Meritocracy and Its Discontents: The View from Outside Harvard Yard

January 30, 2021   •   By Christopher Kutz

The Tyranny of Merit

Michael Sandel

A FIERCE AND EMOTIONAL debate recently broke out among the first-year law students at UC Berkeley, where I teach. Because of the strain of remote learning during the pandemic, roughly half the class asked that the law school suspend ordinary grading (as we did last spring) and replace our letter grades with pass/fail grades. The other half of the class opposed this proposal in equally heartfelt terms.

It turned out that many advocates for keeping the letter grades were first-generation students and students of color, whom Berkeley enrolls in significant numbers. These students argued that grades give them a chance at competing for jobs. Without grades, they worried, potential employers would rely on stereotypes and hire those students who most resemble themselves.

Meritocracy looks different from different angles, and is easier to dismiss when you’re already sitting pretty.

This matter of angles and perspectives was apparent to me as I read the Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? The book is a jeremiad against meritocracy, taking Harvard as its model. It is a view of Harvard as seen from Harvard. For someone looking at Harvard from 3,000 miles away in California — or more often, looking at meritocracy in the public university system and therefore not looking at Harvard at all — things appear very different.

To Sandel, Harvard represents meritocracy run amok, epitomized by its less than five percent admissions rate. This meritocratic extremism imperils the common good by leaving the other 95 percent out in the cold, allocating wealth, power, and cultural prestige to a small elite of “winners,” and creating extreme political, economic, and cultural stratification and polarization in its wake.

To me, in contrast, not only is Harvard not much of a model of meritocracy but there are different and far more important sources for the polarization we are facing. The best hope of a solution to this polarization bypasses Harvard altogether.

The peculiarity of Sandel’s argument is that, despite his talk of a common good, he locates that good in private institutions such as the Ivy League rather than in public ones. A public, widely accessible merit-based system such as the University of California seems to have no prominent place in Sandel’s vision, yet I would argue that such a system is our best hope.

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A political theorist who intertwines philosophical debates with current events, Sandel has spent his career offering critiques of liberalism. His 1982 book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, prefigured political theory’s communitarian turn away from the individualist model defended by John Rawls and toward the inseparability, both conceptual and practical, of individual well-being and the common good. Sandel’s more recent works, including The Case against Perfection (2009) and What Money Can’t Buy (2013), took on the commodification of life through synthetic biology, challenging the neoliberal political consensus that celebrated Silicon Valley, innovation, and the generation of wealth.

The Tyranny of Merit follows the same pattern. Sandel draws upon a current cultural preoccupation, in this case college admissions, to challenge a basic premise of liberalism: meritocracy. He weaves together three main strands: America’s increasing class immobility and pathological national politics, its Horatio Alger myth of upward mobility, and Harvard’s institutional history.

Sandel opens his story with the 2019 “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal. Wealthy and well-connected parents finagled their children’s way into selective colleges by paying to have their SAT scores faked, and paid off complicit coaches to substantiate the (false) claim that their children were athletic recruits. [1]

Sandel asks why these parents were desperate enough to risk criminal punishment in order to get their kids into certain colleges. He argues that the real problem is not grasping parents, corrupt coaches, or even the borderline practices of university development offices. Rather, the increasing hyper-selectivity of college admissions has fueled a sort of meritocratic hysteria: it seems both imperative and impossible to get into selective schools. This produces stressed-out young people (and parents), raging economic inequality, and the populist backlash that has empowered Donald Trump.

Yes, that’s right: the Harvard Admissions Office is responsible not only for disappointing those high school seniors who turn out not to be among the 4.9 percent elect, but also for giving rise to the rest of our recent and ongoing political predicament.

Sandel gives Harvard too much credit.

