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A Democracy of the Deserving | Focus

It’s taken for granted that meritocracy makes sense. But it might actually damage democracy in the long term.

Traveling through the United States in 1831, the French aristocrat and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed that:

“When [feudal] ranks are confused and privilege destroyed, when patrimonies are divided and enlightenment and freedom are spread, the longing to acquire well-being presents itself to the imagination of the poor man, and the fear of losing it, to the mind of the rich.”

What Tocqueville identified in the young American republic is a defining feature of liberalism: meritocracy. In theory, at least, the autonomous individual—an amalgam of rights to life, liberty, and property—is responsible for his or her own fate. Contrary to a system in which one’s horizons are strictly limited by one’s formal social class of birth, liberalism’s meritocracy says that today’s poor might be tomorrow’s rich and powerful. And contrary to a world in which some inscrutable but omnipotent deity might punish us in life but sends us to Heaven when we die, we are masters of our own earthly destiny. All of this stretches back to the earliest strands of liberal thought, when the English philosopher John Locke argued that men were equal to one another in the “state of nature,” that God and nature gifted us with the capacities for reason and for labor, with which we could fashion what we needed, or not.

Yet, even as these philosophies began to take hold, nations like the United States—a professed adherent—remained rigidly stratified by race and gender, if less so by class than other times and places. Today, in mature, modern liberal democracies, however, those barriers of Locke and Tocqueville’s times have been more fully dissolved by centuries of struggle and reform. Now meritocracy has grown from just one feature of liberalism into its core principle.

The fact is that in the absence of formal social class, a state-backed code of morals, and formal barriers to political and economic participation, merit as the primary measure for reward and punishment makes a lot of sense. Both democracy and capitalism explicitly rely on the idea of merit for allocating political rule and wealth.

But are liberalism and meritocracy really so consonant?

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Michael Sandel, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, has written a book, The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find the Common Good?, critical of meritocracy as the ordering principle of modern liberal democracy. Sandel’s argument is twofold. First, he argues that what we have today is not, in fact, meritocracy but an increasingly unequal and oligarchic social system in which the educated and wealthy form one class and everyone else another. Luck, of birth or circumstance, determines success more than anything. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Sandel asserts that even if “true” meritocracy could be achieved, it would be undesirable.

According to Sandel, even a “true” meritocracy would generate humiliation and resentment in those who lose out, deep and profound anxiety about life and self among those competing for elite spots in schools and careers, and an unhealthy, even tyrannical hubris in those who enjoy success. In our society, in which meritocracy is a false promise, all of these symptoms are exacerbated. In another way, for Sandel, meritocracy abandons any sense of community or common good, any acknowledgment of luck, leaving us with nothing but the crushing responsibility—real or felt—for making our own destinies.

As a result, Sandel argues, meritocracy has cultivated a populist backlash against elites in liberal democracies. Of course, Donald Trump looms as a critical example of this backlash in the US, while Europe has seen the rise of many far-right populist parties. This anger is not just about income or wealth but status and education, as seen most clearly in the increasingly educated base of center-left political parties which were once dominated by less-educated workers. The right’s resentment of this so-called meritocracy is especially palpable when J.D. Vance proclaims, for example, “The professors are the enemy.” The credentials that come with advanced degrees are considered in elite circles distinctions of merit, while in others markers of entitlement or frivolity.

In Sandel’s formulation, then, meritocracy and democracy are at odds. The former erodes the latter, first as it justifies a supposedly meritorious oligarchic elite and then as it instigates a backlash that empowers demagogues who wage war on democratic institutions. The pathologies that meritocracy generates—humiliation, resentment, anxiety, and hubris—do not lend themselves at all to democratic deliberation about the common good of a society; in fact, they obscure its possibility.

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To get a better sense of the psychological consequences of meritocracy and what they might mean for liberal democracy, perhaps it’s worth travelling back to 1830, not to the infant American republic but to Tocqueville’s home of France. In fact, both the extraordinary promises and the great pitfalls of meritocracy are evident in a novel written at that time by Stendhal, called The Red and the Black (light spoilers for that 152 year old tale to follow).

After the curtains finally closed over the drama of the French Revolution (when Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to St. Helena in 1815), the French monarchy was restored in what historians cleverly call “the Restoration.” The Restoration was overthrown in 1830, but against its backdrop Stendhal wrote a poignant novel about ambition, love, and social class. At varying points, the novel’s protagonist, Julien Sorel, experiences precisely the same emotions that Sandel identifies as symptomatic of meritocracy run amok, as well as both the sweet and cruel fruits of luck.

Julien, the son of a provincial peasant, worships the legacy of Napoleon and the French Revolution. Although he doesn’t live in a meritocracy—in name or otherwise—he’s a compelling representative of the meritocratic ethos. He has decided, early in his life, that he will not submit to the narrow horizons forced upon the lower classes; he believes that he is—or should be—responsible for his own fate, and that if he can climb high enough in French society on the basis of his merit, he will deserve his rewards.

And merit Julien has. Possessed of tenacity, ambition, and intellect, his has the potential to be the kind of “come from the bottom” story that Americans so admire. He begins the novel as a theological student, because the religious orders present one of the few means of social advancement available to men of his status. As the story goes on, he makes use of his intellect, often in less-than-honest ways, to climb the social ladder, as a tutor to upper class children and then as the secretary to a high-ranking Parisian nobleman.

