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A Tyranny without Tyrants?

The Tyranny of Merit:
What’s Become of the Common Good?
by Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, 289 pages

A distinguishing mark of classical political philosophy is its focus on the ruling claims of regimes. Classical philosophers sifted and evaluated the distinctive qualities invoked to legitimate governance by some number of people—one, few, or many. Not only the number of rulers but the stated ruling principles could vary widely across places and times, reflecting profound variety and disagreement over the na­ture and aims of government. Some regimes based political rule on virtue (aristocracy), others on wealth (oligarchy), others on the inter­ests of a majority of citizens (democracy). Plato argued that philosophic wisdom should form the basis of good rule, while Confucius described the benefits of rule by those of greatest age and experience. Prophets, soldiers, and elders have all been rulers in various eras. Classical political philosophy sought to discern noble claims to rule, and how to achieve the best, or at least better, forms of governance.

In his latest book, political theorist Michael Sandel subjects our present form of governance—“meritocracy”—to the same analysis. While our meritocracy has no exact equivalent in classical philosophy’s catalogue of regimes, Sandel finds it increasingly tyrannical. For the most part, however, Sandel’s prescriptions seem inadequate to this bracing indictment.

Classical philosophy was not, pace Machiavelli, simply a quixotic aspiration to the ideal. Classical philosophers recognized that many, if not most, claims to rule were self-serving, benefiting the ruling class at the expense of the governed. Aristotle, for example, observed that most of the regimes in the known world were self-serving oligarchies or self-serving democracies—in which either the few rich or the many poor governed to their respective advantage. To the extent that such regimes merely sought to benefit a particular class of citizens, most classical authors agreed, they were unjust and undesirable. They rec­ognized that unjust regimes were by far the most common, however, and thus that politics, in reality, was for the most part the rule of the strong over the weak.

In a just regime, by contrast, the ruling class would govern on behalf of the common good. While there was profound disagreement about the nature of the common good, it was widely agreed that the common good was achieved when human flourishing was most exten­sively realized for citizens throughout the polity. This meant, in prac­tice, that self-sacrifice would be required of a ruling class that gov­erned for the sake of the common good. Rather than using their position and power to benefit themselves, they would rule in view of the good of the whole. The question of how to encourage or foster such a ruling class lies at the heart of Plato’s Republic, for example: is it possible to cultivate a class of rulers that governs solely on the basis of the good of the polity as a whole? While Socrates was able to describe such a ruler in theory—the “philosopher-king”—he acknowl­edged it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to bring about this kind of ruler in practice.

Against the ideal of the common good, the classical authors identi­fied the opposite form of rule by the distinctive name of “tyranny.” The tyrant was defined as someone who governed only for the sake of himself alone. Such a ruler, Plato suggested, was easy to identify, be­cause his advantage would come at the expense of everyone else. The tyrant would always act as an oppressor, using violence and fear as his chief tactics for maintaining rule over an oppressed and recalcitrant population. The Republic can also be viewed as an effort to persuade the potential tyrant from the temptation to rule for his own sake: Plato shows the tyrant that he would ultimately become a slave of his own passions and appetites. Unfortunately, the evidence from politi­cal history suggests that the argument has held relatively little sway: it is far easier to find examples of self-serving rule than generous gov­ernance on behalf of the common good.

The classical authors quickly became ensnared in a real-world political problem. While philosophers could clearly differentiate be­neficent rule for the “common good” from tyranny as a matter of definition, it proved difficult to distinguish the two in the everyday working of political reality. True, tyrants occasionally appear on the scene and maintain power through outright oppression—Stalin and Saddam Hussein come to mind—but more often than not, self-serv­ing rule is found in regimes whose rulers justify their positions not on wanton self-aggrandizement, but on their stated commitment to beneficence, justice, and the common good. Most rulers have sought to justify their positions based on what appear to be plausible claims to justice, even as they empower and enrich themselves away from the public eye. This sort of rule enjoys a patina of legitimacy while avoid­ing, at least for a period of time, the suspicions, hostility, and opposition of the governed. In point of fact, this is how we today broadly understand the rule of the aristocracy of the ancien régime: while the prerevolutionary ruling class and their court philosophers extolled the dedication of the aristocracy to the common good—claiming that their privileged position best allowed them to practice chivalry toward the weak as well as other forms of noblesse oblige—today we view those claims with jaundiced eyes, seeing instead a well-organized effort to shroud tyrannical self-aggrandizement beneath a veil of public beneficence.

