The arbitrariness of chances

Merit is a dubious concept: our talents are most often undeserved and very largely dependent on social and family contexts. But it is also a dangerous concept: the losers of the system have a bad image of themselves.

The idea of ​​meritocracy is attractive. Announcing a break with the model of traditional societies in which social positions and wealth were inherited, it resonates as a promise of equal opportunities. She predicts a society in which everyone can go as far as their talents and work take them. In doing so, it echoes many of our intuitions about what a just society should be.

However, in The tyranny of merit, far from defending the meritocratic ideal, Michael Sandel offers a radical critique of it. He denounces its harmful effects on democratic societies and strives to propose an alternative ideal.

Merit, a dubious concept

That Sandel strives to produce a new critique of merit may surprise us. Before him, in Theory of justice published in 1971, John Rawls had in a sense settled the question by demonstrating that the criterion of merit does not constitute a satisfactory solution to the problem of distributive justice, that is to say the question of knowing how to distribute social advantages in an equitable manner. Sandel, who devoted his first book published in 1982 to a detailed critique of the Rawlsian theory of justice as fairness, is obviously not without knowing this. He also takes up Rawls' main arguments and emphasizes with him that what common sense takes for merit is in reality the effect of a triple arbitrariness (chap. 5).

First, meritocracy promotes the correlation of social positions and talents. But talents are perfectly undeserved. These are unequally distributed gifts, gifts resulting from a natural lottery that arbitrarily spoils some and disadvantages others. A society which distributes places and income on this basis will undoubtedly be able to boast of achieving efficiency since those who achieve this or that function have the required qualities. It is nevertheless far from obvious that it achieves justice: those who are devoid of talent have nothing to do with it.

Sandel, like Rawls, nevertheless recognizes that we can retort that the gifts are initially in us only in potential and that they are only actualized at the cost of efforts whose merit is due to us. What a person gets from their gifts is therefore deserved, since they have made the efforts necessary for their development. But Rawls and Sandel respond that the ability to make efforts also depends on undeserved conditions and in particular on a family context favorable (or unfavorable) to the transmission of the taste for effort. However, no one deserves the qualities or faults of the family into which he was born.

Third, possessing attributes that society values ​​results in a happy alignment of the planets. Sandel illustrates this:

LeBron James earns tens of millions of dollars playing basketball (); he possesses prodigious athletic gifts, but he is also fortunate to live in a society that values ​​and rewards them () rather than Florence during the Renaissance, where fresco painters were sought rather than basketball players (p. 195 ).

If we are all born with certain talents, they must still be valued in the society in which we live. This is a perfectly contingent fact, which has no relation to our personal merit or demerit.

Rawls concludes that merit is a dubious concept and that we must simply abandon the intuition that achieving distributive justice means giving everyone what they deserve. Sandel, however, considers these arguments insufficient. Proof of this, in his opinion, is that they were not enough to convince politicians to abandon the meritocratic ideal.

Meritocracy, a dominant political ideal

According to Sandel, insensitive to this philosophical criticism, the political leaders who have succeeded one another over the last forty years in the United States and Europe have unanimously adopted a meritocratic model. First embraced by followers of the market economy like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, it crossed the left-right political divide to permeate the speeches and policies of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Barack Obama is ultimately the one who, more than all American presidents combined, praised meritocracy, declaring for example that what matters is “to ensure that these intelligent and motivated young people () (have) the chance to also go far from what their talent, work ethic and dreams allow” (p. 106). All of them helped to impose the idea that contemporary democracies should be great meritocracies.

They further affirmed that education is the condition for achieving this ideal. University education has in particular been conceived as the main vector of upward mobility. More than thirty times during his presidency, Bill Clinton explained that “everyone should go to college” because “what you earn depends on what you learn” (p. 137).

This “diplmania” is not, according to Sandel, just a way of fighting against discrimination and guaranteeing equal opportunities (chap. 4). Above all, it reflects the fact that these political leaders have accepted global capitalism and its corollary: global competition for jobs. In Obama's words, “you have billions of people, from Beijing to Bangalore to Moscow, all in direct competition with you.” If you don't have a good education, it's difficult to find a job that allows you to earn an honorable living” (p. 138). Since the globalized job market is a reality about which we can do nothing, the best thing to do is to encourage individuals to train so that they can be competitive. Working hard to develop your talents, going to university and earning a degree will allow everyone to secure a place in this global competition.

