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

Michael J. Sandel


A political philosopher takes on the whole notion of meritocracy.

The idea that we can – and should! – live in a meritocracy is taken as an almost as axiomatic in most societies. So it's refreshing, (if also terrifying) to read a take-down of the idea. And it's the idea itself that's the target, not simply the imperfact state of modern societies relative to an ideal.

In the UK we have a parliament whose social backgrounds bear a striking resemblance to the aristocratic parliaments of the nineteenth century: the wealthy and the elite-educated serve in massive over-proportion to their presence in the general population. After a brief interlude in the early-to-mid twentieth century when the situation was more balanced, representation is back with to being a preserve the elite.

However, the problem, as Sandel describes it, runs deeper. Meritocracy, even if accomplished fairly (which is hasn't been), is destructive for those who lose out, and who are therefore simultaneously excluded from power and from social advancement. At the same time, education (and especially higher education) is left to do all the heavy lifting in terms of social mobility, but faces a problem whereby previous winners pass on advantages like private tuition and social contacts to their children.

I think the problems raised here are true for many societies. They're perhaps more acute in the US, not least because top colleges often prioritise the children of alumni and so institutionalise the passing-on of advantage. But it's true that the UK has removed a lot of the props that allowed previous generations of working class kids – the "first chancers", the first in their families to go to university – to get ahead. This book provides a lot of intellectual muscle for a fight back, as well as some policy precriptions.

Finished on Thu, 01 Apr 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.