Grace Versus Merit

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 is the third of three posts on Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. Click here for the first and second posts.

Who knew that merit as a value system has a dark side?

Last spring, I participated in a presentation political philosopher and author Michael Sandel gave via Zoom for leaders of Austin Interfaith, a network of community- and faith-based organizers. The meeting’s host, Ernesto Cortés, executive director of the Industrial Areas Foundation of the Southwest, invited the Harvard professor to present to our group of fifty. In run-up to the fall 2020 release of his book, The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel spoke to us about the American economic system based upon merit wherein actors are rewarded for their talent and effort.

Sandel conceded that merit is most often a beneficial societal value, but he also warned us that merit is two-faced.

I can read my own handwriting, most of the time.
Notes from Zoom session with Dr. Michael Sandel – May 27, 2020.

Sandel explained his view that the American system of economic meritocracy in many ways is a secular version of the “prosperity gospel,” a biblical aberration of American origins claiming that God blesses the truly obedient with health and wealth. Those who suffer with poor health or light pocketbooks are understood to lack sufficient faith, which deems them deserving of divine punishment. (Houston’s Joel Osteen, for example, is a lead proponent.)

In his book, Sandel uses the example of Job from the Hebrew Bible to explain how a purely meritocratic way of thinking gives rise to harsh attitudes toward those who are unsuccessful. Job, who has lost family members and suffers extreme physical ailments, is interrogated by his friends (“counselors” in the biblical text) that he might confess a secret sin for which God has sent to Job his punishments, as if the universe is one big cosmic meritocracy devoid of grace, chance, fortune, and plain old luck – good or bad.

One of the morals of Job’s story is that human beings are not in complete control. Contrary to merit’s supposed wisdom, all outcomes are not necessarily rewards or punishments for human behavior. Today’s system of economic meritocracy becomes a tyrant, Sandel says, when it splits actors into two separate groups and assigns only blame to losers and only praise to winners.

When merit goes too far it thoroughly obliterates grace.

“The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient,” Sandel writes, “the less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves. If my success is my own doing, their failure must be their fault. This logic makes meritocracy corrosive of commonality” (hardcover, p. 59).

There are many in our society who feel left out or not needed. The coronavirus has exacerbated these sentiments along with having hardened the previously existing divides of social and economic inequalities.

“The greatest human need,” Sandel said during the presentation, “is to be needed by our fellow human beings.” One of Sandel’s antidotes to merit’s current tyranny is to re-orientate our politics to the dignity of work.

Toward the end of the book, Sandel introduces a term that was new to me: contributive justice. Work, at its best, Sandel says, is “a socially integrating activity, and arena of recognition, a way of honoring our obligation to contribute to the common good . . . theories of contributive justice teach us that we are most fully human when we contribute to the common good and earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contributions we make” (pgs. 211, 212).

To move away from merit’s overreach and tyranny, Sandel advocates a balancing out: more humility on the part of the economically successful and a purposeful expansion of opportunity for the economically disadvantaged.

A healthy commitment to contributive justice includes the recognition that fortune, luck, and grace are always in play. The economy, politics, and life itself are more than zero-sum games, and its actors are more than simply winners or losers.

On the last page of the book – spoiler alert – Sandel expands a familiar historical phrase: “There, but by the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the tyranny of fate, go I.” A reclamation of the phrase’s sentiment by Americans, Sandel claims, would lead to a “less rancorous, and more generous public life” (p. 226).


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.”

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