The Insufferable Hubris of the Well-Credentialed

The Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel’s 10th book, The Tyranny of Merit, out this month from FSG, covers a lot of ground for a short text — especially in its sweeping second chapter, “A Brief Moral History of Merit,” which, following Max Weber, describes the surprising emergence of the “fiercely meritocratic work ethic” out of the Protestant Reformation’s “war against merit.” From these origins, Sandel says, would eventually appear such diverse phenomena as mega-churches preaching the “prosperity gospel,” the weakening of the welfare state, and the increasing importance of the university system as a source of not just earning power but personal prestige. President Trump, for instance, likes to say that he went to Wharton, which he insists is “the hardest school to get into, the best school in the world … super genius stuff.”

The Tyranny of Merit hopes to explain the cultural background behind this bit of Trumpian braggadocio, and more broadly to argue that a just political future must recognize that even a perfect meritocracy would be fundamentally unfair. I talked with Sandel about resentment and hubris, the trauma of the elite-university admissions process, the problem with economists, and pull-ups.

Critiques of meritocracy are on everyone’s lips right now. Why?

I think it’s partly due to the events of 2016. The populist backlash against elites was a big part of the vote in Britain for Brexit and the election of Trump in the U.S. That prompted a reflection on what it was about elites that many working people so resented.

Looking back at the last four decades, it’s clear that the divide between winners and losers has been deepened, poisoning our politics and driving us apart. This has partly to do with deepening inequality of income and wealth. But it’s about more than that. It has to do with the fact that those who landed on top came to believe that their success was their own doing, the measure of their merit — and by implication that those left behind had no one to blame but themselves. For people who didn’t flourish in the new economy, this attitude toward success made the inequality of the last four decades all the more galling.

Much of your argument draws on political philosophy, and in that sense is continuous with your earlier work, going back to Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). But, as “galling” suggests, the master pair of opposed categories running through this book is psychological. That’s “hubris” and “humiliation.”

They are psychological but at the same time political categories. One of the important features of populist anger and resentment is people’s sense that elites look down on them. This is not an entirely mistaken impression. It’s a legitimate grievance.

Meritocracy is an attractive, even inspiring ideal, but it has a dark side: It generates hubris among the winners and humiliation among the losers. I suppose you could say this is a reading of the moral psychology of our political moment.

The meritocratic hubris of elites is the conviction by those who land on top that their success is their own doing, that they have risen through a fair competition, that they therefore deserve the material benefits that the market showers upon their talents. Meritocratic hubris is the tendency of the successful to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It goes along with the tendency to look down on those less fortunate, and less credentialed, than themselves. That gives rise to the sense of humiliation and resentment of those who are left out.

In Identity, a 2018 book motivated by similar concerns to yours — especially by the rise of Trump — Francis Fukuyama broaches analogous territory in discussing “dignity” and “resentment.” These are aspects of what he calls “thumos,” which for him denotes something like the impassioned need for recognition. Is political philosophy seeing a turn toward questions of emotion?

Political philosophy has tended to neglect what I call “the politics of humiliation and resentment.” The emphasis in political philosophy over the last 50 years has been on questions of distributive justice — what is a fair distribution of income and wealth and power and opportunity? But debates about distributive justice don’t fully capture what’s at stake in the current political moment.

There is the tendency to think that those left behind by globalization are angry because they didn’t get their fair share of the benefit. That’s certainly true. The economic growth associated with globalization went to those on the top, roughly the top 20 percent. Median wage has been stagnant. So it’s easy to interpret the anger that has fueled the populist backlash as being about the failure of the winners to adequately compensate the losers.

But this misses the psychological or emotional dimension of politics. It isn’t only the inequality of income and wealth that makes people angry. Attitudes toward success explain these more potent sentiments. The politics of humiliation is a more combustible and dangerous politics than the politics of injustice, because it’s about recognition and esteem. To interpret our current moment, political philosophers need to go beyond questions of fairness.

The tyranny of merit, you write, is “corrosive of commonality.” How can institutions like Harvard, where you teach — exclusive by design — contribute to the communitarian ethos you say would repair some of the defects in our version of a meritocracy?

I would distinguish two different problems here. One is the more familiar: We don’t live up to the meritocratic principles we profess. Even universities with generous financial-aid policies do not enroll substantially increased percentages of first-generation students from what they did in the 1960s. At Ivy League universities, there are more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom half.

But even if we could remove all barriers to achievement, the meritocratic ideal would still be flawed. We have cast universities as the arbiters of opportunity. We have assigned them the role of allocating credentials and defining the merit that the wider society rewards — economically, but also in terms of honor, recognition, and prestige.

Being cast in this role has enlarged the economic and cultural importance of universities. But we’ve paid a price for it. For one thing, support for higher education has become a partisan matter. In the last four or five years there’s been a growing partisan split in people’s view about whether universities do the country more good than harm. We should ask ourselves how this came to be.

Society as a whole has made a four-year university degree a necessary condition for dignified work and a decent life. This is a mistake. Those of us in higher education can easily forget that most Americans do not have a four-year college degree. Nearly two-thirds do not.

Society as a whole has made a four-year university degree a necessary condition for dignified work and a decent life.

Society as a whole has woefully underinvested in the forms of education that most Americans rely upon. That includes state colleges, two-year community colleges, and technical and vocational places of learning. It’s not only a matter of money. We also need to reconsider the steep hierarchy of prestige that we have created between four-year colleges and universities, especially brand-name ones, and other institutions of learning. This hierarchy of prestige both reflects and exacerbates the tendency at the top to denigrate or depreciate the contributions to the economy made by people whose work does not depend on having a university diploma.

