The Tyranny of Merit is not the sort of book that you expect to emerge from a lecture theatre at that den of wokeness, Harvard University. But the author, Michael Sandel, is one of its best-known professors, a rock star intellectual who fills auditoriums around the world with engaging and challenging lectures on justice. What makes a just society? Is liberal capitalism just? Can everything be bought and sold?

The Tyranny of Merit was published in September at the end of the Trump presidency. You might think that the main target of a Harvard professor’s latest book on justice would be The Donald. And, true, he regards Trump as ugly and bigoted.

But, surprisingly, the president who comes off worst in this illuminating and thought-provoking book is Barack Obama. This takes some unpacking, so bear with me.

The problem which Sandel wrestles with is this. Why is the United States becoming more unequal? Americans live in a country in which the top 1 percent earn as much as the bottom 50 percent. Most of the gains in income since the late 1970s have gone to the top 10 percent while the bottom 50 percent received virtually none. In real terms, the median income for working-age men, about US$36,000, is less than it was 40 years ago.

Obama gave the most eloquent defence of this situation, one that has deep roots in American history.

“Now, as a nation, we don’t promise equal outcomes, but we were founded on the idea [that] everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed. No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, you can make it. That’s an essential promise of America. Where you start should not determine where you end up. And so I’m glad that everybody wants to go to college.”

But there’s a dark side to what Sandel calls “the rhetoric of rising”, the central theme of Obama’s presidency. The fine words conceal a fundamental shift in the American Dream – the ideal of social mobility has become more important than equality. There’s less need for attention to solidarity if everyone has the wherewithal to bootstrap himself to prosperity. “For the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility,” observes Sandel. “And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.”

The power of social mobility is what Ronald Reagan extolled as well – one of Sandel’s insights is to show that the two Democrats who succeeded him in the White House, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were unwitting Reaganites.

The embrace of the rhetoric of rising by all leading American politicians until Trump led to what Sandel calls a meritocracy – rule by the best and brightest. He summarises it as follows:

If opportunities are truly equal, then not only will people rise as far as their talents and hard work will take them; their success will be their own doing, and they will deserve the rewards that come their way.

This is a contemporary version of the famous thesis of the German sociologist Max Weber in his classic book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The proof that you have been chosen by God, according to the Calvinists, was material prosperity. Nowadays God has stepped off-stage, at least temporarily, and the individual has taken his place.

The Protestant work ethic, then, not only gives rise to the spirit of capitalism. It also promotes an ethic of self-help and of responsibility for one’s fate congenial to meritocratic ways of thinking. This ethic unleashes a torrent of anxious, energetic striving that generates great wealth but at the same time reveals the dark side of responsibility and self-making. The humility prompted by helplessness in the face of grace gives way to the hubris prompted by belief in one’s own merit.

Max Weber, channelled through Obama, leads to a meritocratic society in which people rise as high as they deserve. At the very pinnacle are those who have been educated at elite institutions, notably the Ivy League universities. In this respect Joe Biden’s Administration is already shaping up to be another elite meritocracy. By my count only two of his cabinet picks so far did not go to Harvard, Yale or Stanford. His chief economic adviser, Brian Deese, is a Yalie Wunderkind from Obama days who was put in charge of dismantling General Motors at the age of 31 even though he had never seen an automotive assembly plant.

But what about the losers in the economy? The bottom half? The bottom ten percent? If they can’t rise, what does that do to their self-esteem? It turns toxic, bitter and angry. This is what explains the appeal of Trump, Sandel explains. Unlike Obama, or hapless Hillary, he never used the rhetoric of rising. He spoke only about winners and losers.

The hard reality is that Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer. A similar predicament afflicts European democracies. Before they can hope to win back public support, these parties must rethink their mission and purpose. To do so, they should learn from the populist protest that has displaced them—not by replicating its xenophobia and strident nationalism, but by taking seriously the legitimate grievances with which these ugly sentiments are entangled. Such thinking should begin with the recognition that these grievances are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.

In a meritocratic society, credentials are currency. So education becomes all-important for students and their parents. As Bill Clinton said, “What you can earn depends on what you can learn.” But it turns out that students of rich and highly-qualified parents fill up the elite institutions. The inequalities in society grow larger.

The Democratic Party, like other social democrat parties in the West, gradually drank the Kool-aid of social mobility, and stopped caring for the uneducated “deplorables”. They were despised by the meritocracy as uneducated rabble. As one historian quoted by Sandel notes: “Obama’s faith lay in cream rising to the top. Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy, he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.”

One of the merits of Sandel’s book is deconstructing the political rhetoric of the meritocracy. Trump’s critics accuse him of dog-whistling his deplorables, sending coded messages to their prejudices.

But Sandel appears to suggest that Obama was doing something similar by sending coded messages to supporters affirming their intelligence and merit. Like Clinton, Obama often argued that a particular policy was “not just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.” In his second term he summed up his foreign policy in a single blunt sentence: “Don’t do stupid shit.” By Sandel’s count he used the word “smart” to describe his policies and programs more than 900 times.

The effect of worshipping the god of smarts is to elevate policy above morality and above politics. Policy is for smart, well-educated, hyper-informed people, not for people without college degrees. But as Sandel points out, this can lead to disaster. John F. Kennedy’s Ivy League advisers, the “best and the brightest”, advised him into the Vietnam War. Obama’s advised him to bail out the banks in the Global Financial Crisis.

Governing well requires practical wisdom and civic virtue—an ability to deliberate about the common good and to pursue it effectively. But neither of these capacities is developed very well in most universities today, even those with the highest reputations. And recent historical experience suggests little correlation between the capacity for political judgment, which involves moral character as well as insight, and the ability to score well on standardized tests and win admission to elite universities. The notion that “the best and the brightest” are better at governing than their less-credentialed fellow citizens is a myth born of meritocratic hubris.

This is a must-read book. Contemporary politics seems to be all about advancing individual autonomy through economics. Sandel is promoting an older, wiser view of politics as a debate about ways of achieving the common good. And this guy teaches at Harvard. Go figure.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet