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The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? Kindle Edition
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"This is a remarkable book about justice. In his unique and powerful moral voice, Michael Sandel digs at the roots of our divisions, dissects the causes of inequality, and dismantles the lazy orthodoxy of those on the left and the right. Accessible and profound, The Tyranny of Merit is a revelatory assessment of pervasive unfairness in our society, driven in part by a naïve and myopic reliance on the notion of merit. In a time of easy rhetoric and thoughtless tribalism, this provocative book is a must-read for anyone who still cares about the common good. You will catch yourself wondering, again and again, “Why have I never thought of it that way?” No good faith reader will come away from this book unchanged." ―Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and Author of Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law
“Astute, insightful, and empathetic, Sandel exposes the cruelty at the heart of some of our most beloved myths about success. A must-read for anyone struggling to understand populist resentment, and why, for many Americans, the American Dream has come to feel more like a taunt than a promise. This book is just what we need right now.” ―Tara Westover, author of Educated
“The Tyranny of Merit deftly exposes the flaws and fallacies of meritocratic philosophy. In lucid, illuminating prose, Sandel makes a compelling case for uprooting inequality and building a fairer society shaped by true principles of justice. A seminal work.” ―Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation
About the Author
- ASIN : B084M1W9WB
- Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 15, 2020)
- Publication date : September 15, 2020
- Language: : English
- File size : 1032 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 289 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #5,482 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Sandel spends the first half of the book in philosophical territory (which he is most comfortable with), but I found it to be of somewhat limited value. It was strange to me how much he focused on Western religious tradition and philosophy, as if it were the source of the concept of meritocracy, when it seems obvious to me that global economic forces are creating versions of meritocratic systems in places like China.
Once Sandel transitions from philosophy to economics and politics, I became more engaged. However, he does not provide new insights into how people are behaving within meritocracy, referencing other’s papers but not interrogating them deeply.
For example, he stereotypes Trump supporters/populists as non-college whites who have lost out economically. But the strongest Trump supporters are non-professional economically successful whites. I wish he had addressed this demographic segment specifically, because I think they (successful small business owners) exist at the intersection of “winning” the meritocracy game, yet failing to reap the social status rewards that come with academic/professional credentials.
Sandel also only briefly addresses the racism and related status competition that I believe is a powerful engine for white resentment in the US. Other books have been written on this topic, but I was hoping this book would be a synthesis of these two major drivers of social status—meritocratic success and racial privilege. These are my own hopes/expectations, rather than Sandel’s goal, so my disappointment in this gap is somewhat of my own making.
I did find the book engaging, and with a number of very valuable insights.
His framing of meritocracy in the context of Hayek and Rawls was very helpful to my understanding. In Sandel’s telling, both Hayek and Rawls view economic success and moral desert as independent variables—our market system should not be a judge of one’s moral value to society.
In Hayek’s “free-market liberalism,” economic success is strictly a measure how well individuals operate in the market system, which should be held separate from societal merit. However, redistribution of these gains on a basis of merit would require government coercion and is therefore unacceptable.
In Rawls’s “egalitarian liberalism,” the disconnect between economic success and merit/justice requires redistribution of the economic gains on a basis of societal merit, according to “the difference principle,” where the gains that accrue to the talented and lucky are redistributed to the less talented/lucky.
Meritocracy differs from these two worldviews in that it collapses together economic/professional success with moral desert. Mankiw describes the idealized version of meritocracy: since “each person’s income reflects the value of what he contributed to society’s production of goods and services, one might easily conclude that, under these idealized conditions, each person receives his just deserts.”
The fundamental problem of meritocracy, in my interpretation of Sandel, is that he, like Hayek/Rawls/Knight, recognizes that economic market success is fundamentally a function of luck: talent, culture, and even the capacity for hard work are all things that are not truly under our control; yet in our society, this success is interpreted as just and a measure of a person’s moral value and what they deserve—so the losers in this system are implicitly unworthy members of society.
Sandel spends much of the book identifying how we attempt to perfect meritocracy, yet our idealized version of meritocracy is fundamentally flawed. He describes our society’s outsized focus on educational attainment as harshly judging those who do not flourish in that system, torturing the competitors in the race, and driving the winning parents to replicate their meritocratic advantages for their children.
Meritocracy has replaced aristocracy. But, according to Sandel, instead of the recognition that the aristocrat’s fortunes are a function of the luck of their birth, and not a judgment of their moral worth, in a meritocracy, one’s station is explicitly a judge of one’s worth. One’s success or failure is not about luck, but a manifestation of one’s value as a human.
Sandel’s final chapter, “Recognizing Work,” is his (pretty light) policy solutions chapter. He highlights policies by others including subsidizing lower-income work (kind of like an expanded EITC, though he doesn’t say this) and replacing income taxes with a tax on financial transactions. He makes no mention of a Universal Basic Income, making the assumption (in my reading) that market-paid work is the important work to reward (as opposed to unpaid elder or child care, of which he makes to mention). I don’t disagree with the policies he mentions, but “Recognizing Work” seems to me a failure to really address the problems of meritocracy or provide a vision for how our society should adapt its culture.
If you’re interested in these topics, the book is definitely worth a read. I hope his next book will be the one I really want, a deeper meditation on relative social status in America and its role as a key political driver.