Few rulers, it turns out, justify their ascent in the name of tyranny. Most seem to recognize a need to provide public-spirited justifications, or even genuinely believe that they govern out of concern for the common good. The ultimate test of those claims comes over time and with experience. Once a government is revealed as tyrannical—a ruling class that governs on its own behalf, and at the expense of the general welfare of the citizenry—political restiveness and even resis­tance arises. Often at that point, the ruling class might double down on the insistence of its beneficence, paternalistically putting down the resistance in the name of the good of the governed. Alternatively, it might become necessary simply to throw off the veil and admit to being tyrants. At that point, a regime finds itself in a crisis of legiti­macy, and at least some of its number might begin to denounce the existing regime as inherently unjust.

Liberal democracy today finds itself in such a moment. When a philosopher and political observer such as Michael Sandel identifies our regime as a meritocracy and singles it out as tyrannical, it is time to pay attention. Before turning to Sandel’s diagnosis, however, let us review how our society has come to this point of crisis.

Meritocracy and Aristocracy

Rule by “merit” is an echo of the ancient form of “aristocracy”—rule by the excellent or virtuous—but has its distinctive origins at the outset of the liberal tradition. The “excellence” called forth under liberalism comprised less the classical virtues of the aristoi—wisdom, prudence, courage, and moderation—and more the economic and utilitarian qualities that were demanded for a capitalist and technological society. The political form that liberalism arose to oppose was an aristocracy in name but not in fact, which considered rank and station a matter of inheritance rather than achievement, and emphasized rule based on birthright. While the ancien régime encouraged a strong sense of generational and social connection—a point that Tocqueville emphasized, observing how aristocracy “makes all generations con­temporaries”—it also fostered complacency and corruption.1 As Bar­bara Tuchman once described the waning exemplars of the old aristocracy, they “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed. In prac­tice, they were themselves the oppressors. . . . When the gap between the ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.”2 Lib­eralism exposed that gap and proposed a new basis for rule: earned achievement.

The members of the new ruling class were to be elevated for their productivity and inventiveness. In his important discussion of prop­erty in the Second Treatise of Government (1689), John Locke dif­ferentiated humanity into two types: the “industrious and rational,” on the one hand, and the “quarrelsome and contentious,” on the other.3 Locke’s purpose was to liberate the former from the latter. No longer was ownership of property to be conferred simply as a matter of inheritance; rather, property was to be dynamic, less a static anchor for family stability than a substance whose value could be increased by creative and industrious development. The value lay far less in the property than the intellect that sought to unlock its potential value—hence why Locke supplied a radical new definition of property that extended not only to material objects but to ownership of self. The liberal regime came into being not mainly to protect property rights (though that was an important political imperative) but to legitimate the ruling principle that would encourage the formation and ascendancy of the “industrious and rational.”

