NOTE: My too-modest friend Francois Matarasso writes about our new monthly podcast series, “A Culture of Possibility,” dropping today. Here’s the link to subscribe on iTunes. Let us know what you think!
I’m not much for patriotic displays, so I was surprised when I teared up during Lady Gaga’s singing of the national anthem at President Biden’s inauguration. And about half a dozen other times. The event pleased me in many ways. Just to see a president call out white supremacy, speak for the power of truth—the sense of relief that flowed through my veins was enlivening, as if I were awakening from a nightmare. I’m optimistic. Biden is not the progressive leader of my dreams; disappointments surely await, though with many good people advising him and many dedicated progressive thinkers and organizers watching him, I feel pretty confident in expecting less disappointment than from, say, Clinton.
The Inauguration Day camera kept returning to the Obamas and Clintons, neoliberal royalty sitting on the dais as the ceremonies unfolded. They set me to thinking of a new book I have recommended to everyone I know, Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find The Common Good?, in which these two recent presidents play lead roles in promoting a dangerous and damaging idea, that in the “marketplace of ideas,” merit (whatever that means) will rise to its just reward. Both were hooked on the “rhetoric of opportunity…summed up in the slogan that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise ‘as far as their talents will take them.'”
“Obama was fond of a variation of this theme,” writes Sandel, “drawn from a pop song: ‘You can make it if you try.’ During his presidency, he used this line in speeches and public statements more than 140 times.”
Sandel’s book is brilliant and true and useful in part because it weaves hard evidence (such as the specific provenance and prevalence of meritocratic rhetoric) and plain-spoken persuasive argument. For example, he traces the history of an invidious distinction that has become a commonplace of economic oratory:
The Reagan-Thatcher critique of the welfare state argued that people should be held responsible for their own well-being, and that the community owed help only to those whose misfortune was not their own fault. “We will never abandon those who, through no fault of their own, must have our help,” Reagan declared in a State of the Union address…. In presidential rhetoric, the phrase “through no fault of their own” was first used by Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. It implies a stringent notion of personal responsibility; those whose poverty or ill health is due to bad choices they have made do not deserve government help and should be left to fend for themselves.
“Ronald Reagan,” Sandel writes, “seeking to reduce the role of government, used the phrase more frequently than any prior president. But each of his Democratic successors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, employed it more than twice as often as Reagan did.”
What makes it so damaging? Let me count just a few of the ways:
What is considered meritorious must be judged in context. If you or I happen to have a remarkable talent that is out of step with current notions of value or even current technologies and customs, it will not reap social or financial rewards comparable with the talents valorized in this particular place and time. There is no objective definition of merit, only culturally and temporarily conditioned definitions.
Dividing the poor into no-fault and blame-ready categories is despicable. It rests on a punitive notion of poverty that has defaced American democracy for more than two centuries, asserting the right of the well-resourced to judge whether others deserve to suffer, as if their own good fortune were always earned on merit—the extended Trump family, anyone?—entitling them to dole out punishment for poverty. In reality, the costs of punitive poverty are massive (see the facts from the Poor People’s Campaign).
It is estimated that about three percent of U.S. GDP—about $625 billion—would put the entire nation above the poverty line (which needs to change, but that’s another topic). To put it into perspective, that’s less than the net worth of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, and Larry Ellison combined. Yet in the meritocratic frame, those five men are more worthy than the 40 or so million officially below the poverty line—not that the 40 million ever come into that calculation.
In a capitalist society founded on competition for scarce rewards, only some will win, regardless of talent. Sandel points out that “As recently as the mid-1970s, Stanford accepted nearly a third of those who applied. In the early 1980s, Harvard and Stanford admitted about one applicant in five; in 2019, they accepted fewer than one in twenty.” Those facing formidable obstacles such as racial, gender-based, or physical ability-based discrimination, may find it far more difficult to succeed in comparison with those given economic and social advantages from birth.
