What to Do about Unequal Ability?

Spring 2021 • Regulation
By George C. Leef

America is in the grip of a tyranny. So says Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel in his latest book. This tyranny doesn’t have an individual tyrant, but instead is systemic. America’s economy, controlled by politicians of both leftist and rightist orientations, has allowed merit to trample all over people who come up short in the skills that enable one to make it big in today’s world. People who are fortunate enough to have what it takes to earn degrees from elite colleges can parlay their advantages into “outsize” rewards, while those who weren’t so fortunate are left behind, suffering economically and emotionally in the wake of the winners.

Unequal talent/ The key to Sandel’s argument is that no one deserves his or her attributes. He writes about those who gain admission to top schools:

While it is true that their admission reflects dedication and hard work, it cannot really be said that it is solely their own doing. What about the parents and teachers who helped them on their way? What about talents and gifts not wholly of their making? What about the good fortune to live in a society that cultivates and rewards the talents they happen to have?

These people, in short, were lucky to get their abilities and, in a well‐​governed polity, would have to share their good fortune with everyone else.

Luck has always been a problem for egalitarians, but Sandel claims that it has gotten much worse in America over the last 40 years. That is because, beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing through the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, presidents have allowed two evils to run rampant: globalization and financialization. Those phenomena have, according to Sandel, allowed a tiny few with the right credentials and skills to reap prodigious rewards, while leading to stagnant wages and an “erosion of the dignity of work” for the vast majority.

Rather than governing for the benefit of the masses, our political leaders have embraced what the author calls “the rhetoric of rising.” That is, they have told Americans that they too can get ahead if they go to college, where they’ll get the right skills for success. Sandel correctly sees that such rhetoric gives people false hope. It’s good to have a Harvard professor arguing that we have oversold higher education — a point I’ll return to below.

First, however, I’d like to focus on the crux of his argument against the justice of our system. Egalitarians have long claimed that nature’s unequal distribution of talent is problematic. Sandel admits that he wants to have highly capable people serve him and concedes that life in a “sterile equality” would not be desirable, but he argues that America has allowed merit to go too far. Ordinary folks feel disrespected and disempowered, rightfully angry at the way society’s “winners” look down on them. Moreover, he contends, the rich are now able to cement their families’ elite status in getting their children into top schools, where they get the right credentials and make the right contacts. Thus, the old notion that America is a land of opportunity is no longer true. Things must change.

Is equality ideal?/ That’s the gravamen of Sandel’s complaint. How persuasive is it? Not at all, in my estimation.

Begin with his central conviction that life should be fair — that inequality is not justified unless it can be shown to benefit the poor. Why should equality be set on a pedestal as the moral norm? In his essay “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature,” Murray Rothbard observed, “The goal of equality has for too long been treated uncritically and axiomatically as the ethical ideal.” Sandel certainly does that, but he makes no argument for it.

Most of us understand that nature isn’t egalitarian, that people differ greatly from each other over a wide array of attributes, of which talent for making money is but one. Yet, that doesn’t crush us. The mediocre musician doesn’t despair over the existence of superstars making millions per concert. (OK, some might; but most don’t, at least not for long.) The writer struggling to get a novel published doesn’t rail against the unfairness of top novelists repeatedly making the best‐​seller charts. Intellectuals may brood over the morality of a few getting rich because of their undeserved talents, but most of us don’t. Nor do we see any reason to tamper with society so that those intellectuals might feel better. The book merely assumes that we all agree that equality is the ethical ideal.

What about Sandel’s more specific claim that America’s “losers” feel that they’re not just far less wealthy than the winners, but are the object of derision? He thinks that accounts for rising populism, but what is his evidence for it? Remarkably, he presents none. Readers are supposed to take his pronouncements ex cathedra.

