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  • The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)
The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? By Michael J. Sandel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 288 pp.

This clever and artfully written book by Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel interweaves sociopolitical analysis with academic-style political theory. It is framed by the now-familiar argument that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were the products of a populist backlash among the losers of globalization. While deploring the nativism, misogyny, and racism that often accompany populism, Sandel contends that populist resentment is rooted in and justified by the failure of democratic elites. In particular, he blames those elites for promoting an ethos that leads the successful to believe that they deserve their success, thus giving rise to what he labels the “tyranny of merit.”

Sandel suggests that this exalting of merit is a relatively new phenomenon—a product of the last four decades, initiated by the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But it is not only conservatives whom he blames for this trend. He harshly criticizes Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama for their emphasis on equal opportunity and for their reliance on the “rhetoric of rising” (p. 59) to promise their citizens success if they “work hard and play by the rules” (p. 67).

Sandel portrays the immediate post-1945 decades as a halcyon period of civic solidarity. According to his narrative, it is only the past forty years that have brought the triumph of “meritocratic hubris” (an epithet that probably recurs in this volume more often than “rosy-fingered dawn” does in Homer’s Odyssey). The prosperous, having now come [End Page 155] to think that they have earned—and thus deserve—their success, have adopted a condescending attitude toward their poorer fellow citizens. This in turn prompts among the latter resentments that fan the flames of populism.

Sandel is right to take seriously the plight of the white working class in advanced democracies. In the United States, manufacturing jobs surely have been lost due to globalization, and working-class whites have been faring poorly in terms of wage gains and a number of other indicators (especially “deaths of despair” due to suicide, drug addiction, and alcoholism). Yet the emergence of populism has been a global phenomenon, afflicting countries such as Poland, Peru, and the Philippines where its rise cannot plausibly be attributed to globalization or the loss of manufacturing jobs. The deep causes of populist dissatisfaction, which no doubt combine economic, sociological, and cultural factors, are not easy to sort out.

Moreover, in the United States at least, the disjunction between the post–World War II era and more recent decades is not nearly as sharp as Sandel makes it out to be. Exhibit A in Sandel’s case—the subject with which his book begins and which frequently recurs—is the growing competition for entry into elite colleges. The percentage of applicants turned away from these institutions has indeed been rising, but the high-end college-admissions contest was already intense by the early 1960s. More generally, striving for material success is deeply rooted in the United States, as has long been recognized both in serious literature and in popular culture. It suffices to cite Alexis de Tocqueville’s judgment in the 1830s: “I know of no country . . . where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men, and where profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.”

So why did this longstanding American predisposition suddenly give birth to “meritocratic hubris”? Sandel never really makes this clear. But given the fact that he returns repeatedly to the arena of higher education, the center of his concern seems to be testing and sorting in the schools. He even entitles an entire chapter “Credentialism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.” Yet while it is true that deaths of despair are much more prevalent among those without college degrees, this does not mean that the intense competition among the children of the upper-middle classes to get into the...


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pp. 155-159
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