The Costs of Meritocracy: Two Destructive Forms of Being “Smart”

by Howard Gardner  (with comment by Michael Sandel)

Michael Sandel, highly esteemed political philosopher at Harvard, has written The Tyranny of Meritocracy—a powerful indictment of contemporary society—especially the versions in the United States and England. In this provocative book , Sandel reflects at length about the importance nowadays of being ‘smart’.  As one who has spent four decades critiquing the use of the word “intelligent” I paid careful attention to Sandel’s words and his case.

Coined in the middle 1950s by British social analyst Michael Young, “meritocracy” denotes a state of affairs: a once aristocratic, inherited society is taken over by individuals presumed to be more talented and more appropriate leaders  for the various sectors of the sector. At first blush, this transfer of power and authority sounds good and right—we should be led and inspired by people of ability (think: House of Commons), rather than by people who inherit their  wealth, title, and position (think: House of Lords). Even though Young wrote in an ironic spirit—do we really want the students with the highest grades in school to be entrusted with decision about war, peace, trade, health, and the like—the concept of meritocracy has come to be used positively. Indeed, both Presidents Clinton and Obama spoke explicitly and continuously about the importance of a society in which merit is awarded… and awarded again.

Very important for these and other contemporary leaders is “being smart.” In these days of Google counts, we no longer have to wave our hands about such an assertion. President Obama talked explicitly about “smart” over and over again—in his own words, smart policy,  smart foreign policy, smart regulations, smart growth, smart spending cuts, smart grids, smart technologies. Overall, he used the adjective “smart” in connection with politics and programs more than 900 times! So, too, did his meritocratically- disposed predecessor Bill Clinton. 

In fact, even Donald Trump, in so many ways different from these Democrats, insists over and over again that he is smart, “very smart”; his cabinet has the highest possible IQ: his uncle was a professor at MIT; he brags about his family’s matriculation at the Wharton School; Joe Biden is “slow”; indeed, in the debate on September 29 of this year, he pounced on Biden’s use of the word “smart” and denigrated his opponent’s intellect and school grades.  

The exuberance about intellect transcends party lines and epochs—indeed, Sandel might claim, there is not even a counter-story. No one explicitly calls for the return of a hereditary aristocracy or even of inherited wealth and positions…. though Trump does profess to love “the poorly educated.”

Sandel takes his critique very far.  As his title suggests, a celebration of—or even a reluctant surrender to—meritocracy has proved to be disastrous for the contemporary world. On his account: individuals who do well in school and on standardized tests get to attend elite, selective colleges; secure well-paying jobs with concomitant “perks”;  and pass on these social benefits to their children. The statistics are overwhelming, irrefutable, chilling. And even those meritocrats who acknowledge that they may not be wholly responsible for their own success cannot help looking down on those who have not done as well in the Darwinian struggle for worldly success.  

More seriously and more destructively—on Sandel’s account—those who have not attended or failed to graduate from college, and may not even have a steady “respectable” job, feel frowned upon, ignored, or deemed to be “deplorables” mired in “fly-over country.” Ultimately, this state of affairs leads to a society at war with itself, and, quite possibly, the end to democracy and the American (or another national) dream. 

Sandel proposes two kinds of solution: 1) technological—for example,  changing radically the way that one selects among applicants for admission to elite colleges; 2) communal and even spiritual—considering all citizens as equally worthy of respect and conveying that respect in every possible way.

Sandel’s impressive  (but also depressing) account stimulates two lines of thought—both connected to my own decades-long reflection on intelligence. As most readers of this blog will know, I took the lead in challenging the notion of a single intelligence, as measured by an IQ or SAT test, and in calling instead for a recognition of different kinds of intelligence, and perhaps as well, an honoring of these different kinds of minds. While notions like “social” or “emotional” intelligence have entered into public discourse, they do not emerge in Sandel’s analysis.

That’s OK by me. But to nuance Sandel’s analysis, I’d suggest that the kinds of intelligence or intelligences honored in 2020 are quite different from those that were valued in earlier epochs. As just one example: 150 years ago, admission to selective colleges required mastery of ancient languages—so-called linguistic intelligence. Nowadays, no one cares about languages (let alone classical ones), but coding and computing intelligences (logical-mathematical intelligence) is at a premium. And as machines get “smarter”, we may well be selecting for yet different kinds of intelligence—ones that are not relevant to machines—such as musical, bodily, or personal intelligences. The  word “smart” may not change—but the knowledge and skills to which it refers can and does change radically. And indeed, some of our most successful entrepreneurs—see Bill Gates and Steve Jobs—never even completed college because their temperament and ambitions were misaligned to the agenda of college. Ultimately, of course, they received their share of honorary degrees. Even Donald Trump, who apparently had someone else take his SATs and refuses to reveal his college grades, clearly has “media” intelligence.