First of all, he assumes that Harvard and other highly selective private universities are meritocracies. Yet, as Sandel acknowledges, Ivy admissions privilege money and class: poorer and less well-connected applicants are at a disadvantage compared to legacy applicants, those whose families can afford SAT tutoring, and those who have the time and wherewithal to pursue extracurricular activities, even when their wealthy parents aren’t paying tens of thousands of dollars to create the superficial impression that they play water polo. This is a process so corrupted by money and influence peddling — for example, through legacy donors and bloated athletics programs — that the lines between cheating and legitimate operations have become terribly blurry. “Meritocracy” does not seem the best word to describe such a system.

Then, having diagnosed the problem as meritocracy run amok, Sandel’s conclusion is that we need to make the members of this particular elite aware of the collective efforts and sheer luck at the root of their successful “rising.” We also need to restore the “dignity of work.” Those at the non-elite end of the spectrum should be made to feel appreciated for the essential work they do, lest they take out their understandable class resentments by voting for demagogic frauds promising them everything and giving them nothing.

To instill humility and community-mindedness in the elite, Sandel proposes that Harvard and the Ivies set a floor for admissions standards, a minimum GPA and standardized test scores, and then administer a lottery, perhaps with extra tickets for those from underrepresented pools of applicants to ensure adequate diversity. According to Sandel, the key difference between today’s Harvard students and those of a few decades ago is that today’s students are more apt to describe themselves as “deserving” their places at the university by virtue of having survived an ever more grueling admissions process. Sandel suggests that this in turn leads them to be comfortable with the ultimate sinecures to which they ascend. A lottery, he thinks, would be a corrective to this sense of entitlement.

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Sandel’s solution, in other words, is all about who gets into Harvard and who doesn’t: the first group should be more humble, and the second group less so. No doubt he’s right about that. But I just don’t think it matters much to the world how the roughly 1,600 Harvard students in a given year feel about their admission to the university, and I don’t think most of the rest of the 3.7 million American high school graduates in that year spend much time thinking about Harvard’s admissions process.

I applaud Sandel for showing that a theorist’s perspective on our intimate problems (stressed-out teenagers) and structural ones (class rigidity) can shed light and bring hope. But by placing Harvard’s and other elite private colleges’ admissions practices at the center of his story, Sandel overstates their significance both as a cause of the problem and as a source of the solution. Even a critical view from a Harvard office window sees the world revolving around Harvard.

To be sure, Ivy League alumni exert a disproportionate influence in professional networks in fields such as management consulting, the foreign service, corporate law, and national newspapers like the Washington Post and The New York Times — not to mention the dominance in recent decades of Ivy-degreed presidential candidates. When specific institutions become dominated by a small number of feeder channels, it’s a recipe for groupthink, social exclusion, and cronyism.

As Sandel rightly notes, these concerns would be offset if the selection mechanism for the feeder channels were itself fair and inclusive; we know that it isn’t.

Still, we should be careful not to overstate the significance of the Ivy lock on cultural prestige and political power, especially when looking for culprits in America’s ever widening equality gap. For the most part, the professions that Harvard-type schools seed are high-income but not at the summit of wealth — they feed the top two percent, not the top 0.1 percent. Real wealth and oligarchic power are above their pay grade. Of the 400 billionaires counted most recently by Forbes, Ivy League graduates represent 24 percent of the total of college graduates (11 percent do not have a degree) — and nearly half that group consists of wealthy heirs, rather than self-made gazillionaires, who therefore reflect an inherited wealth problem, not a meritocracy problem. [2]

Within the top 10, there is relatively more Ivy influence, albeit from Harvard drop-outs such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, but they are given a run for their money by Larry Page (University of Michigan) and Sergey Brin (University of Maryland), as well as Warren Buffett (University of Nebraska) and Larry Ellison (University of Illinois). And Ted Cruz’s formation at Princeton or Josh Hawley’s at Stanford matter much less to national politics than those of the folks who pay for their votes, such as Sheldon Adelson (City College of New York, no degree) or Robert Mercer (University of New Mexico) — and their influence is also slight compared to that of Mitch McConnell (University of Louisville).

