Book cover art for The Tyranny of Merit
The Tyranny of Merit
Michael J Sandel

Reading this book made me completely reconsider some of the biggest assumptions that I have carried with me throughout my entire adult life, while simultaneously reframing how I think about the events of the last decade—Trump and Brexit in particular. While his solutions to the problem identified feel like they fall short, you can't exactly blame him for the sheer complexity of what's at stake. It's arresting and disconcerting and infuriating and I've been strongly recommending it to anyone that will listen.

Meritocracy in a Nutshell

Most arguments about meritocracy are about how best to achieve it and to offer the same opportunity to all. Almost none are about meritocracy itself—there is a cultural assumption that is the best and only way to organise society.

Meritocracy makes us buy in to the 'self-made and self-sufficient' argument. That is, we end up ignoring everything and everyone else that has helped us get to where we are. Parents, teachers, systems, institutions etc. In a meritocratic system, the winners believe that they have earnt all that they have on their own, therefore they deserve it. Those that have not? That's their fault for not earning it.

In short—everyone deserves what they get.

'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.'

The college admissions scandal is the perfect microcosmic symbol of the problems of merit, emblematic of a bigger problem that's harder to articulate. It all relates to the reasons behind who gets ahead, and why.

Rather than donating huge sums to colleges to (legally) get in the back door, parents were paying to enter the (illegal) side door. While legality is one question and relatively clear cut, it does not square the moral problem. Namely, those that are more likely to get in simply have more money. They have paid for merit, because it is the thing most sought after.

Trump by Way of Technocracy

Brexit, Trump, soaring enthusiasm for nationalism - all are driven by the anger of the disenfranchised. They've become so disenfranchised by way of the political elites who have led us for the last fifty years. Sandel argues that this started with Reagan/Thatcher and was maintained by Clinton/Blair afterwards.

Specifically, the partnered problem to a culture of meritocracy is the policy of the technocracy. The technocracy ignores the left/right divide and talks more in terms of open/closed, strongly in favour of globalism.

'More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified.'

Down this road, jobs are taken offshore and sent to other, cheaper countries while the globetrotting cosmopolitan elites are vaunted as great successes. This leaves a large number of people with dwindling job prospects and lower economic security, even if GDP happens to be rising.

'The median income for working-age men, about $36,000, is less than it was four decades ago. Today, the richest 1 percent of Americans make more than the bottom half combined.'

Republocrat/Demicran

All of this is set against the backdrop of a 'weaker public discourse' - everything becomes entirely about what is technically better, but not morally better. 'What is morally right' is left out, in favour of 'what is best for the bottom line/economy'.

In America, the Democratic Party has done little to grasp the moral question and has instead continued to perpetuate the idea of the American dream, even though the numbers would suggest that this has only become harder and harder, and while they defer to banks and businesses about how best to set policy.

'Obama was fond of a variation of this theme, drawn from a pop song: “You can make it if you try." During his presidency, he used this line in speeches and public statements more than 140 times.'

Who Should Be Rewarded?

Should those who are most gifted necessarily be rewarded the most? Take, for example, the plight of essential workers throughout the pandemic. We have completely relied on them for society to continue functioning but they are, almost without exception, the lowest paid of us all. Not to mention the frontline health workers who have suffered incredible tolls on their physical, emotional and mental health.

While it's true that both of the above should be paid more, it's not enough to just redistribute the wealth. We are past that, Sandel says. Instead we must look to completely change the public discourse altogether.

Biblical Origins

You are either judged and punished for your sins, or judged and rewarded for your faith and good deeds. With an omnipotent God, this is clear enough. This logic also works in reverse, though—if you are punished for something, it follows that you must have sinned. Likewise if you are rewarded, it follows that you must have done well.

If we accept free will and move away from the idea of an omnipotent God, this gives rise to the Calvinist/Protestant work ethic. God helps those that help themselves, and the more you can help yourself the better your chances of reaching salvation. In working for that salvation, though, you also create the conditions for the creation of great wealth.

Work is devotion, devotion is salvation. But devotion to work also means wealth. So... does wealth equal salvation?