The cognitive basis of the new ruling class, first captured in Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding, would eventually manifest itself in a set of distinct philosophical and political positions, a comprehensive worldview increasingly required as a basis of the social, political, and economic order. Primary was a belief in self-making, through which liberals demanded a social order that allowed the greatest possible freedom, even liberation, from unchosen com­mitments. This imperative required a highly mobile social order, allowing the “industrious and rational” to pursue and realize their talents wherever they were most in demand and rewarded. Borders of all kinds would be challenged as arbitrary limitations upon pursuit of one’s preferences. Family duties and formation would increasingly be seen as a burden upon personal autonomy, rather than a core institu­tion of civilization. Cultural constraints—whether upon individual or economic liberty—were to be largely eviscerated. Religion must nec­essarily recede as a domain of constraint (or “interdicts,” to use Philip Rieff’s formulation), instead becoming either an acceptable expression of social justice and therapy for the enlightened, or demeaned as a backward superstition of those who insisted upon its interdicts. The measures of success would be increasingly materialistic, thereby shift­ing resources and attention away from formation through humanities and toward the control of the natural world through science and tech­nology. A complete social, economic, educational, and political order would necessarily arise in conformity with the ruling claims of the new elite—a regime by, for, and of the meritocracy.

It would take several hundred years to fully realize the ruling claim that Locke heralded in the late seventeenth century. Michael Sandel appropriately identifies James Conant as a main protagonist of this transformation in the United States. As president of Harvard Uni­versity from 1933 to 1953, Conant was instrumental in shifting what was still a relatively staid and aristocratic institution, with admission largely determined by one’s family lineage, to a “meritocratic” insti­tution based upon aptitude and achievement. Sandel relies on Nicho­las Lemann’s masterful treatment of this subject in his 2000 book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, which de­scribes how Harvard and Princeton were at the heart of a genuine regime change, one that hinged especially on the creation of the Scho­lastic Aptitude Test.4 No longer would admission to these prestigious institutions rest on one’s lineage and a nod from the headmaster of Choate. Rather, an increasingly national (and later, international) search for the “best and the brightest” was unleashed, demoting any purported benefit from birth or inheritance in favor of raw ability. Hence the creation and application of an objective test of aptitude.

On the one hand, Conant was fiercely committed to overturning the good old boys’ network; on the other, his successful efforts to remake Harvard were born not of an egalitarian aspiration, but to replace what he saw as a mediocre ruling class with Jefferson’s “natu­ral aristocracy.” In particular, Conant anticipated what would be­come the pressing demand for people adept at processing and manip­ulating information—those Robert Reich would later call “symbolic-analysts.”5 Harvard and other elite institutions were well placed to fill the post–World War II demands for scientists, engineers, and, more generally, people capable of guiding an increasingly capitalist, scien­tific, and technological society. Sandel cites John W. Gardner, author of Excellence (1961), who forthrightly acknowledged that modern so­ciety demanded a fierce and merciless sorting of the capable from the incompetent: “As education becomes increasingly effective in pulling the bright youngster to the top,” writes Gardner, “it becomes an increasingly rugged sorting-out process for everyone concerned. . . . The schools are the golden avenue of opportunity for able youngsters; but by the same token they are the arena in which less capable young­sters discover their limitations.”6

These sentiments were broadly shared as America rose to world power and engaged in a prolonged military-industrial competition with the Soviet Union. But over the course of the next fifty years, as the economic and social order increasingly rewarded the “able” and abandoned any commitments to shoring up the conditions of the meritocratic losers, the noble claims of the “meritocracy” began to ring hollow. The material as well as psychological inequalities ines­capably arising from the new system undermined its legitimacy.

Sandel is especially adept in cataloguing the array of economic, social, and psychological pathologies of a society based upon rule by “merit.” His insight into the distance between the claims that justify meritocracy and its real-world implications is particularly striking. Whatever the benefits of meritocracy in demolishing the aristocracy of the ancien régime, meritocracy has produced in turn a pervasive system of inequality and resulting instability. Those who achieve suc­cess in the merciless competition of the “sorting machine” believe their achievement to be the consequence of their own striving and effort, while disdaining those who have failed to rise. Correspondingly, those who have not ascended in the meritocratic order are prone to internalize their failure even as they resent the status and advantages of the “meritorious.” The result is a politically destabilizing “toxic brew of hubris and resentment” (118).

