In The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Michael J. Sandel argues that the divide between winners and losers has poisoned our politics and pulled us apart. The problem, he contends, is not only that we have failed to live up to the meritocratic ideals we profess, but that a meritocratic society is a flawed aspiration. It produces hubris among the successful and humiliation among those left behind. In the first virtual Stated Meeting in the history of the Academy, Michael J. Sandel joined T. J. Jackson Lears and Anna Deavere Smith in a conversation about his new book and the destructive consequences of linking socioeconomic status with personal worth. An edited version of the discussion follows.
2092nd Stated Meeting | August 24, 2020 | Virtual Event
Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture
Michael J. Sandel is Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2003.
What an honor it is to be joined by Jackson Lears and Anna Deavere Smith, both of whom I’ve long admired. And it’s an honor to participate in this first virtual Stated Meeting in the storied history of the Academy. I can only imagine John Adams leaning into his Zoom grid and saying, “Franklin, we can’t hear you. Unmute yourself!”
Our subject today is meritocracy, and whether it corrupts the common good. I suggest that it does. Consider our broken civic life. We live in a polarized, rancorous political moment. For decades, the divide between winners and losers has been deepening, poisoning our politics, driving us apart. This divide isn’t only about inequality. It is also about the attitudes toward winning and losing that have come with it. In recent decades, those who landed on top have come to believe that their success is their own doing, a measure of their merit, and that those left behind have no one to blame but themselves.
This way of thinking about success arises from a seemingly attractive principle: if everyone starts out with an equal chance, those who succeed deserve the rewards their talents bring. This is the heart of the meritocratic ideal. In practice, of course, we fall short; not everyone has an equal chance to rise. We see this at Ivy League colleges, where there are more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom half of the country combined.1 But the problem isn’t only that we fail to live up to the meritocratic principles we profess. The ideal itself has a dark side: meritocracy is corrosive of the common good. It leads to hubris among the winners, and humiliation for those who lose out. It encourages the successful to inhale too deeply of their own success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.
Even as globalization brought deepening inequality and stagnant wages, its proponents offered workers some bracing advice: if you want to compete and win in the global economy, go to college. What you earn depends on what you learn. You can make it if you try. These elites failed to see the insult implicit in this advice: if you didn’t go to college, and if you’re not flourishing in the new economy, your failure is your fault. Not surprisingly, this insult fueled resentment among many working people against credentialed elites.
So what should we do? In The Tyranny of Merit, I suggest a number of responses, but for this discussion, I would like to focus on one of them: we need to rethink the role of universities as arbiters of opportunity. Colleges and universities confer the credentials that a market-based, meritocratic society prizes and rewards. But this role is a mixed blessing. It has enlarged the cultural authority and prestige of higher education and made admission to elite colleges the object of fevered ambition. But converting these institutions into sorting machines for a meritocratic order is not good for democracy, for the students who compete to win admission, or for the colleges and universities themselves.2
The meritocratic mission of selective colleges and universities found its clearest expression in the writings of James Conant, president of Harvard, in the 1940s. He wanted to overturn the established hereditary elite that he saw dominating not only at Harvard, but throughout American society. As Nicholas Lemann describes in his book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Conant wanted a meritocratic society to replace this hereditary privileged one. In many ways, he succeeded. Higher education today is far more inclusive than it was in the 1940s and 1950s in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. But Conant expected and wanted the new meritocracy to produce a fluid, mobile society. This hope has not been fulfilled. Today’s credentialed professional classes have figured out how to pass their privileges onto their children: not by bequeathing them large estates, but by equipping them with the advantages that give them a leg up in meritocratic competition. We see this in the class profile of colleges and universities, including those with generous financial aid policies.
Despite Conant’s hope, colleges and universities in the United States do not serve as powerful engines of upward mobility. A team of economists led by Raj Chetty recently did a comprehensive study of the role of colleges in promoting intergenerational mobility. The researchers asked: for each college in the United States, what proportion of its students come from poor families (bottom quintile) but ultimately wind up in the top 20 percent of earners? The answer: shockingly few.
