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The Tyranny of Merit 

What’s Become of the Common Good?


Michael J. Sandel


Hardcover. London: Allen Lane, 2020

Paperback. London: Penguin, 2021

288 pages, ISBN 978-0141991177. £9.99


Reviewed by Nicholas Sowels

Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne






In this book, Michael Sandel, the highly-mediatised professor of political philosophy from Harvard, sets out a thorough critique of a key value of our times, namely that public policy should strive for equality of opportunity so that all may realise their full capacities in society and be appropriately rewarded.

Following in the footsteps of Michael Young’s The Rise of Meritocracy (1958), Sandel’s Tyranny of Merit aims squarely at the mechanism by which neoliberalism has become an economic, political and philosophical system that generates vast social categories of persons who see themselves as “losers”. Their relentless humiliation since the advent of Thatcher and Reagan has led directly to the anger behind the national populism that fuelled the Brexit vote and support for Donald Trump in 2016.

Significantly, this system for generating the failure of middle Americans and middle Brits has been embraced as much by progressive politicians (the Clintons [Bill and Hillary], Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Barack Obama), as by conservatives. These centre-left politicians have adopted neoliberal and neoconservative arguments about “personal responsibility and deservingness” in the attribution of welfare rights and services, while stressing the importance of “education, education, education” (Blair) in personal success.

Here, (elite) university education becomes the open sesame to success, while “being smart” has become the touchstone of private behaviour and government policy – and the route to becoming “smart” lies in a good university education, preferably at a prestigious institution. Success of public social policy therefore lies in striving for equal access to such institutions and the credentials they bestow.

Sandel recognises that his students at Harvard are generally high-achievers, who have indeed worked hard. He points out that their individual success often comes at the cost of considerable mental health problems related to anxiety and depression. However, because of their own, real efforts, he notes that over time, his students have become increasingly unwilling to acknowledge the luck and privileges which got them into America’s top universities. While they may be clearly conscious of the need to do good in society, they recognise little that their access to top universities is largely determined by their class origins. These high-achievers, who benefit from globalisation, see themselves as self-made, and their “[m]eritocratic hubris reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success”.

Meanwhile, and most destructively, a large majority of US adults have not had higher education and real median income growth since the 1970s has been weak.(1) They have lost out on the meritocratic game. They have become undeserving – and for many, their plight has been aggravated by the policies of progressives like Bill Clinton or Tony Blair which increasingly tied welfare eligibility to “the personal responsibility and deservingness of the recipients”. At the same time, as the welfare state has become less “responsibility buffering” and more “responsibility tracking”, the discourse of the centre-left has emphasised the importance of equality of opportunity, and access to education as the means to self-betterment. In short, the logic of merit is all-encompassing.

Sandel goes on to point out how integration into the global economy amplifies these processes, as (progressive) politicians and meritocratic elites stress the importance of getting “a college degree” so that workers can compete. By doing so, they “implicitly blame those without one for the harsh conditions they encounter in the global economy”. This in turn feeds a prejudice about which the elites are “unembarrassed”: “[t]hey may denounce racism and sexism but are unapologetic about their negative attitudes towards the less-educated”.

He specifically fingers these aspects of today’s meritocracy for generating the pro-Brexit, pro-Trump votes in 2016, noting that “two-thirds of whites without a college degree voted for Donald Trump”, while “over 70 percent of voters with no college education voted for Brexit”. More generally, he goes on to assert that “building politics around the idea that a college degree is a condition of dignified work and social esteem has a corrosive effect on democratic life”, as it devalues the contributions of persons without a diploma, and ultimately excludes them from representative government.

This is a heavy charge sheet, but one which is hard to ignore, given the protracted anger of national populism in the United States, the United Kingdom… and beyond. At this point, it may moreover be noted that in his book Capitalism, Alone, Branko Milanovic (a renowned authority on global inequality) argues that today’s global economy is dominated by two types of capitalism: the “political capitalism” of China which contrasts fundamentally with the historical emergence of capitalism and liberal democracy; and the “liberal meritocratic” capitalism of the West.(2)

Michael Sandel’s remedies are radical – at least in today’s world. They are based on “challenging inequalities of wealth and esteem…[that] drive us apart… [and] rethinking … two domains of life most central to the meritocratic conception of success – education and work”. This entails more affirmative action to open up leading universities to less-favoured students, and seeking ways “to make success in life less dependent on having a four-year college degree”. Apart from just increasing funding for job training, it involves honouring “the various forms of learning and training that prepare people” for work. It requires combating elite condescension and “credentialist prejudice” based on university diploma. It means putting “the dignity of work at the centre of the political agenda”.

These are tall orders, especially – but not only – in the more free-market economies like the US and the UK. During the first phase of lockdown to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic in spring 2020, much was made of the vital importance of front-line workers: the drivers, the super-market shelf-stackers and cashiers. Meanwhile the meritocracy continued to work well from home, while massive central bank and fiscal stimuluses helped boost stock prices dramatically across the world in 2020. Since the recovery in late 2020, but especially in 2021, there has been widespread anecdotal evidence that workers are unwilling to return to their previous lives, even though wage increases seem to be on the way. Whether these recent, welcome, trends persist, however, is a big question. If they do not, the patent anger which existed before Covid-19, and which brought anti-status quo politicians like Trump to power will surely continue.


(1) In 2020, 37.5 percent of the US population aged above 25 had graduated from college or another higher education institution (up from 7.7 percent in 1960): Statista, retrieved 12 September 2021. In its Income and Poverty in the United States : 2019 report, released in September 2020, the United States Census shows that the median household income for “all races” had risen from $51,126 in 1983 to $68,703 in 2019 (in real terms: i.e., 2019 dollars). This represents a 34 percent rise over 36 years in the median income, which of course means that half the total population lives in households with a lower income level.

(2) Branko Milanovic, Capitalism, Alone : The Future of the System that Rules the World. Belknap Press, 2019.



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