Sandel teaches at Harvard (where, he writes, “there are more students from families in the top 1 percent (income of more than $630,000 per year) than there are students from all the families in the bottom half of the income distribution combined”). Some elite university students are admitted as “legacies,” following in parental footsteps. Others, like Jared Kushner, get in when their parents’ donations to the school outweigh their poor academic performance. Some cheat their way in, like the wealthy families caught in the 2019 college admissions scandal (Trump pardoned one of them on his way out of office.)
Still others gain admission through what Sandel calls “fevered striving—a highly scheduled, pressure-packed, stress-inducing regime of Advanced Placement courses, private college counselors, SAT tutors, athletic and other extracurricular activities, internships and good deeds in distant lands designed to impress college admissions committees.” Yet, Sandel notes, most students believe they are there on merit alone. In his classes, “most voice the conviction that they worked hard to qualify for admission to Harvard and therefore merited their place. The suggestion that they were admitted due to luck or other factors beyond their control provokes strong resistance.”
Why are students so desperate to gain admission? Often because they have been persuaded that a prestige degree is a ticket to otherwise unattainable economic and social success. Sandel calls “credentialism…the last acceptable prejudice.” It means several things, including the pervasive snobbery that defers to credentialed expertise even when experts lack the lived knowledge to understand or alleviate suffering. In the macro political sense, it means offering higher education as a panacea for woes it can never address:
Here then was the basic argument of liberal and progressive politics in the decades leading up to Brexit, Trump, and the populist revolt: The global economy, as if a fact of nature, had somehow come upon us and was here to stay. The central political question was not how to reconfigure it but how to adapt to it, and how to alleviate its devastating effect on the wages and job prospects of workers outside the charmed circle of the elite professions.
The answer: Improve the educational credentials of workers so that they, too, could “compete and win in the global economy.” If equality of opportunity was the primary moral and political project, expanding access to higher education was the overriding policy imperative.
Credentialism encodes disrespect for the roughly two out of three American adults who did not graduate from a four-year college, broadcasting the insult that their only path to economic well-being was to emulate elites, to better themselves by joining in the consensus that devalues non-credentialed forms of knowledge. As Sandel writes:
The credentialist prejudice is a symptom of meritocratic hubris. As meritocratic assumptions tightened their hold in recent decades, elites fell into the habit of looking down on those who do not rise. The constant call for working people to improve their condition by getting a college degree, however well intentioned, eventually valorizes credentialism and undermines social recognition and esteem for those who lack the credentials the system rewards.
I’ve written about this before (here, for example) because it appalls and infuriates me. It devalues and dismisses millions of people who have so much to contribute to our common fate yet are advised by the disciples of credentialism to keep to their assigned places. It ignores the remarkable degree to which credentialed experts have gotten the most important things wrong, and also ignores the deep truth that the solutions to our wicked problems lie with those most affected by them.
The habits of mind that reinforce the illusion of meritocracy and the credentialism it supports as so insidious, so deepen woven into our social and political fabric, that it may be difficult to see a better path.
So I’ll just mention just a few ways a society freed from the grip of meritocracy might work if the actual well-being of all were a chief aim:
Guaranteed annual income: a non-punitive, non-means-tested basic living wage would replace welfare programs that waste huge sums of money turning people down, making it possible for everyone to have a decent life, regardless of personal circumstance. BIEN is a big international network that can answer all your questions.
Free universal education: read about Finland’s system if you want to know how it can be done.
Universal health care: how barbaric that health is a privilege rather than a right in this country! Enough said?
The degree to which such basic elements of well-being are seen as infeasible is an indicator of how fully in thrall the body politic is to the myth of meritocracy. What do we say about a nation that invests its commonwealth in the planet’s biggest punishment system and war machine, but “can’t afford” basic creature comforts, health, and education for all? Time to awaken from the trance of meritocracy!
The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find The Common Good? is a rich and eye-opening book, wonderfully researched and written. You won’t be sorry you read it.
Lowell Fulson, “Just A Poor Boy.”