Sandel is among the few thinkers who warn fellow elites that the very system that has afforded them prestige, material comfort, and the tools to survive, and even thrive, amid economic and social instability has given rise to pervasive political discontent and lies at the root of the recent populist backlash against elites. He notes that liberal and center-left political parties—once the champions of the working class—have become the home of the meritocrats, and hence the party of the new aristocracy. Liberal-left parties have developed a self-serving obliviousness to their complicity in creating the threat to their own position.

Sandel is well positioned to observe the contortions that the meritocratic Left undertakes to avoid confrontation with its historic but now abandoned commitment to egalitarianism. As one might expect, Sandel is especially insightful in dismantling the egalitarian veil that many Left academics have donned to assuage their bad conscience, even as they blithely participate in and benefit from the meritocracy. That veil comes in the form of an attraction to the philosophy of John Rawls. Rawls not only spent much of his career at Harvard, but he is a favorite philosopher of the Ivy League set, and for good reason. Rawls’s signature work, A Theory of Justice, boils down to a proposal for differential equality that at once keeps the meritocracy in place while potentially blunting its inevitable inequalities. Rawls proposed that “the difference principle” would ensure that the least successful would nevertheless benefit from the gains of the successful, through transfers managed by the state. Rawls offered a more sophisticated, government-mandated version of Kennedy and Reagan’s mantra (ultimately copying Locke) that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Sandel identifies two significant problems with Rawls’s effort to justify a form of meritocracy that would nevertheless promote the common good. First, he notes, meritocracy is not merely a system that affords wealth to the winners and poverty to the losers. While there is a good deal of correspondence to wealth and poverty, meri­tocracy—as the name suggests—inevitably also accords distinction and prestige upon some, shame and a sense of failure upon others. A relatively low-paid professor possesses more social esteem than the well-remunerated salesman. Credentials quickly become markers of social distinction, and Sandel presses the point that Rawls ultimately ignores and even dismisses the way these social markers can and will manifest themselves in forms of condescension, resentment, and resulting political pathology. Moreover, Sandel notes that it is the very impetus to afford material compensation for the losers that will likely fuel condescension. “Questions of honor and recognition can­not be neatly separated from questions of distributive jus­tice,” he writes. “This is especially true when it turns out that patronizing attitudes toward the disadvantaged are implicit in the case for com­pensating them.”

When put into practice, the Rawlsian version of the meritocratic system ultimately impacts how redistribution is carried out. If someone has fallen behind in the race of life through no fault of their own, then according to Rawls’s scheme, their material circumstances should be improved to the stipulated differential of the best-off. The rub, however, lies in determining who is disadvantaged “through no fault of their own.” Perhaps it’s easy to agree that the person who has experienced bad luck—someone born into poor circumstances, or afforded deficient education, or debilitated by disease or injury—deserves compensation according to “the difference principle.” But what of the graduate of Harvard who simply didn’t apply himself or herself and now seeks aid? What of the person who has gambled away savings or an inheritance? Bet one’s life savings on a cryptocurrency that went bust? What of the person suffering from lung cancer be­cause he was a two-pack-a-day smoker? Or what about someone, in the most egregious case, who refuses to move away from a dying, rust belt city out of some misplaced sense of loyalty to place, or even simple lack of gumption?

Sandel writes that, “as with other forms of liberalism, luck egal­itarian philosophy begins by rejecting merit and desert as the basis of justice but ends by reasserting meritocratic attitudes and norms with a vengeance” (148). The impetus to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving losers becomes inevitable. One hears echoes of just this ethos in the judgment of James Stimson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of North Carolina, who de­scribed working-class populists in the following terms:

When we observe the behavior of those who live in distressed areas, we are not observing the effect of economic decline on the working class, we are observing a highly selected group of people who faced economic adversity and choose to stay at home and accept it when others sought and found opportunity elsewhere. . . . [Those who are economically successful are] ambitious and confident in their abilities. Those who are fearful, conservative, in the social sense, and lack ambition stay and accept decline. . . . I don’t see them as once proud workers, now dispossessed, but rather as people of limited ambition who might have sought better opportunity elsewhere and did not. I see their social problems more as explanations of why they didn’t seek out opportunity when they might have than as the result of lost employment.7

In short, the Raymond Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina judges that the locals have gotten what they deserve. If only everyone had moved to the Research Triangle.

