“Smart” beckons to the supersession of democracy by a benevolent aristocracy of meritocrats. Defining moral, political, and ideological issues as problems of technical or managerial know-how, meritocratic politicians abandon the antiquated rhetoric of justice and fellowship, and seek to abort political struggle in favor of compromise, “bipartisanship,” and the finessing of market forces. As Sandel laments, this dispassionate and technocratic conception of politics “abandons the project of political persuasion” in favor of lecturing and shaming. This cavalier badgering becomes all the easier as more and more meritocrats no longer share space with the less educated: in Goodhart’s taxonomy (borrowed from the late Roger Scruton), meritocrats are “Anywheres” who prize geographical as well as social mobility, while all other people are “Somewheres,” who value security, place, and familiarity. With Anywheres increasingly cloistered in their own enclaves of privilege, meritocratic hauteur slowly induces a “corrosion of the civic sensibilities,” leading to its own peculiar kinds of insularity and parochialism. (Clinton’s stupid and contemptuous derision of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables” epitomized an ill-concealed disdain for large swaths of the American populace.) Indifferent to and even dismissive of the wisdom of the uncredentialed—“credentialism,” Sandel observes, “is the last acceptable prejudice”—meritocrats reflect and affirm “an impoverished conception of citizenship and freedom.”
Meritocratic liberals in particular seem utterly clueless about the nature of political conflict and rhetoric. Ever the sanctimonious nerds seeking the teacher’s approval, they believe that political conflict turns on the marshaling of information—not the mobilization of interests, the creation of compelling narratives, and an appeal to the moral or even religious imaginations of the electorate. (In politics, Goodhart remarks, “the Heart usually trumps the Head”—even among the better-educated. This is why “fact-checking” conservatives—the strategy of tiresome liberal comedians and political commentators—was and always will be little more than a show of intellectual vanity.) Relying on statistics embellished with their own self-importance and patriotic bombast (“America is already great”), meritocrats display a resolutely West Wing understanding of politics, with Aaron Sorkin as the voluble Shakespeare of the neoliberal intelligentsia.
As all three authors suggest, the most delicious irony of meritocratic ideology is that it’s not really all that smart on its own terms. Money may not buy you love, but it certainly buys you “merit.” As deBoer and Sandel both point out, our meritocracy is fast becoming a hereditary aristocracy of money and education. Numerous studies have indicated that SAT scores are closely correlated with wealth, and that universities have facilitated not social mobility, but further class consolidation. As Sandel mordantly observes, “American higher education is like an elevator in a building that most people enter on the top floor.” “The game is still rigged,” deBoer shrugs. “It just justifies itself with an empty rhetoric of freedom and fairness.”
The critique of meritocracy goes deeper, however, than its meretricious claims about “mobility.” DeBoer is most devastating when he smashes the idols of “progressive” educational theory, much of which is little more, in his view, than a farrago of upbeat boilerplate. He dismisses the “progressive” educational cliché that each of us is, in his words, an “endlessly moldable lump of clay,” and that all any of us need to achieve intellectual excellence is better schools and teachers. In this view, because we have no natural talents or inclinations, our outcomes in any fair competition are the results of our own laziness. This is wrong and even “actively cruel,” deBoer thinks: it suggests that those who don’t make it up the ladder of opportunity deserve their measly lots in life, and it sustains the dubious and vindictive morality of “getting what we deserve,” thus conferring a liberal sanction on poverty and inequality. It also perpetuates one of the most perennial of liberal panaceas: the belief that education is “a proxy for our society’s greatest ills,” and that schools, not movements or political parties, are the most effective vehicles for social transformation.
