The meritocratic ideal—the belief that society should distribute rewards on the basis of merit alone—lives deep in the American DNA. The founders’ vision of a nation liberated from the aristocracies of old Europe produced the quintessentially American spirit of rugged individualism and upward mobility. With natural talent and hard work, anyone could make it. And through a century of social reforms aimed at fully realizing this ideal, the meritocracy as we know it today was born—a system seeking a more just and equitable society by leveling the playing field to allow the best men and women to achieve success regardless of their skin color or parents’ bank account.
This modern meritocracy, typified by the college admissions process and extending into all aspects of life, isn’t without its critics. Some point out the ways in which our system fails to live up to the meritocratic ideal, but others look deeper, asking whether the meritocratic ideal itself should be questioned. In his stimulating new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel makes the provocative argument that even if a true meritocracy were achievable, the result wouldn’t be desirable. In fact, he sees meritocracy as hazardous to our collective soul.
Hubris and Humiliation
Sandel has produced a book that defies easy categorization. Though wrapped in political commentary (especially the “why Trump?” question) and tied up with a bow of progressive policy proposals, at its heart it’s an earnest work of moral philosophy and cultural analysis. This cultural/philosophical project, rather than the political punditry, represents the strength of the book. And while not a Christian work, at this level it resonates deeply with Christian themes, gives insight into the church’s interaction with culture, and raises questions in need of Christian answers (even if they’re not the answers Sandel provides).
The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
These are dangerous times for democracy. We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favor of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the American credo that “you can make it if you try.” The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fueled populist protest and extreme polarization, and led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens–leaving us morally unprepared to face the profound challenges of our time.
World-renowned philosopher Michael J. Sandel argues that to overcome the crises that are upending our world, we must rethink the attitudes toward success and failure that have accompanied globalization and rising inequality. Sandel shows the hubris a meritocracy generates among the winners and the harsh judgement it imposes on those left behind, and traces the dire consequences across a wide swath of American life. He offers an alternative way of thinking about success—more attentive to the role of luck in human affairs, more conducive to an ethic of humility and solidarity, and more affirming of the dignity of work. The Tyranny of Merit points us toward a hopeful vision of a new politics of the common good.
Sandel’s argument is multifaceted, but at the core is a claim that meritocracy is morally harmful (and not just for the burned-out young adults left in its wake). By its nature meritocracy produces winners and losers, and, to the extent those winners and losers believe they’ve won or lost a fair contest, the result will be either hubris or humiliation.
This dark side of meritocracy, as Sandel calls it, tears apart social bonds, creating resentment in the losers and removing that sense of societal responsibility in older aristocratic systems—systems that more transparently highlighted the contingency and luck (or providence and grace) involved in one’s station.
What We Can Learn
The Tyranny of Merit reflects the latest in a series of critiques of the modern meritocracy from both left and right, and the church would do well to pay attention to this conversation. Christians will read this book with a unique appreciation for the corrosive potential of merit—and the benefits of a society formed by grace—though perhaps with some frustration that Sandel’s engagement with Christian theology (which finds more blame than promise) is guided by Max Weber’s influential but flawed reading of Protestantism.
Christianity—and particularly Reformed covenant theology—provides the resources to explain the attraction and peril of merit. We were created for the meritocracy of Eden under the covenant of works and still feel a basic instinct to “do this and live.” This natural meritocratic principle characterizes much of our societal arrangements and is fundamental to our understanding of justice. Notably, the gospel of grace doesn’t abolish this need for merit, but rather tells us of Christ’s fulfillment of merit on our behalf.
This framework opens the door for a nuanced understanding of merit and grace. After the fall, answering life’s ultimate question on the basis of our own merit (law) is both hopeless and corrosive. But the way of Christ’s merit (gospel) gives freedom and life. This doesn’t, however, mean that other societal arrangements must abandon merit—and this is a key insight Sandel misses. Rather, answering the ultimate question of life with Christ’s merit produces the humility and confidence needed in a world full of smaller questions answered by our merit. Indeed, there is no better antidote to the hubris and humiliation that Sandel identifies than the gospel.
There is no better antidote to the hubris and humiliation that Sandel identifies than the gospel.
Sandel is surely right that “the balance between merit and grace is not easy to sustain” (58), and Christians often fail to do so, but the resources exist. This highlights the unique needs and opportunities for gospel witness in our meritocratic society. As Sandel points out, for many the meritocratic game hasn’t gone as advertised, which provides an open door for the church to speak into meritocratic exhaustion with Christ’s invitation to all who are weary and heavy-laden. This reality also underlines the need for pastoral care to Christians as they play the meritocratic game, constantly tempted to make small questions ultimate and ignore their justification by grace.
Best We Can Do?
Beyond ministry opportunities, what should Christians make of Sandel’s cultural argument? Here the questions raised are more compelling than the solutions offered—and the weakness of those solutions points to the deeper crisis at hand. Sandel offers three concrete proposals: (1) reintroduce awareness of luck by randomizing college admissions, (2) promote dignity through government subsidies for certain undervalued professions, and (3) revise the tax structure to discourage (unproductive) financial speculation.
Sandel blames meritocracy and market economics for creating societal decay, and so those systems need to be reformed. He’s right to see the moral effect of systems, but wrong to find solutions in systemic tinkering. Indeed, concluding a rich work of moral reflection with randomized admissions and tax policy provides a deeply unsatisfying finale. Is policymaking really the best hope for societal healing?
The fact that Sandel is left with such solutions points to the deeper crisis at hand. As Sandel affirms, market value isn’t the same thing as true merit, and thus he rightly laments the conflation of the two within our culture. What is needed, then, is much deeper than tax policy; what is needed is a shared moral fabric that rejects this conflation of value and merit. Sandel seems to recognize this at times in his call for civic education and renewed common spaces, but doesn’t offer much beyond debates over tax policy to achieve it.
For all of its warts, Christendom provided such a moral framework, and the loss of this framework is more properly to blame for the hubris and humiliation of modern meritocracy (and the vacuous consumerism that lives alongside). If we can’t agree on basic moral claims, we’re left with nothing but the market to determine merit—and nothing but tax policy to correct it. Moreover, without the ultimate answer of justification by grace, the smaller questions of life take on ultimate significance and reintroduce the corrosive effects of their merit-based answers.
Without the ultimate answer of justification by grace, the smaller questions of life take on ultimate significance and reintroduce the corrosive effects of their merit-based answers.
Here there is no easy cultural fix—our pluralistic world struggles with deep meaning and shared moral values. Indeed, I worry that the unsavory realities of modern meritocracy are already being eclipsed by a new and worse successor. If the American experiment began with an imperfect meritocracy influenced by the moral vision of Christian grace, and has moved on to an amoral market meritocracy free of grace, the next step may be a society of pure power struggle, free of merit and grace altogether. There are hints we may already be there.
Thus we arrive back at the urgent and disputed questions of Christ and culture in the post-Christian West. Whatever the best answers may be, Christ’s church surely bears a gospel that is desperately needed in a world wearied by merit and hungry for grace.