The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel

Review by Brian Tanguay

The belief that markets and merit are the only way to organize society has become an article of faith in American society and culture. Over the past half century these twin ideas have been extolled as immutable truths, buttressed by philosophers, politicians, economists and clergy. Work hard and play by the rules. What you earn depends on what you learn. If you don’t succeed you have no one to blame but yourself. The rich are rich because they are more deserving. The common good is best measured by the Gross Domestic Product and consumer satisfaction. 

But as Michael J. Sandel explains in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, meritocracy is more myth than reality. Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, and the author of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, argues that much of the seething resentment in the United States — the resentment that propelled an unqualified, narcissistic reality TV personality into the White House in 2016 — can be laid at the doorstep of this notion. “The meritocratic ideal,” Sandel writes, “is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.”

The idea that the rich are rich because they deserve to be, and the poor have only themselves to blame for their circumstances, has deep roots, going all the way back to the Puritans. The heart of the meritocratic ethic is that we earn salvation or wealth through our own effort and striving. Success becomes a sign of virtue. Though Sandel admits that this is an empowering idea on an individual level, as an organizing ethic for society it’s as corrosive to democracy and social cohesion as termites are to wood. In practice, the idea contributes to a ruthless sorting of winners and losers, which Sandel believes has significant consequences for society: “Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified.” 

Once the meritocratic ideal takes hold in a polity the inclination to lend a helping hand to those left behind fades away. After all, if citizens rise or fall by their own effort and ability, whose fault is it when they fail? And why should the winners be expected to help? “Humility among the successful,” Sandel notes, “is not a prominent feature of contemporary social and economic life.” Viewed from this perspective, it’s not surprising that the United States offers its citizens a flimsy social safety net compared to other democratic societies. 

The anger, resentment and grievance felt by large segments of the American electorate had festered for decades by the time Donald Trump launched his bid for the White House in 2015. Trump masterfully exploited that discontent for his own ends. Despite being a product of wealth and privilege who knew nothing about the meaning of work or economic want, Trump understood resentment and grievance against highly credentialed elites and technocratic experts better than any other national political figure. Trump gave recognition and voice to millions of Americans who felt the elite “system” had abandoned and wronged them. The fact that Trump’s policies on taxes, trade, and regulatory rollbacks did little to improve the lives of the majority of his followers mattered less than did his constant bashing of smug elites and undeserving others. Trump may not have improved their lives, but he definitely made them feel seen, heard, and, most importantly, justified.

Sandel is at his best when writing about elite educational credentials. He traces and connects how, at the dawn of globalization in the 1990’s, personal responsibility and opportunity featured prominently in the political rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans, a pairing of ideas Sandel refers to as a “bipartisan rhetorical reflex.” In a highly competitive globalized economy nothing is believed to unlock the gates of opportunity like educational credentials. It was Bill Clinton who told the American people that what they earned in the new economy would depend on what they learned. Education and prosperity became joined at the hip. The solution for the alarming rise in income and wealth inequality produced by globalization always came back to educational attainment. 

But, as Sandel explains, the solution fails those who do not strive to obtain educational credentials, which happens to include a majority of the population. Only about one in three American adults graduates from a four-year college. Sandel writes, “The constant call for working people to improve their conditions by getting a college degree, however well intentioned, eventually valorizes credentialism and undermines social recognition and esteem for those who lack the credentials the system rewards.” 

Sandel has much to say about the relationship between upward mobility and a college education. Americans tend to assume that upward mobility is our birthright, that we will naturally be better off than our parents, but social mobility has stagnated, lagging behind most European social democracies. About this Sandel writes, “For those who look to higher education as the primary vehicle of opportunity, this is sobering news. It calls into question an article of faith in contemporary politics — that the answer to rising inequality is greater mobility, and that the way to increase mobility is to send more people to college.” More than promoting upward mobility, Sandel argues that American higher education serves to consolidate privilege.  

Recognizing Work is the title of the final chapter of The Tyranny of Merit. It took a devastating pandemic for the millions of Americans who do society’s unheralded, often poorly paid yet vital work to become visible. When states implemented stay-at-home orders the contribution to the common well-being made by UPS drivers, mail carriers, grocery store clerks, cooks, janitors and health care workers became obvious. How society recognizes and rewards work is central to how it defines the common good. Sandel argues the case this way: “This is why the inequality brought about by globalization produced such anger and resentment. Those left behind by globalization not only struggled while others prospered: they also sensed that the work they did was no longer a source of social esteem.”

After decades of neglect renewing respect for the dignity of work will require a frank, difficult examination of our economic arrangements, a reassessment of who contributes and who takes, and what kinds of work are worthy of recognition, esteem, and remuneration. Such an examination would require a level of political discourse rarely heard in the United States for half a century. Sandel doesn’t offer any suggestions for bringing this necessary national conversation about. Instead he asks readers to begin by recognizing our dependence on one another, and how we imperil ourselves when we fail to consider the well-being of the many. “Only insofar as we depend on others, and recognize our dependence,” writes Sandel, “do we have reason to appreciate their contributions to our collective well-being.”