BOOK REVIEW "The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?"​ by Michael J. Sandel

January 6, 2023

I enjoyed this book. As occasionally happens, the highest praise I can give a book is when I have occasion to tell my partner, "I just read a book by <a Harvard PhD in Philosophy>, and it basically affirmed a bunch of wisdom that you already imparted to me." Such is the case with Author Sandel.

In summary, the book articulates the many downsides of the zero sum, winner vs. loser meritocratic ideals we've adopted as a society here in the U.S. and much of Western Europe. Sandel offers a especially scathing assessment of credentialism. By focusing solely on a 4-year University education as the exclusive means of "winning" a middle-class or better lifestyle, while simultaneously eviscerating the dignity and social standing of blue collar workers, (today labelled "losers" in the game of life), the stage was set over the past 50+ years for the destructive trends of populist nationalism and polarized politics we experience today. Meanwhile, politicians and economists continue to blindly focus on issues of "distributive justice" - or how to fairly redistribute wealth from the "haves" to the "have nots", while utterly neglecting issues of "contributive justice", or the opportunity for people of every social and economic strata to meaningfully contribute to the improvement and well-being of our society - rightly taking credit for and pride in such contributions. Modern society's myopic view of what constitutes a "good education", a "good job", and "economic justice" has destroyed much of our commonwealth, including the behaviors, attitudes and customs necessary to the effective functioning of a representative democracy. Such observations echo themes of Professor Scott Galloway's editorials, whom I'd like to thank for recommending Mr. Sandel's book.

I enjoyed the first third of the text, as Mr. Sandel leads us through an historical perspective of meritocratic ideals, where they originated, and how they came to dominate Western social discourse. Towards the middle of the book, I felt that Sandel "lost the narrative" a bit as he went to some pretty excruciating lengths to split fine-grained hairs on that which is "merited" versus that which is "deserved". Such digressions may be unavoidable in any scholarly text. This seemed very important to Sandel, but didn't do much to augment his scholarship in my reading. In the final chapters, Sandel rediscovers his voice and picks up the tempo to lead us through some keen observations on the consequences of credentialism, or our obsession with college degrees and other signs and symbols of demonstrated competence. Society's exclusive focus on such credentials, to the detriment of apprenticed craftsperson's and other vocations, not only exacerbates the wealth gap in America, (driven by neoliberal economic policies of the past 50 years), but has unjustly diminished the contributive social standing of 2/3rds of America's populace - those who lack a 4-year college degree.

In the end, I was mildly disappointed that Sandel failed to make any substantive recommendations about how we might improve our current society when it comes to issues of meritocracy and credentialism, though perhaps that's expecting too much. The mere fact he brings these issues clearly into focus is perhaps service enough. Further, the irony that a Harvard PhD wrote a book that is critical of Harvard PhD's was not lost on me. Perhaps Sandel's status as an academic insider, combined with his overly academic approach to these topics indicates that his work is a critique of insiders, intended to be read by insiders, and not the stirring eulogy to our commonwealth that one might hope for. This would be a shame. Only by shepherding such ideas to a much wider audience can we begin to rebuild our Western commonwealth, and engage in the positive social change that Sandel so clearly calls for.

Grow your business.
Contact us today to find out how we can help you take your business to the next level
Start Now