So the role that universities have been assigned, sitting astride the gateway of opportunity and success, is not good for those who have been left behind. But I’m not sure it’s good for elite universities themselves, either.

Speaking of which: One of the most surprising things in your book was your discussion of “comping culture” among Harvard undergraduates in which, as you put it, students “re-enact the trauma” of the grueling college-admissions process by founding all sorts of groups and clubs and making them very hard to get into. The Harvard College Consulting Group, for instance, advertises that it’s “the most selective pre-professional student group on Harvard’s campus” they accept less than 12 percent of students who want in. I’d never heard of “comping culture” before. It’s the most persuasive anthropological datum I’ve read in support of the thesis that affluent, ambitious teenagers have been psychologically damaged by competitiveness. What do you do about that?

Michael Sandel: ‘The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit’. The philosopher believes the liberal left?s pursuit of meritocracy has betrayed the working classes. His new book argues for a politics centred on dignity.

Webb Chappell, Guardian, eyevine

Michael Sandel

Our credentialing function is beginning to crowd out our educational function. Students win admission to these places by converting their teenage years — or their parents converting their teenage years — into a stress-strewn gauntlet of meritocratic striving. That inculcates intense pressure for achievement. So even the winners in the meritocratic competition are wounded by it, because they become so accustomed to accumulating achievements and credentials, so accustomed to jumping through hoops and pleasing their parents and teachers and coaches and admissions committees, that the habit of hoop-jumping becomes difficult to break. By the time they arrive in college, many find it difficult to step back and reflect on what’s worth caring about, on what they truly would love to study and learn. The habit of gathering credentials and of networking and of anticipating the next gateway in the ladder to success begins to interfere with the true reason for being in institutions of higher education, which is exploring and reflecting and questioning and seeking after one’s passions.

What might we do about it? I make a proposal in the book that may get me in a lot of trouble in my neighborhood. Part of the problem is that having survived this high-pressured meritocratic gauntlet, it’s almost impossible for the students who win admission not to believe that they achieved their admission as a result of their own strenuous efforts. One can hardly blame them. So I think we should gently invite students to challenge this idea. I propose that colleges and universities that have far more applicants than they have places should consider what I call a “lottery of the qualified.” Over 40,000 students apply to Stanford and to Harvard for about 2,000 places. The admissions officers tell us that the majority are well-qualified. Among those, fill the first-year class through a lottery. My hunch is that the quality of discussion in our classes would in no way be impaired.

The main reason for doing this is to emphasize to students and their parents the role of luck in admission, and more broadly in success. It’s not introducing luck where it doesn’t already exist. To the contrary, there’s an enormous amount of luck in the present system. The lottery would highlight what is already the case.

Let’s talk about your beef with economists. You single out Larry Summers, the Harvard economist and adviser to former President Barack Obama, as symptomatic of the invasion of the corridors of power by the ideology of credentialism and market-based thinking: “One of the reasons inequality has probably gone up in our society,” Summers says, “is that people are being treated closer to the way they’re supposed to be treated.”

That quote is emblematic of the tendency to assume that the money people make is the measure of their contribution to the common good. The tendency to accept this assumption uncritically may be abetted by economists. But it reaches well beyond the economics profession — it’s become deeply embedded in our public culture.

We need to challenge this assumption. In recent decades governing elites of both parties have embraced the market faith that says that market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. The market-based version of globalization that governing elites have promoted and enacted since the 1980s has reinforced this market faith. As inequalities deepened as a result of globalization, there was a tendency to attribute these inequalities to the different abilities of people in different social roles to contribute to the economy and by extension the common good.

If a president like Obama — we can assume that Trump is not going to be interested — had given egalitarian political philosophers a similarly prominent advisory role to economists, would we be better off?

I would put it this way. I would say that governing elites have had too much credulity in relying on technocratic expertise, especially on economists, whose faith in markets led to a false confidence about what they could achieve. I think political leaders generally, but the Democratic Party in particular, have been ill-served by too narrow a notion of technocratic expertise.

“It would be a mistake,” you write, “to think that higher education is solely responsible for the inequalities of income and social esteem we witness today.” But that raises a question — are elite colleges the right target at all? What about the decline of union power, for instance? Ballooning CEO pay? If things like that were addressed, couldn’t Harvard just go on as it is?

I want to emphasize this to avoid any misunderstanding: My main critique is of the way mainstream parties, Democrats and Republicans, have governed over the past four decades. Their uncritical embrace of market-driven globalization led to deepening inequalities which they addressed by offering upward mobility through higher education. My critique is of that governing project. Universities have been conscripted as the arbiters of opportunity, as the dispensers of the credentials, as the sorting machine.

The main solutions consist in things like strengthening unions. The broad solution is to reorient our politics away from dealing with inequality through individual upward mobility by higher education. That’s too narrow a response to inequality.

I followed up one of your footnotes to discover an acknowledgment of your son, Adam Sandel, for helping you think about Hegel. I Googled Adam and discovered that in addition to being a scholar, he is also the Guinness World Record holder for the most pull-ups in 60 seconds. How many pull-ups can you do?

None! Not very many. My son can do 68 in a minute, which is the world record. I can do maybe four on a good day, which shows that Adam achieved the world record thanks to his own merits.

Source Article