Sandel does, however, delve into the famous dispute from the 1940s over whether high rewards in the market signal superior virtue for those who earn them. He presents F.A. Hayek’s case that market earnings have nothing to do with personal virtue, but he proceeds neither to show why Hayek was mistaken nor, more crucially for his case, that the Americans who he thinks are so unhappy with their lot in life think Hayek was mistaken. It would seem obvious that a book proclaiming a tyranny by the successful over the rest of society needs to show plenty of evidence on this score — condescending statements by the rich about the uselessness of the poor and statements by the poor that they lead miserable lives because they know that they’re stuck in a rut — but tyranny doesn’t.

The only proof Sandel offers for his claim that the rich look down on the poor is an anecdote from a class he taught in China. The subject of organ sales came up and it was debated whether it was right for a rich person to be able to buy a kidney from a poor one. One student argued that it was because the rich person’s life must be important if he’s rich. Perhaps some Chinese look at things that way, but I doubt that many Americans would agree that wealth and virtue go hand in hand. Nothing in The Tyranny of Merit indicates that Sandel has actually spoken with the kinds of Americans — painters, delivery drivers, auto mechanics, etc. — who he assumes feel themselves victimized by the onslaught of merit.

Most of us understand that nature isn’t egalitarian and that people differ greatly from each other over a wide array of attributes.

In sum, Sandel’s case that there is something terribly wrong in America is singularly unpersuasive. Furthermore, the solutions he suggests are not appealing. He says that we should have a federal wage subsidy for low‐​wage workers so they’d understand that society values their efforts. It’s hard to believe that such a governmental subsidy would convince, say, a grocery store cashier that society really does value her work. He also praises populist conservative groups that attack “market fundamentalism” by pushing for more trade restrictions. Even if we went full‐​bore protectionist, that would do little to bring back the lost manufacturing jobs that Sandel laments, and to whatever extent it did, there would be heavy offsetting losses for other poor people who’d have to pay more for many basic items.

Education arms race/ Sandel does get one thing right: America’s obsession with higher education is a serious problem.

Because of the “rhetoric of rising” and rivers of federal student aid money, America has a glut of college graduates, all expecting “good jobs” that will put them comfortably into the middle class or above. We have also created a system that puts severe pressure on students to get top grades and participate in a host of extracurricular activities meant to impress college recruiters. This “arms race” to gain admission to one of our prestige colleges or universities is a needless strain on kids, not to mention a temptation for parents to go to enormous lengths, including fraud, to get them into one of those schools.

Kids who don’t have the intellectual talent or resources to play this game are left behind. Sandel rightly regards that as unfair. Unfortunately, his analysis of the college problem misses the key element: credential inflation. Because we have so many people with college degrees in the workforce, many employers have seen fit to use the possession of a degree as a screening mechanism to rule out those who don’t have college credentials. Therefore, people who lack those credentials are being crowded into the shrinking sectors of the labor market where college isn’t yet a requirement. Upward mobility for such workers is impeded by the artificial problem of credential inflation (along with other policy blunders such as occupational licensing laws), not by the supposed condescension of meritocratic elitists.

Because Sandel doesn’t grapple with the problem we have created for people without a college education, he doesn’t see that the solution is to stop subsidizing college attendance and allow the market to find better means of training workers and assessing their ability. All he suggests is that elite colleges should admit students by lottery. He wants to see Harvard cull out those applicants who really don’t seem able to handle the work (a practice to which the most fervent egalitarians would object) and then admit from the remaining pool by pure chance. While admission by lottery wouldn’t do any harm and might start to ratchet down the educational arms race, it wouldn’t solve the real problem, which is that decades of federal subsidies have turned higher education into a credential‐​selling business.

Sandel concludes his book by writing, “The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project.” In that assessment, the author projects his own egalitarianism into the minds of Americans who really don’t seem to be upset over the fact that some people become much wealthier than others. He also ignores the sad historical record of nations that have turned away from liberty in favor of solidarity.

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About the Author
George C. Leef

Director of Research, James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal