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

by Jan 23, 2021Books, Culture, Worldview10 comments

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? His power is incisive analysis: he cuts to the Augustinian heart of divisive issues using classic philosophical tools. He also explains all this slowly and clearly. He is the single most gifted guide of classroom discussion that I have ever seen (I not only read Justice; I watched the WBUR Boston recordings of his class; they were sterling).

This book wasn’t quite as lean and refined as Justice; it also didn’t deal with quite as important a topic (that would have been a tall order). It was a bit long and a bit repetitive (though because I listened to the audio, read patiently and engagingly by the author, that actually worked out well). And it didn’t seem to me to solve the dilemma it kept tossing from hand to hand for hour after hour: If meritocracy isn’t so great, and aristocracy not so great either, then what?!

But I’m burying a really important lede: What Sandel did do was give me the best answer I’ve yet seen to a question I haven’t been able to answer since 2016—why did so many Americans vote for reality TV star Donald Trump?! This wasn’t the point of the book, more of a very important supporting argument. The main argument was that meritocracy sounds good as a means of allocating certain sought-after goods in a society such as admission to elite colleges and access to high-paying and valorized professions. But—and I’ll never forget this—meritocracy tends to make the “winners” feel arrogantly self-congratulatory, forgetful of how very many aspects of their success had nothing to do with their effort; and it tends to make the “losers” feel, well, like that’s just what they are. They didn’t have the talent or drive to achieve the American Dream, so they’re out. Here’s where Trump comes in: regular people who do work essential to our society but not valorized by it don’t like it when elites look down on them. It’s galling to hear Hillary Clinton call vast numbers of people “a basket of deplorables,” to hear President Obama sneering at those who trust in “God and guns.” It’s offensive to be told that you are racist for complaining about factory jobs being taken by people in other countries. And yet meritocracy has not only produced all this, it has tempted elites to talk as if credentials equal intelligence to boot. (I think of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, an excellent book, which showed the intellectual challenges inherent in much manual work.)

Aristocracy may keep the peasants and serfs down, but at least they can say to themselves, “I have the talent to rise.” They are less likely to conclude, “I am a loser.” And aristocracy can produce a noblesse oblige on the part of the aristocrats: they know they don’t deserve their privilege, so they share their wealth.

This again, is where I say, “Then what?!” Because I just don’t see the West moving back to aristocracy, not on purpose. And if I’m stuck behind Rawls’ pre-birth curtain, I’d still choose the meritocratic society and its opportunity over the aristocratic one and its stratified classes. (Though I admit I was shocked to discover that upward mobility in America is actually noticeably lower than it is in a number of European countries.)

So I appreciated Sandel’s practical suggestions for toning down the worst elements of meritocracy. And there was a huge irony in one of his key suggestions. Follow me… Sandel critiqued Puritanism as if it were straight up Pelagianism. There was one key line that was just so egregiously wrong—and yet, in a way, perfectly right. He said that the Puritan emphasis on God’s grace in election got twisted into self-congratulation for being elected. That is so, so wrong, because Puritans of all people knew that they humbly had no purchase on God’s grace, nothing in them to merit it. And yet they would be the first to point out that the human heart is so fallen that it can turn God’s grace into a badge of pride. Instead of a critique of the Puritans, I heard in Sandel a critique of human nature. Sandel knows from long labor, I will hazard, that secularism and classical liberalism don’t offer serious moral philosophies, so he takes theology seriously, something for which I was grateful. And here I come back to the irony. He proved to me that meritocracy on elite campuses—like the Harvard where he has taught for four decades—is terribly harmful, to the meritocrats and the basket of deplorables alike. He persuaded me that a lottery system would be a much better way for Harvard to select applicants. But by doing this he is, to my mind, implicitly arguing for the grace of God. The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.

Sandel also argued that one way to valorize work rightly would be to legally curtail the money markets, the complex financial instruments that can net millions for the right bettors without actually doing much of anything to invest in business or produce any goods and services of value. This I found persuasive, too.

Biblical theology teaches from its very first page that work is a God-given good. God told Adam to “work and keep” the garden even before the fall. But by page 3, human work has been deeply frustrated by the fall: we’ve got thorns and thistles everywhere. Sandel’s calls to valorize all good work rang biblically true for me.

So did his critiques of meritocracy. One of the most important parables in my theology is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. It shows that no one will get less good than he deserves for his work, but that the Master is generous and sometimes spills out amazing blessing on some and not others. All good I enjoy is by God’s grace. There’s a reason that conservative evangelical Christians keep saying this to one another. We both believe it and are, by that phrase, asking that Master to help our unbelief. To diminish our pride, our tendency to hoard moral merit in our hearts.

Sandel’s book gives me some intellectual tools, tools of careful moral philosophy and of assiduous and wise observation of our world, to help me trust more to God’s grace and to be humble and grateful.

