In his groundbreaking work The Tyranny of Merit, Michael J. Sandel does not dispute the value of merit itself, but he scathingly exposes the hollowness and oppression of a society built primarily on meritocracy. He unmasks how ‘merit’ turns tyrannical when individuals in such a society not only fail to achieve it, but also when they do.
He agrees that merit matters. It signifies competence and quality, promotes fairness that is based on achievement, and enables efficiency. It rewards those who work hard, who take initiative and carry responsibility. It provides a sense of freedom and control, as in the belief that ‘I’m not the victim of circumstance, I can rise as far as my efforts and talents will take me’.
But (and this is a big but!) there is an immense difference between holding people responsible for their actions, and holding them responsible for ‘their lot in life’.
The modern mantra of ‘I deserve my success’ has produced an arrogance and extravagance among the elites, while it has demoralised working-class people. Sandel comments that amidst unrestrained inequality, the opportunities and support provided by inherited privilege are the real keys to success – more so than individual effort. He argues that even the idea of our talents determining our destiny is flawed – we are lucky when we are born with a talent our society values highly, instead of having a talent no-one cares about.
So how does the tyranny of merit affect the winners? There is no denying that the relentless pressure to achieve has caused widespread mental health issues and fragile self-worth among young people. And because the stakes are so high, parenting has become an anxious “form of product development”. Education itself has become less about actual learning, than about “packaging oneself with the right credentials”. (A Harvard professor since 1981, Sandel has witnessed this change first-hand.)
For the losers, the effect has been even more destructive. The legendary ‘level playing-field of equal opportunity’ remains an illusion. Blue- and white-collar workers have, in essence, been given a double burden – either ‘better’ yourself by ‘rising’ against all the odds, or carry the burden of your own failure.
According to Sandel, we have to acknowledge that meritocracy is not (as is often argued and widely accepted) a remedy for inequality – it has become a justification for it.
In the process it has devalued the dignity and contribution of the working-class, leaving many people feeling that the elites exploit and look down on them. The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fuelled populist protest and extreme polarisation. It has led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens – making the shared feeling of ‘the common good’ impossible.
Set within the context of American politics, Ivy League ‘comping culture’, the popularity of Trump and the underlying reasons for Brexit, The Tyranny Of Merit is nevertheless relevant to democracies everywhere. It grapples with unexpected and uncomfortable questions, and offers a radical re-evaluation of how everyone’s participation in the global economy should be judged and rewarded.
As Sandel concludes, “We need to repair the conditions people want to flee – no flourishing society can be premised only on the promise of escape.”
Review by Lise-Marie Keyser