This is the ethic of mastery and self-making overwhelming the ethic of gratitude and humility and spilling over into the secular world to today where we do not see its religious origin. In this way and with this logic, the rich are rich because they deserve it and the same, then, for the poor.

As God Recedes, We Thank Ourselves

Where before we might have left room for tragedy, mystery, humility and 'there but for the grace of God go I', we now have only ourselves to blame.

In this we find the seeds of the 'prosperity gospel' (such as Joel Osteen and Co) where the dialogue shifts from 'Thank you, God, for these gifts you have given,' to, 'Thanks, me! I deserve this!'

'Part of the appeal of the prosperity gospel is its emphasis on the individual's responsibility for his or her own fate. This is a heady, empowering notion. Theologically, it asserts that salvation is an achievement, something we earn.'

We also see this in American politics with the refrain 'America is great because America is good' - the notion that the country is rewarded because it deserves it.

This goes some way to explaining the apparently uniquely American attitude towards healthcare that so many outside of that country (and inside it) do not understand. Including me. This is how that logic works:

  • The healthy are healthy because of the way they have lived and because they are worthy of the health they enjoy. Therefore, why should they bear the burden of paying for another's medical costs?
  • The sick have led unhealthy lives therefore they deserve their sicknesses. They should pay their premiums because it is what they owe. Why should they be subsidised by the healthy?

This also is where we see a greater connection between the welfare state and personal responsibility. Down on your luck? You've got to work to show you deserve any help.

The Wrong Side of History

Politicians have also used the above logic to talk about themselves and their adversaries in terms of how they think history will treat them. This doesn't really work because:

  1. History does not provide a moral judgment
  2. Nobody can see what history will eventually say (you need some time for that...)
  3. You can 'win history' and also lose morally

Examples of the latter include Vladimir Putin—who is still very much in power and has been for some time—and Bashar al-Assad.

This type of thinking can also leave you complacent and triumphant afterwards—once you've won, why bother to keep on trying?

Rise as Far as Your Talents Can Take You (but if You Fall Don't Expect to be Caught)

Merit fundamentally changes the way we think about welfare systems, and it changed the way politicians talk about it. Rather than being a catch-all for anyone who fell on hard times, the welfare state became something only for those who had fallen 'through no fault of their own'.

This suggests that, if you had made bad choices in life, you should get nothing at all because it was all because of your bad choices. If you do get any help, you ought to be deserving of it.

At the same time, the political message became that we should all be able to rise as far as our talents can take us

You Deserve It!

If something goes your way (especially after any amount of hardship, no matter how small), the common refrain to hear from people is that you deserve the break you get. The reverse of this follows, too: didn't get something? You didn't deserve it, obviously, because if you did deserve it you would have received it.

The phrase has been adopted by marketers the world over, where the simple act of buying something, no matter how minor, becomes an exercise in you deserving something.

'According to Google Ngram, which tracks the frequency of words and phrases in books, the use of the phrase "you deserve" more than tripled from 1970 to 2008. In The New York Times, "you deserve" appeared more than four times as often in 2018 as it did in the year Ronald Reagan took office.'

Meritocracy Reaches Its Limit

All of the above combines into the three elements that create a toxic meritocracy:

  1. When there is inequality, the message of meritocracy demoralises those left behind
  2. Fixation on college degrees creates credentialist prejudice against those without them, as well as demeaning honest work
  3. Thinking that some problems are best solved by technocrats creates a value-free and empty democracy that disempowers most citizens
'To Hillary Clinton's misfortune, the rhetoric of rising had, by 2016, lost its capacity to inspire.'

Left to fester long enough, things will begin to backfire and have negative results. Those that are left behind get fed up and stop believing in the meritocratic message because it is inherently misleading. Populism and nationalism rises, protest votes abound.

'Here then was the basic argument of liberal and progressive politics in the decades leading up to Brexit, Trump, and the populist revolt: The global economy, as if a fact of nature, had somehow come upon us and was here to stay. The central political question was not how to reconfigure it but how to adapt to it, and how to alleviate its devastating effect on the wages and job prospects of workers outside the charmed circle of the elite professions.'

The American Dream is Alive and Well. In China.

'Of children born in [America in] the 1940s, almost all (90 percent) earned more than their parents. Of children born in the 1980s, only half surpassed their parents' earnings.'

