In Review: Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit

The 2019 college admissions scandal made it clear that, in American colleges and universities, students have three options for entry: the back door, the side door, and the front door. You enter through the back door when your parents donate huge sums of money to the institution. This procedure is not illegal, although many people perceive it as deeply unfair. William Singer, the mastermind behind the college admissions scam, came up with a side-door strategy: your parents pay a much smaller amount and bribe coaches, standardized test proctors, and admissions officers. This is illegal, and that is why Singer is behind bars. When you go to college through the front door, you play it clean: you get admitted on your own merits, and life is great.

But in the recently published The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, renowned philosopher Michael Sandel argues that even front-door entry is morally problematic. If you enter through the front door, your parents did not pay millions of dollars to build a library in their name and get you admitted by some Ivy League school. But they probably did pay for ballet lessons, SAT tutors, hockey equipment, and so on, and ultimately, that made you a stronger candidate in the college admissions race. You did not do anything to deserve that. At the end of the day, you get admitted because your parents have more money than the parents of those who did not. Before you protest about how much effort you put into studying for the SAT, Sandel is quick to tell you that “… in practice, however, SAT scores closely track family income. The richer a student’s family, the higher the score he or she is likely to receive.”

Sandel insists that this is not just about college admissions. It is about society as a whole. The book is a long diatribe against the notion of merit, highlighting over and over again the greater role that luck plays in outcomes: “Meritocratic hubris reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.”

Sandel has a point. The concept of “moral luck” is very profound (and disturbing) in philosophy. Bernard Williams famously came up with the idea, partly as a way to question the reality of free will. And indeed, perhaps Gandhi, Einstein, Elvis Presley, or any other esteemed figure does not deserve praise, because had their circumstances been different, they would not have excelled in what they did. Their greatness may not have resulted from their own free will, but rather from some unfair arrangement in which they were chosen to be great, and not others. So, yes, it is hard to dispute that, even in the front-door entry, there is a great deal of luck.

There is no denying that life is unfair. But what shall we do about it? Much of this unfairness occurs at a cosmic level. People are born with different natural capabilities, and ultimately, that results in societal hierarchies. In his brilliant book The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Thomas Sowell insists that the attempt to remedy cosmic injustices typically results in catastrophic social engineering experiments that make everyone worse off. As I see it, these cosmic injustices may be strong evidence that there is no cosmic designer (and henceforth, we must accept atheism), but trying to fix such injustices may be beyond our capabilities. As Robert Nozick famously argued, it would be terrible to force people to donate kidneys, so as to save people with kidney failure, and therefore fix the unfairness of kidney distribution in the world.

Yet, Sandel believes there is much to be done in remedying the ails of our lived experience. He thinks that, since luck trumps merit in many spheres of life, we might as well play the lottery in college admissions. He consequently comes up with this bizarre proposal:

Of the 40,000-plus applicants, winnow out those who are unlikely to flourish at Harvard or Stanford, those who are not qualified to perform well and to contribute to the education of their fellow students. This would leave the admissions committee with, say, 30,000 qualified contenders, or 25,000, or 20,000. Rather than engage in the exceedingly difficult and uncertain task of trying to predict who among them are the most surpassingly meritorious, choose the entering class by lottery. In other words, toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them, and leave it at that.

Bizarre, but not insane. After all, Sandel does not discard merit altogether. He simply establishes a threshold of competence and, after that, recurs to a lottery to make a final decision. He acknowledges that, for the good of everyone, you must be qualified for the position; but at the same time, after some selection, deciding who is the most qualified is extremely difficult, so in order to avoid arbitrary criteria that ultimately favor factors that have little to do with merit itself, it is better to leave it to chance.

As with most leftist discourse, Sandel’s proposal looks nice on paper, but it may have unintended consequences. Sandel is not proposing the old-fashioned Communist equality of outcome, but he is proposing that, after some primary selection, notions of merit be discarded in favor of a sweeping equality of opportunity that, by appealing to a lottery, gives everyone the same chance. Despite his eloquence, I do not think Sandel has given enough consideration to the risk that was part of the Communist experience: if at the end of the day, luck will decide what you get, then what is the point of trying hard? In Sandel’s scheme, incentives disappear. Despite his careful effort to avoid this trap, Sandel cannot escape it.

Throughout this book, Sandel comes across as a radical leftist. But I think Sandel would have little patience for the sort of leftist agenda that permeates college campuses today. His concern is with the moral shortcomings of merit, but he cares little about identity politics. He pays lip service to affirmative action, but he never talks about it from an ethnic perspective. He is concerned with economic and social inequality, regardless of skin color. As opposed to much elitist liberal discourse today, Sandel does not patronize poor whites. In fact, although he admits his dislike for Donald Trump, he insists that Trump’s rise had much to do with the way the underclass (of any color) grew in its resentment as a result of the excessive appeal to notions of meritocracy in both elitist conservative and liberal cliques.

