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Book Review:
The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good

The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good

by Michael Sandel, Alan Lane, 2020. 

Michael Sandel's book, The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good (2020) explores many of the same themes as Daniel Markovit's, The Meritocracy Trap , but with a different focus.  Markovits zeroes in on how educational systems, especially colleges and universities, in the U.S. have come to serve as a vehicle for transferring the economic advantages of affluent Americans to their children, along with an accompanying set of beliefs and rationalizations used to justify extreme income inequality and class and caste privileges. Markovits has acid comments regarding the role of elite universities such as Yale (where he is a law professor) in creating something akin to an aristocracy that believes ( like all aristocracies) that it deserves its wealth, political influence and social privileges ( e.g., world travel, private schools, cultural riches,  access to policymakers) due to its work ethic. Markovits points out that most affluent professionals work long hours, and are rarely comfortable when they're not working. Weirdly, working long hours has become an indicator of privilege and of membership in the meritocracy for highly educated professionals.      


The Tyranny of Merit has a broader and different focus, i.e., to understand how meritocracy based on educational achievement has fueled a culture of resentment, and led to a mean spirited politics that has separated much of the white working class from the Democratic party.  Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard, and his book addresses philosophical justifications of meritocracy and attacks on the idea that talented, highly educated and hard working Americans have earned their privileges and deserve potentially unlimited economic rewards: "In an unequal society, those who land on top want to believe their success is morally justified. In a meritocratic society, this means the winners must believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work." ( p.13)  Sandel rips into this idea which is widely shared by educated Americans across the political spectrum.  According to Sandel, "The years of strenuous efforts demanded of applicants to elite universities almost forces them to believe that their success is their own doing, and that if they fall short, they have no one to blame but themselves. This is a heavy burden to bear. It is also corrosive of civic sensibilities.  For the more we think of ourselves as self made and self sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good." ( p.14) 


Sandel, like Markovits, summarizes basic information regarding income inequality and social mobility in the U.S.: 


  • "In real terms, the median income for working age men ... is less than it was four decades ago. Today, the richest 1 percent of Americans make more than the bottom half combined." (p.22)   

  • "Of those born in the bottom fifth of the income scale, only about one in twenty will make it to the top fifth; most will not even rise to the middle class." ( p. 23) "Only about a third reach the middle rung or higher." (p. 75) 

  • "But today, the countries with the highest mobility tend to be those with the greatest equality. The ability to rise ... depends less on the spur of poverty than on access to education, health care, and other resources that equip people to succeed in the world of work."  (p. 23)  

  • "... there is less economic mobility in the United States than in many other countries. Economic advantages and disadvantages carry over from one generation to the next more frequently than in Germany, Spain, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark." (p. 76) 

  • "China now has greater intergenerational mobility than the U.S." (p.76) 


The heart of Sandel's attack on meritocracy is the following: 


 "Any serious response to the gap between rich and poor must reckon directly with the inequalities of power and wealth, rather than rest content with the project of helping people scramble up a ladder whose rungs grow wider and wider apart. ( p. 24)


Sandel has scathing comments regarding the support of the Clintons and Obama ( "center left" politicians by his description) in promulgating the goals of meritocracy, i.e. to help disadvantaged young Americans succeed in the meritocratic game while justifying meritocracy itself as a means by which talented young people can rise in the world. In other words, the goal of centrist Democratic leaders has been to create a fair meritocracy through educational opportunity, while allowing income inequality and social divisions to increase. According to Sandel, this is an endorsement of the "politics of humiliation" which "is more combustible than other political sentiments." ( p.26) Sandel writes that "Elites have so valorized a college degree - both as an avenue for advancement and as the basis for social self esteem - they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate, and the harsh judgment it imposes on those who have not gone to college." ( p. 26) Put crudely, meritocracy has become a way of dividing people into winners and losers, which justifies dividing Americans into "haves and have nots" both economically and in social esteem. Sandel believes rightly that this system of values has been deeply injurious to the  American working class, and is a major reason why a large majority of the white working men without college degrees supported Trump. There is an outstanding novel, The Locals, by Jonathan Dee about the culture of resentment which I highly recommend. Dee's novel has an appreciation for how deep seated resentments resulting from highly unequal income and power affect interpersonal relationships between members of different social classes.  


Sandel asserts that he became aware of growing meritocratic sentiment by listening to his students at Harvard. "Beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present, more and more of my students seem drawn to the conviction that their success is their own doing, a product of their effort, something they have earned. Among the students I teach, this meritocratic faith has intensified." (p. 60) During the 5 years I taught MSW classes at the UW School of Social Work (2005-09),  I was amazed by the sensitivity of MSW students to tiny differences in grades compared to their peers or to their last paper. Some students were deeply upset if they received less than a 3.9 (out of 4.0) on any paper or exam. It became obvious that this elite group of MSW students deeply believed that grades reflected their intellectual merit. They had been socialized to believe that the opinion of a college professor, or instructor (in my case) regarding a single assigned paper was a a true judgment of their capabilities.  Nothing I said regarding this ridiculous belief had the slightest impact on the students' thinking!  These MSW students attended graduate school during an era of grade inflation that made a mockery of grades as an indication of learning, writing skills or insightful thinking. Nevertheless, these graduate students had been socialized to believe in the meritocratic game, and seemed incapable of self reflection regarding the power to determine self esteem they had turned over to faculty, or the world view that underlay their sensitivity to grades. 


