, and the Department of Justice—against the conservative grassroots as well as its democratically chosen standard-bearer; and, not least, transformed the educational system—from kindergarten through graduate and professional education—into an assembly line for the reproduction of leftist ideology.

Despite the many causes for concern, including a few vague doubts that he himself raises, Sandel rejects the possibility that the primary problem with meritocracy in America is the failure of many members of our intellectual and political elites to perform their jobs well. Instead, he sets out to discredit the very idea that human beings deserve the fruits of their labor.

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It is pertinent to add that the anti-meritocratic argument that he employs for tactical advantage—that individuals deserve no credit for their virtues and, it follows, no blame for their vices—represents a radical break with the American constitutional tradition and the moral and intellectual sources that sustain it. Sandel’s reduction of character to the remorseless laws of cause and effect or to arbitrary chance assumes the falsity of biblical faith’s teaching that human beings are made in the image of God and classical political philosophy’s account of natural right. It cannot be reconciled with the belief in the rights shared equally by all on which America is founded. It flies in the face of James Madison’s observation in Federalist 10—reflecting the Constitution’s moral and political premises—that “the first object of government” is “the protection” of human beings’ diverse capabilities and qualities, and the equal protection of the unequal attainments that inevitably result. And it opens the door to authoritarian schemes of centralized social and economic control and radical redistribution.

Having gone to philosophical extremes—and thereby legitimating political extremes—to combat the tyranny of merit, Sandel offers tepid proposals to rescue America from the crisis that he insists engulfs the nation. His principal education initiative involves establishing for the fewer-than-2,000 places in each Harvard entering class a “lottery of the qualified” among the tens of thousands of applicants who each year meet a high threshold of achievement. This, he suggests, would contain the pride of those admitted and soften the envy and resentment of those denied admission. His main recommendations concerning the economy include wage subsidies for low-income workers; tighter federal regulation of trade, outsourcing, and immigration; and “shifting the tax burden from work to consumption and speculation.”

If this is the best Sandel has to offer in the face of a tyranny that he believes is wrecking the body politic and ravaging citizens’ ability to contemplate a common good, then it is hard to resist the conclusion that he is, from his own point of view, a quisling or a fabulist. If he believes that the United States embodies a cruel and grievously unjust meritocracy, his modest reforms—which call for little sacrifice from himself and his colleagues while empowering his class by expanding government’s power—render him a collaborator with, and a profiteer from, a soul-destroying regime. If he believes that his underwhelming measures are proportional to the problem, then his sustained resort to the language of tyranny makes him a fabulist, concocting a scandalous accusation against freedom in the United States that could hardly have been better calculated to keep the author’s rewards rolling in from fellow elites at home and overseas, who take pride in denouncing America.

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The fundamental flaw in Sandel’s book is the organizing conviction that the principal source of America’s political pathologies is the “exhilarating promise of individual freedom,” which spawns a “harsh ethic of success” that weakens democracy, generates injustice, and obscures the common good. The instances of meritocratic excess that Sandel reasonably criticizes reflect not a working out of the premises of individual freedom but rather the failure of progressive elites to understand freedom’s promise and to cultivate the virtues, associations, and institutions that enable citizens to honor it. That failure stems in no small measure from an educational system—especially higher education, which trains K-12 teachers—that neglects the principles of freedom when it doesn’t inculcate scorn for them. Sandel’s abiding antipathy for freedom and persisting puzzlement over the common good are symptoms of the problem.

Although it has eluded Sandel for 40 years and counting, the common good in the United States is neither hidden nor mysterious. It is proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, institutionalized in the Constitution, and woven into the fabric of American history. It consists in securing, and exercising responsibly, the rights shared equally by all. America’s common good is suited to a people of diverse religious beliefs and a multiplicity of views about how to live a decent and fulfilling life. It is achieved through the establishment of a limited government that focuses on protecting individual rights rather than dictating matters of conscience and legislating morality.

I recommend the whole thing to Power Line readers.

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