A Political Philosopher on Why Democrats Should Think Differently About Merit

Looming above America’s present struggles over injustice and inequality is the sense that certain self-mythologies are beginning to evaporate. When Barack Obama was in the White House, he often studded his speeches with a favorite pop lyric, “You can make it if you try.” He mentioned it more than a hundred and forty times, even though the facts of declining social mobility rendered that image less and less convincing. In various studies, no more than eight per cent of Americans who are born into the bottom fifth of U.S. households, as measured by income, ever reach the top fifth; more than a third stay at the bottom.

That analysis of Obama’s language is just one of the startling facts in the latest book by the political philosopher Michael Sandel, who has spent decades scrutinizing the tenets of Western liberalism, including beliefs about justice, markets, and, now, meritocracy. In “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?,” Sandel examines how the notion of “meritocracy,” a word coined in 1958 by Michael Young, a left-leaning British sociologist, was torqued into an American shibboleth. Over time, Sandel argues, it fed a “toxic brew of hubris and resentment.” He writes, “It flattered the winners and insulted the losers. By 2016, its time was up. The arrival of Brexit and Trump, and the rise of hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant parties in Europe, announced the failure of the project.” In the final months of Sandel’s writing, he found that the pandemic underscored the political problems he was describing. “The question now is what an alternative political project might look like,” he wrote. Among his prescriptions, he favors some popular liberal proposals, such as introducing a tax on financial transactions, but also some provocative suggestions, such as creating a lottery system for élite college admissions. I recently spoke by phone with Sandel, who is Harvard’s Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government. He was at home in Brookline, Massachusetts. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed American notions of success and failure, how they have contributed to inequality and division, and what Joe Biden might say to stake out a more inspiring, and more dignifying, realm of Democratic values.

You write that America was “morally” unprepared for the pandemic. Was there ever a point in this crisis when you thought, Perhaps this will galvanize us?

In the early days of the pandemic, we often heard the reassuring slogan “We are all in this together.” We heard it from politicians, advertisers, celebrities. The slogan was all around us. It was inspiring in a way because it reminded us of our shared vulnerability in the face of the virus. But I think many people felt that the slogan rang hollow, even in the early weeks, because we knew, and felt, and sensed that we were not truly all in this together. It soon became clear that some of us would ride out the pandemic working from home, relatively removed from the risks, while others—including those whose work enabled the rest of us to work from home—had little choice but to expose themselves to the risks that come from working in stores, and in warehouses, and delivering goods. So it quickly became clear that we were not all in this together.

At the heart of your project is that unravelling of social bonds, a process that you describe as unfolding over many decades. You were obviously working on this book long before the pandemic. So, what was the origin moment that led you to look at the common good, and the role of meritocracy in our lives?

The theme of the common good, and our difficulty bringing it to bear in our public life, has been a concern of mine for a very long time, going back to my previous book [“What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” (2012)], where I worried that we had shifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society, in which everything was up for sale. Going back even further, I worried that contemporary liberalism focussed too single-mindedly on the individual detached from community, and that this was leading to a politics that failed to engage with our shared identities and with shared moral purposes. So our uneasy relation to the common good has been something that’s concerned me for a long time. I was prompted to write this book, “The Tyranny of Merit,” by trying to make sense of 2016. First with Brexit in Britain, then with the election of Trump in the United States, 2016 was a moment of populist backlash. But against what? That was the question.

It seemed to me that there was more to this backlash than simply the loss of jobs, and the wage stagnation that resulted from globalization. There was more to it also than the ugly sentiments of xenophobia, misogyny, and racism that Trump fomented and appealed to. It seemed to me that entangled with these ugly sentiments were some legitimate grievances that the mainstream parties had missed and had failed to address. Central to those grievances was anger and resentment against professional and meritocratic élites, who seem to be looking down on those less fortunate, less credentialled than themselves.

In your books, there’s this pattern, it seems to me, in which you have sensed at various moments these comforting ideas—“morally satisfying,” I think is a term that you’ve used—that are either underdeveloped, or overdeveloped, or exploited in some way. You’ve challenged some of these presumptions that we have about how a good society is organized. How do you see the theme that ties together some of these big critiques that you’ve made over the years?

A central theme has been questioning the widely held assumption that the way a pluralist society should contend with its moral and civic disagreements is to aspire to a neutrality that, I believe, can never be achieved. So, for example, in the previous book, “What Money Can’t Buy,” I tried to show that part of the deeper appeal of the market faith, which took hold from the nineteen-eighties through the early two-thousands, was the assumption that markets were a neutral instrument for defining the public good. We could somehow avoid messy, contentious debates about the meaning of a just society, and how to achieve the common good, by outsourcing our moral disagreements to markets. The effect has been to create an empty, hollow, unsatisfying public discourse, which frustrates democratic citizens, I think, in many parts of the world. Certainly in this country, citizens want public life to be about big questions that matter, including questions of values, and this reach for neutrality has not only led to the embrace of the market faith, but it also has led our politics to embrace a technocratic space—the idea that experts and technocrats can tell us what the common good consists in—and this technocratic faith is very closely connected to the idea that the meritorious, the well credentialled, should govern.

It’s an interesting scenario that here you are at Harvard, surrounded by students who have risen to the top of the meritocratic system, faculty members who have risen to the top, and a culture embedded with the idea that, through rigorous training, you can build not just the opportunity but almost a moral position to lead the country. When you talk about the flaws of meritocratic hubris, how does that go over at Harvard?

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