Sandel is less curious, however, about the increasingly central role played by “identity politics,” particularly on elite campuses like Har­vard’s. Even as institutions like Harvard relentlessly sift the able from the inferior, conferring upon a blessed few the most coveted credential on the planet, its denizens are ever more unstinting in their stated commitment to equality. “Diversity and inclusion” is the constant egalitarian imperative, today driving ceaseless efforts to change prac­tices in such varied areas as admission, curriculum, hiring, and student life, in order to increase diversity of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Elite universities today spare no effort to extend such forms of “diversity,” even as they become ever more exclusive and the “sorting machine” more ruthlessly efficient in its sifting of winners from los­ers. The trumpeting of enlightened—now “woke”—egalitarianism thus leads to peculiar claims of moral self-congratulation. Harvard’s previous president, Drew Gilpin Faust, called for the elimination of single-sex social clubs on campus due to their role in “enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values”—a claim that should have made her blush, but instead evoked hearty assent from the egalitarians at Harvard.8

Sandel notes in passing that meritocratic institutions have “made important strides in recruiting African American and Latinx students but have done little to increase the proportion of lower-income stu­dents,” and even acknowledges that “colleges have practiced what amounts to affirmative action for the wealthy” (170). Yet Sandel is notably silent about the likely connection between these two facts: the particular form of equality that elite universities pursue (as well as, increasingly, corporations, professional and college sports confer­ences, etc.) allows institutions such as Harvard to trumpet their revulsion at inequality even as they keep the meritocratic “sorting machine” intact. The purported egalitarianism of elite universities serves at once as a weapon and a shield to defend the structures bene­ficial to the meritocracy.

The Case of the Missing Tyrants

In the end, Sandel flinches: in spite of accusing the new ruling order of “tyranny,” he fails to locate any tyrants. This silence on the meri­tocracy’s self-deception, in what is otherwise a singularly powerful critique of the pathologies of meritocracy, is telling. Sandel is remark­ably incurious about whether meritocrats’ justifications of their moral eminence might in fact shroud the deeper “will to power” one would expect to find among tyrants.

For instance, Sandel evinces a lack of suspicion when listing a string of dubious actions by the meritocrats, concluding simply that they “have not governed very well”—not that they have governed with malevolence. He cites a string of failures from 1980 to the present, includ­ing “stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, incon­clusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, the financial crisis of 2008,” and so forth (29). In each instance, however, these were not “failures” if you were a member of the meritocracy. Almost to a person, the ruling class benefited from these crises, or at the very least, were not harmed by their consequences, even as they collectively diminished the prospects for flourishing among the meritocracy’s losers. Sandel regards these outcomes as failed policies of otherwise well-intentioned leaders, rather than identifying them as the expected outcomes of a ruling class’s efforts to maintain its position.

We return to where we began. At its outset, meritocracy, like most regimes, was defended as a just and beneficent new departure. It would replace the injustice of the ancien régime by encouraging and rewarding people for their talents. If inequality was to be an inescapable result, nevertheless the “industrious and rational” would afford benefits to the society as a whole. Prosperity, progress, and enlightenment would spread even to the “quarrelsome and contentious”: as Locke wrote, the life of the day laborer in England was better than the mightiest king of the Indians in America. Unlike in a vicious regime, the ruling meritocrats would govern not (merely) for their own advantage, but for the advantage and even common good of all.

