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Abolishing Meritocracy Will Require a Whole Lot of Government Intervention

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The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? By Michael J. Sandel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 272 pages.

Michael Sandel, who is a popular professor of government at Harvard, has written a strange book, even for a Harvard professor. Many critics of the free market, such as John Rawls, complain that the market is unfair because people do not start from a level playing field. We need to provide equality of opportunity so that people have an equal chance for the best positions. (For Rawls this is not enough, and the redistributionist “difference principle” is also required.) The demand for equality of opportunity is especially prevalent in college admissions, and calls abound to curtail the “legacy admissions” that are alleged to give an unfair advantage to the children of the rich.

Sandel agrees that the rich have an unfair advantage, but he thinks that the emphasis on equality of opportunity is fundamentally misplaced. A society in which the talented come out on top is bad, because in it the elite will look with disdain on those who do not rise as far as they have, and those who do not do well will feel resentful and unsure of their own worth. In lines he again and again repeats, he says, “The notion that the system rewards talent and hard work encourages the winners to consider their success their own doing, a measure of their virtue—and to look down upon those less fortunate than themselves….Seen from below, the hubris of elites is galling” (p. 25).

Sandel notes that although today “meritocracy” is for many a favorable term, just the opposite was the case with the person who introduced the word, the British sociologist Michael Young. He wasn’t in favor of the hierarchical British class system, but he suggested that “the arbitrariness of the class system spared workers from judging themselves by the inferior status society has assigned them.” (p.117)

This is actually a much older argument than Sandel realizes. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Ludwig von Mises commented on the German jurist Justus Möser’s “No Promotion According to Merit,” which appeared in 1772:

The long line of German authors who radically rejected the ‘Western’ ideas of the Enlightenment and the social philosophy of rationalism, utilitarianism and laissez faire as well as the policies advanced by these schools of thought was opened by Justus Möser. One of the novel principles which aroused Möser’s anger was the demand that the promotion of army officers and civil servants should depend on personal merit and ability and not on the incumbent’s ancestry and noble lineage, his age and length of service. Life in a society in which success would exclusively depend on personal merit would, says Möser, simply be unbearable. As human nature is, everybody is prone to overrate his own worth and deserts. If a man’s station in life is conditioned by factors other than his inherent excellence, those who remain at the bottom of the ladder can acquiesce in this outcome and, knowing their own worth, still preserve their dignity and self-respect. But it is different if merit alone decides. Then the unsuccessful feel themselves insulted and humiliated.

The price and market system of capitalism is such a society in which merit and achievements determine a man’s success or failure. Whatever one may think of Möser’s bias against the merit principle, one must admit that he was right in describing one of its psychological consequences. He had an insight into the feelings of those who had been tried and found wanting. The suffering from frustrated ambition is peculiar to people living in a society of equality under the law. It is not caused by equality under the law, but by the fact that in a society of equality under the law the inequality of men with regard to intellectual abilities, will power and application becomes visible.

So much does Sandel fear the bad effects of a society that rewards the talented that he dislikes the use of “smart” and “dumb” altogether:

As Thomas Nagel, a liberal egalitarian philosopher has written, “when racial and sexual injustice have been reduced, we shall still be left with the great injustice of the smart and the dumb, who are so differently rewarded for comparable effort.” “The smart and the dumb” is a telling phrase. It confirms populists’ worst suspicions about liberal elites. Far from the democratic sensibility of Rawls, who seeks a society in which “we share one another’s fate,” Nagel’s phrase lays bare the meritocratic hubris to which some versions of welfare state liberalism are prone. (pp. 145–46)

I have quoted this passage at some length, because it shows both the wackiness of Sandel’s position and his inability to read. Consider what he is saying. Nagel agrees with him that it is unjust to reward people differently because of their intellectual ability. But this is not enough for Sandel. Because Nagel recognizes that there are smart and dumb people, he becomes an elitist. Does Sandel think that elementary facts of experience will go away because he does not like them? His contrast of Rawls with Nagel is bizarre. A key theme in Nagel’s work is that people in a society share a common fate, and, far from being more meritocratic than Rawls, he thinks Rawls is insufficiently egalitarian.

In the free market, businesses that satisfy the demands of consumers prosper and those that do not fall by the wayside. What has Sandel to offer in its place? He says,

According to the civic ideal, the common good is not simply about adding up preferences or maximizing consumer welfare. It is also about reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives. This cannot be achieved through economic activity alone. It requires deliberating with our fellow citizens about how to bring about a just and good society, one that cultivates civic virtue and enables us to reason together about the purposes worthy of our political community. (pp. 208–09)

Sandel makes clear that the system he favors requires radical interference with the free market, aiming to promote “equality of condition”: “It does not require perfect equality. But it does require that citizens from different walks of life encounter one another in common spaces and public places. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences. And this is how we come to care for the common good” (p. 227). If you think that it is up to people themselves to decide whom they wish to associate with, and that they need not assemble together with others unless they so desire, I am afraid that you count as an elitist guilty of hubris. You are also mistaken if you hold the foolish view that the goal of production is consumption. Many years ago, Bob Nozick told me Sandel was stupid, and he wasn’t wrong.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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