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The Tyranny of Merit

Can We Find the Common Good?

Michael J. Sandel

Picador

The Tyranny of Merit Download image

ISBN10: 1250800064
ISBN13: 9781250800060

Trade Paperback

288 Pages

$18.00

CA$24.50

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These are dangerous times for democracy. We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favor of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the American credo that "you can make it if you try." The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fueled populist protest and extreme polarization, and led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens—leaving us morally unprepared to face the profound challenges of our time.

World-renowned philosopher Michael J. Sandel argues that to overcome the crises that are upending our world, we must rethink the attitudes toward success and failure that have accompanied globalization and rising inequality. Sandel shows the hubris a meritocracy generates among the winners and the harsh judgement it imposes on those left behind, and traces the dire consequences across a wide swath of American life. He offers an alternative way of thinking about success—more attentive to the role of luck in human affairs, more conducive to an ethic of humility and solidarity, and more affirming of the dignity of work. The Tyranny of Merit points us toward a hopeful vision of a new politics of the common good.

Reviews

Praise for The Tyranny of Merit

“Michael Sandel has spent decades scrutinizing the tenets of Western liberalism, including beliefs about justice, markets, and, now, meritocracy. In The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel examines how the notion of meritocracy . . . was torqued into an American shibboleth. Over time, Sandel argues, it fed a ‘toxic brew of hubris and resentment.’”—Evan Osnos, The New Yorker

“In a market society where money and merit are conflated, even a fair meritocracy would implicitly affirm that the rich are rich because they deserve to be, and the poor have no one to blame but themselves for their plight. As Michael Sandel [argues] in The Tyranny of Merit, one can hardly overstate the corrosive effect of this belief on democracy. By dividing the population into winners and losers, smart people and stupid ones, the meritocratic myth promotes hubris on one side, humiliation and resentment on the other.”—Jackson Lears, The New York Review of Books

“Many of us need what [Sandel] does so well: help us grapple with the unexpected and uncomfortable questions that history delivers us . . . Now’s a good time for both sides to sit down for a very serious talk, with The Tyranny of Merit required reading for all.”—Arlie Hochschild, The New York Times Book Review

“In a much talked-about new book, The Tyranny of Merit . . . Sandel argues that the polarized politics of our time, and the resentments that fuel it, arise, paradoxically, from a seemingly attractive ideal—the meritocratic promise that if you work hard and go to college, you will rise.”—Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times

“Now that Joe Biden has won his restoration candidacy, where do we go from here? Should we rebuild the system the way we left it? Sandel’s book should be required reading for anyone interested in rebuilding our broken nation.”—Chang Che, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Over the past 40 years, [Sandel] observes, America’s ruling class has exalted one quality, one virtue, one human attribute above all others: smartness . . . But, as Sandel points out, the elevation of smart over dumb leaves behind many other valid measures of value: right vs. wrong, fair vs. unfair, free vs. unfree, equal vs. unequal . . . In an increasingly precarious economy, it has come to seem that only those possessed of a particular kind of intelligence have a chance at a stable, secure life, or at the satisfying sense that one’s work is honored and valued by society at large.”—Annie Murphy Paul, The Boston Globe

“Sandel shows us not only how the liberal promise of equality of opportunity has not been fulfilled, but how the very conception of life as a relentless competitive race unjustly denigrates the losers, produces a cynical and arrogant elite, corrupts institutions of higher education, and replaces democracy with technocracy. Unwittingly, it thereby creates populist backlash.”—Elizabeth Anderson, The Nation

“Sandel is right to probe the dark things that can come from embracing meritocracy . . . The ability to obtain post-secondary degrees, particularly from elite institutions, is at least as much a reflection of one’s class and race as it is of one’s deservedness . . . Sandel wants [us] to be more forthright about acknowledging the role of luck. Americans should show more humility and, with it, strive for greater equality of condition as well as equality of opportunity.”—Richard D. Kahlenberg, Washington Monthly

“Sandel has accomplished a remarkable feat . . . The book is an important and timely contribution to the national debate, considerably deepening existing critiques of meritocracy.”—Kate Andrias, American Journal of Law and Equality

“A compelling critique of meritocracy . . . Sandel’s flowing prose shows why he is feted for the accessibility and popularity both of his books and lectures.”—Michael Marmot, Lancet

“Michael Sandel views politics as fundamentally a moral enterprise, and to 'morally invigorate our public discourse' has been a principal goal of his writings from the beginning of his career in the early 1980s . . . His new book, The Tyranny of Merit . . . traces the history of the idea and its abuses, from theological debates to recent political campaigns. If we want to build a functional democracy, he argues, we need to dismantle the notion of meritocracy, and orient our politics around a renewed sense of the common good.”—Win McCormack, The New Republic

“Well-argued, clear, and nicely timed . . . Sandel unfolds a programme for dignified lives for all.”—Simon Kuper, New Statesman

The Tyranny of Merit is infused with moral urgency, elegantly written and cogently argued, with a core conclusion both succinct and indisputable: meritocracy does not counter inequality, it justifies it.”—Brian Bethune, MacLean’s

“Brilliant . . . Sandel’s critique is as compelling as his plea for the renewal of social bonds is powerful. Besides debunking a series of myths—that success is self-made, that humans are self-sufficient, that educational attainment matters more than the dignity of work—the book is a brave attack on technocracy as the foundation of a just social order.”—Adrian Pabst, Prospect