Although attending a school like Harvard or Princeton or Stanford does give students from modest economic backgrounds a good chance of rising, such places enroll so few poor kids to begin with that the overall mobility rate is low. At Harvard, less than 2 percent of students rise from the bottom to the top of the income scale. At Princeton, it’s 1.3 percent. The same is true at some big-name public universities: at the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, the mobility rate is 1.5 percent. Chetty and his team looked at 1,800 colleges and universities and found that, overall, fewer than 2 percent of their students rise from the bottom-fifth to the top-fifth of the income scale. Even more modest ascents are relatively rare. At elite private colleges and universities, only about one student in ten manages to rise even two rungs (two quintiles) on the income ladder.3
College graduates, especially from prestigious places, do have a major edge in landing lucrative jobs. But these schools have little impact on upward mobility, because most of their students are well-off in the first place. American higher education is like an elevator in a building that most people enter on the top floor.
This calls into question an article of faith in contemporary politics – that the answer to rising inequality is greater mobility, and that the way to increase mobility is to send more people to college. To be clear: encouraging people to go to college is a good thing. Broadening access for those who can’t afford it is even better. But it is a mistake to see this as the solution to decades of wage stagnation and inequality. Those of us who spend our days in the company of the credentialed can easily forget a simple fact: most people don’t have a four-year college degree; nearly two-thirds of Americans do not. So it is folly to create an economy that makes a university diploma a necessary condition for dignified work and a decent life.
If higher education fails to be the engine of upward mobility that Conant and today’s defenders of meritocracy expect it to be, what should we do? One approach is to double down on the meritocratic project and do a better job of removing obstacles to admission faced by students from low-income backgrounds. We should consider, for example, whether to end legacy admission preferences, and how to recruit more low-income and first-generation students. Removing such obstacles is desirable and important. But we cannot solve the problem of meritocracy simply by making higher education a more perfect meritocracy.
Focusing only on perfecting the sorting machine begs a bigger question: should colleges and universities take on the role of sorting people based on talent to determine who gets ahead in life? There are at least two reasons to doubt that they should. The first concerns the invidious judgments such sorting implies for those who get sorted out, and the damaging consequences for a shared civic life. The second concerns the injury the meritocratic struggle inflicts on those who get sorted in and the tendency of the sorting mission to become so all-consuming that it diverts colleges and universities from their educational mission.
The tyranny of merit oppresses not only those who lose out in meritocratic competition, but also those who prevail – the wounded winners. Although affluent parents often succeed at passing their advantages onto their kids, the mechanism by which they do so converts adolescence into a high-pressure, stress-strewn meritocratic gauntlet. Those who survive this gauntlet and win admission to selective colleges and universities are often injured along the way. Alarming numbers of college students suffer depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems borne of the intense pressure to achieve. Many of those who prevail in the meritocratic competition become so accustomed to hoop-jumping, so driven to strive, that they struggle, once they arrive in college, to find the peace and poise to explore, to reflect, to figure out what’s worth caring about, and why.
When Conant set Harvard and higher education the task of testing and sorting the American population, I doubt he imagined the relentless meritocratic competition the project would unleash. The time has come to rethink the role of higher education – not only to repair the damaged psyches of the privileged, but also to repair the polarized civic life that meritocratic sorting has produced. The regime of merit exerts its tyranny in two directions: Among those who win out, it induces anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism, and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem. Among those it leaves behind, it imposes a demoralizing, even humiliating sense of failure.
Instead of trying simply to perfect the meritocracy, we should begin to disentangle higher education from the mission of meritocratic sorting. In contending with inequality, we should focus less on arming people for meritocratic competition and focus more on making life better for those who lack a diploma but who make essential contributions to our society – through the work they do, the families they raise, the communities they serve. We should renew the dignity of work and put it at the center of our politics. This means improving the economic prospects of those whose wages and job prospects have stagnated in recent decades. It also means according greater social recognition and esteem to forms of work that do not require a college degree but that contribute to the common good.
