In the end, Sandel flinches: in spite of accusing the new ruling order of “tyranny,” he fails to locate any tyrants. This silence on the meritocracy’s self-deception, in what is otherwise a singularly powerful critique of the pathologies of meritocracy, is telling. Sandel is remarkably incurious about whether meritocrats’ justifications of their moral eminence might in fact shroud the deeper “will to power” one would expect to find among tyrants.
For instance, Sandel evinces a lack of suspicion when listing a string of dubious actions by the meritocrats, concluding simply that they “have not governed very well”—not that they have governed with malevolence. He cites a string of failures from 1980 to the present, including “stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, the financial crisis of 2008,” and so forth (29). In each instance, however, these were not “failures” if you were a member of the meritocracy. Almost to a person, the ruling class benefited from these crises, or at the very least, were not harmed by their consequences, even as they collectively diminished the prospects for flourishing among the meritocracy’s losers. Sandel regards these outcomes as failed policies of otherwise well-intentioned leaders, rather than identifying them as the expected outcomes of a ruling class’s efforts to maintain its position.
We return to where we began. At its outset, meritocracy, like most regimes, was defended as a just and beneficent new departure. It would replace the injustice of the ancien régime by encouraging and rewarding people for their talents. If inequality was to be an inescapable result, nevertheless the “industrious and rational” would afford benefits to the society as a whole. Prosperity, progress, and enlightenment would spread even to the “quarrelsome and contentious”: as Locke wrote, the life of the day laborer in England was better than the mightiest king of the Indians in America. Unlike in a vicious regime, the ruling meritocrats would govern not (merely) for their own advantage, but for the advantage and even common good of all.
Although it has barely been a century since Conant began his transformation of Harvard, and about a half century since the full realization of the new meritocratic regime celebrated by Gardner with the ascent of the “best and the brightest,” overwhelming evidence suggests that the meritocracy’s claims are altogether unbelievable, useful mainly as the self-serving subterfuge of an oppressive ruling class. For those outside the charmed meritocratic winner’s circle, prospects for flourishing have precipitously declined in recent decades, as documented in such works as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Among the noncredentialed, life spans are declining, deaths of despair increasing, material circumstances have worsened, social stability and moral formation have cratered. By their own admission, meritocratic elites have failed to improve race relations in America. The meritocrats’ claims to beneficence might once have been widely believed before this accumulating evidence, but now they largely function as a form of self-deceit among the rulers. Awareness of the potential for malevolent, even tyrannical intention behind these developments seems to be missing in Sandel. Yet such evidence seems increasingly apparent: approximately half the country showed its disbelief and contempt for elite ruling claims by voting for a demagogic anti-elitist. The reaction of the ruling class was four years of denying the legitimacy of the election, denouncing those who dared to vote for the demagogue, and unremitting efforts to “resist”—with hardly a moment to spare to reflect about their complicity in bringing about this wrenching period in our national history.
Sandel’s title, The Tyranny of Merit, is arguably more accurate an assessment of meritocracy than the ultimate thrust of his book. According to the classical definition, meritocracy is a tyranny because its ruling class accrues benefits for itself while causing material, social, and spiritual impoverishment among those it governs. Sandel states that “merit can become a kind of tyranny,” but avoids discussing the motivations of the tyrants.
Read it all.