Review: The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In general, Sandel's book is a powerful examination of the ways merit and the U.S. (and world at large) purports to be a meritocracy. It's a damning critique in where the concept of merit and meritocracy come from (a mixture of Horatio Alger and also a satire by Michael Young in the mid-20th century).  The crux of his argument is that any society that invokes the ideas of meritocracy means that any time people do not succeed, the inevitable message is that they did not try hard enough and that is why they themselves are failures.  That message has a crippling effect on people because it is often not true and ignores the fact that a capitalist system such as ours is structured on the inequality of resources and advancement.  To unquestioningly present merit as the centerstone of society has contributed to much of the division and political anger in recent populist movements (on the left and the right).  

Sandel's explanation of the limits and problems of merit and meritocracy is important for many to realize and valuable for the most successful people to remember as they consider their choices and their understanding of other people's choices.  However, Sandel flounders a bit in my view in that while discussing the ways the merit-discourse exists in modern culture is the "real" reason for the rise of Trump and the extremist and marginalizing behavior by many of his followers.  While elites (though he never really defines this) and higher education (and the structures that over-value it compared to other post-secondary training) are problems, Sandel gives too much credence to them and barely anything to the roles that media, particularly right-wing media have also pushed anti-intellectual agendas for decades and the lingering effect that has.  This limitation comes through in Sandel's work by his repeated mentions of how Trump won the 2016 election, confusing the election outcome with the actual number of votes that Trump did get (fewer than Clinton, and much less when considering the entire voting population--that's less than 1/4 of the US citizenry).  He also fails to acknowledge how the left has also worked to undermine meritocracy with the idea but rather blames them for failing to care or invest in dismantling ideas of meritocracy.  For example, he ignores the push for liveable wages such as the advancement of $15 an hour as a minimum wage.  In that way, his argument feels limited in terms of how he applies political analysis without genuine consideration of media analysis.  However, the book should still be read and considered by many. 

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