The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
The almost sacred principle of meritocracy—that society should (and does) grant position and wealth to the most talented and capable—is tearing people apart, according to this bracing sociopolitical treatise. Harvard political philosopher Sandel (Democracy’s Discontent
) argues that the meritocratic creed has created a sharply unequal, globalized economy with soaring incomes for a few and stagnant wages for the rest; government by out-of-touch technocrats indifferent to the concerns of ordinary people; and a populist backlash against meritocratic elites from a working class that’s marginalized and humiliated by a system that says their dim prospects are the just outcome of their lack of smarts and adaptability. Writing in tart prose that decries “the smug conviction of those who land on the top that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs,” the author traces the meritocratic concept from Christian theological roots and criticisms of it by philosophers to its deep influence on modern-day rhetoric; the book’s centerpiece is a stinging attack on universities as temples of meritocracy that nevertheless reinforce upper-class privilege rather than helping the disadvantaged. Sandel, however, only makes a few concrete suggestions for dethroning meritocracy, including college admissions by lottery. Still, he offers a rich, incisive analysis of how the meritocratic ideal contributes to contemporary political crises. (Sept.)