Abolishing Meritocracy Will Require a Whole Lot of Government Intervention
The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? By Michael J. Sandel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 272 pages.
Michael Sandel, who is a popular professor of government at Harvard, has written a strange book, even for a Harvard professor. Many critics of the free market, such as John Rawls, complain that the market is unfair because people do not start from a level playing field. We need to provide equality of opportunity so that people have an equal chance for the best positions. (For Rawls this is not enough, and the redistributionist “difference principle” is also required.) The demand for equality of opportunity is especially prevalent in college admissions, and calls abound to curtail the “legacy admissions” that are alleged to give an unfair advantage to the children of the rich.
Sandel agrees that the rich have an unfair advantage, but he thinks that the emphasis on equality of opportunity is fundamentally misplaced. A society in which the talented come out on top is bad, because in it the elite will look with disdain on those who do not rise as far as they have, and those who do not do well will feel resentful and unsure of their own worth. In lines he again and again repeats, he says, “The notion that the system rewards talent and hard work encourages the winners to consider their success their own doing, a measure of their virtue—and to look down upon those less fortunate than themselves….Seen from below, the hubris of elites is galling” (p. 25).
Sandel notes that although today “meritocracy” is for many a favorable term, just the opposite was the case with the person who introduced the word, the British sociologist Michael Young. He wasn’t in favor of the hierarchical British class system, but he suggested that “the arbitrariness of
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