The most potent rival to merit, to the idea that we are responsible for our lot and deserve what we get, is the notion that we are indebted for our success, and also for our troubles, to the vagaries of fortune, or to the grace of God, or to the luck of the draw. Morally and theologically, the dialectic between an ethic of merit and an ethic of luck or grace has a long career. Jackson has written powerfully about this.4 Living by the belief that we have no hand in whether we will be saved in the next world, or successful in this one, is hard to reconcile with the idea of freedom. This is why the ethic of merit tends to drive out the ethic of luck and grace. Sooner or later, the successful assert and come to believe that their success is their own doing. But even in its triumph, the meritocratic faith does not deliver the freedom or the self-mastery that it promises, nor does it provide a basis for solidarity. Ungenerous to the losers and oppressive to the winners, merit becomes a tyrant.
Being alive to the chanced nature of our lot can prompt a certain humility: “There, but for the accident of birth, or the grace of God, or the mystery of fate, go I.” This spirit of humility is the civic virtue we need now. It is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less-rancorous, more-generous public life.
- 1Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, et al., “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” The Equality of Opportunity Project, July 2017, 1.
- 2I draw here, and in the following paragraphs, from Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), chap. 6.
- 3Chetty et al., “Mobility Report Cards.” For mobility rates of individual colleges based on Chetty’s data, see “Some Colleges Have More Students from the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours,” The New York Times, January 18, 2017.
- 4Jackson Lears, Something for Nothing: Luck in America (New York: Viking, 2003).
T. J. Jackson Lears is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2009.
Thank you, Michael, for engaging with a book that slipped into relative obscurity fairly quickly. It was published, as a number of my books seem to be, at the worst possible time. Something for Nothing appeared at the height of the escalation toward the invasion of Iraq, when there was a lot of talk of providential destiny in the air. My book challenged the kind of secular providence that suggests that nations as well as people get what they deserve in this life as well as in the world to come, if indeed there is one.
I want to talk just for a few minutes about the historical origins of meritocracy, which we have to realize is different from merit per se, even though I appreciate the title of Michael’s book and think it’s good in its concision. But when merit becomes meritocracy, then we are dealing not only with an idea that has become institutionalized as a means for organizing an entire society, but also with an ideology that sanctifies its proponents’ sense of entitlement to run the nation, and maybe even the world. What I want to suggest is that if we look at both the historical origins of American belief in meritocracy and the historical alternatives, which I can only briefly gesture to, we might have a deeper sense of what we’re engaging with, and why these issues tend to run so deeply in our national history and in our debates about what we are as a nation.
The belief that people get what they deserve is central to American success mythology, and has been since at least the mid-nineteenth century, if not earlier; it’s based on a very secular version of the Christian faith in providence. The traditional view was that God’s ways were not our ways, and that those who prosper in the world, in this world, might well fry in the next. God’s ways were mysterious, if not absolutely opaque to human comprehension.
But this starts to change, accelerating through the nineteenth century, when there’s a growing assumption particularly among educated and affluent American Protestants – and you have to recognize, this was a predominantly Protestant nation at the time in terms of cultural style and even in terms of secular values – an assumption that God’s will could be discovered in human affairs, and the success or failure of individuals, as well as that of nations, could reveal God’s will at work in this world. So the American nation was from this point of view divinely ordained to play a redemptive role in world history, and since this was a market society, the rich were rich because they deserved to be, and the poor had no one to blame but themselves.
The moral dimension here, the distinction that was made between the worthy and the unworthy, the deserving and the undeserving, this survived the transformation of the Protestant ethic into the spirit of capitalism. The moral distinction was based on the assumption that successful people had earned their wealth and that failures had frittered away their opportunities through laziness and inattention to business. This faith was comforting for the successful few. One finds it certainly in the beliefs of people like John D. Rockefeller Sr. and also J. P. Morgan; one’s a Baptist, one’s an Episcopalian, but they have the same notions of providence. Comforting for them, but stigmatizing for the struggling many.
