The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?

by Michael J. Sandel

Hardcover, 2020


Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2020), 288 pages


"The world-renowned philosopher and author of the bestselling Justice explores the central question of our time: What has become of the common good? These are dangerous times for democracy. We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favor of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the American credo that "you can make it if you try". The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fueled populist protest and extreme polarization, and led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens--leaving us morally unprepared to face the profound challenges of our time. World-renowned philosopher Michael J. Sandel argues that to overcome the crises that are upending our world, we must rethink the attitudes toward success and failure that have accompanied globalization and rising inequality. Sandel shows the hubris a meritocracy generates among the winners and the harsh judgment it imposes on those left behind, and traces the dire consequences across a wide swath of American life. He offers an alternative way of thinking about success--more attentive to the role of luck in human affairs, more conducive to an ethic of humility and solidarity, and more affirming of the dignity of work. The Tyranny of Merit points us toward a hopeful vision of a new politics of the common good"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
“The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.” This is the framework for Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. A noble sentiment, it is an attack on the
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so-called meritocracy the USA runs on. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult read and doesn’t solve any problems. And it is often simply misguided.

Meritocracy is a system in which people rise to their level of incompetence – just slightly beyond where they should be, and are rewarded according to how high they rise. This is as opposed to an aristocracy, in which everyone is born into their role, and cannot move up in society. Both are awful, and neither one of them describes the reality of the USA.

Meritocracy looks good on paper, but in practice it is a disaster. Suicides of despair are soaring in the land of meritocracy, and not nearly as common where aristocracy is the rule. In a meritocracy, those who make it claim they earned it alone and by themselves, and look down on those who didn’t. Those who don’t make it cannot blame the system; they can only blame themselves. Life becomes a race for credentials, from a very young age. Parents take childhoods away from them, packing their lives with classes and memberships. The list of negatives about meritocracy is endless.

Sandel teaches this at Harvard, so a lot of what he has to say pertains to higher education. Rich parents bribe their way into admissions for their kids, or if they went to the school themselves, their kids get a pass to get in. Or they can bribe the administration with a new lab or building or chair to get their kids in. This is really the kind of meritocracy the USA operates.

The whole premise is that a certificate from a top school will keep them in the 1%. So the rich crowd out everyone else to take those spots. It’s all about the résumé and the letters after the name. Doesn’t matter how they got them or if they can even act like they represent what the letters stand for. The whole country is obsessed with credentials. But as Sandel and many others have shown, Barack Obama’s overcredentialed cabinet was incapable of remaking the country, while FDR’s barely high school cabinet changed the whole world. Obligatory fake meritocracy is as rigid as an aristocracy.

There are lots of examples to show credentials are no panacea. Sandel shows that in pro sports, one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, Nolan Ryan, was the 294th draft pick when he (barely) got in. Tom Brady, possibly football’s greatest quarterback was 199th. So demonstrated merit does not automatically mean the best or wisest choice. Meritocracy is like eugenics for the economy.

The best point Sandel makes about credentialization is that “Turning Congress and parliaments into the exclusive preserve of the credentialed classes has not made government more effective, but it has made it less representative.” The fact is only a third of Americans have college degrees, and the weaponization of credentials has totally alienated the populace into “draining the swamp” with a totally uncredentialed and unqualified president. Donald Trump is the best argument against American meritocracy, and is precisely what the founders tried to prevent in the constitution.

The facts, as Sandel finds them, are that inequality becomes so refined in a meritocracy that the rich do not even associate with the common people. They have private jets, skybox seats and numerous homes around the world. They hide their money in overseas trusts so they pay even less in taxes than they are required. They actually are the new aristocracy, so why pretend otherwise? In a real meritocracy, the talented should rise to the top. That’s not how it works in the USA.

The USA has lost the entire concept of the common good. Today it appears to mean only higher Gross National Product. In Sandel’s writing, there is nothing to consider beyond that. It’s just about national wealth. But there should be more to it than that. To me what is missing is that membership should have its privileges. As the richest nation on Earth, the USA should offer special treatment to its members. Healthcare should be a right, for example, not reserved only for the rich. But that would mean equality. Instead, Sandel focuses on how and whether the rich should be forced to pay taxes that might benefit those less successful. That’s not it at all. But it’s his book.

The country is supposedly built on mobility; anyone can get ahead if they try. This is a catchphrase used by politicians, along with “The more you learn, the more you earn” and other totally bogus distillations of meritocracy. Sandel cites “The Lord helps those who help themselves”, and “Being on the right side of history” and others that presidents love to pad their speeches with. Unfortunately, so does Sandel. He spends endless pages showing how and when those phrases are used, the number of times various presidents have used them and which presidents have used various ones of them more than all other presidents combined. He says “When politicians repeat a hallowed verity with mind-numbing frequency, there is reason to suspect that it is no longer true.” But then he repeats his scoring and counting and listing again, and again, as if it were a totally new concept each time. The book could stand a total reorg.

