There is something inherently ridiculous about a Harvard professor writing a book on the ‘tyranny of merit’. Yet Michael Sandel apparently revels in his trahison des clercs. ‘His lecture tours have taken him across five continents and packed such venues as St Paul’s Cathedral (London), the Sydney Opera House (Australia), and an outdoor stadium in Seoul (S Korea), where 14,000 people came to hear him speak,’ boasts the publisher’s blurb. Presumably his maxim for these revivalist rallies was: ‘do as I say, not as I do.’
The problems start with Sandel’s definition of ‘meritocracy’. Dwelling at length on the ever more intense competition for places at Ivy League universities like his own, which leads the rich and brazen to exaggerate or invent exam grades for their offspring and engage in all kinds of other nefarious practices, he aligns merit with the securing of qualifications and top university degrees – which he calls ‘credentialism’. But the dictionary tells us that a meritocracy is ‘a society governed by people selected according to merit’, not one run by those with degrees, whether they come from the universities of Oxford and Harvard or Wolverhampton and Idaho.
Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland is easier to navigate than Sandel’s discussion of meritocracy and Western democracy. He argues that the ‘tyranny of merit’ is demonstrated by the prevalence of Oxbridge and Ivy League graduates in recent Labour and Democratic governments in Britain and the United States, in stark contrast to the