The Tyranny of Merit – Book Review

I’ve been posting book reviews on the themes of egalitarianism, common good, and restorative justice since 2014. Click on the above “Book Reviews” heading to see all of them. This post is the first of three in a series. Click here for the second and third posts.

Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) is the best book I’ve read in some time. Besides covering America’s standing (for better and for worse) as a meritocracy, the book also delves into inequality, the “diploma divide,” and the populist distrust of government that helped fuel the election of America’s 45th president. Sandel covers Donald Trump’s electability better than anyone else I’ve read.

Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard. His class, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?,” is one of the most popular classes at the exclusive university and is widely available on the Internet. “Justice” has more than 12 million views on YouTube. Pretty good for a philosophy class.

Meritocracy – a system where talent and effort are justly rewarded – is the American antidote to old Europe’s monarchies and aristocracies. Meritocracy gave America its ballyhooed economic mobility and forged the American Dream. But the list of caveats affixed to America’s meritocratic realities distorts their original purpose. Historically, Blacks, browns, and women have been largely excluded. And in the last forty years, economic gains siphoning upward to the wealthiest Americans have produced a highly unequal society that now ranks in the bottom half among the thirty-six OECD countries in economic mobility.

Sandel adds another caveat to the list: the tyranny of merit.

“A perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule” (hardcover, p. 25).

In order to unpack Sandel’s comment, let’s reconsider the presidential election victory of Donald J. Trump on November 8, 2016.

Sandel devotes a chapter of the book to what he calls the “rhetoric of rising.” Derived from the meritocratic ideal, the phrase asserts that success is readily available to all though effort and striving. “You can make it if you try,” President Barack Obama was fond of saying (140 times during his tenure). The claim, while partly true for many people, has an underside: Those not “succeeding” are deemed solely responsible for their own failure.

In 2016, along came Hillary Clinton in Obama’s wake. On cue, the candidate pushed the rhetoric of rising. “The fundamental belief in America” is that “you should have the chance to go as far as your hard work and dreams will take you.” Sandel claims the candidate and her team were unaware that for a great number of Americans the rhetoric of rising had lost its capacity to inspire.

In contrast, candidate Trump on the campaign trail, according to Sandel’s analysis, never once spoke of American mobility or rising. Rather he bluntly spoke of winners and losers and of making America great again – not by meritocratic rising – but through a renewal of national sovereignty, identity, and pride. This message resonated, especially, with white males who didn’t have college degrees. Rising?? These voters, after a thirty-five year pickling in the brine of inequality, took Ms. Clinton’s incantation as a slap in the face. They voted for Trump in droves.

Sandel explains: “This populist complaint is not without warrant. For decades, meritocratic elites intoned the mantra that those who work hard and play by the rules can rise as far as their talents will take them. They did not notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising was less a promise than a taunt” (p. 72, italics mine).

Sandel suggests that a similar dynamic in Britain produced the 2016 Brexit vote result for the UK to leave the European Union.

According to Sandel, the tyranny of merit has helped solidify the divides in our country between rich and poor, rural and urban, the well-educated and not-as-uneducated. In great measure, it also produced the presidency of Trump.

I’ll have more to say about this timely and insightful book in the coming weeks . . . stay tuned.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

4 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Merit – Book Review

  1. Sounds like a very timely read, we like to celebrate those who “make It” as evidence that it’s all up to you, which has the corollary that if you don’t, it must be you who’s deficient in talent or effort. I like the emphasis on there are a variety of gifts…..


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