Julien’s social ambition, however, is tied—perhaps inextricably so—to his infatuations with women of the superior classes, first a provincial noblewoman and then the daughter of the aforementioned Parisian. As his ambition takes him ever higher in French society, he experiences cycles of infatuation and disinterest, which are reciprocated in mirroring cycles by the objects of his attention. Symbolizing his social meritocratic interests, the women he falls in love with drive him to experience humiliation as they draw back, anxiety as he plots his path to success (literally envisioning his attempts as tactics on the battlefield), and hubris when his infatuation is returned.

His humiliation is rooted in shame at the discrepancy between his class and that of the women he adores, as he comes to construe his lower standing as a kind of moral failing. Likewise, his successes lead to hubris—at one point, he thinks of himself as a god. And as he climbs the social ladder, he is made both a liar and a hypocrite, one day despising the class that keeps the meritorious down and another fetishizing everything it has.

Ultimately, to Sandel’s point, bad luck and a conspiracy of the rotten interests that uphold the unjust social order of Restoration-era France bring Julien down. In his resentment, Julien lashes out violently. Having failed to make his own destiny and receive just rewards for his merit, Julien rebels against society entirely—the perverse outcome of an unbridled meritocratic ethos left dejected.

Moreover, Julien’s meritocratic outlook is not particularly democratic. He idealizes the French Revolution (and, tellingly, the despotic Napoleon) but he is extraordinarily selfish. Only when his infatuations lead him to believe that his own good and that of the women he loves are the same does he really care about anyone else. His ultimate interest isn’t the abolition of formal social class but for himself to sit atop its heights.

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Meritocracy, then, is once again at odds with liberal democracy. It creates all kinds of anxieties and resentments that ultimately pose a threat to the liberal democratic order. It’s also true that, as in Julien’s character, meritocracy alone does very little to cultivate the kind of social solidarity that sustains democratic politics.

This is all exacerbated by the fact that our modern meritocracy, in material terms, is not much of a meritocracy at all. The poor have less opportunity than they have in decades to ascend to the top of the social ladder. The wealthy and their children, Sandel is at pains to note, all attend the same handful of prestigious colleges and universities. At the end of The Red and the Black, in one of the deepest troughs of his life, Julien comes to the conclusion that the only winners in the world are liars lucky enough not to be caught. Whether he is ultimately right or wrong, a society that offers no opportunity for advancement while keeping its least fortunate in poverty is bound to generate such impressions.

At the same time, however, it’s hard to imagine liberal democracy remaining either liberal or genuinely democratic without something that looks like meritocracy. Sandel offers three proposals to end the “tyranny of merit:” greater respect for the “dignity of work,” public acknowledgement of the decisive role that luck plays in determining success, and the empowering of citizens to take part in deliberations over the character of the common good.

There’s something to these ideas, but ultimately Sandel’s conception of each falls short. In fact, when it comes to his discussion of acknowledging luck and his call for a thicker, less neutral conception of the common good, they might even be dangerous. To obsess over luck risks leading the average citizen closer to the position that Julien ends up in, thinking that success is merely a matter of lucky liars. That quasi-nihilistic outlook is hardly likely to renew the American social fabric.

Of course, Sandel doesn’t really believe that acknowledging luck alone can improve American liberal democracy; what he really wants is a reinvigorated, thicker conception of the “common good.” Though he never quite articulates what that would look like, he calls for democratic deliberation over that very question. Whether decided democratically or not, however, any “thick” conception of the common good that eschews liberalism’s neutrality might itself be totalitarian. All one needs to do is look to the “post-liberal” right and its calls for a renewed commitment to the common good to see what an abandonment of neutrality might mean: something akin to the Handmaid’s Tale.

The reality, that both Tocqueville and Stendhal recognized, is that a return to the world before the emergence of secular republicanism in the United States and France is impossible. How to embrace this new world was the question on Tocqueville’s mind when he embarked on his journey to the United States. In Stendhal’s work Julien is a testament to the fact that once humans taste the possibility of having agency over their own fates, it’s remarkably difficult to get us back under the aristocratic boot. Responsibility for one’s destiny can indeed be crushing, but it’s not clear that the alternative is at all desirable or possible.

Further, even as Sandel acknowledges material explanations for the problem of meritocracy and possible material solutions, he emphasizes the roles of status and esteem. He’s certainly correct to point out how they contribute to and exacerbate inequality. Any explanation that insists that all status and esteem concerns flow only from material circumstance will be insufficient. But it’s hard to deny that material circumstances matter a lot, perhaps more than Sandel is willing to admit. Labor unions, once a fixture of American social life that emphasized in no uncertain terms the dignity of work, have been decimated by the past forty years of hypercapitalism. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised in over a decade. Service jobs in the United States might be viewed as less demeaning if the people working them made livable wages and could advocate for themselves.

The answer to the tension in the relationship between liberal democracy and meritocracy, then, isn’t to get rid of one or the other, but to manage the problem and balance it. People want to be able to pursue their dreams and receive rewards in the form of material compensation and social esteem when they succeed. By raising the floor for life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in the US, social mobility becomes more possible. So too would it lower the stakes when one’s pursuits don’t pan out, reducing the resulting resentment.

A society that encourages innovation and growth and rewards achievers but also cares—in material terms—for the least well off dignifies all of its citizens. Stripped of state-backed religion and formal barriers to entry on the basis of race, gender, and class, what we are left with is some kind of meritocracy, a social system in which we are free to determine our own fates and be rewarded for our successes. The truth of it all is that there are better and worse ways to do it.


Further Reading:

  • The Tyranny of Merit, by Michael Sandel.
  • Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

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