More generally, we forget at our peril the simple formula Thomas Piketty taught us a few years ago, r>g; the return to capital is greater than the return to labor. A quasi-meritocratic system that protects access to high incomes is pernicious. But in recent decades, this country’s policy decisions have enabled the buildup of dynastic wealth, which is a far greater problem. High incomes snowball into greater wealth, which then builds on itself. We will never resolve the problem of growing income and wealth inequality by tinkering with Ivy League admissions. For that, we need equal taxation of capital gains, substantially higher marginal taxes on very high incomes, the reinstatement of meaningful estate taxes, and the instantiation of at least modest wealth taxes, as well as enhanced mechanisms of redistribution to the bottom quartiles. [3]

It’s also a mistake to blame Harvard for the election of Trump and the success of Trumpism. Sandel is right that populism is fueled by cultural as much as class animosity — witness the glee of the MAGA crowd in “making the liberals cry.” But it is a snobbish misjudgment to locate the headquarters of political correctness at elite private campuses. Harvard and its ilk woke much later than the public universities, whose faculties largely invented Critical Race Theory. The Ivies have no cultural monopoly on it.

Moreover, white working-class populists themselves seemed far happier with a president who brags incessantly of his Wharton degree and his Harvard and Yale Supreme Court justices, rather than a president-elect who is a proud alumnus of the University of Delaware — or, across the pond, with Boris Johnson (Oxford) rather than Jeremy Corbyn (high school graduate). Meanwhile, in France, the populist Yellow Vest movement, discussed briefly by Sandel, focused entirely on issues like wage stagnation and higher taxes, and not the generations-old rule of France by its meritocratic “énarque” graduates.

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Sandel’s Harvard-centered anti-meritocratic argument reaches its apogee when he indicts his former colleague, philosopher John Rawls, for providing an apologia for meritocratic liberalism. Rawls, in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, proposed to right society’s wrongs in part by harnessing the higher incomes of those whose labor is especially prized — which, in practice, means taxing the high-earning Harvard graduates so much that any higher rate of taxation would result in lower tax revenues overall because people would decline to work. Sandel accuses Rawls of tacitly endorsing a meritocratic logic. According to Sandel, Rawls assumes a hierarchy of worth and talent, justifying the special role of those at the top because they can compensate society’s “losers.”

In fact, Rawls saw his positive justification for redistribution as anti-meritocratic. It is the same kind of justification evinced by Sandel himself, as well as by the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, whom Sandel praises. All of them call for establishing a community of equals despite the fact that the market prizes some people’s capacities over others. [4] In short, Harvard philosophers have been condemning Harvard-as-meritocracy for half a century and, apparently without noticing the inherent irony, identifying Harvard-centered solutions to the problem of what they see as an overly Harvard-centered world.

To return to Sandel’s Harvard-centered solution in the form of an admissions lottery, I do think some aspects of this proposal could be beneficial. For instance, it would be good to reduce the weight of standardized test scores. But there are other ways to accomplish this without instituting a lottery. Colleges could simply announce that they will not recognize differences in SAT scores above a certain level. This would discourage students from retaking the test until they achieve perfect or near-perfect scores, which after all means nothing more than that they’ve learned how to game it. A perversion of the system, this ad infinitum retaking of the test not only privileges wealthier students but brings huge revenues to The College Board.

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Changing Harvard’s admissions process, however, wouldn’t make any dent in the kinds of social and economic inequality Sandel wants to target. For one thing, most of the income inequalities accompany elite graduate degrees — MBAs, JDs, and MDs — and eliminating some of the meritocratic pressure at the high school level will, if anything, increase grade pressure in college. And while the world would arguably be better off if future financial wizards were less confident in their math skills, [5] it is hard to see the argument for lotterying entrants into medical schools and PhD research programs — at least not without substantive culling later on. In France, the culling takes place after the first year of medical school. At some point, floors are not enough; we want institutions to make selections as best they can based upon merit: who will make the best use of specialized training in surgery, history, engineering?