While China has similar levels of income inequality, there's far more mobility. Over the last decades, the rising tide lifted all boats—not just the yachts. This was not the case in America. As such, you are far more likely to achieve the American dream in China, not America.

'What You Earn Depends On What You Can Learn'

Merit starts well as an ideal but then slides into a belief that this is the way things have always been and always must be. Nowhere is this truer than with the credentialism found in higher education.

A focus on opportunities (and not outcomes) led to an obsession with the power of education to level the playing field, but it instead meant that a college degree became the only perceived key to a successful future with any amount of dignity. If you want to earn you must learn.

If you are unable to learn enough and at a level high enough to allow you to compete, you will simply be left behind by the global economy. Production has moved to where labour is cheaper and there's no way you can follow it. Sorry!

Too Many Brainboxes, Not Enough Real People

A big problem of the Kennedy government was a surfeit of Ivy League 'best of the best' that, even for all their academic clout, still managed to lead America into the Vietnam War. Sandel argues Obama had the same issue where he had an enormous number of Harvard-educated staff who ended up leading a Wall Street-friendly response to the 2008 mortgage crisis, discrediting them in the eyes of the working class and building resentment as a result.

'Both Clinton and Obama frequently argued that their favored policy was "not just the right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do." This rhetorical tick suggested that, in a meritocratic age, being smart carried more persuasive heft than being right.'

Clinton and Bush used the word 'smart' 450 times. Obama 900 times. The emphasis on 'smart' assumes a sort of neutrality and glides over values, morals and politics. Being 'smart' is also very clearly then opposed to things that must therefore be 'dumb', highlighting a prejudice against those with little or no education.

'In the U.S. Congress, 95 percent of House members and 100 percent of senators are college graduates. This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many. Although about two-thirds of American adults do not have a college degree, only a tiny handful are members of Congress.'

This is a prejudice that is socially acceptable to hold and often not denied. In fact it is even internalised by those without education, too. At the same time, governments in many Western countries—the UK and US included—include a negligible number of working class representatives.

The Two Main Objections to a Meritocratic Society

At heart, there are two main objections to a meritocratic society:

  1. Even a perfect meritocracy would be unjust
  2. Even a perfect meritocracy, even if it was as fair as it could be, would not be a good society to live in

The ideal of a meritocracy is not equality but mobility. This implies that inequality is just and right and proper. It may or may not be possible to be rid of inequality, but it's not right to say that it is just.

The Talent Problem

'Talent' - a knack that we have for something without any external influence - is another form of luck. If we have a talent for something, does it follow that we deserve the benefits we get from this the way we would from any other form of luck? We do not say we deserve a lottery win, but we do win a lottery of sorts when we are gifted with a talent, or good looks, or an able body.

'What people earn depends on native abilities that are no doing of the person endowed with them. It also depends on the vagaries of supply and demand. Whether the talents I have to offer are rare or plentiful is no doing of mine, and yet decisive for the income they command in the market.'

To consider it from another way around, what if LeBron James had been born in a time when basketball didn't exist? Would he be just as deserving of his talents in a time when nobody cared about a sport they hadn't heard of? What about Meryl Streep before film existed? Or people whose talents have been automated in the 21st century?

'Hard work' becomes the only remaining variable that we can have any direct control over, so its importance is inflated and elevated.

Two (Poor) Alternatives to Meritocracy

There are two alternatives to meritocracy that are regularly cited, but neither cuts the mustard according to Sandel:

1. Free Market Liberalism

You are rewarded based on the market value of the goods and services that you can provide. Economic value trumps all other values.

Where it goes wrong: simply providing 'what people want' is no good as a measure of moral value. What if 'what people want' is incredibly bad for society? Consider Walter White in Breaking Bad: he teaches chemistry and then...makes meth on the side, but is rewarded handsomely for the latter only. This is of course not a good thing; he is being disproportionately rewarded more for the thing that is objectively worse for society.

'Being good at making money measures neither our merit nor the value of our contribution...'

'...all the successful can honestly say is that they have managed-through some unfathomable mix of genius or guile, timing or talent, luck or pluck or grim determination—to cater effectively to the jumble of wants and desires, however weighty or frivolous, that constitute consumer demand at any given moment. Satisfying consumer demand is not valuable in itself; its value depends, case by case, on the moral status of the ends it serves.'

