Review: The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel
The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? His power is incisive analysis: he cuts to the Augustinian heart of divisive issues using classic philosophical tools. He also explains all this slowly and clearly. He is the single most gifted guide of classroom discussion that I have ever seen (I not only read Justice; I watched the WBUR Boston recordings of his class; they were sterling).
This book wasn’t quite as lean and refined as Justice; it also didn’t deal with quite as important a topic (that would have been a tall order). It was a bit long and a bit repetitive (though because I listened to the audio, read patiently and engagingly by the author, that actually worked out well). And it didn’t seem to me to solve the dilemma it kept tossing from hand to hand for hour after hour: If meritocracy isn’t so great, and aristocracy not so great either, then what?!
But I’m burying a really important lede: What Sandel did do was give me the best answer I’ve yet seen to a question I haven’t been able to answer since 2016—why did so many Americans vote for reality TV star Donald Trump?! This wasn’t the point of the book, more of a very important supporting argument. The main argument was that meritocracy sounds good as a means of allocating certain sought-after goods in a society such as admission to elite colleges and access to high-paying and valorized professions. But—and I’ll never forget this—meritocracy tends to make the “winners” feel arrogantly self-congratulatory, forgetful of how very many aspects of their success had nothing to do with their effort; and it tends to make the “losers” feel, well, like that’s just what they are. They didn’t have the talent or drive to achieve the American Dream, so they’re out. Here’s where Trump comes in: regular people who do work essential to our society but not valorized by it don’t like it when elites look down on them. It’s galling to hear Hillary Clinton call vast numbers of people “a basket of deplorables,” to hear President Obama sneering at those who trust in “God and guns.” It’s offensive to be told that you are racist for complaining about factory jobs being taken by people in other countries. And yet meritocracy has not only produced all this, it has tempted elites to talk as if credentials equal intelligence to boot. (I think of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, an excellent book, which showed the intellectual challenges inherent in much manual work.)
Aristocracy may keep the peasants and serfs down, but at least they can say to themselves, “I have the talent to rise.” They are less likely to conclude, “I am a loser.” And aristocracy can produce a noblesse oblige on the part of the aristocrats: they know they don’t deserve their privilege, so they share their wealth.
This again, is where I say, “Then what?!” Because I just don’t see the West moving back to aristocracy, not on purpose. And if I’m stuck behind Rawls’ pre-birth curtain, I’d still choose the meritocratic society and its opportunity over the aristocratic one and its stratified classes. (Though I admit I was shocked to discover that upward mobility in America is actually noticeably lower than it is in a number of European countries.)
So I appreciated Sandel’s practical suggestions for toning down the worst elements of meritocracy. And there was a huge irony in one of his key suggestions. Follow me… Sandel critiqued Puritanism as if it were straight up Pelagianism. There was one key line that was just so egregiously wrong—and yet, in a way, perfectly right. He said that the Puritan emphasis on God’s grace in election got twisted into self-congratulation for being elected. That is so, so wrong, because Puritans of all people knew that they humbly had no purchase on God’s grace, nothing in them to merit it. And yet they would be the first to point out that the human heart is so fallen that it can turn God’s grace into a badge of pride. Instead of a critique of the Puritans, I heard in Sandel a critique of human nature. Sandel knows from long labor, I will hazard, that secularism and classical liberalism don’t offer serious moral philosophies, so he takes theology seriously, something for which I was grateful. And here I come back to the irony. He proved to me that meritocracy on elite campuses—like the Harvard where he has taught for four decades—is terribly harmful, to the meritocrats and the basket of deplorables alike. He persuaded me that a lottery system would be a much better way for Harvard to select applicants. But by doing this he is, to my mind, implicitly arguing for the grace of God. The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.
Sandel also argued that one way to valorize work rightly would be to legally curtail the money markets, the complex financial instruments that can net millions for the right bettors without actually doing much of anything to invest in business or produce any goods and services of value. This I found persuasive, too.
Biblical theology teaches from its very first page that work is a God-given good. God told Adam to “work and keep” the garden even before the fall. But by page 3, human work has been deeply frustrated by the fall: we’ve got thorns and thistles everywhere. Sandel’s calls to valorize all good work rang biblically true for me.
So did his critiques of meritocracy. One of the most important parables in my theology is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. It shows that no one will get less good than he deserves for his work, but that the Master is generous and sometimes spills out amazing blessing on some and not others. All good I enjoy is by God’s grace. There’s a reason that conservative evangelical Christians keep saying this to one another. We both believe it and are, by that phrase, asking that Master to help our unbelief. To diminish our pride, our tendency to hoard moral merit in our hearts.
Sandel’s book gives me some intellectual tools, tools of careful moral philosophy and of assiduous and wise observation of our world, to help me trust more to God’s grace and to be humble and grateful.