There is an obvious alternative to tinkering with Harvard’s admissions process. Rather than worrying about the attitudes and feelings of students entering Ivy League schools, why not focus on the other 99.5 percent first-year college students? What we ought to do is to make a first-rate education accessible to them. Fortunately, we already have a system in place for that purpose: the public university system. Moreover, as my opening story about the debate over pandemic grades at UC Berkeley suggested, merit has an essential role to play here, even if it doesn’t at Harvard.

Sandel criticizes Harvard’s exclusion of students from the poorest families. Berkeley, as of 2016, enrolled substantially more Pell grant recipients than the entire Ivy League, and still enrolls eight times as many as Harvard. [6] In my 20 years at Berkeley, I’ve taught a great many of these students. They include first-generation college students (26 percent) homeless students, DACA recipients, people who have survived extraordinarily difficult childhoods. I can tell you that merit — hard work, learning, academic excellence — is their mantra and lifeline.

Clark Kerr’s 1960 “Master Plan” for higher education in California was about creating mass institutions to foster different kinds of excellence. The California State system is the primary vehicle for mass bachelor’s-level education, as well as professional graduate degrees, while the University of California system focuses on research, graduate teaching, and the instruction of the top nine percent of California high school graduates.

Meanwhile, the Community College system serves simultaneously as a site for vocational instruction and as an access point for students who then continue on to UC and Cal State. Unlike most states’ community college systems, no stigma is attached to attendance. Indeed, a third of UC graduates begin at a community college.

Many of my best undergraduate students in fact have come from community colleges. Half of these students are first-generation college students. When they arrive at Berkeley, they are hungry to learn and often achieve like few others. This is mass meritocracy, and it is a wonderful thing to behold.

Or at least it should be.

Largely abandoned by their state legislatures, the great flagship public universities — Michigan, Wisconsin, Berkeley, UCLA, Texas — have had to seek money from wealthy out-of-state and international students. At the same time, they have had fewer resources with which to compensate for the inadequacies of the defunded public secondary educational systems of their in-state populations. States’ divestment from the public good has been replaced by a tuition-supported model consonant with a neoliberal emphasis on requiring individuals to invest in their own private “human capital.”

The more impoverished the public universities become, the more the private ones look like the only game in town. When class sizes soar and teaching positions are cut, so too are the opportunities to teach writing and public speaking in the only effective ways possible, through close and repeated supervision. Such teaching must not be the preserve of the wealthy colleges.

Professional programs in public universities have also been privatized, charging tuition rates close to, and sometimes exceeding, their private counterparts for law and business degrees. When students emerge from these programs hobbled by hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, they see few options other than to turn away from the common good, and toward precisely the lucrative jobs seized by their private-school counterparts. This starves governments and nonprofits of highly educated employees without a trust fund.

Sandel notes these facts in passing, before swerving back to focus on elite private colleges. But what we desperately need is not to scrutinize Harvard admissions policies, but instead, to turn our attention to restoring the public good of education. We need to focus on what matters: better funding for K-12 schools, community colleges, and public universities.

The value of social reinvestment in public higher education would also do much to alleviate Sandel’s other concern, the declining dignity of blue-collar work. Sandel proposes, admirably if vaguely, to restore that dignity. However, he only discusses three specific policies: to subsidize blue-collar wages; to protect blue-collar jobs by restricting immigration and deregulating industry; and, somewhat obliquely, to instate a “Tobin tax” on financial transactions to reduce the demand for finance jobs by making the financial sector less profitable. [7]

It is hard to see how any of these proposals will work in light of the globalization of manufacturing and the disappearance of industry in the United States. Wage subsidies do no good for the unemployed. And Sandel can bemoan the outsourcing of US manufacturing, but except at the margins, no wealthy industrial nation other than Germany, with its hard-won advantage in precision equipment, has been able to offset manufacturing losses, despite strenuous efforts. Sandel rejects Hillary Clinton’s proposal to offer education to unemployed coal miners in Appalachia, accusing her of employing the “rhetoric of rising.” But what’s wrong with offering education and training to workers otherwise left behind? The coal miners’ jobs are disappearing — and rightly so — because of the decreasing cost of alternative energy and the need to address the climate crisis.

