Meritocracy tends to confuse a very practical sense of merit with a more abstract and moral one. An individual may deserve a high-paying job or admission to a selective college because they are productive or qualified. However, in a moral sense, individuals do not merit the skills and abilities they are born with, nor do they merit the environments they were born into that allowed them to develop those skills.
Imagine you are going over to a friend’s house for a nice dinner. You want to show appreciation for the lovely meal they’ve prepared for you, and you have a few options. You can offer to have them over for dinner in the future. You can bring a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer. You can simply say thank you and tell them what a lovely evening you have had.
Michael Sandel’s new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is a well-timed critique not of capitalist economics, but of the spread of economic thinking well beyond the boundaries of traditional economic issues like trading, inflation, prices, wages, etc. I just started a microeconomics course in preparation for graduate school in the fall and the textbook simply defined economics as “the study of choice.” Sandel’s thesis is relatively simple: “…we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.