2. Welfare State Liberalism

This is essentially re-distributive taxation. The spread of talents and favourable circumstances is a common good, so it should be shared with all.

Where it goes wrong: establishes that the wealthy don't necessarily deserve all they accrue, but does not make a clear moral argument for why everyone else should get a slice of that pie.

Figuring out who should get what has led in part to 'luck egalitarianism' whereby there should be help for those who are 'down on their luck'. If you are in dire straits through your own bad choices, this form of egalitarianism believes you don't deserve the support because, well, it's your fault! But if you are genuinely the victim of really bad luck you are then given humiliating aid because it's clear that you must be unable to exercise your own responsibility and agency.

Education as Sorting System - High School

The introduction of SATs in the American education system led to a fundamental shift in how students were chosen to enter into college. Schools became a vast engine for pushing students towards college degrees.

While SATs should have been a great leveller, student results track remarkably closely to wealth. In short, the rich have higher SAT scores. SAT tests are coachable and rich students have greater access to resources that allow them to prepare for these exams.

The desire to get into a good enough college can become a soul-destroying and anxious time of striving for the student who feels like their life depends on it. 'Helicopter parents' appeared in the last few decades, filling the timetables of their children with activities and skills that might perhaps give them an edge in the college admissions process.

'Prosperous parents are able to give their kids a powerful boost in their bid for admission to elite colleges, but often at the cost of transforming their high school years into a high-stress, anxiety-ridden, sleep-deprived gauntlet of Advanced Placement courses, test-prep tutoring, sports training, dance and music lessons, and a myriad of extracurricular and public service activities, often under the advice and tutelage of private admissions consultants.'

It has become something of a mental health crisis - significantly less time to just be, to play, to enjoy life. Time is filled and the conveyor belt begins.

Education as Sorting System - University

Colleges themselves are far from being the engines of mobility we have long hoped they would be. Less than 2% of students are able to rise from the bottom quintile to the top quintile. Whatever socioeconomic status you are when you start, you are likely to graduate and remain in the same. If anything, higher education simply consolidates privilege that already exists.

'College graduates, especially from prestigious places, do have a major edge in landing lucrative jobs. But these schools have little impact on upward mobility, because most of their students are well-off in the first place. American higher education is like an elevator in a building that most people enter on the top floor.'

The cachet of certain colleges has led to greater selectivity because of higher numbers of applicants. This becomes something of self-fulfilling prophecy. Again, even taking into consideration the children of donors, alumni and athletes, the most selective colleges are far more likely to admit those students with higher SAT results who, on average, are simply richer.

The conveyor belt of hoop jumping does not stop when you get to college; it has only just begun. It becomes a habit and there are all manner of clubs and societies that one can gain entry into at university—perhaps membership to these will confer benefits in the future?

For many, a mental health trajectory that started in high school simply continues ever onwards.

'Perfectionism is the emblematic meritocratic malady.'

'At a time when young people are relentlessly "sorted, sifted, and ranked by schools, universities, and the workplace, neoliberal meritocracy places a strong need to strive, perform, and achieve at the center of modern life. Success or failure at meeting the demand to achieve comes to define one's merit and self-worth.'

Restoring the Dignity of Work

Meritocratic, market-oriented beliefs have entrenched the idea that some jobs are simply 'better' or 'worse' than others. This is especially reinforced by the disparity between how these different jobs are compensated.

For those that have been left behind, it's not simply that they make less money—they are also told that their work was not worth the same social esteem as those that have prospered. Or they have no work, meaning no dignity or esteem at all.

Since the nineties, there has been a massive increase in the number of 'deaths of despair' caused by alcohol, drugs and suicide. This has been most keenly felt in the working class and those without a degree. Mortality rates have gotten worse in those with less education under their belts.

'The overall death rate for white men and women in middle age (ages 45-54) has not changed much over the past two decades. But mortality varies greatly by education. Since the 1990s, death rates for college graduates declined by 40 percent. For those without a college degree, they rose by 25 percent.'

