The Myths of Today’s Elites and the Rise of ‘Meritocracy’

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, by Michael J. Sandel, Penguin. Reviewed by Hillary Sillitto.

My two main take-aways from religious education at school were, first, the tale of the Good Samaritan, and second, the phrase “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Very rich people who care little for those less fortunate than themselves, yet profess the Christian faith, have always confused me. This book drew me in by resolving this conundrum in its early pages.

It refers to a parable I paid less attention to – the one about the servants and the talents. The master leaves his three servants with portions of his wealth. One invests his large share successfully and is fulsomely praised. The second invests a lesser amount with some success and gets modest praise. The third is roundly condemned for lack of initiative having buried his, the smallest, share safely in the ground. This, and other parables, justify an interpretation of the Bible that Sandel calls “the prosperity gospel.” This has become popular in 21st Century North America, and conveniently holds that:

  • the good book tells us that the elect will be ok;
  • we are ok;
  • therefore we must be the elect;
  • therefore it’s ok to carry on doing what we’ve been doing and get stinking rich.

The Tyranny of Merit demolishes the myth that a meritocratic society can be a good society, even for the winners, never mind the losers. Equality of opportunity – anyone can succeed through talent hard work – was the founding myth of ‘the American Dream’ and of the Blair era in the UK. But have they delivered? Sandel claims that educational achievement has replaced class as the great divide in Western, particularly US and British, society. The less prosperous and less educated half of the population lost out in the race for the credentials now essential to secure the fewer worthwhile jobs available – leading directly to the alienation that produced the votes for Trump and Brexit. 

He suggests that “Equality of opportunity is [merely] a… necessary corrective to injustice… not an adequate ideal for a good society.” As soon as you say the winners have earned their success by their own talent and hard work, you brand the losers as failures. And in a ‘winner takes all’ set-up, there are few winners and many losers. 

As a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, Sandel sees the winners in the hyper-competitive race to success in modern America – and he does not envy them. Their life is a constant competition. They do not have time to think and reflect (even in philosophy classes!); and because (he maintains) they have been led to believe that success is entirely down to their own efforts, they don’t acknowledge the debt they owe to accident of time and place and genetic inheritance of birth, or to the supportive society and community infrastructures they grew up in. The argument is developed throughout the book, with his views on how to do better limited to a few pages at the end. 

Meritocracy arose as a perceived solution to the problems of inherited status, but has led to the populist uprising by the losing half of society. When a British government set a goal of 50% of school leavers to go to university, I did wonder what would happen to the other 50% – would they be seen as ‘different, or ‘not so good’? Sandel is clear that in the US at least, it’s the latter, leading to ‘the politics of humiliation’.

It’s a small step from selection based on merit, to belief that success in life is earned and therefore deserved. Part of the appeal of ‘the prosperity gospel’ is its emphasis ‘on the individual’s responsibility for their own fate’. This is why, rather than showing humility in the face of their success, its adherents show hubris. They look down on others less fortunate than themselves as undeserving failures: either they’re not blessed, or they messed up. Apparently, messing up extends to failing to take out insurance against every possible adverse eventuality. 

As meritocratic assumptions strengthened their hold, they corroded community spirit and mutual help. The notion of ‘as far as your talents will take you’ is all very well, but what if you’ve been short-changed on talents at birth, or if your talents aren’t valued by others in society? The prospect of anyone being able to win is seductive – until you find you’re not one of the winners. Then what?

Some of the giants of post-war Labour governments left school at 13 and did real jobs before going into politics. Could they do that now? The divide in qualifications risks giving rise to a ‘smart versus dumb’ split in society every bit as damaging to society as previous prejudices of race and class. But in mitigation, surely a more educated population is better at coming to agreement based on its greater shared knowledge? It seems not: the more educated people are, the more polarised their views on climate change. 

Predecessors have trod the path Sandel does, most notably Michael Young with his prophetic Rise of the Meritocracy published in 1958. Young, who wrote the legendary 1945 Labour Party manifesto, brought the word ‘meritocracy’ into the popular lexicon. To Young in the age of meritocracy: a self-interested, credentialised elite would lead to the kind of society described by Sandel: where the winners regard themselves as virtuous, talented and worthy of all the rewards and status they accrue and those outwith this caste are seen as failure and worthy of contempt.