The best point he makes about American mobility is its total untruth. He says “It is easier to rise from poverty in Canada or Germany, Denmark or other European countries than it is in the United States.” Yet 70% of Americans think the poor can make it out of poverty on their own, thanks to America’s unique attribute of mobility. This alone puts the lie to meritocracy in the USA.

Sandel also repeats himself endlessly on other premises, concepts and simple citations. He will introduce the same author of the same book, several times. He will describe the same idea every time he uses it, as if the reader had never seen it before, in the previous chapter.

Even without this book, it is pretty obvious that American meritocracy is a fraud. It stratifies society, increases inequality and solves no problems. America is not better for it. It is a meritocracy in name only.

The common good is a concept that has been off the American table for far too long, and it is the reason I wanted to review this book. But the book skims over and perverts the common good into something unrecognizable. This is not the book to base a better policy on. While Sandel makes some eminently quotable points, the book is mostly annoying. The topic deserves better.

David Wineberg
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LibraryThing member lisaclaw
Excellent book. Brought my attention to concerns that otherwise I would not have been aware of. Important for parents and citizens.
LibraryThing member arosoff
In the US today our ruling philosophy is that of merit: that you get what you deserve, and if you get it, you deserve it. This is eroded around the edges by critiques of how the playing field isn't level, but many of these critiques don't take aim at the concept itself: they simply seek to make it
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Harvard professor Sandel takes well deserved aim at this. Merit as a sorting criterion has pernicious effects: those who don't succeed believe that they got what they deserved, while those who do have an inflated sense of their own worth. It also leads to an overly technocratic view of government, led by a small elite, and ratchets up the prestige of a small number of institutions--he's fairly scathing about college admissions.

That said, there are some flaws with the work. First, perhaps because he takes it that this book is going to be read by the very elites he criticizes, his work as it relates to contemporary politics is somewhat imbalanced. He excoriates Clinton and Obama for their liberal elitism, but is relatively silent about how the right manipulates this idea, and his views on how meritocracy drives Trump voters fails to take sufficient account of race and gender. The chapter on the dignity of work fails to go far enough: it relates entirely to paid labor and the working class, while ignoring how we tie moral value to paid labor. It would have been much more effective to explore how we differentiate between paid and unpaid labor and devalue the worth of people who are outside the paid labor force, such as the disabled and caregivers.
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LibraryThing member RajivC
This is a book for the times, and Michael Sandel poses many questions that I find hard to answer.

He does not quote Darwin, but there is a strain of Darwin's philosophy of the survival of the fittest that runs through humanity. Whether this is to do with the Aristotlean focus on aristocracy or our
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current focus on merit, this is something we all must live with.

Michael Sandel has been extremely focused on outlining the issues and has brought many issues to life.
There are some useful books that you can read if you want to go deeper.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a solution to the morass we find ourselves in.
The book is good, especially if you want to understand the dark side of merit. Read it.
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LibraryThing member Elizabeth80
This was a difficult book to read but I am glad I persevered. Still roiling around the ways of working with others for the common good. I think it requires an understanding of Buddhism that I have not attained. Confronting / debating others who disagree is an achievement I have not mastered.
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Michael Sandel is definitely "on to something."
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LibraryThing member steve02476
Liked very much, this book made great points in criticizing both the left and right in their support for meritocracy. Pretending that success in life in basically due to smarts and hard work is an insult to the “bottom” 50%, many of whom work plenty hard and are perfectly smart. The truth is
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there’s a ton of luck involved, whether one has “succeeded” or “failed.” Of course, an overwhelmingly large part of this luck involves who your parents are. Didn’t agree with every single thing in the book, but it was all thought-provoking and a great mix of philosophy, history, and social science.
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LibraryThing member oataker
Marvellous book about the effects of meritocracy - hubris and humiliation. Over the past 40 years the US has gone for a meritocracy. WASPS used to drift into the Ivy league but it was decided there had to be true competition for this privilege. Now there is an industry to get in, and even so its
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still the rich that make it, its making adolescent lives miserable, why not assign randomly?. But what about the losers? And especially the ones who don't have a degree, 3/4 of Americans. Have not gained in earning power over past 40y, under left and right. Deaths of despair are rising especially among the undereducated, they feel abandoned. Globalisation and finance has undermined them. No one rates them, but they have had their revenge in Trump and Brexit, voting in bitterness, for policies that harm them. Note the resentment toward the 'smart', which was something so pushed by Obama, and Hillary. The losers are detached from community, their contribution not rated, and what of the contribution of the successful? Financialization of society has contributed nothing to community. Its not all about consumption but about production, who contributes?
Chapter 5, Success Ethics I found a bit technical and prolonged. Very good notes and index.
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