Against Merit

Beyond Winning, Deserving, and Worth.

Todd Brewer / 4.29.21

You can make it if you try. This was the oft-repeated phrase of then-candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign. In the years since, this optimism has rung hollow to those who have found that merely “trying” is not enough to get ahead. That college degree has not guaranteed financial security, to say nothing of the instability posed by a pandemic. The world is not a pure meritocracy, it is said, but a rigged game that wishes to appear otherwise. This explains why the college admissions scandal a few years back continues to be front page news. The solution proposed by many now is to try to better level the playing field, ensuring fairness in the system for all participants, regardless of their innate advantages or disadvantages.

Amid the current debate over the fairness of society, philosopher Michael Sandel has bigger fish to fry. In his book The Tyranny of Merit, he argues that today’s well-intentioned proponents of radical change aren’t nearly radical enough. Making a meritocracy more fair leaves the meritocratic system essentially intact. The rules of the game might change, but it’s still a game to be won. “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

Within a meritocracy, there will always be clear winners and losers, generating resentment between rich and poor and further social division. The myth of self-sufficiency prevails, one that corrodes civic sensibilities, humiliates the losers, and burdens the youth with the weight of their future. A meritocracy fosters arrogance and pride while undermining humility and gratitude. 

Sandel writes:

For Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans, debates about merit were about salvation — do the chosen earn and therefore deserve their election, or is salvation a gift of grace beyond our control? For us, debates about merit are about worldly success — do the successful earn and therefore deserve their success, or is prosperity due to factors beyond our control?

At first glance, these two debates seem to have little in common. One is religious, the other secular. But on closer inspection, the meritocracy of our day bears the mark of the theological contest from which it emerged. The Protestant work ethic began as a tense dialectic of grace and merit, helplessness and self-help. In the end, merit drove out grace. The ethic of mastery and self-making overwhelmed the ethic of gratitude and humility. Working and striving became imperatives of their own, detached from Calvinist notions of predestination and the anxious search for a sign of salvation.

It is tempting to attribute the triumph of mastery and merit to the secular bent of our time. As faith in God recedes, confidence in human agency gathers force; the more we conceive ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the less reason we have to feel indebted or grateful for our success.

But even today, our attitudes toward success are not as independent of providential faith as we sometimes think. The notion that we are free human agents, capable of rising and succeeding by our own effort, is only one aspect of meritocracy. Equally important is the conviction that those who succeed deserve their success. This triumphalist aspect of meritocracy generates hubris among the winners and humiliation among the lowers. It reflects the residual providential faith that persists in the moral vocabulary of otherwise secular societies.

“The fortunate [person] is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate,” Max Weber observed. “Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others. He wishes to be allowed the belief that the less fortunate also merely experience [their] due.”

The tyranny of merit arises, at least in part, from this impulse. Today’s secular meritocratic order moralizes success in ways that echo an earlier providential faith: Altogether 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.

This triumphalist aspect of meritocracy is a kind of providentialism without God, at least without a God who intervenes in human affairs. The successful make it on their own, but their success attests to their virtue. This way of thinking heightens the moral stakes of economic competition. It sanctifies the winners and denigrates the losers.

Sandel believes that what is most needed today is not merely a social restructuring, but a revolution in values altogether. Anything short of that is just window dressing. In his view, we need to re-learn the great Reformational insight, that life is not a contest, but a gift. That there is more to human flourishing and dignity than economic success.

Meritocracy is indeed a cruel tyrant, but God is the kind of king who made himself a servant. When Jesus looked out at the crowds that gathered at his feet, he did not see rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. To him, there was no mountain or valley, but the level plain of need. He saw sheep in search of a shepherd — sinners who merit nothing by death but nevertheless receive unconditional grace.