The Tyranny of Merit: Book Review

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020), Michael Sandel. I was impressed by Sandel’s earlier book, Justice. In addition, two of the recent books I read (and wrote book reviews) mentioned the book. Given the expectation, I was disappointed. The concept seems trivial; granted there is a huge income and wealth gap and resentment by non-elites. This has multiple causes which I don’t think are well developed here, plus his best “solution” seems asinine—a lottery. Having said that, each chapter could be considered a separate essay, many of which have useful information. I will summarize the book on that basis.


Prologue. America did a poor job with the pandemic response, which continues. The context turns to American companies relying on China for masks and medical gear: “Decades of rising inequality and cultural resentment had brought an angry backlash in 2016.” ... Only 7% of Republicans trusted news media, 4% of Democrats trusted Trump. The result of the pandemic: “The moral paradox of solidarity through separation” (p. 4). Globalism meant little reliance on local citizens for production or consumption, success requires education given the knowledge economy. According to Sandel, those at the top believed they deserved it and losers deserve their fate; result: hubris and resentment.


Introduction: Getting In. It started with the college cheating scandal to go to elite universities. Short of cheating, money plays a part in admittance, including donations and special prep for kids. SAT tracks family income. [This is an early issue I have with Sandel; this means correlation, not causation. I’m not seeing much of an issue with SAT and income.] Sandel objects to how admittance decisions are made—not a big issue with me. [He points out that luxury for kids means trust funds not elite college. I’m not sure this helps his cause.] He relates it to how we view success or failure. Not exactly shocking.


Chapter 1: Winners and Losers. “Mainstream parties and politicians display little understanding of the discontent that is roiling politics around the world. Some denounce the upsurge of populist nationalism as little more than racist, xenophobic reaction against immigrants and multiculturalism. Others see it mainly in economic terms. … Donald Trump in 2016 was an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality” (p. 17). This includes white males facing becoming minorities [already true in some states.] Then dislocation based on globalism and high tech. Success does usually mean updating to new skills. Blame is spread to politicians, free trade and immigrants. This of course is misdirected, which should focus on job. There is diminished status, partly because of past governance focusing on globalism, while corporations focus on profits based on markets—and embraced by both parties. Obama focused on compromise, including accommodating banks in 2008 [I think he got rolled several times by many players; smart does not equate with leadership. … I believe the motivations, environment and so on of politicians is complex, involving multiple dimensions not covered.]


“Morally, it is unclear why the talented deserve the outside rewards that market-driven societies lavish on the successful” (p. 24). As a bald statement, this seems hard to defend; of course, there are plenty of examples—but they should focus on unethical or fraudulent behavior. Sander talks about hubris and humiliation. “These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. … A perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace” (p. 25). [Well, maybe.] He compared Clinton and Obama and their idea of opportunity and hope, with Trump’s resentment. [Obama was successful, Clinton was not. Because she had more votes, attempts to explain are varied.]


The big dividing line is college degree or not, with those with no degree voting for Trump and Brexit—the losers according to Sandel. [Again, correlate versus causal. Because of the complexities, I would downplay this perspective, rather focusing on many things including the importance of propaganda and whose really good a it.] Sandel noted that Trump pushed a tax cut favoring rich people, working against his own voters.


Sandel talks about the importance of merit throughout history, including Confucius (those excelling in virtue should govern), Plato favoring the philosopher-king, Aristotle on civic virtue about the public good, Jefferson favoring a “natural aristocracy on virtue and talents.” “Our technocratic version of meritocracy severs the link between the link between merit and moral judgment” with a blinders focus on GDP and a growing role for economists. [Sandel agrees with the blinders hypothesis on markets and economists, but there is no indication he thinks he may have his own blinders.]


Michael Young coined the term in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), noting stagnant wages on loss of social esteem.


