[Book Review]: The Tyranny of Meritocracy: What’s Become of the Common Goods?

Fueled by the deep-seated anger over the growing gap in income and wealth, Americans voted for Donald Trump, and the British favoured Brexit. Many discuss the upsurge populist backlash from different perspectives such as racism, xenophobic demonization of immigrants, or globalization. 

Michael J. Sande, a distinguished professor and philosopher, takes a different approach, bringing the myth of meritocracy to the forefront in the populism debate. His new book – The Tyranny of Meritocracy: What’s Become of the Common Goods?, makes the case, challenging the fundamental tenet of the American belief that one’s success depends on one’s effort and grit. 

The poor have been persuaded to believe that those who landed on top are there by hard work, intelligence and perseverance rather than privileged birth. They accept that inequality is fair. Given the growing inequality, political parties and politicians call for greater equality of opportunity, mainstreaming the notion that one can rise as far as their personal effort and talent takes them. 

Nevertheless, a study by the economist Raj Chetty found that a college degree alone does surprisingly little to stimulate upward mobility. Another study revealed less upward mobility in the US than in Germany, Spain, Japan, Australia and other Nordic countries. Even China has greater economic mobility than the US. 

He spends the bulk of the text discussing the philosophical underpinnings of meritocracy and highlighting the perspectives of many notable figures such as Michael Young, Friedrich A. Hayek, John Rawls, and others. But the author moves back and forth on these philosophical discussions between chapters as he tries to question meritocratic tendencies. 

Debate about merit centres on fairness. But what if, from the start, not all people ever have a truly level playing field?

Top university admission is skewed in favour of legacies, athletes and the children of donors. Harvard, for instance, admits one in three legacy applicants, while of general applicants, it accepts only one of twenty. 

Sandel contends that ‘measures of merit are hard to disentangle from economic advantage.’ The wealthy families enrol their children in SAT prep courses, hire private admission counsellors, and so on to compete for admission. More than two-thirds of Ivy League students come from the top 20% of the income scale. Such admissions jettison the notion of equality of opportunity. 

In addition, he exposes how the elites cheat on the admission system to get their children enrolled in prestigious universities, such as Yale, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton. There was an emblematic scandal that one family paid William Singer, an unscrupulous consultant, $1.2 million to get their daughter admitted to Yale. The corrupt workarounds include bribing the proctor to boost the students’ scores on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT. 

Of note, even a perfect meritocratic society is in itself unjust, argues Sandel. The single-minded focus on education and meritocracy has corrosive effects. The notion that people are responsible for their fate demoralizes solidarity or the shared feeling of ‘common good’. Only one in three Americans have a college degree. Credentialism breeds insidious prejudice that undermines social esteem and devalues the contributions of the less-educated. More seriously still, the belief that social and political problems are best solved by the best and the brightest corrupts democracy and disempowers ordinary citizens. The brilliant technocrats who brought the US into the Vietnam war is a salient example, detailed in David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest. Meritocracy instills pride in these people. 

While market-driven globalization rewards people unevenly, the advice from politicians and elites is to go to college to compete with immigrants and robots. Since the economic pie is shrinking, the result is populism and a divided nation. To overcome the resentment of the meritocratic concept of success, there is a need to shift the focus from maximizing the economy to creating a labour market conducive to the dignity of work, enabling working class Americans to earn a decent living.

The book sheds light on the public discourse on meritocracy, explaining how it is not the solution to inequality, but a justification of that. It emphasizes that rewarding the best and the brightest denigrates the rest. It discusses approaches to deal with this issue, including reducing reliance on the SAT and eliminating the preferences for legacies, athletes and donor’s children. Interestingly, he argues that the weighted lottery of the qualified applicants approach could combat the tyranny of merits.

As the elites have better access to prestigious universities, Sandel, himself a Harvard professor, does not mention the issue of college ranking. The ranking is calculated through admission and graduation rates, tuition costs and faculty salaries. Such a system favours highly selective colleges over those that accept a wider range of applications, but this is not statistically comprehensive. Universities attempt to move up the ranking in a way that hurts students, as it drives colleges to spend more on -campus amenities such as- recreational facilities, fancy dorms, which, in turn, influences college costs and student selectivity. 

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