Although it has barely been a century since Conant began his transformation of Harvard, and about a half century since the full realization of the new meritocratic regime celebrated by Gardner with the ascent of the “best and the brightest,” overwhelming evidence suggests that the meritocracy’s claims are altogether unbelievable, useful mainly as the self-serving subterfuge of an oppressive ruling class. For those outside the charmed meritocratic winner’s circle, prospects for flourishing have precipitously declined in recent dec­ades, as documented in such works as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Among the noncredentialed, life spans are declining, deaths of despair increasing, material circumstances have worsened, social stability and moral formation have cratered. By their own admission, meritocratic elites have failed to improve race relations in America. The meritocrats’ claims to benefi­cence might once have been widely believed before this accumulating evidence, but now they largely function as a form of self-deceit among the rulers. Awareness of the potential for malevolent, even tyrannical intention behind these developments seems to be missing in Sandel. Yet such evidence seems increasingly apparent: approximately half the country showed its disbelief and contempt for elite ruling claims by voting for a demagogic anti-elitist. The reaction of the ruling class was four years of denying the legitimacy of the election, denouncing those who dared to vote for the demagogue, and unremitting efforts to “resist”—with hardly a moment to spare to reflect about their complicity in bringing about this wrenching period in our national history.

Sandel’s title, The Tyranny of Merit, is arguably more accurate an assessment of meritocracy than the ultimate thrust of his book. Ac­cording to the classical definition, meritocracy is a tyranny because its ruling class accrues benefits for itself while causing material, social, and spiritual impoverishment among those it governs. Sandel states that “merit can become a kind of tyranny,” but avoids discussing the motivations of the tyrants. Sandel consistently treats claims and effects of merit as tyrannical—pointing, for instance, to its humiliating and inegalitarian effects—while leaving aside questions of power and regime maintenance. The impression given by Sandel is that meritocrats are well-intentioned and benevolent, and if presented with philosophic arguments about the injustices of their rule, they will repent and behave differently.

Indeed, like Plato, Sandel argues that at least one reason the elite should reconsider meritocracy is that it exacts terrible psychic damage on their own children. In order to succeed in the meritocracy, a heavy psychological toll is exacted, especially upon the young. Like Sandel, I see in my own students the price they pay in anxiety, stress, emo­tional exhaustion, and the sadness and anger that come from forgoing the enjoyment of one’s youth. Yet not one ambitious parent is likely to ease the pressure to succeed, nor are their children likely to relax their own drive if it means missing out on joining the ruling class. Better to be a psychically wounded tyrant than a failure hooked on OxyContin.

A Fixable Bug?

In spite of the title of the book, Sandel does not in fact believe that meritocracy is tyrannical. The failure of meritocracy is merely a fixable bug of liberalism, not a feature. After mounting a powerful brief against the pathologies of meritocracy, Sandel offers several modest fixes that, if pursued, would leave the meritocratic system and ethos largely intact. Most remarkable are his suggested reforms of universities—the institutions that, by his own telling, have played a singularly important role in advancing the ruling claims of the meri­tocracy. His main proposed fix for diminishing the sense of hubris among students and graduates of Ivy institutions is a “Lottery of the Qualified.” Once the necessary admission standards are reached, remaining applicants would be admitted by lottery. In theory, he argues, this would reduce the sense of self-congratulation among the meritocrats. In practice, it’s all too likely that its denizens would still regard their admission as the result of individual achievement (after all, they were still among the small number of “qualified”). Inas­much as they would remain the nation’s leaders, they would be shaped by a dominant ethos that would remain largely intact from top to bottom, including among a faculty that believes itself to be the cream of an academic meritocracy.

Alternatively, Sandel proposes increasing funding for state univer­sities and vocational schools—a reasonable and praiseworthy pro­posal—without really addressing the reigning ethos of the ruling class: individualistic, technocratic, deracinated, borderless, globalist, materialist, and secularist. A somewhat better-financed education for the working class will not change the dominant meritocratic ethos that will still arise even from the winners of a “lottery of the qualified.” While Sandel makes valuable suggestions about strengthening the dignity of production over consumption, diminishing the im­portance of finance in our economy, and strengthening the status of the working class, none of these get to the heart of the problem: an entrenched ruling class that will, like Sandel, agree to some modest tweaks as long as that ensures their continued domination. Their dominant belief system will remain unchanged, because its practical effects ultimately benefit the ruling class at the expense of everyone else.