How much do we deserve what we earn? ‘Totally’, says the meritocrat.  But if success depends partly on inherited talent and parental support, and partly being in the right place at the right time, and a decent chunk of luck, then how much reward do people deserve for that success? (Those of us born in the second half of the 20th Century in north-west Europe and North America are arguably the luckiest cohort to have ever lived, and possibly that will ever live.) Where is the right place to be on the spectrum between ‘winner take all’ and ‘winner take a little more’?

Sandel’s comfort zone is clearly the US university system. Originally set up for rich white Protestants, entry to the prestigious Ivy League colleges is now in theory open to all. Yet the increased complexity of the admission process means that the vast majority of places are secured by children of wealthy families who have the staying power and resources to stay in the race. And the race has become more competitive. Of old there were three applicants for each Ivy League place. Now there are over ten, for some colleges, leading to ‘hubris and humiliation’.  

Sandel’s discussion on ‘recognising work’ focuses on the USA but it is absolutely central to Scotland’s experience as well. “From the end of World War II to the 1970s, it was possible for those without a college degree to find good work, support a family, and lead a comfortable middle class life. This is far more difficult today.”

Further, the neoliberal economics of the last forty years maintained that the sole purpose of ‘the economy’ is to satisfy consumer wants as efficiently as possible. Thus, not only economists, but also politicians, recast the role of ordinary people from that of ‘citizen and contributor’ to that of ’consumer’. “The focus on maximising GDP… invites us to think of ourselves more as consumers than producers. In practice of course we are both…. As producers, we want satisfying and remunerative work.” Sandel concludes that: “The elites who presided over globalisation not only failed to address the inequality it generated; they also failed to appreciate its corrosive effect on the dignity of work.” This, Sandel maintains, is the root cause of populist discontent. 

This sets the scene for the final reveal. Sandel explores ‘work as recognition’ and the need for a shared civic conception of the common good. This provides a very strong philosophical justification for the Government Job Guarantee, which is a key element of Modern Monetary Theory thinking – that available resources should be employed by the government doing socially useful work at times when the private sector can’t offer enough employment.

Sandel is vitriolic on the effect of financialisation, the current obsession with viewing and managing everything in terms of its money value. Moving back to the UK, he quotes Adair Turner, chair of the FSA: “there is no clear evidence that the growth in the scale and complexity of the financial system in the rich developed world over the last 20-30 years has driven increased growth or stability, and it is possible for financial activity to extract rents (unjustified windfalls) from the real economy rather than deliver economic value.” In conclusion, Sandel suggests that the only rational form of equality worth striving for is a moderate degree of ‘equality of condition’.

Sandel is apparently one of the most influential living philosophers, the ‘rock star’ of philosophy. I haven’t seen him talk, but if his writing style is anything to go by he owes his reputation to excellent communication skills as well as to the quality of his thinking. The book is an easy read – just over 200 pages in eight chapters, each nicely structured and organised in bite-sized sections of a few pages each, and the text is a model of clear and direct writing about one of the most important subjects facing modern societies across the world.


Comments (8)

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  1. Axel P Kulit says:

    I read that in Germany they have parallel Academic and vocational ( i.e practical) educational tracks and it takes as long and is as hard to get the top practical qualification as to get a PhD on the academic track. Perhaps we need something like that here.

    Someone with a degree in electrical engineering here is regarded as Superior to an electrician, but nobody hires the graduate to rewire a ring circuit. Practical and academic should command equal respect. And money.

    Somehow working with your hands is regarded as lower class. I believe this dates back at least to ancient Greece where manual work was for slaves

    1. Wul says:


      And how quickly would things fall apart if all the professors died overnight, versus all the plumbers, electricians or joiners?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Wul, I take your point, although society might crumble even faster lacking unpaid carers and the basic goodwill needed to help others out. ‘Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner’ could apply to tradesfolk too. But all these roles are not mutually exclusive (I think one of the World Cup referees is a professor of organic chemistry; basically Marx’s social ideal was to embrace many roles).