One of the arguments of globalism has long been that anyone left behind can be compensated by the rising GDP and wealth of the nation. This was never done in practice of course—those at the top kept those gains largely to themselves. But it is not enough to just give people cash, they need to feel as if they are adding to the common good.

Without a job that has value we have a much harder time finding meaning in our life and esteem in our social standing. We become useless, forgotten about. Looked at in this light, the populist renunciation of the status quo in 2016 with Trump and Brexit begins to make far more sense.

Five Recommendations for Loosening Merit's Grip

While Sandel does not lay out potential solutions as neatly as I have tried to below, these are the main actions I have been able to identify in the closing chapter of his book.

1. Reduce pressure on higher education admissions by introducing a lottery

For every 100 students that apply, perhaps 20-40% applications may be set aside for not reaching a minimum bar for ability. Then, the remaining 60-80% of applications can go into a lottery to select those that are admitted.

Academic quality should not go down if the threshold for achievement is set correctly. Diversity can be addressed by handing out extra 'tickets'. If the admission of the children of alumni/donors/athletes still remains critical for whatever reason, the same can be done for these students too.

One other objection might be that the prestige of certain institutions is reduced... but this is somewhat the point. Rather than worrying that you didn't get in because you weren't good enough—even after years of stuffing your application with endless extra-curricular activity and taking Adderall to study late—you can chalk things up to chance.

It's freeing. Once you get there, perhaps the opportunity is then available to spend more time in exploration and real learning, rather than continuing the endless hoop-jumping habits of yore.

2. Spend more on technical and vocational training

Undergraduate degrees are not the be-all and end-all of education. Only a fractional amount of government money is spent on further education that is not involved in the pursuit of a three/four year degree.

Along with this we also need to re-assess the ability of higher education to deliver a moral and civil education. There are other routes to this, and why not through technical and vocational training also?

3. Set economic policy that considers the producer as much as the consumer

Too much emphasis and importance is placed on the role of the consumer in society. If we serve the needs of the consumer, so the thinking goes, all of us will prosper as a result. This feels like a value-neutral thing to do, certainly, but it simply means that we end up doing things only with the consumer in mind. This might mean that we send production offshore to make it cheaper for the consumer, but at the expense of the wellbeing and purpose of the producer.

'The globalization project sought to maximize economic growth, and hence the welfare of consumers, with little regard for the effect of outsourcing, immigration, and financialization on the well-being of producers. The elites who presided over globalization not only failed to address the inequality it generated; they also failed to appreciate its corrosive effect on the dignity of work.'

4. Provide a wage subsidy to those with low-income jobs

Introduce matched payments, or a kind of government subsidy, for those with low-paying jobs. This would enable those in such jobs to earn a decent living if they lack the skills or the means to command a substantial working wage (or indeed if there are no such jobs available where they are).

This would be similar in some fundamental respects to the furlough schemes of many European countries (including the UK) during the worst of the 2020 pandemic. A liveable salary while also retaining the dignity of work.

(This one was actually not Sandel's idea, but that of Oren Cass—a Republican—in his book 'The Once and Future Worker' which has received praise from the likes of Romney and Rubio.)

5. Shift the burden of taxation from payroll to wealth, consumption and speculation

With a growing accumulation of wealth in a fraction of the population, over-consumption and a proliferation of financial instruments that are more like gambling than anything else, we could simply just tax them more than we do right now. If we are able to move the tax burden away from payroll, the wages and living standards of the working and middle classes will rise too.

'As finance has exploded as a share of the U.S. economy in recent decades, less and less of it has involved investing in the real economy. More and more has involved complex financial engineering that yields big profits for those engaged in it but does nothing to make the economy more useful productive.'

Final Quotes

'In the late 1970s, CEOS of major American companies made 30 times more than the average worker; by 2014, they made 4 300 times more.'

'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.'

'One of the reasons mainstream pundits and politicians were shocked and perplexed by Trump's election is that they were oblivious to (and in some cases complicit in) the culture of elite condescension that had been building for some time. This culture arose, in large part, from the meritocratic sorting project and the inequality brought about by market-driven globalization.'

'It is often assumed that the only alternative to equality of opportunity is a sterile, oppressive equality of results. But there is another alternative: a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity—developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs.'

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