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The so-called meritocracy isn’t the problem

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In 1958, British sociologist Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” in his satirical novel, called “The Rise of the Meritocracy.” Its point was simple: When intelligence and effort are selected by any society as the basis for success or failure, those with such merit begin to comprise their own class. That class hardens into an elite that brooks no dissent and stratifies society. As Young would say in 2001, “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

This general point has become the basis for illiberal thinkers, both on the left and on the right. Philosopher Michael Sandel, in his latest book, “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” argues that the very notion of a meritocracy carries with it an inescapable and unsustainably selfish moral judgment. According to Sandel, “The ideal itself is flawed. Meritocracy has a dark side. And the dark side is that meritocracy is corrosive of the common good. It encourages the successful to believe that their success is their own doing and that they therefore deserve the bounty that the market heaps upon them … it generates hubris among the winners. They believe that th

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