Social Capital

Has the myth of meritocracy killed the American Dream?

August 5, 2020  • Aspen Ideas Now

Has the ethos of the American Dream become hollow? Is the rhetoric true that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to rise as far as your talents take you? Michael Sandel, professor of political philosophy at Harvard and author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, doesn’t think so. “One of the deepest failures of governing elites of the center right and center left [over the last 40 years], is that inequalities have deepened almost all of the income growth,” he says. “Not only is the inequality deeper, but upward mobility is stalled.” The current pandemic — laying bare deep disparities in educational opportunity, wages for essential workers, access to healthcare, and racial injustice — further exposes the failure of meritocracy.

Michael J. Sandel books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? were international best sellers and have been translated into 27 languages. Sandel’s legendary course “Justice” was the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and has been viewed by tens of millions. His BBC series “The Public Philosopher” explores the philosophical ideas lying behind the headlines with participants from around the world.

Elliot Gerson is the executive vice president at the Aspen Institute responsible for its Policy Programs, its Public Programs and its relations with its International Partners. The Institute’s more than 30 Policy Programs focus on both domestic and international issues. They foster candid dialogue among leaders and policy experts, advocate new policy, and have enormous impact on the ground. The Institute’s public programs – including the Aspen Ideas Festival, The Aspen Security Forum, CityLab, and many smaller programs across the country and world – open the Institute’s doors to a broader audience and further both its educational goals and its promotion of ideas to lead to action. The Institute has International Partners based in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Romania, Spain, and Ukraine. Gerson also administers the US Rhodes Scholarships. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a US Supreme Court clerk, practiced law in government and privately, held executive positions in state and federal government and on a presidential campaign, and was president of start-ups in health care and education, and of two leading national insurance and health-care companies. He has served on many non-profit boards, especially in the arts.