The Assault on the Concept Merit

by | Jun 9, 2023

The proper, moral attitude toward great achievers, those who have merit, is admiration.

The concept of merit is being attacked everywhere—and unjustly so.

For example, Michael Sandel’s book The Tyranny of Merit  (2020) claims that some people do not earn what they get. It is true that people can inherit money from others, i.e., parents. But the parents have a right to spend the money they earned as they wish. This is fair in that the money belongs to the parents and that no one else has a right to spend it or direct how it should be spent other than the parents.

Sandel claims that SAT scores are determined by how much training the person receives, asserting that students from “privileged” backgrounds can afford to pay for more tutoring and test prep. From what I have seen, the best-designed studies have found that training has only a modest effect on test scores.

Beyond that, Sandel denies that SAT is a measure of IQ; actually, it has long been accepted that an SAT score is a good measure of IQ and the best single predictor of college grades. He is upset by the fact that social mobility is not greater, but mobility is heavily dependent on ability and effort. What about effort? He says, without proof, that effort is determined by the family environment, which would mean that self-directed effort plays no role in life (but see Assertion 37).

Sandel goes on to claim that people who do better (winners) scorn and humiliate those who perform worse (losers) and make them feel inferior. Who does this sort of thing? No one I have ever known, except Donald Trump. Most of us respect anyone who earns an honest living.

Making money, Sandel asserts, is not connected to overall moral worth but apparently should be. But who is to determine the amount of money to be paid and the moral-worth standards this amount will be based on—and what is the logic behind it?

Money in a free market is made through voluntary trade between buyer and seller. Making money is the result of action. (An immoral person, such as a thief or robber, will take but not make money in a lawful society.) Anyone who earns an honest living in a free market is worthy of admiration. But this is not acceptable to Sandel, because the best people by his moral standard do not necessarily make the most money.

What is his moral standard? Apparently, morality is determined by contribution to the common good. What is the common good? Here Sandel gets quite vague because the common good is a dubious concept. If the common good is the right of each individual to pursue their own happiness through voluntary trade and association with others, as I am sure the Founding Fathers intended it to mean, I would find some merit in the concept. Yet, this is clearly not what Sandel means when he describes “the common good.”

So, what is left? Sandel does not explicitly define his terms, but based on his argument, it would follow that he believes the greatest good is defined by whatever does the greatest good for society, presumably the greatest number. This would simply mean that the greatest number could do whatever it pleased to the smallest number. Or, Sandel could mean, as a variant on this, the rulers of the state will decide how much each person should be paid. Either way, the common good would be defined by everyone but you.

To avoid such horrors, the Founding Fathers rejected democracy (unlimited majority rule) and created a republic with a constitution to protect the rights of every individual to pursue their own personal happiness, so long as they respect the legitimate rights of others. The choice here is clear: it is Sandel v. America.

The assault on merit continues unabated. Here are two recent examples. The first is a 2019 online story by David Brooks from The New York Times. Merit, Brooks says, is simply trying to get a reputation. Brooks does not discuss whether the reputation is earned through fraud or honest trade, such as producing a valued product or service. He says achievement can be unsatisfying, but he does not discuss what might cause this lack of satisfaction. Yet, this is important to define. After all, an error in choosing a particular career could be remedied by choosing a different career or learning new skills.

He then becomes malevolent and notes that people may suffer tragedies such as cancer or the loss of a child, which will undermine any happiness that might come from practical achievement. What then is his solution to the potential tragedies of life? It is escapism based on fear—a retreat to the wilderness accompanied by prayer, meditation, and getting in touch with your deepest desires, whatever those might be. The goal is to destroy the ego, self-interest, and individual achievement. This is called transcendence, i.e., self-immolation.

Another example is from the 2017 book Success and Luck by Robert Frank. Like Sandel, Frank says that success is due to luck. But he never discusses what luck is or its actual role in life. Frank goes further than just making luck omnipotent. He claims that meritocracy is actually harmful. For example, he says it is selfish, which he deems as immoral. Frank is right that meritocracy is selfish, but he is wrong in claiming self-interest as immoral.

Frank claims that merit makes people less generous. Generosity is not a primary virtue, but, in reality, financial success often makes people more generous because they have money to give to recipients of their choice.

Frank says that meritocracy is discriminatory. In one respect it is—in a good way: under capitalism, the more competent people fare better than the less competent. Frank seems to abhor the idea of people being unequal in outcomes.

But in a free society everyone does not come out the same for a reason: people differ in ability, effort, creativity, energy, health, and ambition. Beyond that, differences in pay between different professions depend on what the public is willing to pay for a given product or service.

Psychologically, the assault on meritocracy is an assault on personal achievement. This does not bother socialists because they agree with Christians that pride is the worst of all sins. The merit-haters push self-abnegation by trying to induce unearned guilt or by physical force. They are the true enemies of the people. To be anti-merit, which means antiachievement, is to be anti-happiness and anti-life. Such people belong in the wilderness. They should leave the life-lovers alone.

The proper, moral attitude toward great achievers, those who have merit, is admiration. Consider the millions of ways in which they have made our lives better by raising our standard of living, health, and survival.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is: EdwinLocke.com

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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