What Sandel’s publicist’s promise is “The Tyranny of Merit points us toward a hopeful vision of a new politics of the common good.” Unfortunately little follows from that. Many suggestions are listed having merit, but they all require govermental action from a system that seems to be captured by the same power structures that brought us populism and by inference President Trump and what follows. Joe Biden earns one mention when in 1987, during his first presidential campaign, a voter pressed him to say what law school he attended and where he placed in the class. “Fact-checking found that Biden’s reply was replete with exaggeration.”(loc. 1473)
He recognizes the stresses that have been created at stagnating income levels for the last 40 years, but finds Americans tend to accept inequality, but more and more bridle at “what economic roles are worthy of honor and recognition.” He opens the topic of “renewing the dignity of work,” and goes on to raise the issue of ‘the common good,’ and how we are all in this together.
Interesting if all this comes as an unknown; in his favor Sandel recognizes that our plutocratic class seem to be those of the ‘unknowing.’
Salvation may come when that finally changes? *
Not an interesting work, if already booked up.
*An interesting article (11/28/20) NYTimes headed “The Rich Kids Who Want to Tear Down Capitalism.”
‘Socialist-minded millennial heirs are trying to live their values by getting rid of their money;’ mentions organizations such as Resource Generation, and others to help them along.
A good complement to this book is Bruce M. Boghasian, "The Inescapable Casino", Scientific American, November 2019. Physicists and mathematicians have constructed agent-based models that closely replicate wealth distributions across countries. The starting point is random wealth transfers from one person to another, and it takes only a few additional assumptions to generate real-world wealth distributions.
Top reviews from other countries
I like books where I don't always 100% agree with the author, because it helps me to question what I think and to consider whether I should change my own stance. Otherwise we live in echo chambers sucking up everything that validates our lifestyle, politics, values and actions.
I don't always entirely agree with Sandel's portrayal of what's wrong with society - it comes across as overly polarised at times, but his overall argument is strong and I do agree with it: meritocracy is corrosive of the common good. The rich get richer and the poor are still with us. Maybe you think that's fine if you subscribe to a hedonistic or rational egotistic philosophy, but I'd hope that most of think we can do better as the human race, to be more humble, more considerate, more inclusive.
He highlights three aspects of Western societies that we should rethink: (1) the role of higher education; (2) the dignity of work; and (3) the meaning of success.
Sandel uses the works of others to good effect. Much of what he writes has been said before in a way, but this book collates this thinking together helpfully to present a contextually strong argument in light of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Sandel draws us convincingly towards its titular implication: that society needs to escape the tyranny of merit.
A stimulating book for those who are willing to hold up a mirror to life in the fast lane of the Western world.
Sandel’s book is about selection by merit. A nice sounding, welcome word that hides a multitude of sin. The moment we begin to think of merit as getting what we deserve, for all the talent inherent in us and the effort we put in, we begin to see ourselves as winners and others as losers. We begin to think in the language of what we deserve. We begin to see ourselves as experts and the natural inheritors of just rewards.
In this book, Sandel examines the merits of merit, and the reasons why meritocracy has become a disgusting word to ‘populists’. This is a deep and meticulous examination of merit as just desert, a notion that requires a broad understanding of what it is and how it works. It is not a straightforward notion. For example, Fredrich Hayek thinks that merit stands in the way of redistribution of wealth, whereas John Rawls believes that merit stands in the way of objections to redistribution. For Hayek, insistence on merit may deny redistribution on other grounds of desert and necessity. Rawlsian principles to not seek to reward merit or virtue.
“If meritocracy is the problem’, Sandel asks, ‘what is the solution?’ It does not mean that we hire people on nepotism, but rethinking the way we conceive of success. It means ‘challenging inequalities of wealth and esteem that are defended in the name of merit but foster resentment, poison our politics, and drive us apart.’ The focus, Sandel says, should be on the two central domains of our lives – work and education.
When we have time to reflect on the true nature of meritocracy, we will have to ask ourselves whether we see health and wealth as matters we deserve by our effort conceding ‘nothing to luck and grace – that everything is a reward or punishment for the choices we make’. This notion also plasters over the fallacious belief that being good and being great are one and the same.
Sandel traces the roots of meritocracy and reminds us not to draw the wrong lessons from those who achieve through greatness. The young black boy who went on to break Babe Ruth’s home run record should not, Sandel warns, drive us to love meritocracy but to ‘despise a system of racial injustice that can only be escaped by hitting home runs’.
Essentially a single idea book: Meritocracy is not just, it creates winners and losers and the winners are nasty to the losers and the losers elect Donald Trump.
Being written by Sandel there is a bit more, but there are no human solutions.
The main problem with the book is that it is not tackling the main problems with late 20 century technological society, which will be exacerbated in the 21st century.
Automation has created 4 times the job loses of outsourcing and having devastated the blue collar is set to work on clerical and higher with the onslaught of AI.
There are very few jobs-for-life, people need to constantly re-train and adapt, it’s not a question of the “credentials” (which Sandel blames for inequality), it is a question of ABILITY and there is an increasingly large population of people who, even if given equal opportunity, will be unable to do.
China is solving the problem by using half its population as a police force and is not concerned with equality and “the good life”, “value” and “merit” in the social meanings Sandel uses, they are a brute force which has a single purpose – the triumph of the party. The West are naïve fools to think they can be nice and (never mind win) not lose.
We do need solutions but Sandel is not helping by this book.