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  1. Aaron Blumer

    Thanks for this thoughtful review! I’m intrigued and puzzled. “Meritocracy” must not mean what I think it means… because it was, in my view, an argument against the Trump nomination. He had not merited consideration for that job. There was no achievement to qualify him and a lot of anti-achievement to disqualify. Is it possible that Sandel has confused poor implementation of meritocracy (misidentifying ‘merit’) with the idea of meritocracy itself? I’m inclined to think that meritocracy works great or works badly depending on what the society sees as “merit.”
    Maybe Sandel includes a working definition you can excerpt for me? But it sounds like I should make the time to read this one as well as ‘Justice.’

    • Mark Ward

      Hmm. Great question! No, Trump didn’t get in on traditional definitions of merit. =) The idea is more that Trump got in because enough working class people rebelled against those traditional definitions—and the traditional definers. Does that make better sense? They felt disdained by elites and wanted a populist champion.

      I’m NOT saying that everyone who voted for Trump felt this way or voted for him for that reason. I’m saying that it was a noticeable theme among many voters.

      • Aaron Blumer

        Thanks, Mark. I’m interested in how the author defines meritocracy. Is there a concise definition in the book?

        • Patti Whaley

          Aaron, I think Sandel defines meritocracy as the assumption that talent, hard work and playing by the rules (which in our society gets translated into “you must get a college degree, ideally from a really good university) will lead to material success, which is therefore deserved by the successful; and anyone who is not “successful” is therefore lazy and/or untalented and/or without merit and undeserving of respect. The problem with this (as he explains) is not that a perfect meritocracy is very difficult, but that even a perfect meritocracy would be very problematic. How does a society function if we need the working class (care workers, grocery-shelf stackers etc) but deny them both a decent standard of living, and social respect? If you define society as winners and losers, you can’t expect the losers to be a happy bunch. If they feel despised by governing class, don’t be surprised if they vote for someone like Trump, who taps into their (legitimate) resentment. Hope that helps?

  2. Aaron Blumer

    Thanks. Yes, that’s helpful. It sounds increasingly like there is not much I would agree with in the author’s economic philosophy. (There will always be relative winners and relative losers because there is inherent value in skill and the ability to produce high quality goods and services in prudent ways. Eliminating losers also eliminates winners and ruins the market and flourishing in general.) But it sounds like he’s thoughtful about it at least. I’m not sure I’m interested enough to read the book, but maybe.

    • Mark Ward

      I don’t think Sandel would disagree with you, I really don’t. It’s the cultural valorizing of certain skills (white-collar skills) above their inherent value and the cultural denigrating of certain skills (blue-collar, manual skills) below their inherent value that he is critiquing.

      • Patti Whaley

        Yes. Sandel is absolutely not arguing for inequality of result. There is a large range of possible options between total equality of reward and total winner-take-all, and he is arguing that we’ve gone too far towards the winner-take-all end of the spectrum. Once the “losers” have neither a decent standard of living nor a sense that their role in society deserves respect, there is little motivation for them to invest in a thriving community or larger society. Plus, the intense competition for winning means that even the winners are stressed out and not having much fun.

        BTW if you do decide to read the book, personally I found chapters 2-3-4 too long and quite skimmable; chapters 5-6-7 were more interesting.

  3. Aaron Blumer

    Thanks. That clarifies a bit. So the thesis is that there is a tyranny of a particular (and faulty) concept of merit. That would be a fair summary in your view?

  4. Patti Whaley

    NO. Not a fair summary, sorry, don’t know what we said that led you to think that. That would imply that a tyranny of a BETTER concept of merit would be ok. It wouldn’t. There is probably no nonfaulty concept of merit that would perfectly counterbalance the extraordinary amount of sheer randomness in the world (whether you call it luck or the blessings of God, it still looks pretty random to me). How to account, for example, for my extraordinary good fortune in simply being born in America? Or, more close to home, for the fact that having a Hungarian refugee in my home at the age of 3 led to my learning to read and to love reading at that early age, which made people think I was extraordinarily bright when in fact I just had a few years’ head start on my contemporaries. That’s certainly not merit in my case, but how would you devise a “handicap” that would give me an equal starting point with everyone else? Secondly, even if you could come up with a more perfect reflection of merit, it would result in a society where the meritorious feel excessively proud of themselves and dismissive towards the losers, and lacking in gratitude and wonder at the undeserved good fortune and random contingency that forms our lives. A more perfect meritocracy would still not be a good society.

    Really, just read the book. Or at least chapter 5.

    BTW my post above should have said “Sandel is absolutely not arguing for EQUALITY of result.” Apologies. Lockdown has fried my brain.

  5. Aaron Blumer

    Thanks. I’m going to have to read it and see if I understand.
    At this point, I don’t see why there has to be any “tyranny” at all in the unequal spread of skills and achievement. There will certainly always be dominant groups, and merit seems like the best way for that to happen… provided it’s actually merit, in the sense of achievement.
    But it sounds like the author’s analysis is a deep dive, and I’m not going to get his argument clear here. Sometimes it’s first hand or no hand. 🙂
    I’m interested in social ethics in general, so the book seems likely to be engaging in multiple ways.