Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Book Reviews

The Brass Ring

Is credentialism “the last acceptable prejudice”?

Jonathan B. Imber

Peter Cade/Getty Images.

As we learn in The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel’s view of meritocracy rests in part on the historical claim that it is grounded in the Calvinist understanding of predestination. “Combined with the idea that the elect must prove their election through work in a calling,” he writes, such a doctrine “leads to the notion that worldly success is a good indication of who is destined for salvation.” In this he follows Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but Sandel extends this thesis to the present moment, citing the evangelical idea of the “prosperity gospel” and the secular rationalizations of such well-known achievers as Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman Sachs) and John Mackey (founder of Whole Foods), who represent the understanding of health and wealth “as matters of praise and blame…a meritocratic way of looking at life.”

Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, believes that two accounts of what constitutes a just society have been made in market terms. He calls one “free-market liberalism” (or “neoliberalism”) and the other “welfare state liberalism” (or “egalitarian liberalism”). Neither has adequately explained or proposed ways to restrain inequality. The same is especially true of libertarian philosophers, or “luck egalitarians,” who justify inequality by distinguishing between those who are responsible for their misfortunes and those who are victims of bad luck. Meanwhile, the progressive investment in education has had the unintended consequence of widening inequality: “The weaponization of college credentials,” Sandel notes, “shows how merit can become a kind of tyranny.” One damaging effect of this is the “eroding of social esteem accorded those who had not gone to college,” which is particularly bad when you remember that only about one in three American adults graduates from a four-year college.

By way of example, Sandel takes a look at President Barack Obama’s selection of the members of his administration, pointing out that “90 percent of his early appointees had advanced degrees…[and] by the middle of his second term, two-thirds of his cabinet-rank appointees had attended an Ivy League college.” But throughout the twentieth century, at least thirty-nine Supreme Court justices were alumni of Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. In the legislative branch, it is true that in the Seventy-Ninth Congress (1945–47), 56 percent of representatives and 75 percent of senators had college degrees. At that time, approximately 5 percent of American adults 25 and older had completed four or more years of college, compared to 28 percent in 2009. Rather than demonstrate meritocratic hubris, these statistics show that from the time President Lincoln signed the legislation that enabled the creation of land-grant colleges, the arc of the moral universe has been bending toward greater justice, or at least greater access to higher education (although the legacy of land-grant colleges began with the seizure of the lands of native populations—undoubtedly an early instance of meritocratic hubris).

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