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).

The real aim in Sandel’s indictment of President Obama’s choices is to expose the worm in the wood of meritocracy. For all its “smart” power, the Obama administration failed to handle the 2008 recession effectively, giving big banks a pass rather than initiating meaningful reforms. The “better” educated blame the less educated for their failures in life. The elite, from undergraduates to cabinet officers, has more contempt for the less educated than for other groups because those other groups (affected, for example, by racism and sexism) are not personally blameworthy. Credentialism “is the last acceptable prejudice.”

Credentialism dovetails with what Sandel calls the technocratic faith in government. That faith is not new. In a Fabian Society pamphlet published in 1931, “The Limitations of the Expert,” Harold Laski remarked on the wide gap between the “expert” and the “plain man.” But Laski lamented the narrow frames of reference that experts employed, not where they were educated or their social class. What Laski hoped for were leaders who could mediate between the claims of experts and the concerns of the plain man. But technocratic experts, Sandel believes, cannot answer “questions about power, morality, authority, and trust, which is to say [that these] are questions for democratic citizens.”

Even a perfectly meritocratic society, in which all received their due, would not necessarily be a just society, Sandel thinks, or even a good one. There would still be “hubris and anxiety among the winners and humiliation and resentment among the losers—attitudes at odds with human flourishing and corrosive of the common good.” Sandel’s criticism of meritocracy derives more from what constitutes a good society than what constitutes a just one. Meritocratic achievement is based on talent and effort: But “why assume that our talents should determine our destiny, and that we merit or deserve the rewards that flow from them?” Possessing talent may be a matter of luck, Sandel suggests, like winning the lottery.

But even if talents are unearned gifts of a sort, they still must be cultivated, worked on, and developed, often through long and arduous practice. Are such diligently nurtured gifts not considered the epitome of meritocratic worth? Sandel points to the basketball player LeBron James, who he acknowledges is “blessed with prodigious athletic gifts.” James’s “talent” may earn him tens of millions of dollars, but only because people “love the game at which he excels,” Sandel writes, contrasting our sports-besotted society with “Renaissance Florence, when fresco painters, not basketball players, were in high demand.”

The reward for talent is thus contingent on the demand for it at any given time. But how can any talent be acknowledged and rewarded if it is only contingent on demand? At Harvard, where Sandel teaches political philosophy, numerous professors devote their lives to writing and teaching subjects that for many people hold no interest whatsoever. The liberal arts have been one of the great loss leaders in the creation of cultural capital. Economists today may hold sway over the many social implications of supply and demand, but they cannot explain any more than Sandel can why tastes and interests change. That demand does change from fresco painters to basketball players is a mystery that explains why there will always be snobs and philistines and why “value” will always have an ethical component no matter how ambiguous it may at times be.

Sandel’s sustained complaint against meritocracy is that talent, effort, hard work, and any unearned accrued advantages such as wealth and social networks may be justifications for one’s place in society, but these factors do not define one’s worthiness and privilege. At this point, he pivots to remind readers that his students at Harvard “invariably attribute their admission to effort and hard work.” Reviewing the early efforts of leaders in higher education to transform admissions policies that favored the selection of moneyed WASPs at elite colleges and universities, Sandel goes on to explain how sorting mechanisms (such as standardized tests) that came to be used to identify the best and brightest were soon being gamed by the new meritocratic elite to maximize the advantages of their own offspring. In this way, who can be surprised that incidents such as the Varsity Blues scandal have only added cynicism to the power of privilege?

Sandel’s complaint about how meritocracy entrenches inequality becomes more than theoretical. How level must the playing field be, and how might it be rigorously monitored so it cannot be easily gamed? Sandel proposes a lottery system “that treats merit as a threshold qualification, not an ideal to be maximized.” He addresses objections to such a plan but maintains that “if a sizeable number of elite colleges and universities began admitting qualified students by lottery, they would alleviate, at least to some degree, the stress of high school years.” Another proposal about the social esteem attached to elite schools seems not only more ambitious but even less likely to be embraced than his lottery proposal: “One way to begin is by dismantling the hierarchy of esteem that accords greater honor and prestige to students enrolled in name-brand colleges and universities than to those in community colleges or in technical and vocational training programs.” Changing such norms may be more difficult than Sandel recognizes.

Sandel’s ambition to address the faults and limits of what we now call meritocracy is a noble one. A society that can find ways to reduce inequality is a morally better society. But a lottery system substitutes chance for the sense of obligation inherent in tenets of faith such as Tikkun Olam in Judaism, the requirement enunciated in Matthew 25 that Christ’s followers care for the less fortunate, and Zakat in Islam. When Alexis de Tocqueville and others emphasized the requirements of noblesse oblige, they were arguing for the importance not only of the responsibilities that come with privilege but of the preservation and cultivation of our civic institutions. The question Sandel’s book leaves unanswered is not who should be admitted to Harvard, but what should be taught to matriculants once they arrive there. An elite, however it is shaped and whoever belongs to it, will have to learn in every generation how its good fortune should serve as an everlasting debt and a regular down payment on the common good.