Seeing an America torn by resentment and mistrust, Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel argues for humility as the key to renewed solidarity and shared sacrifice. To anyone who both cares about politics and admires clear-eyed philosophical exposure, this book will seem both urgent and compelling. Moreover, since it touches both secular and religious thought (although the latter is less perceptive), this book almost calls for a more in-depth dialogue with the Christian tradition.
To begin with, Sandel argues that one of the main causes of contention is that today the “winners” think they deserve their advantage, and the “losers” fall into doubt, humiliation and resentment. America is steeped in this point of view, which Sandel calls meritocratic. Popular rhetoric says that your dignity determines your level of success – your income, your status, your outlook in general; if you “work hard and play by the rules” you can go as far as your talents take you.
But despite the brilliance of merit that the winners confer on themselves, they are neither as autonomous nor as self-taught as they assume. Successful people are indebted to parents, teachers, mentors and friends. They also benefited from luck, especially for their raw talent and also for their special situation. Differences in family benefits, educational opportunities, and mobility belies what Sandel calls “meritocratic pride,” a boastful state of mind that is both infuriating and untamed.
Meritocracy easily hardens into a sort of tyranny – Sandel calls it “unjust rule”. In America, the laureates succeeded in consolidating their advantages, passing them on to their children and thus creating a hereditary aristocracy. They also defined good in economic terms and minimized the moral and civic virtue which is the basis of civic solidarity. A resulting concern for technocratic expertise has weakened concern about pernicious inequalities and an increased fixation on economic advantage.
Wouldn’t it be better, Sandel asks, for society to overcome this “morally blind” point of view? Wouldn’t greater humility and a greater concern for shared well-being help us to calm our resentments and our fractional policies?
Skill and personal responsibility matter, and Sandel knows they differ from person to person. But his concern is meant to be meritorious, and he notes that even where religious communities emphasize grace, a sense of pride and mutual aid erodes any ethics of gratitude or humility. What Sandel calls the balance between grace (or luck) and merit is difficult to maintain and is now moving strongly towards merit. In America, success is a sign of virtue, and its absence is evidence of fault. Meanwhile, the gap that fuels grievances between the wealthy and the rest continues to widen.
Sandel also assumes that equality of opportunity – an essential condition of meritocracy – depends above all on education, in particular university education. This assumption fostered an obsession with references and further sharpened our focus on the technocratic. Smart versus stupid contrast has become fashionable, while the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong, has lost all interest in the imagination of society.
Meritocracies and aristocracies are very unequal, says Sandel, but the former, by generating pride on one side and humiliation on the other, eats away at the harmony and the common goal that community life demands. Facing this negative possibility, Sandel considers two alternatives to outright meritocracy.
The first is the free market liberalism associated with Friedrich Hayek. Here, freedom occupies a central place, and the only equality which suits this freedom is “the purely formal equality of all citizens before the law”. States infringe on freedom if they take steps to reduce income differences. Merit is not a legitimate determinant of compensation, only the value that the free market places on a person’s work. But by thus exclusively linking remuneration to (market) value, this alternative to meritocracy, underlines Sandel, still nourishes pride and humiliation.
Another alternative is the welfare state liberalism championed by John Rawls. The law-abiding wealthy may not fully deserve their wealth, but they are entitled to it as long as the resulting inequalities can be created, in one way or another, to help the less advantaged society. Thus, against Hayek, Rawls defends redistributive taxation.
But the right to property also smacks of meritocracy and its trail of pride and humiliation. Moreover, welfare state liberalism, just as surely as free market liberalism, does not pay enough attention to debt that successful people owe. Others have cooperated in building a system – public services, roads and bridges, and legal, educational and family support – that enables citizens to flourish and some of them to become well-off. Reducing this fact underestimates social solidarity.
Next, Sandel links his analysis to education and work. He describes how, in the 1940s, the influence of Harvard President James Bryant Conant led American higher education to link admission to merit rather than wealth and connections. High schools have become sorting mechanisms to identify top performing students and enable elite universities to be truly meritocratic.
But there were problems. Merit follows and consolidates privilege. The sorting process exacerbates pride and humiliation. Increased competition emphasizes individual effort and undermines solidarity. Sandel offers several ways to mitigate, or even eliminate, these impacts.
Meritocracy also inflicts “insidious harm” on low-paid workers in society, Sandel argues. They are humiliated by low wages and lack of recognition. They suffer disproportionately from suicides, drug overdoses and alcoholic liver disease.
Part of the solution – and here Sandel invokes Roman Catholic reflection – is contributory justice, a shaping of community life that gives people the conviction that they are truly contributing to the common good. It would require a new initiative towards decent pay and also towards the inclusion of the working class in society’s discussion of how we can live “meaningful and fulfilling lives”. together, said Sandel. It is about signaling the dignity of work and strengthening the cohesion of citizens.
Meritocracy undermines social solidarity by blinding successful people to their debt and placing people in enclaves without interaction. This analysis, which is at the heart of the book, seems unassailable. While a full cure seems out of reach, Sandel offers some suggestions that might help.
Yet one feature of his analysis is cause for concern. He says meritocracy remains a threat because the balance between merit and grace is difficult to maintain. At this point, however, the Christian tradition can offer useful insight.
Twentieth-century Scottish theologian DM Baillie spoke of the “paradox of grace,” a defining characteristic, he said, of the authentic Christian experience. As with Paul and Augustine, the faithful yearn for goodness through choice and effort while abandoning all self-congratulation. I live and work, says Paul, yet it is “by God Grace that I am what I am. To anyone who assumes moral responsibility, Augustine said: “Your merits are the gifts of God.”
Word paradox takes into account the inescapable complexity of Christian moral experience (or any reflective moral experience). I really take a certain stance or act a certain way. Still, my ability to do that really makes me feel grateful. That these two elements are true reflects a mystery that no explanation can unravel. Sandel’s idea of the “balance” between merit and grace misses all of this; he certainly cannot overcome pride.
Baillie calls the paradox of grace the “secret of Christian character”. Could it not also be the secret of social solidarity? Except by canceling self-inflation, we cannot strengthen mutual care and cooperation. Even with respect for personal responsibility, we must ponder the two foolish questions Paul asks the Corinthians: “What have you got that you have not received?” And if you got it, why are you bragging like it’s not a gift? “