More importantly, Sandel insists that his challenge to notions of meritocracy is not only concerned with economic redistribution, but also with the moral praise of those who are not at the top. In his words, “learning to become a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist should be respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League.” Plumbers and electricians are not a basket of deplorables. They are decent people. And in a perhaps unintended wink to the Right, Sandel seems to imply that college is not necessarily for everyone, and you can be happy doing other things. Wise thought. I would take this leftist philosopher over Ibram Kendi or Robin DiAngelo (who are mere best-selling authors, but not real intellectuals) any day. Sandel is the sort of professor that can still save the Left in academia.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps, Public Domain


4 thoughts on “In Review: Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit

  1. As it turns out, most of the top-school elite are concentrated in the left-leaning fields of academics, media and art: the cultural elites.

    On the other hand, society’s “plumbers and electricians” — manufacturing, energy, pharmaceuticals, farming, construction, etc. — present a much more balanced and diverse educational background:

    “While the business elites who run manufacturing, processing, farming, energy, health, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and construction tend to be drawn from a relatively wide array of university backgrounds, the same isn’t true of cultural elites—academics, media workers, and artists—whose professional functions ‘depend on the quick absorption and sophisticated manipulation of symbolic media.’ For instance, over 30 percent of the leaders of America’s most prestigious media outlets, academic departments, and Internet services have an undergraduate degree from one of the country’s top-rated colleges. In the field of motor vehicles, the corresponding figure is eight percent. For food production, it’s nine percent. For construction, 12 percent.”

    In other words, the true tyrants of merit appear to be the left-leaning cultural elites, who themselves rail against the very meritocracy that they have so enjoyed.

    Self loathing is an ugly thing.

  2. Sandels’s concept of a lottery to select qualified applicants would never fly.

    Progressive will readily point out that “qualified applicants” often benefit from privilege. Unless we have demographically acceptable applicant pool, injustice continues.

    In my view, the reason progressives reject merit is because they want preferential treatment for their preferred groups. Random selection doesn’t achieve the equity objective of equal outcomes.

    We are at an impasse.

  3. I disagree with the author that an admission by lottery system to the elites would leave too much to chance and deter hard work. Bare in mind that there is still a minimum threshold kids have to meet to get in the lottery, that itself takes hard work. The unintended consequence that I see in this is not some “communist” effect which conservatives love to trudge out to deter any argument they do not like from the left. Instead, what I see will happen is when the public and employers alike see that admission is by luck, they will put a lot less weight on the merits of these degrees, and give them no more value than say public flagship universities. That, I believe, is the best way to restore true meritocracy to our society.

    The inequality we are seeing today is not who gets into these colleges but the disproportionate (and undeserved) value accorded to degrees conferred by these elite colleges, because the public/employers still think that true meritocracy is practiced and these colleges still only accept “the best of the best”. The question we should ask is, the best at what?

    Per Daniel Golden in his book “The Price of Admission”, no more than 5% of admits to these elite colleges got in strictly on academic merit, i.e. are genuine eggheads. The rest all got in through some sort of hook – athletics, URM (Under Represented Minorities), legacy, faculty brat, development(rich donors), connections to the powerful or famous, or are good at playing the game by getting involved in the right ECs, like building mud huts for orphans in developing countries, winning popularity contests like being ASB president, running a YouTube Channel that talks about nothing but race, whining about their own identity and victimhood, or claiming to work for some (D) politician or their campaign.

    As 95% of those admitted are not based on academic merit, our elite colleges today do not deserve the pedestal they are being placed on. A lottery system will debunk the myth that those who got in are truly “the best of the best” but are merely good at playing the game or have the right skin color or parentage, which will put these colleges in their rightful places in our society.

    In truth I believe we are approaching the college concept all wrong in this country. The existence of an elite college system does more harm than good. Today our smartest kids clamour to get into these elite colleges so they can graduate into elite careers and make the big bucks to justify their college cost. Instead of going into less lucrative fields like math/physics research, our smartest go to work on Wall Street, DC or become lawyers. What a waste of talent! With no elite colleges and elite careers to clamour for, our best and brightest will just go to college to learn what they are genuinely curious about, instead of studying what is most lucrative. Europe has pulled ahead of us esp. in Physics research. Our elite colleges are failing miserably to cultivate true scientific talents, only ever more Wall Street and DC vampire squids.

  4. Meritocracy is a one-shot fix to societal ossification. After a single generation, those who came from disadvantages backgrounds make themselves advantaged and then recreate the elite that they displaced. Part of the problem is that the US has no natural aristocracy (and, in fact, patents of nobility are forbidden by the Constitution), so we make academics that same form of social organization (and academics are pleased to take on this role).

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