At the same time, though, and this is very important historically as well as with respect to contemporary affairs, the vision of a nation of autonomous strivers was always counterbalanced by older ideals of community and solidarity, whether they came from religion, or family, or community traditions and customs, and these were cultural memories and also current realities for many people. The democratic socialists in the late nineteenth century talked about building a cooperative commonwealth. Progressive reformers talked about bringing commonwealth to bear against wealth. And these kinds of sentiments animated populist and socialist and progressive movements, and then resurfaced in the Great Depression to become the basis, however limited and imperfect with respect to gender and race, of mid-century social democracy.
Now in the last four decades or so, as Michael points out, with the rise of what I think we can fairly call neoliberal capitalism, the autonomous self has returned to the center of the success ethic. The autonomous self is more autonomous than ever, more bereft of communal supports, more responsible for his or her own fate, down to and including the metrics of personal health, which the responsible individual is now expected to monitor as anxiously as the Calvinist monitored the contents of his soul. So the idioms have changed since the nineteenth century: there’s less emphasis on plodding diligence; there’s more on talent, brains, and credentialed expertise.
But lack of success now implies not only a failure of mental power, but a failure of moral character. There’s still that sting of moral judgment about it. And the impact on democratic fellow feeling, as Michael shows I think very convincingly in his book, has been even more devastating in our gilded age than it was in the last one more than a century ago.
I want to echo what Michael suggested, which I also explore in my book Something for Nothing, about the need to resurrect the tradition that acknowledges the centrality of chance in human affairs. This makes a huge difference in how we tend to relate to one another and how we tend to evaluate one another’s worth in the world; and it also introduces a sense of humility. This is not a point of view that is restricted to gamblers and confidence men, although they sometimes benefit from it. There’s a whole underside of American culture pushed to the margins, much of the time by dominant cultural elites, but nevertheless thriving and acknowledging the role of chance, which of course has a long pedigree. We can go back at least to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes to acknowledge the ubiquity of hazard in human affairs, and recognize that you don’t always get what you deserve; you get what you get.
Anna Deavere Smith is an Actress, Playwright, and Author; and University Professor at the Tisch School of the Arts and Founding Director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2019.
In the land of smoke and mirrors, there’s a real hotel, which I’ll call the Hotel Merit Hollywood, just a quarter block south and a half a block west of one of the busiest intersections in all of Southern California. It has a facade of quiet opulence. The semicircular driveway is adorned from around eight in the morning until dusk with a Lamborghini, a McLaren, a Bentley, and the house car, a Rolls. The entertainment industry movers and shakers do breakfast, lunch, and cocktails there, breakfast costing more than $100 for two people, even though the shakers don’t eat very much – they’re quite fit. Sprinting up and down the meritocratic ladder is done without breaking much of a sweat, no matter how far apart the rungs are. Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale don’t always appear on the resumes of the elite here; to be sure, there’s a healthy contingent of alums, but the only necessary credential to have your special table at the Hotel Merit poolside is the ability to make money and/or noise (meaning, to attract attention). It helps to have a couple of movie stars in your pantry to leverage. Those in power at the Merit seek to be – Michael, to use the words you’ve pulled from the liberal-speak thesaurus – on the right side of history. One of the most powerful agencies in town, extending to offices in fourteen cities in six nations, represents the founders of Black Lives Matter.
Here comes the main character of my tale. It was dusk in the parking lot at the Hotel Merit Hollywood. I was waiting for my rental car – not a Lamborghini. My breath was arrested by a standard poodle. She – I think it was a she – was poodle royalty, well-bred, racehorse legs, not a silly haircut, groomed with taste – taste, now there’s a word they throw around at the Merit, taste. She was obviously well-educated, tutored daily. I did not sense hubris. Her intelligence came through a piercing, focused gaze. Every ringlet of her thick coat fell as it should, a beautiful jeweled collar, maybe fake jewels, but you never know. It’s the land of excess, where even a dog’s sense of self depends on a little bit of bling. She wouldn’t last at a dog park, though. Even if she had a deep desire to play with others, it was sufficiently bred out of her. I suspect that if her nanny didn’t rescue her immediately, she’d escape on her own. She was not bred to cavort. All she was bred for was to look like a million bucks. And she knew her worth.