“Sandel is the most important and influential living philosopher . . . [His] new book offers a profound critique of individualism, making the case for the move away from self to community, from ‘my wants now’ to ‘the common good’.”—Paul Collier, Times Literary Supplement

“Michael Sandel’s powerful new book The Tyranny of Merit . . . is a searing account of the way that our system of meritocracy has perverted our democracy . . . The problem is clear: meritocracy, as it is symbolized by a college degree, is eroding the feelings of solidarity and commonality that are at the heart of a functioning democracy.”—Eboo Patel, Inside Higher Ed

“Sandel argues with compelling insight that for many Americans, the fundamental discontent is not just the lack of economic opportunity for so many whom globalization left behind, it’s the dignity of work, and particularly the work they do.—Ron Carucci, Forbes

“A brilliant new book, The Tyranny of Merit . . . gets at this all-important question of humiliation, and its relationship to populism and democracy.”—Anand Giridharadas, The.Ink

“Sandel is among the few thinkers who warn fellow elites that the very system that has afforded them prestige, material comfort, and the tools to survive, and even thrive, amid economic and social instability has given rise to pervasive political discontent and lies at the root of the recent populist backlash against elites.”—Patrick J. Deneen, American Affairs

“Sandel gives us a masterful account of flaws in the meritocratic ideal and suggestions of what should replace it.”—Deborah L. Rhode, American Journal of Law and Equality

“As we know, the rich enjoy advantages that invariably tilt the playing field in their favor . . . However, Sandel argues there’s a more basic moral problem: The meritocratic way of thinking generates hubris among the ‘winners’, by encouraging them to think that their success is all their own doing and reflects their superior virtue . . . Seduced by the ethic of aspiration, many of us have been complacent in accepting meritocracy, without considering that it also serves as a moral justification for the status quo.”Tim Soutphommasane, Sydney Morning Herald

“Sandel has become adept at articulating what we know, deep down, to be true yet struggle as a society to act upon . . . [A]ny political reformer would be well served by keeping a copy of The Tyranny of Merit close at hand.”—Joe Humphreys, Irish Times

“A terrific read . . . rich in moral exhortation, the kind that would do your soul good.”—Polly Toynbee, columnist, The Guardian

The Tyranny of Merit is Sandel’s response to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump . . . Sandel draws on a vocabulary that challenges liberal notions of autonomy in a way that has been unfashionable for decades. Words such as 'dependency', 'indebtedness', 'mystery', 'humility' and 'luck' recur in his book.”—Julian Coman, The Guardian

The Tyranny of Merit is original, lively and no mere critique: unlike many others who have written on the 'sorting' of society into winners and losers, Sandel produces a persuasive argument about the kind of community we should seek . . . The Tyranny of Merit is an important work, and makes a profound point that our leaders would do well to understand.”—Nick Timothy, Daily Telegraph

“Any political leader who is really serious about ‘building back better’ should read Michael J Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit because it contains a blueprint for a brighter future.”—Sean Smith, The Independent (London)

“[An] engaging and timely critique . . . that will help us to heal our divided societies.”—Matthew Goodwin, The Times (London)

“Sandel argues that the common good is not just the sum of individual preferences. It is about a sense of solidarity based on a shared understanding of what makes for a good society . . . How do we move to a society in which all, whatever work they do or do not do, are recognized as having dignity and value rather than left with the sense of being a loser?”—Richard Harries, Church Times

“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. A crucial book for this moment."—Tara Westover, author of Educated

“A very important book for this moment . . . It will give students a new kind of courage to rethink their education.”—Anna Deavere Smith, actress and playwright

“This book shook some of my most fundamental assumptions . . . I cannot recommend it highly enough.”—Shashi Tharoor, author and Member of Parliament (India), Jaipur Literature Festival

“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

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

The Tyranny of Merit is truly a great book. It is the rare book of political theory that will be widely accessible, make news, and provoke healthy debate—debate that will strengthen our democracy regardless of the side one takes. And it will resonate widely, even profoundly, about the situation we are all in.”—Elliot Gerson, Vice President of the Aspen Institute

“A lot of us have nibbled around the edges of this subject. But we’ve all been waiting for somebody to write THE book on the subject of what's wrong with meritocracy . . . This is indeed THE book, and it is wonderful.”—John Ralston Saul, author, former President of PEN International

“Sandel offers a cogent, penetrating critique of meritocracy, which, he argues persuasively, has trammeled our sense of community and mutual respect . . . A stimulating examination of a divisive social and political problem.”Kirkus Reviews

“A rich, incisive analysis of how the meritocratic ideal contributes to contemporary political crisis.”Publisher’s Weekly

BOOK EXCERPTS

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INTRODUCTION: GETTING IN


In March 2019, as high school students awaited the results of their college applications, federal prosecutors made a stunning announcement. They charged thirty-three wealthy parents with engaging in an...

About the author

Michael J. Sandel

Michael J. Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University. His books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? were international best sellers and have been translated into 27 languages. Sandel’s legendary course “Justice” was the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and has been viewed by tens of millions. His BBC series “The Public Philosopher” explores the philosophical ideas lying behind the headlines with participants from around the world.

© Stephanie Mitchell

Michael J. Sandel

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