Work can offer dignity in two respects: the dignity of the paycheck, and the dignity of the craft itself. Laid-off workers skilled in their trades have taken a hit on both fronts. Gig workers, service workers subjected to irregular schedules, or anyone paid less than a living wage or lacking health benefits will regain their dignity in the first respect only if we substantially transform their material conditions and restore their collective bargaining power. And they will attain the more significant form of dignity of craft when they are trained so that they can exemplify the excellence of their professions. One might look to France, and to its system of recognizing the “master workers of France” — national awards for the country’s finest bakers, tailors, hair stylists, cabinetmakers, boilermakers, gardeners, etc. — as well as to its demanding systems of formation for inculcating these skills. While Sandel acknowledges the need for funding vocational training, he sees it as an alternative to meritocracy, not its possible extension.

Education, whether vocational or technical or intellectual, is a crucial source of dignity (as is having the autonomy and security that come from being paid a living wage and receiving health and other benefits). Our least advantaged students at UC Berkeley appear to believe that an open, accessible kind of meritocracy — let’s call it the public kind rather than the Harvard kind — is their best and indeed only hope. We need well-funded, widely accessible, and excellent public schools, public colleges, and universities that allow even the poorest members of society to learn, excel, and contribute. Once that’s accomplished, why would anyone care whether Harvard freshmen believe they “deserve” their offers of admission?

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Christopher Kutz is C. William Maxeiner Distinguished Professor of Law in the Jurisprudence & Social Policy Program at UC Berkeley, where he teaches courses in moral, legal, and political philosophy, as well as criminal and international law. He is author, most recently, of On War and Democracy (Princeton, 2016).

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[1] The colleges involved in the Varsity Blues investigation included, most prominently, USC, UCLA, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and Penn, all through the central efforts of the corrupt college admissions consultant, Rick Singer. Harvard was not implicated in that investigation, but its fencing coach was later indicted in a separate incident involving dubious athletic recruitments.

[2] Elana Lyn Gross, “Where the Forbes 400 went to school: the top 10 schools,” Forbes Magazine (October 19, 2019). Of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, five percent come from Harvard, and 14 percent overall from elite private colleges — disproportionate numbers, to be sure, but hardly a lock on the C suite in any absolute sense.

[3] Readers are encouraged to experiment for themselves with these solutions, at taxjusticenow.org, the tax simulation site established in conjunction with the publication of (UC Berkeley’s) Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s brilliant book, The Triumph of Injustice (W. W. Norton, 2019).

[4] Sandel is right to criticize the so-called “Luck egalitarians,” like Ronald Dworkin, who spin a whole political theory out of distinguishing between those whose bad luck is not their fault (and so deserve compensation), and those who have chosen poor gambles, who are left on their own. As Anderson points out, this is a mistaken extension of Rawls’s view, in which the “lottery” metaphor is meant to serve only as a starting point for a larger argument about equality.

[5] Calvin Trillin memorably quoted a Wall Street veteran, in the wake of the 2009 crisis, that the catastrophe had only come about then because “Smart guys started going to Wall Street.” The previous generation didn’t have the acumen to market exotic financial instruments. “Wall Street Smarts,” The New York Times (October 14, 2009).

[6] Since 2016 Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have significantly increased representation by the poorest students, but their numbers still greatly lag the highly selective public universities. Currently, 8,500, or 27 percent of Berkeley students receive Pell grants, versus 1,100, or 17 percent, at Harvard.

[7] To be clear, Sandel does not himself directly endorse immigration restriction and business deregulation, but he cites them in praise of another writer’s right-leaning attempt to reckon with the decline of work’s dignity.