There’s an apartment building, I’ll call it the Tudor Downs, that is situated in New Haven, where there’s Yale and then – there’s everybody else. The Downs is a beat-up place that’s in everybody else’s part of town. I and my collaborators were boarded there while we were rehearsing Let Me Down Easy, my 2008 play about resilience and vulnerability, the body versus American health care, the body versus the state, life versus death, winning versus losing – Michael, you know all about that play, because you were among the real people that I interviewed and portrayed in the New Haven version.
Many who work with me on my plays in fact did attend Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford; but they don’t have a lot of hubris. And that’s because of money. Those of us who work in nonprofit theater aren’t there for the money. Whereas the salaries of resident artistic and managing directors pre-COVID increased exponentially over the last three decades, the salaries of we itinerant artists have not. Those in consistent power, including our unions, perhaps, are banking on an assumption that we who are skilled performers, directors, writers, designers, and assistants choose to work in nonprofit institutions because we have something burning in our hearts to say, and having the opportunity to say it ought to be pay enough. Some of us buy into the missions of these theaters: creating community, the betterment of society, maybe even the common good.
But here’s the relevant action of this part of my presentation: Memphis, my dog, lived with me for seventeen years, but it was not until our seventh year together, during our sojourn at the Tudor Downs that I learned of her gifts. The realization was – to use your words, Professor Sandel, from that interview I did of you in 2007 – unbidden. This realization was unbidden. Memphis had no pedigree. The vet said that she was part Australian cattle dog, other part, anybody’s guess. She was not educated, and that’s my fault. Like the rest of her breed, or half of her DNA at least, she was smarter than me, so even though she showed potential at puppy school, I flunked out. And as you know, the owner, or as they say, “the parent of the dog” has to get trained as well. With my dismissal came hers.
A fire alarm went off at the Downs in the middle of the day. Our rooms were on – perhaps the eighteenth floor? People I’d never seen, some of them in pajamas, poured out of rooms into the hallways and down the stairs. Much to my horror, as we ran down the stairs, Memphis ran back up the many floors. Australian cattle dogs are herders, and her herding genes revealed themselves for the first time. Never trained to herd, but she had dignity about the work that she was bred to do. Over and over I screamed for her to come with me, singular me, her owner. But she herded those many others, all of whom were previously unknown to her, out of the building with resolve and the utmost purpose. Memphis had an understanding of the common good in her blood and it prevailed.
I will close with some words from the 2007 interview I conducted of Michael Sandel and for which my portrait of him in Let Me Down Easy – New Haven was based. I will not perform him now. Here’s one of my favorite parts of the monologue portrait, culled from the interview. It is relevant to our discussion about the tyranny of merit. I quote Professor Sandel:
In the ’20s and ’30s, there were state fairs that awarded prizes called “Fittest Family” prizes. You would go to the state fair, and alongside the livestock competitions where they would give blue ribbons to the best cattle, or the best-bred pig, they were doing the same for human beings. And people would enter, and they would give their genetic information, their medical history, and they would award prizes for the fittest families, just as they gave gold medals to the fittest cattle and the best-bred pig. And what we’re doing today in the name of helping our children, equipping our children, we are gradually, without being aware of it, turning parenting into manufacturing, as if the child were a consumer good. We’re using technologies to fit ourselves into the world that happens to be. We should change society to fit us, rather than to try to change our bodies to fit the social roles that could be otherwise. It is a lack of moral imagination.
