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The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good? by Michael J. Sandel

18 September 2020

Richard Harries reads how inequality is fatal in the developed world

WHAT lies behind popular support for Donald Trump, the switch by many traditional Labour voters to the Conservatives, and the vote in favour of Brexit?

Most people recognise that this populism expresses some deep-seated resentment. Michael Sandel, described with justification as “the world’s most relevant living philosopher”, argues that it is a response to “a political failure of historic proportions”. He explores the reason for this with all the force of his recent books, which have sold millions, and his lectures at Harvard, which attract thousands of students.

He argues that it is a combination of globalisation and what he terms the tyranny of merit. As a result of globalisation, supported uncritically by all UK Governments, there has been a massive loss of many major industries. At the same time, with all the emphasis on financial services, there has been gross and growing inequality. In the United States, all the gains in the past four decades have gone to the richest ten per cent, while the median income of working-class men has gone down in this period. The top one per cent now own more than all the bottom half combined.

The effect of this inequality is especially marked in the feeling of failure in those left behind. This, Sandel says, has its roots in a secularisation of Calvinistic theology. The result is that the place of blue-collar workers in society is no longer recognised and the work that they do, if they have work, is not valued. Success has become an indication of virtue.

One of the tragic ways in which this is revealed is in the number of “deaths of despair”— self-inflicted deaths through suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol abuse. By 2014, for the first time, more white men and women aged 45-54 were dying of despair than of heart disease. By 2016, more Americans were dying of a drug overdose than died during the entire Vietnam War. More die of despair every two weeks than were killed during the 18 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These deaths of despair are almost all among those without a degree. The American dream — that those who work hard can get ahead — is shown to be a myth. It is easier to rise in more equal countries such as Canada, Germany, Denmark, and others in Europe. But, more than this, it inculcates a sense of failure in those who don’t make it.

This tyranny of merit, with its accompanying resentment, is vividly reflected in what Sandel calls “credentialism”, the biggest divide in society now being between those who have degrees and those who do not. It is those with university credentials who get ahead, who dominate society, who shape the Labour Party in this country and the Democrats in the US, so that these parties no longer represent blue-collar workers in the way that they once did.

PAMichael Sandel, described as “the world’s most relevant living philosopher”, at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2013  

In the 2018 congressional elections, 61 per cent of non-university-educated white people supported Mr Trump; only 37 per cent supported the Democrats. In the UK, more than 70 per cent of those without a degree voted for Brexit, while more than 70 per cent of those with one voted to remain.

One of the mantras of Western society has been freedom of opportunity, on the assumption that, if the barriers to rising in society are removed, and people work hard, they can succeed — and, if they do, they deserve the rewards of success.

All recognise that we live in a very unequal society, and progressives want to do all they can to make it possible for everyone from any background to make their way. But Sandel argues that this stress on the freedom to rise is at the heart of the problem. Rising in society does not depend just on hard work, or being given a fair start: it depends on our genes or God-given talents, and on the luck, or providence, in the kind of parents that we had.

In the old aristocratic societies those at the bottom knew that they were there because of birth. They did not feel a failure because of it.

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. Key to this is that everyone should be able to live a life of comfort and dignity. We are not just consumers, but contributors.

All this is well put, as Sandel notes, in Catholic social teaching. Towards this end, he suggests that job-related taxes should be reduced or abolished, and financial transactions taxed instead. He argues that, contrary to much opinion, only about 15 per cent of financial transactions directly benefit the economy by supporting goods and services. The rest is just smart gambling.

Sandel analyses much of the political rhetoric of recent decades and shows how much emphasis there has been on being “smart”, as though all problems were technical. They are not. There is a fundamental question that has to be addressed, about the nature of a good society. How do we move to a society in which all, whatever work they do or do not do, are recognised as having dignity and value rather than left with the sense of being a loser?


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is Seeing God in Art (SPCK, 2020).


The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good?
Michael J. Sandel
Allen Lane £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 

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