DeBoer’s insistence on the significance of genetics in determining intellectual and other abilities is surely the most contentious feature of his book. Differences in intelligence and other qualities do have an important genetic basis, he maintains on the basis of a host of studies in behavioral genetics, parenting, and adoption, as well as (perhaps less convincingly) an appeal to our everyday intuitions. While acknowledging that the invocation of genetics raises legitimate fears of racism (recall Charles Murray and The Bell Curve controversy), deBoer credits the scientific evidence and holds that we should nonetheless improve educational conditions for everyone, regardless of genetic endowment. Whatever one makes of his argument about genetics, his conclusion should be uncontroversial: school everyone to the extent of their ability and give everyone what they need to flourish. As deBoer rightly attests, the great traditions of the Left have never shared the liberal bourgeois passion for “equality” defined as some unreal, abstract equivalence of persons. “From each according to ability, to each according to need” is precisely not a recipe for such a specious “equality.”
This reminder of equality in difference animates Goodhart’s most passionate concern: that meritocratic elitism has denigrated manual and caring forms of labor and cognition. The “head,” in his terms, belittles the “hand” and the “heart.” Following Matthew Crawford, Richard Sennett, and other enthusiasts of craft and artisanal labor, Goodhart—a founder of Prospect magazine and a former director of the think tank Demos—sings the praises of work that’s more tactile and proximate to the material world. The intimate relationship between the maker and the thing, or the caregiver and the person, blurs the distinction between subject and object, enabling the self to become more capacious by uniting it with something outside itself. Carpentry and nursing, for instance, bring together abstract and palpable knowledge into productive familiarity. More than head work, which often alienates us from the delights of the physical world, the labor of the hand or the heart affords us “the pleasure of being immanent.” They also rely on the unquantifiable quotients of emotional and corporeal intelligence—knowledge of the texture and contours of feeling, or the resonance of the tangible world.
As a longtime instructor to the children of the elite, Sandel is, of the three, the most perspicacious critic of the meritocratic credo. (On occasion, he alludes to arguments with his students, who vociferously defend their “well-earned” positions in their Ivy League elysium of merit.) The author of several books on political philosophy—including Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), Democracy’s Discontent (1996), and What Money Can’t Buy (2012)—Sandel has devoted his intellectual career to exploring the meaning of justice, and in his most recent volume he makes what is arguably his most incisive and radical analysis. From his perch at Harvard, perhaps the foremost temple of the Cult of Smart, Sandel declares that the fundamental problem with meritocracy “is not that we have failed to achieve it but that the ideal is flawed.”
Sandel inveighs against the human costs of the meritocratic demiurge. Even for those affluent and talented enough to ride high on the educational elevator, the ascent is a morally and spiritually destructive exercise in self-discipline. Meritocratic asceticism deforms the young from an early age, imposing what Sandel characterizes as “soul-destroying demands”: the right kindergartens and elementary schools; the expensive tutors, prep courses and counselors; the obsession with grades that precludes or perverts any love of learning for its own sake; the “extracurricular activities” pursued for the résumé rather than for pleasure; the internecine combat for placement in advanced academic tracks and classes; the college essay, application, and interview, all designed to be perfectly suave and inoffensive. It’s hard to see how any passion for beauty or capacity for defiance could emerge from so joyless an education, the wellsprings of poetry or revolution having been so thoroughly dammed up and poisoned. As William Deresiewicz showed in Excellent Sheep (2014), many successful adolescents and undergraduates are profoundly unhappy and alienated—“wounded winners,” as Sandel dubs them, emotionally stunted and politically conformist, well-prepared to take on the smart labor of accumulating capital and patrolling the boundaries of permissible discussion.
What is to be done about our new aristocracy? To some degree, nothing, Goodhart suggests, as the meritocrats are busy downsizing their own ranks by promoting technological development. As artificial intelligence enables the automation of intellectual as well as manual skill, capitalism will need fewer workers with advanced degrees—in other words, fewer meritocrats. Contrary to the hype from business and tech circles since the 1980s, “the knowledge economy,” Goodhart writes, “does not need an ever-growing supply of knowledge workers.” Thus, rather than steering people into competition for the work of the head, technologically advanced societies should develop “a far greater appreciation of cognitive diversity,” and encourage craft and caregiving by affording them greater respect and remuneration.