The Tyranny of Merit raises many important questions, and it’s the perfect time to ask them. One of the questions I’d ask is, how much of our instinct toward the common good has been bred out of us? Or is it still there? The hope-a-holics would say it’s still there, like Memphis’s herding. She was an orphan dog, left on the side of a highway in Tennessee, probably, because I’m told, she proved to be gun-shy as a puppy. There were no papers to document her aptitude, but her herding instinct emerged once the need was there on that staircase in the Downs. What skill sets do we have that we don’t even know about, because we’ve not practiced? Or more troubling, what skill sets are rotting inside of us because we’re numb to the needs around us? Have we lost our instinct to protect the common good?
Michael J. Sandel: I’d like to identify one theme that I think connects our comments, and that is one of the animating arguments of The Tyranny of Merit. Underlying all of these debates about success and moral desert, about who deserves what, about winners and losers, and about rising, is a question about human freedom and the project of self-making. Jackson raised this in pointing out the parallel between the earlier Christian debate about whether salvation is something we earn through our own merit, or an unearned gift. Anna raised it with the ingenious story about her dog, Memphis, a mutt, an unbidden dog, who was not deliberately created, crafted, honed, designed, but just happened to be, and in happening to be, turned out to have the impulse to the common good that Anna wonders about today – whether we’ve lost our capacity for it, or whether it’s simply occluded.
Jackson’s and Anna’s far-reaching observations raise the question that I most care about in this book, which goes back, as Anna recalls, to my book The Case Against Perfection, about designer children and eugenics. There is something alluring about a conception of freedom that enables us to say and to believe that we are self-making, that we are the masters of our nature and of our lot in life, that we are wholly responsible for where we land – whether we’re saved, whether we’re rich. The moral of the story of The Tyranny of Merit is that the alluring image of self-mastery and self-making is flawed. It’s a flawed conception of freedom. It doesn’t lead to a satisfying way of life for the winners, and it disparages the rest, cuts us off from a sense of responsibility for those less fortunate than ourselves. This seems to me the deep point that Jackson and Anna have identified. This is the ultimate moral, even existential, theological question at stake in the debate about meritocracy.
T. J. Jackson Lears: I want to make a quick comment on eugenics, because it’s significant that both Anna and Michael brought that up. There’s a kind of stealth operation going on. As you all know, eugenics went out of fashion during the Second World War and since because it was associated with Nazism and fascist regimes generally and with organized racism. But in recent decades, we’ve seen a revival of, on the one hand, an updated version of nineteenth-century liberal individualist laissez faire economics and free market rhetoric, however inaccurate it is with respect to the actual workings of the economy. It has become all the rage, the whole emphasis on free entrepreneurship and innovation and the sense that creative destruction has come back into fashion as a term of approbation, almost with a kind of providential dimension to it, so that no matter how many factories have been closed, communities have been hollowed out, and lives have been destroyed, this is all just part of the creative destruction that is necessary to foster further innovation. So it’s almost as if it plays the kind of secular providentialist role in justifying untrammeled capitalism.
On the other hand, we have a resurgence of positivist scientism arguing that science has answered, or is about to answer, all ultimate questions about human worth and human purpose, and that one can therefore look to science, however that may be defined, to define human worth – to define the fittest. And the ideology of meritocracy basically says that we, the meritorious ones who have been recognized as such by the meritocracy, are the most fit, and thus are entitled to our privileges. There’s also a revival of a kind of social Darwinism – and, of course, there is a lot of pop Darwinian flavor to the meritocratic idiom as well. As Michael points out, in the meritocratic scheme of things, there’s a sense in which the fittest have a renewed claim on power, respect, and influence, and there’s less embarrassment about using that kind of language, it seems to me, than there used to be. So in my way of thinking, there’s a connection between neoliberal political economy and positivist social science, which often has a eugenic or neo-Darwinian flavor.
Anna Deavere Smith: I have a question, actually, for Michael. In your book, you use the word deliberate – to talk about how we need to deliberate about our values. I want to know where you see some of those spaces, or how that would work, or if you think it’s working now, or where you find it working.
