The idea of merit has been thoroughly scrutinized in both the ivory tower and the public square. Harvard professor Michael Sandel presents a philosophical case against meritocracy in his best-selling book The Tyranny of Merit (2020), arguing that “the talent game generates hubris among the winners… and creates humiliation and resentment among the losers.” Sandel’s work is widely cited as fuel for the anti-merit movement. Debunking meritocracy has become a ritualistic exercise in trendy equity training sessions. Characteristics such as hard work, personal initiative, and grit are only myths and vehicles of privilege that perpetuate structural inequities. If merit is an illusion, how do we evaluate its central project: the history of modernity and the broader subject of human enterprise?
Before passing moral judgement on a workable system of organizing the world, we should first make a genuine attempt to conceptualize merit.
Merit is a combination of natural talent and effort
According to Sandelian critics of merit, innate ability, a core component of merit, is a factor beyond our control, just like patronage or blood line, while a purportedly meritocratic system often exacerbates social inequality by rewarding those who can afford test prep and homes in good school districts.
The central issue with Sandel’s perception of merit is that it relies on a false dichotomy between insurmountable, external obstacles and genetically determined, internal abilities. This absolute definition of merit leaves no room for other consequential ingredients such as hard work, grit, perseverance, personal initiative, and agency. In turn, it paints a grim picture of life and what one can do in life to get ahead.
Adrian Wooldridge, author of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021), succinctly summarizes four tenets of a meritocratic society:
1. People can get ahead in life on the basis of natural talent.
2. Meritocracy secures equality of opportunity by providing education for all.
3. It forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and other irrelevant characteristics.
4. It awards jobs through open competition, rather than patronage or nepotism.
It is patently true that merit is not just about standardized test scores for college admissions. But it is equally factual that those pursuing technical career paths without college degrees also need to cultivate their skills and develop some sort of minimum qualifications. In the U.S., Emergency Medical Technicians, general contractors, and food truck operators must obtain state licenses or certifications to carry on their respective lines of work. A society that shuns any measurable standards expected of its contributing members is not one that can maximize the utilization of different talents, potentials, and skillsets.
According to Sandel, a true meritocracy “can only be achieved by leveling the playing field between the privileged and the disadvantaged.” This is a faulty proposition. Given the multifaceted nature and cross-cutting realities of privileges vis-à-vis disadvantages, the playing field may never be sufficiently leveled. What’s more, leveling it necessarily entails coercion, which when attempted has had disastrous consequences on quality of life, human dignity, and liberty. Take myself as an example: my privileges include earning advanced degrees, owning private properties, and working hard to offer my child a stable, two-parent household. But at the same time, I came from a humble background without any generational wealth, I never could afford test prep or tutoring in my entire life as a student, and I speak English as a second language (third, if you count my native dialect). Do my blessings and obstacles then cancel each other out? Where can I be situated in the matrix of “leveling the playing field”?
In this sense, Wooldridge is correct in arguing that despite its flaws, meritocracy remains the best system for organizing human societies. Imperfect testing methods, loopholes vulnerable to corruption, and normative biases, if any, require incremental reforms, not a systemic revolution. Meritocracy is not a panacea to all human failings and societal ills, but it is the most personally empowering and historically successful vehicle for social and economic progress.
The contemporary alternative to merit is detrimental
Again, Wooldridge gets it right in his observations on three waves of the anti-meritocratic revolution:
First, academics question the idea that you can measure merit with any precision.
Second, public intellectuals question the idea that meritocracy is worth having it all.
Third, progressives embrace the alternative values of equity and community.
While few would argue that a return to ancient aristocracies “founded on wealth and birth” would be better than a meritocracy, an increasing number are pushing for a different alternative to merit: equity. In the name of equity and for the sake of “leveling the playing field,” powerful educational institutions have engaged in attacks against merit. The American Bar Association, for example, is entertaining a proposal to eliminate the requirement of “a valid and reliable test” for law school admissions. Over 1,800 American colleges and universities have abandoned testing requirements for undergraduate admissions. The State of California has phased out the California Basic Skills Test and the California Subject Matter Exams for incoming teachers. The first test of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), a daylong exam that tests medical students’ theoretical and empirical knowledge, has been reformed to only grade test-takers on a pass/fail basis. To promote racial integration, leaders in New York City have advocated for canceling the city’s gifted and talented programs in K-5. The list goes on and on.
Replacing merit with equity is a radical paradigm shift rooted in illogical red herrings, emotions, and leftist ideology. Certainly, the Michael Sandels of the world come from a place of empathy and compassion, but their good intentions can only go so far before encountering challenges from both defenders of merit and from within. Innate talent is not an excuse for spurning excellence and blaming the system for under-achievement. Furthermore, it is incredibly hypocritical for those who have presumably made something out of their life on the basis of merit to champion revolutionary changes to the system after they reaped the benefits. For instance, I expect that Professor Sandel values his own hard work and does not chalk up his Harvard professorship to mere “privilege.” After all, the American public can’t seem to support that: more than 85% of Americans say that standardized test scores should at least be a minor factor in college admissions, according to a 2022 Pew survey.
If there is something in life worth fighting for, I believe it must be liberally endowed with a sense of personal agency, with the idea that we are the architects of our own life. The American Dream, a happy consequence of our meritocracy, is the notion that we can get to a place that is not predetermined by our birth or circumstances. God help those who want to help themselves.
Image: Jukan Tateisi, Public Domain