The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Attacking ‘merit’ in the name of ‘equity’ is a prescription for mediocrity

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In progressivism’s political lexicon, “equity” is a synonym for government-directed social outcomes that improve conditions for particular government-favored groups. Equity is enhanced when government policies — e.g., affirmative action — narrow disparities of outcomes among groups, usually racial or ethnic, in acquiring wealth or educational excellence.

Necessarily, then, the antonym of “equity” as a social standard of justice is “merit,” in this sense: The opposite of an equitable society is a meritocracy. Progressivism increasingly argues that an important impediment to enlarging equity is “the tyranny of merit.”

That is the title of a lucid, learned, closely reasoned 2020 book by Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. Like its unfailingly civil author, the book is temperate in tone but radical in implications. It illustrates a momentous development: progressivism’s despair about, and explicit abandonment of, the aspiration that defines the American project — equality of opportunity.

“These days,” Sandel writes, “we view success the way the Puritans viewed salvation — not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something we earn through our own effort and striving. This is the heart of the meritocratic ethic.” Sandel objects to this because “expansive conceptions of personal responsibility” ignore the fact that no one “deserves” his or her natural attributes.

Read letters in response to this piece: A country that represses people can’t claim ‘meritocracy’

Furthermore, the “rhetoric of responsibility” and of being “masters of our fate” obscures the degree to which even virtues conducive to thriving in a merit-based society — diligence, industriousness, self-reliance, deferral of gratification — are learned. They are largely inculcated in families, which are the primary transmitters of social capital — the habits necessary for taking advantage of the opportunities offered by an open society. By Sandel’s correct reckoning, families are sources of inequalities; by his incorrect reasoning, this is a problem in need of correction.

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Sandel correctly says that often education, rather than propelling social mobility, reinforces family advantages. But should society regret families focusing on their children’s flourishing? Americans should think as Robert Frost did: “I am against a homogenized society because I want the cream to rise.”

Sandel regrets meritocratic society’s allocation of “esteem” to highly rewarded high achievers, but the vocabulary of his regret reveals that what he calls “the valorization of talent” flows from America’s premises. “The meritocratic emphasis on effort and hard work,” he says, “seeks to vindicate the idea that, under the right conditions, we are responsible for our success and thus capable of freedom.” Just so.

Sever merit from the social mechanisms that allocate social rewards, and the idea of personal responsibility must go, too. And also the aspiration for an open society in which individual striving rather than government — political power — determines who thrives.

Because “natural talents” are undeserved, some progressives argue, the unequal rewards that the talented reap are, too, and are equitable only to the extent that they serve the public good. As defined by whom? There’s the rub. The public good, defined by progressivism, is served by the redistribution of the rewards of talent to the less talented. In a market society, however, the talented reap rewards because the public freely benefits from their contributions to satisfying the public’s preferences.

Progressives often argue that preferences are derivative — socially conditioned — and (non sequitur alert) therefore allowing market forces to satisfy them is not an important imperative. It is, however, imperative if we are to have social calm and temperate politics. Sandel says meritocracy sows social discord. But a society without discord is neither possible nor desirable.

A meritocratic society has less discord than a society that abandons meritocratic principles. Equity, pursued through government-driven allocation of social rewards, drenches society with bitter distributional conflicts because wealth and opportunity are allocated by political power according to shifting standards contested by competing factions. Allowing the market to articulate preferences, without seeking to decide — who will decide who the deciders are? — the preferences’ moral worth, promotes domestic tranquility.

Today’s accusations of “systemic racism,” more frequently bandied than defined, disparage American society’s allocation of wealth and opportunity on the basis of metrics of merit. The disparagers presume the allocation is inherently unjust unless it ameliorates racial disparities.

So, around the nation, selective public high schools and colleges are accused of perpetuating racial hierarchies by admission policies that seek excellence as measured by standardized tests. Yet aptitude tests for college admissions were adopted so that objective measures of merit could weaken the entrenchment of stale elites.

No society ever has too much talent. With America facing a future of intensifying commercial and military competitions of increasing sophistication, it is reckless to advocate retreat from meritocracy toward, inevitably, government-engineered mediocrity.

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