Meritocratic Ideals Can Undermine Democracy


Michael Sandel describes the meritocratic ideal as a dystopian aspiration in The Tyranny of Merit. Justin Kempf reflects on this book and considers how meritocratic ambitions can undermine democratic governance.

What is Justice

Justice is an ideal divided between claims of inequality and equality. Philosophers as early as Plato and Aristotle defined it as what each person is due. But philosophers rarely agree upon what each person is due. Liberalism has a natural tendency toward equality. People deserve equal rights and an equal opportunity if not an equal distribution of goods. But philosophers also use justice to defend arguments for the perpetuation of inequality. Merit has the strongest case for just inequalities. 

Philosophers imagine a meritocracy as a society where justice and inequality coexist. Some may have more than others, but nobody receives more than they deserve. John Rawls acknowledged the tension in justice between competing clams for equality and inequality through his difference principle. He accepted the existence of inequalities so long as it improved life for the least advantaged. His difference principle never defends merit as a justification for inequality, but it is implied. He focuses on the ways natural talents and skills improve life for everyone. Merit justifies inequalities because it offers benefits to everyone including the least advantaged. 

Justice is torn between competing claims of equality and merit. Merit fundamentally argues for the perpetuation of social and economic inequalities. Indeed, merit itself is a moral recognition of inequality between individuals. Equality argues people are intrinsically similar so they deserve similar outcomes and rights. Merit argues people are fundamentally different and deserve different outcomes and even different rights. It opens a path for the haves to defend their positions against the have-nots.

The Paradox of Inequality

Of course, inequalities arise from a variety of conditions. Some are morally defensible like hard work and commitment. Others are less secure on moral grounds like inheritance. And many fall somewhere between the two like acceptance into a prestigious university. Those accepted earned their place through grades and test scores, but their parents also provided the educational resources to set them apart. Fewer children from disadvantaged backgrounds attend college than their more affluent peers. Fewer still attend Ivy League Universities. 

Michael Sandel argues a pure meritocracy is an impossibility. He recognizes, “Those who, by dint of effort and talent, prevail in a competitive meritocracy are indebted in ways the competition obscures.” Egalitarians rarely argue against merit. Rather they discount its moral case, because so many factors unrelated to merit influence success. They argue the meritocratic case for inequality is unrealistic rather than unjust. But this approach opens the door for exceptions. It lays the groundwork for meritocracy to grow upon an egalitarian framework. As unnatural advantages in education and resources melt away, the case for merit becomes stronger. Paradoxically, the case for inequality becomes more convincing as structural inequalities disappear. 

A Meritocratic Egalitarianism?

The left embrace support for egalitarian and meritocratic solutions as though they reinforce one another. They use egalitarian solutions to lay the moral foundations for meritocratic outcomes. In this light, the growth in economic inequality is not simply a policy problem, but a philosophical challenge. It represents a moral failure rather than a technical problem. And yet, few have challenged meritocratic ambitions in moral philosophy. Michael Sandel is among the first to challenge merit not simply as incomplete, but the very essence of the argument itself. For Sandel “it is doubtful that even a perfect meritocracy would be satisfying, either morally or politically.” This insight represents a paradigm shift in how philosophy interprets economic theory. 

Neoliberal economists believe nothing is more meritocratic than a market economy. The market assigns everything a value based on its worth to society including labor itself. Wages are earned through the value they deliver to employers. Companies even deliver earnings to stockholders. The very language of finance is colored in a meritocratic philosophy. Neoliberalism is couched in the language of freedom and choice. Its proponents argue value is relative to the individual. But at the same time, they recognize a definite value assigned by the market. They offer a janus-faced explanation of value where each person has a right to assign value as they wish, but everyone must respect market values. Consequently, neoliberalism gives preference to market valuations, because it is the only objective form of value they recognize. 

Neoliberalism Justifies Merit

Consequently, neoliberalism equates social value with economic value. Everything of value is given an economic role. Education becomes a path to income security. Social organizations become an avenue to make business connections. Spirituality and religion build character for success in business. None of these outlets have value outside of their economic consequences. So the impoverished have no avenue for redemption outside economic performance. Incomes define not just economic, but also moral value. A wealthy family deserves not just economic, but social and political rewards as well. 

The left advocates egalitarian policies to allow for meritocratic outcomes. Nowhere is this more clear than in education. The left believes a truly meritocratic educational system relies upon an egalitarian distribution of economic resources. And yet, the educational system perpetuates inequalities through meritocratic assessments. Universities claim to accept applicants solely on the basis of merit. Its decisions establish barriers of entry which individuals left behind struggle to overcome. But primary and secondary educational institutions also direct resources to districts with the.most wealth in the United States. Even in France, different educational tracks eliminate opportunities for those left behind at an early age. 

The Meritocratic Left

Despite these inconsistencies, the left defines its identity through education. Thomas Piketty refers to the Brahman left because it represents an educated elite as opposed to the economic elite of the political right. Sandel notes the same paradox in the American party system, “The Democratic Party had once stood for farmers and working people against the privileged. Now, in a meritocratic age, its defeated standard bearer boasted that the prosperous, enlightened parts of the country had voted for her.” He goes on to note how Barak Obama surrounded himself with advisors from the most prestigious universities. The contrast in educational attainment to the cabinet of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is startling. 

