AuthorFulton, Neil

The idea of merit is hardwired into American consciousness more than almost any concept. It is generally accepted that "the race is to the swift" and that "the cream rises to the top." (1) This belief that the most talented achieve the most is paired with a widespread belief that anyone can rise to the top with enough effort and ability. The Horatio Alger story, the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and other parables of personal advancement are longstanding and well known. (2) Although the potential for personal advancement is a communal belief, it is typically a belief grounded on the vision of a "self-made" individual who achieves through personal talent and industry and not as part of, or through the contributions of, their larger community. These arc fundamental tropes of the American story. (3) While ubiquitous in American life, these ideas are especially central to the culture of "elite" professions like academia, law, finance, and medicine, as well as competitive settings like athletics. (4)

The American ideal of "meritocracy" rests on several fundamental ideas. First, that achievement comes from "merit" rather than other factors. (5) Second, that "merit" is the mixture of innate talent and (more importantly) hard work. Third, that anyone can rise as far and fast as their talent and effort allow. Fourth, that an individual's position in life reflects their merit. In other words, you get what you earn in life, good or bad. Lastly, merit is an individual achievement; individuals are responsible for their fate, good or bad.

Professor Michael J. Sandel, one of the most prominent public intellectuals and philosophers today, has turned his attention to merit. His latest book, The Tyranny of Merit, (6) critiques the American obsession with merit and meritocracy. He is critical of the predominance of merit and the social impacts of that predominance. In lodging this critique, Sandel presents imperative questions about how we live, learn, and work together. Given the ubiquity of merit in American society, it is a work that should interest anyone. Given the centrality of merit in "elite" professions like the law, it is a work that should particularly draw attention from all connected to the practice of law or the legal academy. Sandel issues a timely call to consider the place of merit in American society and whether a different, more communitarian, vision is possible and preferable. (7)


    The Tyranny of Merit presents three central ideas about merit. First, Americans see the possibility of individual advancement based on merit as a fundamental value and reality. (8) Second, certain forms of education, work, and living arc given primacy above others, primarily based on commercial rather than moral values. (9) Third, this commercially prioritized value structure hardens societal divisions. (10) Meritocratic sorting is seen as "just deserts," with achievement (primarily commercial) seen as a reflection of virtue (virtue defined as ability and industry) rather than the product of more holistic causal chains. (11) These ideas can collectively be summarized as a worldview of winners and losers, determined by commercial production, with winning and losing being the just and proper result of the individual's actions first and foremost. Each of these ideas deserves deeper exploration.


      The body of Sandel's book opens with a recounting of the college admissions scandal that came to light in 2019. (12) As a reminder, wealthy and famous parents paid millions to obtain admission to elite institutions for their children. (13) Sandel differentiates the legitimate "front door" of admission based on purely merit from the "back door" of a combination of merit and legitimate (if motivated) parental philanthropy. (14) Different still is what he describes as the illegitimate "side door" of outright bribery to obtain guaranteed admission. (15) While there is a clear legal difference between philanthropy and bribery, Sandel notes that the moral lines are harder to draw and hazier to observe. (16) Wealthy and powerful parents are willing to make the "investments" necessary to get their children "elite" educations regardless of whether those investments are in legitimate, black, or gray markets. (17)

      From this troublesome vignette about the foibles of wealthy and famous parents, Sandel draws some conclusions that set off the discussions to follow. First, American society does not much debate the importance or propriety of the current conception of "merit," only how to achieve it. (18) Debates about the mechanisms to achieve and "rise" in society are very different than debates about the propriety of those goals or their measurement. Sandel raises the more fundamental, less frequently considered, question of whether the current view of "merit" is truly good. (19) The admissions scandal demonstrates in concrete terms that a focus on merit can produce perverse and destructive incentives. Second, with the definition of merit and value of "rising" within society assumed, obtaining certain shared markers of merit such as attendance at elite educational institutions is vital. (20) Given the perceived importance of these badges of honor, the incentive is high to do or pay what it takes to achieve them. (21) The wealthy have an advantage given how much money can do to achieve many of them. (22) Even with these advantages, those winning the race for merit pay a heavy psychic cost in doing so. (23) Finally, Sandcl notes at the opening that this intense focus on achievements rooted in merit is approached hyper-individually. (24) He sees enormous costs to community relationships and personal virtue from the vision of the "self-made" individual who is responsible for and deserving of all they achieve. (25)

      Sandcl sees the pursuit of merit, under a certain definition, as the primary motivating value in American society. That primacy places certain incentives, largely economic, above others. That, in turn, leads to a certain type of society.


      This general acceptance of merit as the primary social value must have some reason. Merit must reflect some significant social value to hold the social influence that it does. Sandcl sees two primary values that drive the primacy of merit: opportunity and virtue. (26) This rests on a foundational belief that all have the opportunity to succeed as much as their talents and efforts allow. (27) It is supported by the "rhetoric of responsibility," which promises that outcomes are entirely the result of merit--those who thrive "earned it," and those who struggle are morally culpable. (28) Sandel explores the roots and implications of these values.

      Sandel identifies support for the belief that merit reflects virtue in American religiosity and commercialism. The former provides a moral justification, (29) the latter a practical justification and metric (30) for meritocracy.

      Sandel notes that a society that heavily rewards merit can be powerfully fair and efficient, but alternatively can take a darkly moralistic turn. (31) The belief that those who succeed are talented and industrious is connected to the belief that those who prosper and those who suffer do so based on the absence or presence of sin. (32) This is a worldview of divine providence. (33) Sandel sees the religious ideas of providence and predestination as having evolved into the secular ideas of merit and just deserts where outcomes reflect virtue. (34) Predestination and providential thinking can manifest in a surrender to fortune (what happens, happens) or a claim of mastery (the individual decides their fate). (35) The providential mindset also has subsets of hubristic and punitive thinking. (36) This theological root of meritocracy unites with the second support, primacy of commercial activity, in the so-called "prosperity gospel" currently popular in some circles. (37) The "prosperity gospel" proclaims economic prosperity to be a divinely sponsored reward for righteousness while poverty is divine punishment for sin. (38) It is a highly meritocratic outlook, with no room for luck or other influences and no morally neutral outcomes. (39)

      The prominence of "prosperity gospel" is perhaps unsurprising given that Sandel also sees American meritocracy to be grounded on the prominence and preference of commercial activity. (40) Merit, and the attendant achievement, is commonly measured through income and other commercial metrics. (41) Sandel notes that merit, and the notion that "you can make it if you try," may not bear out as much as many would like to think. (42) In fact, a focus on commercial merit can be highly exclusionary. (43) It is also incredibly confining, tying those possessed of "merit" to certain careers and settings that justify their investment in elite credentials and are accepted as the "proper" path. (44) Those who make it through the meritocratic filter obtain economic success far beyond that imaginable for those who do not. (45) In America, merit pays--big time. But only if you play ball.

      The commercially focused meritocracy is subject to several powerful critiques. First, it prioritizes commercial activity over other ideas of the common good like solidarity and citizenship. (46) Second, meritocracy creates nearly unbridgeable gaps in income, education, socialization, and political engagement. (47) A world of division and inequitable outcomes based on merit threatens social and political rupture and is likely unsustainable. (48) Third, the meritocracy tends to recognize only "elite" work grounded in "merit" as worthy work. (49) This has the result of denigrating the value of work generally outside elite settings (50) while trapping the elite in certain jobs with enormous demands and no meaningful connection to values beyond the commercial. (51)

      One central point Sandel makes is that there can and should be something more to civic engagement and human activity...

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