Chapter 2: Great Because Good: A Brief Moral history of Merit: [My favorite chapter.] Here, merit matters, for efficiency and fairness, then asks: “When exactly did merit turn toxic, and how?” (p.33). Merit promotes freedom, mastery of our own fate, and just deserts—meeting the conservative ideal of personal responsibility. Calvin suggested “God’s favor” based on hard work and asceticism; making lots of money is a sign—remember the protestant ethic (Weber: God helps those who help themselves; a right to his good fortune). Then a related discussion on religion, including Job, Augustan, Martin Luther (faith and grace), Calvinist doctrine on predestination. Of course, humility gets lost, often replaced by intolerance, less generosity and more arrogance. Then Ecclesiastes, which includes chance.


In 2008 the Wall Street bankers were smug (Blankfein “doing God’s work”), continued bonuses, with no evidence of humility for their self-created crisis. Other annoying examples from Franklin Graham on Katrina, Falwell on 9/11. More recently is the “prosperity gospel,” faith equals wealth and health: “I am blessed.” As a corollary, suffering means sin.


Personal responsible is a conservative idea, but adapted by Democrats for welfare reform under Clinton. Politicians talk about “the right side of history,” difficult before events happen—like the Arab Spring which did not turn out well for most of the Middle East, or Yeltsin after the collapse of the USSR. Net results included civil wars and new dictators. In this country it seems to indicate global capitalism, maybe democracy.


Chapter 3: The Rhetoric of Rising. Sandel defines merit as “something we earn through our own effort and striving, … based on hard work” (p. 59); also, a sign of virtue. In his view, then, empathy drops off, and it becomes corrosive to the common good. [A consideration of psychology would have been a useful addition.] It takes hard work to get into an Ivy League college. With “market triumphalism,” markets give people what they deserve [except for questionable marketing, outright fraud and so on, and behavioral limitations.] The liberal focus has been education, healthcare, and child care, then fairness and productivity. More of a conservative concept is the disadvantaged responsible for bad outcomes. Then there are “luck egalitarians,” based on who is responsible for their misfortune rather than victims of bad luck. 77% of Americans think people can succeed if they work hard, fewer in other countries. They are split on why people are poor.


About 5% of people in the bottom 20% rise to the top 20%, about a third make it to the middle or higher. Numbers are much higher in Denmark: “The American dream is alive and well and living in Copenhagen” (p. 76). Obama’s rhetoric is aspirational, apparently not how opponents view it, viewing it as winning and losing.


Chapter 4: Credentialism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Trump speaks at a fourth-grade vocabulary level, with cabinet members describing his understanding level about the same. This may be a partial explanation for anger at the meritocracy.


Education as the centerpiece of bipartisan political response to inequality and stagnant wages; equality of opportunity—“a moral judgment.” The system is fine, individual failure is the problem. Note that productivity went up, not wages (because of lack of worker power).


According to Jonathan Alter: “Obama’s faith lay in cream rising to the top. Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy, he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended” (p. 90). [He seems to claim Obama has blinders.] He deferred to Wall Street after 2008, presumably because of their status. [Ditto dealing with the Pentagon.] The claim is Obama considered meritocratic as non-partisan (it was “smart”), when it actually caused resentment. Sandel views credentialism as the “last acceptable prejudice.” [Like other professionals, I had to go through the painful process of being “credentialed” as a CPA. I’m struggling to see the prejudice. Note: I absolutely have accounting blinders.] Sandel says the elites are unembarrassed by their prejudice, because of the failure of individual effort.


Almost all members of Congress are college graduates (all senators and 95% of house members). Truman was the last non-college president. About half the labor force is in working-class jobs (manual labor, service industry, and clerical jobs). About 3% of state legislatures come from the working class. Education, rather than income predicted Trump support (“I love the poorly educated”). Historically, the left attracted lesser educated, which has been reversed. Note that wealthy people also support the right. Piketty: intellectuals moving to the left may explain rising inequality, while working class turn to populist candidates. Plus, increasingly partisan views of colleges: negative by Republicans; therefore, lack of broad public support.


