Why the College Scandal Touched a Nonpartisan Nerve

We disagree on just about everything, but we all seem to believe that there are some things money shouldn’t buy.

William "Rick" Singer leaves a federal courthouse on March 12, 2019.
William "Rick" Singer leaves a federal courthouse on March 12, 2019. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

In 1884, Leland Stanford, a railroad tycoon, and his wife, Jane, traveled from California to Massachusetts to seek the advice of the president of Harvard University. What, Stanford asked Charles Eliot, would it take to found a world-class university?

“Five million dollars,” Eliot replied.

“Well, Jane,” Stanford, turning to his wife, said after a little silence, “we could manage that, couldn’t we?”

“And 100 years,” Eliot added, according to the version of the story I was told 120 years later, on my first visit to Stanford’s lavish campus.

Eliot’s ill-tempered barb is almost certainly a latter-day invention. But it conveys a certain truth about the self-conception of the country’s most prestigious universities.

There are some things, Harvard and Stanford would like the world to believe, that money can’t—and shouldn’t—buy. One of them is the aura they draw from the famous scientists and illustrious alumni who have walked their halls in centuries past. Another is the lifelong stamp of approval that comes with being a graduate of one of the country’s great universities.

Of course Americans know that reality does not match that ideal. Elite universities have long given the children of major donors preferential treatment, and openly take “legacy status” into account when selecting their incoming class. And yet, this week’s college-bribery scandal has clearly offended a moral sentiment that, even in our deeply divided society, virtually everyone seems to share.

What is that moral sentiment, exactly? Over the past days, some people have argued that Americans are so upset about the scandal because it showcases just how unequal our country has become. But because liberals and conservatives have very different views about the fairness of the country’s economic system, it does not seem plausible that a general aversion to inequality is what has united them in anger.

The truth is more complicated. Most Americans believe that the market is an appropriate mechanism for distributing some goods. What’s more, many would deny that any grave injustice ensues if the resulting distribution is highly unequal. The world is not necessarily a terrible place because you own 10 Rolexes, while I have to settle for a single Swatch.

But most Americans also believe that other goods should not be fully, or even partially, distributed according to pecuniary considerations. If the rich were free to buy a spot on the roster of the New York Yankees, everyone would agree that something had gone seriously wrong.

Each sphere of justice, the political philosopher Michael Walzer argues, is governed by an appropriate currency. For many material goods, it is money. For a starting spot on a professional sports team, it is athletic ability. For an important political office, it might be popular support, or perhaps good judgment.

When people believe that something about their world is unfair, it is often because one kind of resource has turned into a “master currency,” allowing those who possess it to access goods and honors whose distribution should rightfully be governed by other considerations.

The nature of this master currency has varied radically across time and space. In theocracies, the priestly class uses its moral standing to exert political power or claim land. In aristocracies, blue bloods are given a special prominence in all aspects of life. In capitalist societies, it is of course money that is always in danger of colonizing other spheres.

Walzer does not suggest that everyone agrees about what goods should be governed by which currency. Americans are, for example, divided over whether spots at top colleges should be distributed exclusively on the basis of academic merit, or whether these schools should also take such considerations as race, athletic ability, or personality into account. But while Americans might strongly disagree about the ideal admissions system, the past days have also revealed a strikingly broad consensus that spots at top colleges shouldn’t be for sale. Like many other people throughout history, we all felt righteous anger when that standard was “violated, the goods usurped, the spheres invaded.”

As Democrats start to think about how they can beat Donald Trump in 2020, this response provides a crucial hint to political candidates who seek to address the injustices of our current economic system on the campaign trail. Over the past years, many of them have talked about inequality in a much more forthright way than Democratic candidates of (recent) yore. This message has enlivened the national debate, and infused much-needed energy into the party’s base. But it is unlikely to sway those moderate and conservative Americans who are more comfortable with the idea that some people will end up having much more money than others.

Instead of focusing exclusively on the injustice of an unequal distribution of income or wealth, Democrats should stress the many ways in which money allows the rich to purchase all kinds of goods and honors that ought to be immune from its influence. For while many conservatives accept inequality, they are just as angry as liberals when elites look down on ordinary folk; when big corporations use political influence to shut out their competitors; or when the country’s rich and famous pursue ever more elaborate schemes to get their children into college.