One of Sandel's most controversial claims is that meritocracy organized around educational achievement has led to "attitudes corrosive of the dignity of work and of the working class." ( p. 89) He points out that only about one in three American adults have graduated from a four year college. He states that "by telling workers that their inadequate education is to blame for their troubles, meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwittingly promote credentialism - an insidious prejudice against those who have not been to college." ( p. 89)  In my view, Sandel's dislike of political leaders and economists who explain (blame ?) the plight of American workers on inadequate technical skills does not do justice to the cultural roots of meritocracy. I grew up in the 1950's in the Southwest when every part of education from the early grades was competitive, and where it was taken for granted that high school was a sorting process during a period when it was common to divide men into successes or failures. Meritocracy grew and flourished in these roots. Even today, the concern of Americans of all social classes with failure goes well beyond the world of work, for example to descriptions of intimate relationships, parenting behavior, self help programs, etc.  Americans in my generation were raised with fear of failure which shaped the educational system, rather than the other way around. 


The strength of The Tyranny of Merit is that it connects the dots between and among cultural forces:  political developments such as the alienation of the white working class from the Democratic party; the embrace by "center- left" Democratic leaders of banking and finance; globalization and the loss of well paying manufacturing jobs; growing income inequality; the concern of the middle class with education, testing and admission of  their children to four year colleges, preferably elite colleges; the loss of social regard for skilled physical labor, the increase in ugly, racist, xenophobic attitudes and beliefs,  and the loss of hope and self regard that have led to deaths of despair from drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicide. The U.S. is a deeply unhappy country, as reflected by increases during the past 10-15 years in suicide, high rates of chronic pain and illness among middle aged adults 40-60,  the persistence of racism among white Americans and the partisan divide that threatens civil violence, or worse. Sandel's analysis puts meritocracy and its underlying belief system at the center of this story, an emphasis I anticipate many readers will resist.  


 Sandel's proposed solutions are interesting and creative, for example, after a screening process selecting applicants to elite colleges through a lottery; but also superficial. However students are selected to attend elite colleges, graduates of these institutions will continue to have large advantages in meritocratic competition.   It is difficult to imagine how a society and civilization that depends on scientific expertise and technical know - how could avoid organizing class structure around educational achievement. However, it is another degree of social injustice to "lock in" social advantages by allowing 5 % of the wealthiest Americans  to have a median net worth ($4.8 million) 246 times greater than the second lowest quintile's median net worth ($19,500);  to underfund job training and community colleges and to condescend toward persons who lack college degrees. Sandel states that "learning to become a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist should be respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize ..." , a sentiment with which almost all Americans with college degrees would probably agree. However, it is far from obvious how to counter declining rates of workforce participation among working class men without technical skills, or reverse the economic disadvantage of persons who have no more than a high school degree. Sandel asserts that "of Americans whose highest academic qualification was a high school diploma, only 68 percent were employed in 2017." (p. 199) The employment rate is surely lower for those adults who lack a high school degree. The cultural divide between Americans with college degrees and those with no more than a high school degree is enormous. Nichols Kristof discussed this subject recently in his book, Tightrope, in which he describes the fates of his friends from high school in Yamhill, Oregon, 25% of whom have already died, mostly from drug overdoses, suicide, accidents or chronic illness. 


Sandel's main strategy is to thoroughly undermine the idea that meritocracy is a fair way of distributing income and social esteem through in- depth discussion of recent philosophical ideas about justice. According to Sandel, both liberal and some conservative thinkers have rejected the idea that talent and hard work account for success and justify whatever rewards markets offer. Sandel follows thinkers who reject the idea that successful people are self made mainly through a modicum of talent and hard work. From these philosophers' perspective, no one is responsible for their genetic endowments, the economic and social condition of their parents, where they lived as a child or attended school, or most of the opportunities offered by other family members or in their neighborhood.  No person on their own determines the compensation a society or community deems fair and right for specific talents or for hard work. Many low income people work hard, sometimes with 2-3 jobs, at dirt poor wages.   Furthermore, markets have little or nothing to do with justice, and care not at all about fair rewards for a person's contribution to a community, according to these thinkers. Sandel is a political philosopher, and so what he offers is a philosophical demolition job on the justifications for meritocracy structured around educational credentials.     


Sandel has written a challenging, important book, with enough provocative arguments to upset just about everyone.  Still, The Tyranny of Merit only scratches the surface regarding the cultural roots of meritocracy and possible solutions, in my view. 

© Dee Wilson

April 7, 2021

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