The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J Sandel - review by Andrew Adonis

Andrew Adonis

The Harvard Supremacy

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?


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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 1930s and 1940s, when the ‘uncredentialed’ likes of Harry Hopkins and Ernie Bevin ruled the roost. Bevin left school at eleven and rose through the ranks as a union leader to become foreign secretary. Hopkins, who became Roosevelt’s closest confidant, had been a social worker in Iowa. These and other working-class and non-graduate appointees are contrasted favourably with those appointed to positions of power by Barack Obama in his first year as president, a quarter of whom were either Harvard graduates or professors.

These are fundamental category errors. As Bevin’s biographer, I can report that he was one of the most capable and brilliant men ever to have held office in the British state and was recognised as such by no less than the stratospherically credentialled John Maynard Keynes. ‘He could neither read, write, nor speak, and he did all three triumphantly’, a Foreign Office mandarin quipped. The idea that Britain is moving towards meritocracy by having fewer executive leaders like him and more in the partisan-incompetence mode of the present foreign secretary, Dominic Raab (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and Jesus College, Cambridge), is the reverse of reality. Not that Oxford and Harvard are necessarily bad at producing good leaders. Clement Attlee was educated at a top English private school and Oxford; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the wealthy cousin of a former president, was educated at a top New England private school and, yes, Harvard.

Bevin left school at eleven because that’s what the poor did in the 1890s, particularly orphans like him. His rise to the pinnacle of the state owed everything to merit, including a good practical grasp of economics and political theory gained as a union negotiator and by attending University of Bristol night extension classes. He founded the largest and most successful trade union in the free world, which led to him serving alongside Keynes on the Macmillan Committee on trade and industry in 1930–31 and revolutionising policy on mass unemployment. That’s why Attlee and Churchill, grandson of a duke, wanted him at their right hands in the 1940s.

Bevin, Hopkins and others of Sandel’s pre-meritocratic greats are exemplars of meritocracy, not its antithesis. Some of the meritorious leaders out there were trade unionists, some Harvard professors. So what? And what’s the alternative? Rule by the meretricious, the stupid and the malevolent? Bevin, by the way, wished he had been able to go to university; many of his trade union successors have done so. John Prescott, Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister and another trade unionist, went to Ruskin College in Oxford, set up for working-class labour negotiators.

Sandel’s argument on the relationship between qualifications and merit is all over the place. On one page he opines that ‘having well-educated people run the government is generally desirable, provided they possess sound judgment and a sympathetic understanding of working people’s lives’. On other pages, being ‘highly credentialed’ is a disqualification – a badge of ivory tower elitism. JFK, FDR and Barack Obama – Sandel is obsessed with Harvard alumni – are praiseworthy or dangerously over-credentialled in the space of adjoining sentences.

Consider three specific passages. ‘John F Kennedy assembled a team with glittering credentials who, for all their technocratic brilliance, led the United States into the folly of the Vietnam War,’ Sandel writes. (In fact, it was his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who led the United States into that folly.) But he then writes: ‘Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful.’ What, the same elites who tried to persuade Kennedy to go to war in Vietnam?

Finally, he writes:

Too determined an effort to rise above the messy terrain of partisan disagreement can lead to a technocratic public discourse that diverts politics from questions of justice and the common good. Barack Obama is a case in point … His ‘Amazing Grace’ eulogy in Charleston, South Carolina, honoring the memory of parishioners murdered in church by a hate-filled gunman, was one of the most stirring speeches by an American president in modern times. And yet, when it came to his view of democratic governance, Obama was at heart a technocrat … [with] more than a whiff of meritocratic hubris.

So is Obama a good or bad thing? And might his skill at making stirring speeches be partly down to Columbia University and Harvard Law School?

Moving to Europe, Sandel describes revolts against meritocratic elites sweeping the streets of Paris and Berlin in recent years. But while Emmanuel Macron may be the most academically credentialled énarque to have won the French presidency, the centrist party that he launched swept the board against the National Front in 2017 and looks set to do so again. Angela Merkel may be scientifically trained, but she is now entering her sixteenth year as chancellor of Germany, with near-record approval ratings. As for the UK, one looks in vain for an explanation as to why the 2016 revolt against meritocracy was led by Boris Johnson, King’s Scholar at Eton College, classics at Balliol College, Oxford. That might have been more useful than Sandel’s search for the roots of meritocracy in the Book of Job: ‘As Job mourns the loss of his family, his friends … insist that he must have committed some egregious sin, and they press Job to imagine what that sin might be. This is an early example of the tyranny of merit.’

Throughout the book, 2016 is waved around like a crucifix bearing the words ‘Trump’ and ‘Brexit’. Yet since the 2020 US presidential election, which came just after this book’s publication, the rise of populism no longer appears quite so irresistible. What we are seeing instead across the democratic world is that good leadership – truly meritocratic leadership – begets good policy and keeps the populists at bay while poor leadership (think Jeremy Corbyn) empowers the populists. Deborah Mattinson’s insightful new book on the underlying causes of Brexit and Johnson’s election triumph, Beyond the Red Wall, puts poor leadership at the heart of Labour’s failure to stop Brexit and retake the initiative, including in working-class communities. ‘The leader truly is the embodiment of the party’s offer’, she writes. Put forward a dud leader and you’ll probably lose.

‘During the fall semester of 2019, I taught a seminar on Meritocracy and Its Critics,’ Sandel writes in his acknowledgements. The concept of meritocracy and how it has advanced and retreated in modern societies is good territory for a student seminar. But such conceptual analysis sits uneasily with the polemical style Sandel adopts in this book, especially given Sandel’s inability to decide whether meritocracy has been tried and has failed in modern Western societies or whether it has not been properly tried at all.

The evidence points mostly to the latter conclusion. Radical social change is needed to make Western societies more, not less, meritocratic, in place of rule by wealthy elites randomly penetrated by the lucky and motivated poor who neglect the common good. Worst of all is Trumpian and Johnsonian super-elite populism masquerading as anti-elitism. Rule by those of true merit would also cut across a malevolent aspect of modern rhetoric about meritocracy, which Sandel rightly decries: the claim by those who possess them that high qualifications and professional and business leadership positions justify a ‘winner takes all’ approach to wealth.

A place to start in rebuilding the common good is a fuller study of the work of Michael Young, the British inventor of the term ‘meritocracy’. Sandel naturally dwells on Young’s seminal 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy, with its dystopian portrayal of rule by an ability elite ‘no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism’. He doesn’t mention that Young was also author of the 1945 Labour manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, which paved the way for Attlee, Bevin and the postwar meritocratic Labour government to create a welfare state and the National Health Service. Young later created a host of social enterprises and institutions to address modern challenges in education, government and civic empowerment, including the Consumers’ Association, the Open University and the School for Social Entrepreneurs. He was a highly creative social democrat, warning about the perils of meritocracy in the confident belief that good policy could help us overcome its weaknesses, not in the defeatist belief that we are all doomed.

The challenge today is to build more genuinely meritocratic societies and find leaders able to offer up new versions of Let Us Face the Future. In this, Sandel is an ally. When not bewailing the tyranny of merit, he is an admirable philosopher-campaigner for greater fairness and compassion in society. We now need leaders with the policies to make this happen. Rather than the Book of Job, I recommend the Book of Proverbs: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’

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