Sandel nevertheless shows that this ideal is contradicted by the facts. Only one in four Americans today has an undergraduate degree (p. 141). Empirical work, such as that of Thomas Piketty, also shows that income inequality has increased over the last forty years. The income of the richest 10% increased by 121%, while the income of the bottom half of the population showed no increase (p. 37). Last but not least, intergenerational social mobility is decreasing: while 90% of children born in the 1940s earned more than their parents, only half of those born in the 1980s exceeded their parents' income. Today, only 4% of Americans born in the bottom quintile move into the top quintile as adults (p. 120).

While politicians often describe meritocracy as a reality rather than an ideal to achieve, the facts describe a different reality: the poor are, comparatively, ever poorer and their chances of upward mobility are ever lower.

An original critique of merit

Faced with this political domination of the meritocratic ideal, it is urgent, according to Sandel, to formulate a new critique. The one that focuses on the problem of distributive justice is insufficient. It fails to highlight the main danger of meritocracy: its harmful psychological and political effects. We must show that far from being an ideal, meritocracy is undesirable.

Sandel gives an important place to the description of the psychological effects of meritocracy. In a realized meritocracy, everyone is convinced of having the place they deserve. For the losers of this system, the conclusion is demoralizing and humiliating. They must consider that they are responsible for their position of inferiority and attribute their inability to rise to their own failure. This way of conceiving of oneself profoundly undermines, Sandel insists, self-esteem which is nevertheless a fundamental good (p. 141).

The path imposed on the winners of meritocracy is also alarming (chap. 6). Under the supervision of omnipresent parents, children and adolescents aware of having to earn their place are immersed very early in school competition. Their young people, under pressure, are employed in school and extra-curricular activities which will make their profile attractive once the time comes to apply to university. Ultimately “wounded victors”, they often suffer from anxiety or depressive symptoms. One in five American students report having had suicidal thoughts in the past year.

The political effects of meritocracy are even more problematic: it leads to the destruction of all bonds of solidarity and constitutes a danger for democracy. Quick to hold the losers responsible for their situation, the elites are reluctant to approve tax redistribution mechanisms. Even more, they are inhabited by a form ofhubris : full of admiration for their own intelligence, convinced of being the sole cause of their success, they feel only contempt and disdain for those who have not managed to rise socially (p. 142, p. 151-154). Sandel thus recalls that Hillary Clinton described Trump's readers as a “bunch of deplorables” (p. 188) and that when questioned about the errors that had caused the Yellow Vest movement, a close advisor to Emmanuel Macron explained that they had probably been “too intelligent” (p. 167). This contempt is, according to Sandel, one of the sources of the populist reaction which notably led to the election of Donald Trump.

The formulation of an alternative ideal

Sandel finally sets out to formulate an alternative ideal. Concerning admission to prestigious universities, he recommends that a minimum threshold be defined and that candidates reaching this threshold are simply drawn at random. The elites will thus be better aware that their place is largely the effect of chance.

More fundamentally, Sandel believes that we must move away from the prism of distributive justice and think about the conditions of contributory justice which will allow everyone to participate in the production of the common good (p. 325-335). This requires distancing ourselves from the liberal demand for neutrality and establishing a democratic debate rethinking the relationship between income and contribution to the common good. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into full light what was already a reality: those whose contribution to the common good is essential: caregivers, mass distribution employees, delivery people, etc. are also the worst paid, while the social contribution of financial magnates, to whom the market allocates an exceptional market value, is far from obvious. In every democratic society, members should therefore be able to debate what constitutes good, what deserves praise, honor and retribution. They should also reform tax policies based on their findings.

In the very last pages, Sandel suggests taxing consumption and finance (which do not contribute substantially to the common good) rather than work, which can give everyone the feeling of making a significant contribution to the life of the community and which is in this sense one of the essential conditions of self-esteem). With The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel, who is still sometimes considered in France as a bad critic of Rawls, continues to outline the contours of an original and committed philosophical position. We can undoubtedly interpret his position as a form of republicanism, which sees political participation as participation in a debate on what is of value rather than as strictly institutional participation. By assuming a form of perfectionism, that is to say by affirming that it is up to us, members of democratic societies, to discuss what we collectively want to consider as a good to honor, he also makes a significant contribution to a question whose supporters of the Political liberalism continues to debate, that of the limits of the requirement of neutrality which posits that the state must exclusively concern itself with what is just and refrain from pronouncing on what is good.