And yet, educational attainment does offer a an objective measurement free from racial or sexual discrimination. Barak Obama rose to power through an impeccable resume based on his intellectual gifts and work ethic. He took advantage of every opportunity before him. It is difficult to explain his political ascendence as anything other than personal merit. Indeed, he was an uncommon president not simply because of his race, but because his success feels deserved. Politicians are stereotyped as moral failures. Scandals surround the most accomplished political figures. And others rise to power despite their abilities rather than because of them. Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden rose to power through intellectual prowess. Their relatability is partly due to their failures as much as their successes or accomplishments. 

The left has embraced meritocratic ideals as a path to transcend racial and sexual discrimination. Subjective choices open the door for racism and sexism in hiring practices and university admissions. Objective measurements through credentialism remove race and gender from decision making processes. But they do not eliminate discrimination because choices are made. Some form of discrimination is necessary to choose candidates between each other. 


Credentialism, according to Sandel, becomes the last acceptable prejudice. Credentials establish new barriers for entry where those left behind struggle to catch up. The decision to drop out of high school or delay college leaves workers behind others. The rejection to prestigious universities leaves others outside the pool of opportunities for prestigious career opportunities. Work experiences compound over time. Future opportunities depend on past work experiences and education. 

But Sandel’s broadside against meritocratic credentials comes across as a challenge of its meritocratic nature rather than an argument against merit itself. Credentialism undermines the fluidity of social status because people become locked into social positions early in life. Do they continue to deserve these outcomes later in life? Is moral worth established early in life or does it change over time? How do we recognize moral transformation? The meritocratic answer is a person can start over and get their degree. But a night school education from a community college is not the same as a degree from Harvard. Moreover, credentials also impose exit barriers for elites. Failures are forgiven for those with a track record of success. Indeed, even incompetence is overlooked in those with the right degree and relevant work experience. An employee fired from one role can often find a similar position somewhere else. 

A Meritocratic Society?

The reality is merit has never played the role in society the public imagines. Nor should it. Sandel acknowledges, “Nothing is wrong with hiring people based on merit.” He describes how he wants a qualified plumber to fix his toilet when there is a problem. Yet he goes on to acknowledge he does not look for the best plumber, but simply one well-qualified. He misses an important point here. Merit establishes rank or even a hierarchy, whereas qualifications simply establish a necessary bar where other considerations begin to play a role. In a true meritocracy, everyone looks for the best available. Any other consideration overlooks someone “more deserving.” Indeed, it is a moral imperative to find the best available rather than simply someone well-qualified. 

Employers almost never hire the best qualified candidate. They want to hire well-qualified candidates. But they have a range of different priorities including salary, types of experience, and even personality. Employers look for the right fit for their organization. Of course, fit has been used as a justification for racial and sexual discrimination for decades, but it has some truth nonetheless. Nobody wants a mean or abusive employee no matter how well they do their job. Indeed, most liberals do not want coworkers who create hostile work environments even when they are the best at what they do. Indeed, some coworkers make others better while others are a distraction. 

The Meritocracy of Universities

Universities remain unique in their effort to accept the most deserving candidates to the exclusion of other considerations. Employers do not consider the hiring process a competition. New entrants into the job market think in terms of what they deserve. Employers do not consider what the applicants deserve, but what they will contribute. Universities, on the other hand, focus on the merits of the individual applicants. Sandel argues universities have become too meritocratic. His solution is to accept qualified applicants by lottery. But a simpler option is available. Simply accept applicants based on what they offer the university. And many already do this through sports and diversity initiatives. But they should make these expectations explicit. Diversity enhances the university experience more than merit. Prestigious universities should look for candidates who represent different backgrounds from racial minorities to rural communities. 

What’s Become of the Common Good?

Sandel challenges a clear intellectual obstacle the twenty-first century faces toward the creation of a better society. And yet, something is missing in his work. The subtitle of Sandel’s book is “What’s Become of the Common Good?” Indeed, meritocratic values focus on the individual rather than the community. Merit redirects society toward what each person deserves rather than toward what they contribute. Institutions do not care what a person deserves. For example, the family is a common institution nearly everyone understands yet few completely comprehend. Great parents do not always produce great children, while terrible parents sometimes have well-behaved and successful children. Is this fair? Of course, parents contribute to their children’s development but so many factors play a role. Great parents accept the challenge even when others fail to recognize their efforts. 

The common good requires us to reorient our perspective away from ourselves. It requires us to focus on our contribution rather than our reward. The common good requires people to accept outcomes even when they are unfair. It does not justify complacency. On the contrary, it requires each person to take responsibility to remove or reduce inequities for others. Merit, on the other hand, directs our focus on ourselves. We know ourselves and our loved one’s best so we comprehend what we deserve. But it is harder to recognize merit in others. In this way, a meritocracy becomes an insular society where our focus is on ourselves. 

Democracy as an Antidote to the Meritocratic Mindset

Meritocratic ambitions are a consequence of liberalism in many ways. Liberalism focuses on the rights each person deserves. It has an insular focus that has the potential to create resentment. Meritocracy elevates this perspective to transform inequalities into rights. Privileges earned are reinterpreted as rights they deserve. But liberalism has always had an uneasy marriage with democracy. Indeed, it is the democratic spirit that elevates our ambitions beyond ourselves. It is through our commitment to democracy where the common good is finally realized. 

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