Obama as a technocrat, thinking disagreements caused by lack of information. Moral suasion important, like Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit.” Obama overemphasized facts. Market focus and incentivize market mechanisms, to avoid partisan wrangling. But public discourse is rude. Obama thought Trump successful because of the public’s inability to agree on facts (what Sandel calls “technocratic conceit”). Framing essential to winning arguments. “Our opinions direct our perceptions; they do not arrive on the scene only after the facts are cut and dried” (p. 110). Global warming about politics over information.


Chapter 5: Success Ethics. Aristocracy versus meritocracy; consider Rawls’ “veil of ignorance.” Michael Young’s Rise of Meritocracy (1958) considered it dystopian, apparently a “rigged system” causing hubris versus bitterness and humiliation. (Example: Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.”) “Impoverished conception of citizenship and freedom” (p. 120). Populist protest about fairness and social esteem. “Meritocratic ideal is about mobility, not equality” (p. 121). Free-market liberalism (Hayek) versus welfare state (egalitarian) liberalism (John Rawls). “Differences of talent are as morally arbitrary as differences of class” (p. 128). (Equality of opportunity versus equality of results.) Rawls expects sharing—this means taxes [which works for me], got to improve the situation of those losing out. Note the difficulty of defining merit, plus the fit to freedom and the “good life,” what do people deserve? A key point is rich cannot claim their wealth is due them as morally deserved. Rawls: the “right” (framework, like governing constitution) has priority to the “good” (e.g., virtue or good life); justice over merit.


Social esteem flows to high income and educated people. The “smart versus dumb” does bring out resentment. It does assume the talent spread is arbitrary (“lottery of life”). A just society should compensate people for bad luck, “distributive justice.”


Chapter 6: The Sorting Machine. Solution to meritocracy: rethinking success, usually based on education and work, with education the “sorting machine.” Merit mainly started in the 1940s and beyond, replacing “a hereditary upper class” with “social mobility.” Conant (Harvard president): “The best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually and be instructed at public expense” (p. 160), not the best expression to show humility. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and grades were primary criteria. The GI Bill could pay part of the cost (although Conant was against it). The SAT did not do a good job; it correlated with wealth, probably related to better schools and expensive prep (it’s coachable). Khan Academy now provides SAT practice. Not many come from the bottom quintile: “higher education today does surprisingly little to promote upward mobility” (p. 168). It could be the high-income kids still come, but actually put in the effort; Sandel says colleges “consolidate privilege.” Presumably, a bitter pill for those left out. Most colleges are not very selective (46 are; they accept fewer than 20% of applicants), so I’m having a problem with his interpretation. There are grounds for resentment with poor job opportunities, underlying bigotry, a dysfunctional political system, but why elite college admissions? Even though he calls it “winner-take-all re-sorting” (p. 177).


Here we go: a lottery to solve the problem (p. 185). To me, this creates new problems without solving the proclaimed existing one. More concerning is the falling spending of government on colleges, meaning colleges continuously raise tuition and other fees. I was able to go to college on the combination of the GI Bill and cheap tuition. The solution now is gigantic student loans. UTs’ state appropriations fell from 47% in the mid-1980s to 11%. Student debt is over $1.5 trillion. [Bo Biden still had student loan debt when he died.] Other countries, especially European, pay much more (about 1% of GDP versus 0.1% in the US). Technical colleges are important, a large leap from elite schools.


Chapter 7: Recognizing Work. Sandel ends with typical positions on all the other factors that generate working-class “white resentment.” Of course, I have my own MVG issues and potential solutions—but also why these are hard to fulfill. Pointing out Paul Ryan’s “makers” and “takers,” is a useful reminder of Republican thinking (don’t expect funding from them).


Conclusions: Merit and the Common Good. James Adams coined “the American dream” in The Epic of America (1931).




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© 2016 Gary Giroux