Philosopher Sandel questions societal goal of a meritocracy

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 272pp; Maruzen price: ¥1,900 plus tax

Given the chaos in the United States over the past few years, many people have been left scratching their heads, wondering what is happening to the nation. Harvard University political philosophy Prof. Michael J. Sandel is here with his latest book to help answer that question.

As the title, “The Tyranny of Merit,” suggests, Sandel writes that the great fault lies in our common belief in merit itself.

He begins with an anecdote about celebrities being caught paying off colleges to accept their children. Even if people differ on what aspect of this case makes it shocking, everyone shares the idea that students should be admitted to higher education based on their own merits, he says.

“If this familiar view is right, then the problem with meritocracy is not with the principle but with our failure to live up to it,” Sandel writes. “Our public debates are not about meritocracy itself but about how to achieve it.”

He goes on to say societies have begun defining success only by gross domestic product rather than “the bonds of citizenship.” This creates a hole in public discussions regarding moral and political judgments, which are then “invariably filled by harsh, authoritarian forms of identity and belonging — whether in the form of religious fundamentalism or strident nationalism.”

Sandel makes a strong case throughout the book against meritocracy alone as a form of governance, and especially against relying too heavily on technocrats to lead a nation.

Though the book is sometimes repetitive in restating the philosopher’s view that meritocracy fills successful people with hubris while those who fall on misfortune are shunned by society and deemed failures, his ideas are still enlightening in calling into question what has often been taken as a matter of course — that meritocracy is something we should strive to achieve in society. Society doesn’t discuss enough how meritocracy can make us feel as if we bring our failures on ourselves or that we alone achieved our successes.

Sandel devotes a section of his book to exploring the history of meritocracy in the United States, with its roots in a Christian belief that only those blessed by God will be fortunate in life.

“By the early twenty-first century, the prosperity gospel, with its appeal to hard work, upward mobility, and positive thinking, was hard to distinguish from the American dream itself,” he writes.

This idea is even applied to Americans’ collective beliefs about health, a small section of the book that felt especially relevant given the pandemic.

“What could be more empowering,” Sandel writes, “than the belief that our health is in our hands, that the sick can be healed through prayer, that illness can be averted by living well and loving God? … Illness, when it comes, is not merely a misfortune but a verdict on our virtue. Even death adds insult to injury.”

Given this, the proclamations of former U.S. President Donald Trump that he had defeated the coronavirus — “We have it very much under control” — might make slightly more sense if we are to believe he is a fervent believer in merit.

The political philosopher writes that the symptoms meritocracy can cause aren’t the problems of Americans alone. He cites former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, “an outspoken nationalist,” describing the Great East Japan Earthquake “as divine retribution (tenbatsu) for Japan’s materialism.”

Sandel’s book is a profound indictment of one the foundations on which modern American society has been built. Given the turmoil the nation has recently experienced, it is well-timed and worth a read for anyone hoping to better understand — or even help change — the recent global drift toward humanity’s darker inclinations.

— S. Hozumi, Japan News Staff Writer