So much for smartness—where, as I say, Sandel’s argument poses no problem for me. But I have considerable unease with his overall recommendation—that meritocracy should be replaced by conferring dignity on all human beings.  As I read Sandel, all human beings are worthy of dignity or respect (I prefer the latter term), independent of who they are, how they behave, how they think about the world.  This may sound reasonable at first blush, but it’s not the way that I conceive the issue.

My view: As  they grow—indeed, as we grow—individuals should be expected to behave with respect towards others, both those known to them and  those who are strangers. And when faced with challenging issues or ideas, all human beings should attempt to deal with them as sensitively and sensibly as possible.  Millionaires or even billionaires should not be treated with respect because of the money that they have inherited or amassed; rather, they need to earn that status by how they behave, and to be deprived of that status when they misbehave. By the same token, the plumber or electrician or waiter—three examples frequently used by Sandel and other philosophically oriented analysts—are entitled to as much respect and dignity as the rich person, but not just by dint of their vocation….but rather in light of how they behave toward others, normally, day in and day out.

Of course, how we behave toward others is not something that we are born with. Rather it’s what we garner from family, neighbors, friends, lessons in school and in religious settings, from what we read and view in schools, in movie houses, and nowadays, especially, online.  And here is where my intuitions may differ from  those of Michael Sandel. I don’t think that good, moral, respectful behavior is any more or any less likely from those who win the meritocratic laurels than from those who for whatever reason do not seek or display those laurels.  

In neither case is one’s deportment toward others a function of intelligence—however it’s defined and/or measured. As I have often argued, an intelligence can be used positively or destructively. Both Goethe and Goebbels had high linguistic intelligence in German; Goethe wrote estimable poetry, Goebbels fomented hatred. Both Mandela and Milosevic had plenty of interpersonal; intelligence—Mandela brought together long hostile parts of the South African population, Milosevic fomented ethnic cleansing.

Whether smart or not smart in one or another way (whatever one’s array of intelligences), whether a winner or a loser in a particular meritocratic sweepstakes (whether a CEO or a blue collar worker) is independent of whether one is worthy of respect or dignity.  One develops those assets in the course of life—it’s never too early but it may never be too late either.  And a society in which individuals respect one another for how they relate to others is the one in which I would like to live.

© Howard Gardner 2020


Howard, I think there is some confusion here. I do believe that all human beings are worthy of dignity or respect, independent of who they are and how they behave. This is the basic Kantian idea underlying respect for human rights.  It has nothing to do with intelligence, whether of one kind or many kinds.  Even a war criminal such as Milosevic, for example, is worthy of respect in this Kantian sense.  Though he deserves moral condemnation and punishment for his crimes, it would be wrong to torture him.  I doubt we disagree about this. (You’ll tell me if I’m wrong.)

But Kantian respect for persons as persons, or human dignity as such, is not my alternative to meritocracy.  By emphasizing the dignity of work, I am proposing that we broaden our understanding of what counts as contributing to the common good beyond the value the labor market assigns to our contributions.  This is why I emphasize “contributive justice,” by which I mean conferring appropriate social recognition and esteem on valuable contributions that the market may not properly recognize (such as care work, for example, or the work now being performed “essential workers” during the pandemic).

You rightly draw our attention to yet a third basis of social regard or esteem, having to do with how people behave, whether they treat others with respect, and so on.  So we might distinguish three different grounds of respect:

 (1) Kantian respect for human dignity, which requires that we respect everyone’s human rights, regardless of what work they do or how well they behave;

(2) Respect for the dignity of work, which requires that we accord social recognition to those who make valuable contributions to the common good (typically but not only through work; unpaid community service should certainly count).

(3) Respect or admiration for those who behave morally, which includes treating others with respect but also includes other praise-worthy behavior.

In the book, my primary alternative to meritocracy is #2. But this is not inconsistent with affirming #1 and #3.  I certainly do not think “that good, moral, respectful behavior” is more likely “from those who win the meritocratic laurels than from those who for whatever reason do not seek or display those laurels.” So this is not a point of disagreement between us. 


Thanks, Michael, for this very thoughtful and helpful clarification.  I think we are broadly in agreement. I’m not confident that we can simply instruct or encourage individuals to honor all work equally—though it’s been a goal of social reformers for centuries. I have slightly more confidence that we can instruct or encourage individuals to distinguish between highly-paid work, on the one hand, and ‘good work’—work that is excellent, engaging, and ethical, on the other. But I’d be pleased to encourage both approaches.


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