The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel

I wanted to share a short summary of this really fantastic book on how meritocracy and our social dialogue around creating a meritocracy is not as productive as may have hoped. Even I am guilty of this, in my Qu├ębec TEDxTalk, I explained that a basic income would help level the playing field and make our meritocratic society more even. This may still be true, but I have said I no longer support basic income. Sandel believes that society should emphasize respect and dignity for work instead of encouraging ferocious competition in the hope that it will create more doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs.

He argues that in a meritocracy, the “losers” (the poor and uneducated) are very bitter as they are being told that they are in fact, less desirable people. He goes through Rawls (his specialty) and Keynes and other philosophers to show the nuances and complexity of linking financial rewards with moral rewards. One telling thought experiment is asking how people would feel about an aristocratic society vs a meritocratic one IF they know how they will end up in life (rich or poor). This is in contrast to the story we are told about creating a just society and the way to do that – asking people about the rules of society telling them they do not know where they will land in life. His conclusion is that if you know where you will end up in life (rich or poor) and you cannot impact that change, you will opt for an Aristocracy. In an Aristocracy the rich are more humble as they acknowledge they did not earn their place in society and the workers understand it is not their fault they are poor. This may explain why support for democracy is eroding globally.

The book remained quite US Centric, but the point that there is a substantial social divide between the educated and the non-educated is fascinating. We often think of class as being based on money, the way you speak and the way you behave. In fact, today’s class system is heavily based on your education level and where you went to school. Sandel works at Harvard and lives in a bubble of highly educated and wealthy people so he is observing that side of the spectrum first hand. I think that this book needs to be read by people in parties that are supposed to represent the everyman, but in fact represent only educated people. One statistic that really popped out was that elected officials used to represent society – the percentage of people with a university diploma was (more) aligned with parliament – around 50% in the 1950-1970s. After that and today, elected officials are nearly 99% with a university diploma, which is much higher than the numbers in the US (about 25-30%). Who should then be surprised the elected bodies do not represent the majority of the country or people. Elected people already think they are more educated and better than the average person and this creates a condescending attitude that is felt by those who did not “win.”

Lastly, Sandel makes a strong point that winning in both today’s society and in past society’s is heavily dependant on luck and circumstance. We do not emphasize enough this fact and Sandel explains that if there is one trend he sees at University, it is that students feel much more today than 20 years ago that they deserve their success. This is contrast to all the data that shows that coming from educated and wealthy families basically assures you will reach certain heights of success – regardless of your natural talents (which you do not control anyways).

I will leave you with two favourite videos that enforce this point:

The head start in the race of life

9 Life Lessons – Tim Minchin UWA Address

Published on January 26, 2022