        We live in a maldeveloped world: something has gone very wrong at a systems level about crafts and professions. We really do need systems thinkers, whatever their day jobs, capable of working across all kinds of borders in addressing global problems (and stop creating ones their predecessors are culpable of). We also need new, sustainable forms of basic crafts, and scientists can turn to nature for inspiration.

        The main error Sandel makes, I think, is to accept a false construct and argue against it. It is very similar if you accepted British ‘aristocracy’ and tried to make a systemic argument against ‘rule by the good’. They ain’t good. That’s just hypocrisy, cant and social cheating. It’s oligarchy you need to make a case against. Royalty is merely state capture by the winning organised crime family. A philosopher should analyse first, not simply accept that a brand name like ‘meritocracy’ describes what some elite says it does. Maybe his book is more persuasive than the lecture I heard.

  2. florian albert says:

    It is worth looking at how ‘meritocracy’ and its offspring ‘credentialism’ have changed Scotland.
    Universities have become major players in the economy of the Scottish cities and in towns like Paisley. Thousands of student flats have been built and continue to be built. There is undoubtedly a knock-on economic effect, though it seems to boost the likes of Costa and Starbucks more than anything else.
    The ‘elite’ universities strive to attract foreign students because they pay more. Thus Scottish students lose out in these universities and the most prestigious faculties.
    For the – mainly middle class – students, it means deferring entering the work force till well into their ’20s. For the progressive left, this means more job opportunities. (The historian David Edgerton pointed out that cities which previously had 50 professors now have 500.)
    Despite – or possibly because of – this, Scotland remains in many ways a low wage, low skill and low productivity economy; just as it was when under 10% of the population went to university.
    I do not doubt that there are centres of excellence but I do doubt that Scottish society is getting value for the changes which have taken place.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    I have not read the book, but I have heard Sandel lecture on the topic, and I was unimpressed. In my view, Sandel uses sophistry, shifting the goalposts to try to warp the concept of meritocracy to fit a peculiarly USAmerican-centric model. For example, he seems to include corruption, cheating and useless attributes under ‘merit’. Just because someone has a university degree, does not mean they have earned it fairly (cheating at exams may be rife, say) or that it is proof of merit (diploma mills etc.). He seems to entirely accept the idea that the rules for deciding on merit should be left to elites, but that is an extremely biased viewpoint. In fact, far more objective (if imperfect) tests of merit commonly apply in professions and crafts. The days of the gentleman amateur were numbered in many fields when outperformed by trained professionals.

    To merit does not imply taking a lion’s share. The socialist formulation: from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs:,_to_each_according_to_his_needs
    implies that both abilities and needs can be objectively measured. These are different kinds of merit, but just as valid as the kind Sandel seems obsessed with, if not more.

    My impression is that Sandel is aware of the deep flaws in his thesis and has tried to row back, making it far narrower, about an aspect of his contemporary USAmerican society, and not about competence (we expect or hope the professionals and craftspeople we deal with to be competent), and not something with universal application. It therefore becomes a battle about the meaning of the word merit, and therefore rather uninteresting from a systems thinking viewpoint, I guess. If some USAmericans want to use money as the measure of all things, it does not follow that others should give weight to this scoring system, especially if their various hypocrisies are obvious.

  4. John Pendrey says:

    I am not not happy with big ideas.

    I recently enjoyed being with an experienced and good mechanic replacing the starter motor in my car.
    It was inspiring and impressive to see how he dealt with the problems.
    A bonus was that he talked his way through it, out loud. I learnt a lot of practical skills from my ‘apprenticeship’.

    He also completed the job outside in twilight, mud and rain.

    How much an hour is that worth?
    How much an hour does a …….get?

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @John Pendrey, I think it is an interesting question if tenured academics, best-selling authors or patronage-seeking intellectuals are really philosophers if their goals appear to drift from a pursuit of knowledge. The ‘dog-like’ Diogenes apparently lived in a barrel and saw his share of twilight, mud and rain (although he got a bit ratty when someone blocked his sun).
      While an experienced mechanic is the kind of person Socrates was (as recorded by Plato) interested in speaking to.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @John Pendrey, and the book we were given to read before starting our philosophy course was Robert M Pirsig’s famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, based on a father-and-son road trip. I don’t know how accurate the mechanics were, but I found the ideas quite stimulating (when I eventually got round to reading it).

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