Sandel: Anna, I find it in the conversations following some of your performances. But these are spaces we need to proliferate and enlarge. I think the reason we desperately need occasions and sites and spaces for deliberation is that in their absence, we allow merit to be defined by the money that people make in a market. It’s easy to slide into the assumption that the money people make is the measure of their contribution to the common good, subject to some assumptions about markets being truly competitive, and so on. That’s an easy assumption to make. But it’s a mistake.
What I’m arguing against is not merit as such, but merit as defined by the rewards markets bestow on the talents that society happens to prize at any given moment. Lebron James is a great basketball player, and of course he worked hard to develop his talents. But is it his doing that he lives in a society that loves basketball and rewards it handsomely? Or is that his good luck? If Lebron had lived in the Renaissance, when they cared more about fresco painters than basketball players, he wouldn’t enjoy the bounty the market heaps on his talents now.
So what we need to do is to find occasions to deliberate about what counts as a valuable contribution to the common good, and how it should be rewarded, both in material terms and also in terms of social recognition and esteem. These are moral judgments that we have outsourced to markets in recent decades. We, as democratic citizens, should reclaim from markets the responsibility for deliberating about what counts as a valuable contribution to the common good.
The pandemic offers a possible occasion for deliberation of this kind. Those of us who have the luxury of working from home can’t help but notice how deeply we depend on workers we often overlook – delivery people, warehouse workers, grocery store clerks, childcare workers, home health care providers. These are not the best-paid or most-honored members of our society, and yet now we are calling them “essential workers.” So at least there’s a moment of dissonance. And this moment of dissonance could be an opening for a broader public debate about what contributions really are worthy of honor, recognition, and reward, and about how we can reconfigure our economy to take account of those judgments. What do you think?
Smith: Well, my one concern about the deliberation is how segregated our society remains.
And the only place to have it is on social media, because even theaters attract certain kinds of people and not others, as in your classroom, and mine at NYU.
Sandel: Right, and what that suggests is that part of the crisis of deliberation and of the common good is that we lack class-mixing common spaces and public places, especially those – libraries are a good example – where people inadvertently come together in the ordinary course of life, encountering people from different walks of life, different backgrounds of class and race and ethnicity, and different life experiences. It used to be that sports stadia were class-mixing institutions, back when I was a kid going to watch my favorite baseball team play in Minnesota. CEOs and mailroom clerks sat more or less side-by-side, and when it rained, everyone got wet. But then, through the 1990s and 2000s, most sports stadia built VIP skyboxes. So even places that were once class-mixing settings have been segmented or segregated. Those who can afford to buy their way out of public services, cultural institutions, recreational facilities, public transit, have done so.
And so part of this project would require reinventing the civic infrastructure of a shared common life, places where inadvertent, unplanned encounters can take place. These can be the seedbeds of civic deliberation.
Lears: I think it was your phrase, Michael, fellow feeling. And fellow feeling is what needs somehow to be generated, and creating the kind of public spaces you described is essential to that, obviously, but it doesn’t guarantee anything we might hope will come out of it. Fellow feeling is a little less than solidarity, a little less rigorous and demanding. We’re talking about human sympathy. We’re talking about a sense that we’re all in this together. If we can’t generate that now in the midst of a pandemic, when can we?
I’ll make one final comment here, on the question of invisibility. We have known for generations about invisibility due to gender and race exclusion, which of course continues today. But we also have a larger category of the invisible who might be characterized as the unlucky. And this is what we’re gesturing toward: the people who are left out by this process of meritocratic sorting. Thomas Gray wrote “full many a flower is born to blush unseen.” I hold to the sentiment behind that thought. I think that loosening up the meritocracy would allow for a kind of efflorescence, a flowering of talent in places that we might never have imagined it would appear.
© 2020 by Michael J. Sandel, T. J. Jackson Lears, and Anna Deavere Smith, respectively
To view or listen to the presentation, visit www.amacad.org/events/does-meritocracy-destroy-common-good.