How Meritocracy Veils Mediocrity

How Meritocracy Veils Mediocrity
(Thomas Wells/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP, Fi

appears that it is time for another round of attacks on the concept of the meritocracy. The term was itself invented by one of its critics, Michael Young, in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy. Every now and then someone will aim a dart at it, like Lani Guinier in The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, but it will endure, perhaps because, as Helen Andrews has written, “none of their remedies are more than tweaks.”

This year has produced a lot of them. Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit (no relation to Guinier’s book) denounces “meritocracy hubris,” or “the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success.” Freddie deBoer’s The Cult of Smart condemns the idea that educational outcomes should define one’s future. David Goodhart’s Head, Hand, Heart critiques the supremacy of cognitive work over manual and care work.

All of these ideas have merit. Goodhart is correct that excessive faith has been placed in the knowledge economy over the industrial sector. DeBoer is honest, as a leftist, to admit to inequalities of cognitive potential, but also right — at least in spirit — that there should be some kind of redistribution from the more to the less fortunate.

Sandel’s book will be the most influential. Professor of Government Theory at Harvard, and author of the book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, he sets up the following premise in order to attack it:

Today’s secular meritocratic order moralizes success in ways that echo an earlier providential faith: Although the successful do not owe their power and wealth to divine intervention — they rise thanks to their own effort and hard work — their success reflects their superior virtue. The rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor.

We know right-wing variations of this belief. Ben Shapiro, for example, says, “If you fail in a free country it’s probably your fault.” But there are left-wing variations as well. While Sandel brushes over the extent to which “privilege” discourse sets progressives against forms of success he is right about the extent to which leftists have basked in the shade of their credentials and supposed cultural sophistication.

There is a lot to like about this book, for people on the right as well as on the left. Sandel writes clearly, marshals data with a lot of discipline, and has the intellectual curiosity to take his thesis everywhere from theology to economics. If you want a book, this election season, which explores political ideas without descending into partisan mudslinging then here is a book for you.

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