Remarkably, Sandel—a political philosopher—does not discuss the key political question: power. What is clearly needed is a powerful political movement that will alter the ethos of elites who are formed at places like Harvard—a movement that most at Harvard today (and those at all other elite institutions suffused with the same worldview) would viscerally and strenuously oppose. The solution lies not in opening more slots at elite institutions—though a genuine lottery of students and faculty would be worth further discussion—nor in otherwise praiseworthy suggestions like improving the opportunities for young people to attend vocational schools. The deeper challenge lies in fundamentally changing the reigning orthodoxies of our cur­rent elites. The ruling class will not eagerly relinquish power. It must be deposed or extensively reformed through strenuous political pressure and opposition. That opposition must demand, even force, the elite to care more for their fellow citizens—beginning, above all, with limitations on the ability of the elite to “secede” from their fel­low citizens.

Sandel looks back with some nostalgia to the post–World War II period when elites were more likely to widely sympathize with and support the conditions of the working class. As Michael Lind argues in his book The New Class War—a book that Sandel might have valuably consulted—this was a time of class solidarity born of the unique circumstances of an empowered postwar working class and a grateful elite that had shared in many of its wartime travails.9 It was a time of strong private sector union membership, powerful parties with robust local ties connecting elites to average citizens, and widely shared religious values that bound together the nation. Elites were not vacuumed by the Harvards from every town and hamlet and transplanted to New York City and D.C. Rather, postwar America was a society that valorized the local devotions of men like George Bailey (or, in real life, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham of Field of Dreams fame), elites who became pillars of their community, helping the ordi­nary citizens who shared their lives and histories, and not disdaining them for refusing to pull up stakes and rent a U-Haul. It was a time when the culture industry produced popular portrayals of Moses and St. Bernadette and conferred Academy Awards on such films.

It was also a time when students and graduates of Harvard served in the military and professors viewed the transmission of culture and tradition as one of their primary roles. It was a time when pride of nation and place was not considered bigoted, but a civilizational duty. Elite defenders of the working class considered limits on low-skill immigration a feature of class justice. They supported American workers by purchasing American products, and considered protecting American industry as a form of patriotism. The intact family was widely regarded as the linchpin of social order, portrayed admirably in popular culture and celebrated by mainstream culture. The “family wage” was an assumed norm, permitting children to be raised by at least one parent at home.

How likely would the introduction of a “lottery of the qualified” for admission to Harvard bend views of the elite toward these kinds of beliefs, ones still more likely to be shared by their less fortunate fellow countrymen? How likely would today’s meritocrats be to accept such changes as necessary limits upon the tyranny of their class?

If the meritocracy is tyrannical—made up of people who act like tyrants, benefiting themselves while their fellow countrymen suffer from their self-indulgence—then they should be confronted as tyrants. Such confrontation requires overthrowing the ethos of Har­vard—an ethos that in the end, for all his perceptiveness in diagnosing the viciousness of meritocracy, Sandel deeply shares. Such an over­throw entails not tweaking the admissions policy of Harvard, but overthrowing the meritocratic worldview and its underlying liberal philosophy. Sandel has made a powerful case for why the tyranny of the meritocrats should be deposed. What is sorely needed is deeper reflection, and paths to action, for how to realize the common good.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 1 (Spring 2021): 125–39.

1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, trans. James T. Schleifer (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), ch. 2, 883.

2 Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), xix.

3 John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, §34.

4 Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).

5 Robert Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism (New York: Vintage, 1992).

6 John W. Gardner, cited in Sandel, 174.

7 Thomas Edsall, “The Closing of the Republican Mind,” New York Times, July 13, 2017.

8 Drew Gilpin Faust, “Letter on Single-Gender Social Organizations,” May 6, 2016.

9 Michael Lind, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2020), ch. 3.

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