Even a meritocratic society isn't a fair one

Michael Sandel on why winners shouldn't take it all

Good government requires an ability to deliberate about the common good and to pursue it effectively
September 1, 2020
Even a meritocratic society isn't a fair one Image: Public domain
In our age of polarisation, merit is one of the few principles on which all politicians agree. Surely society ought to reward success earned through talent and hard work? Yet, as Michael Sandel’s brilliant book shows, our meritocratic system contains the seeds of tyranny—the unjust rule of “winners” over “losers” that diminishes the mutual obligations on which democracy depends. Meritocracy not only entrenches division by elevating the success of the “deserving wealthy” into an absolute that makes the rest feel worthless. It also creates hubris among winners and generates humiliation among losers. “A perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace,” writes Sandel. “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.”


Read our Brief Encounter interview with Michael Sandel ___________________________________________

Sandel’s critique is as compelling as his plea for the renewal of social bonds is powerful. Besides debunking a series of myths— that success is self-made, that humans are self-sufficient, that educational attainment matters more than the dignity of work—the book is a brave attack on technocracy as the foundation of a just social order. Meritocracy makes mobility the answer to inequality, thereby defining success in terms of moving away from the family and community. In reality, Sandel argues, a remoralised politics would focus on the flourishing of people in the places they call home. Good government requires “an ability to deliberate about the common good and to pursue it effectively.” But what he does not explore is how an ethics of civic life can transform politics—what will enable the building of common spaces in which everyone can live in dignity? A new consensus anchored in the common good will require new cross-class and cross-cultural coalitions. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael Sandel (Allen Lane, £20)