The Tyranny of Anti-Merit

Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel, whose writing generates a lot of “views” and “likes” on social media, recently published The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? I’m in the process of reading it, and so is Professor Daniel Jacobson, whose work on freedom and flourishing provide alternative ideas to those in Sandel’s book. Dan heads up the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We recently had a chance to discuss what kinds of philosophical arguments inform Sandel’s book.

If, like me, you’re frustrated with the idea that merit, or earned success, continues to be attacked in school, in business, in philanthropy and in the culture at large, but—also like me—you get the sense that not all that is considered “success” is earned, Dan’s thoughts may be helpful. Here are some of the issues we touched on: 

  • Philosophers have debated questions around merit for centuries. Sandel is, in one sense, recycling what scholars have been battling over for a long time.  

  • Luck is something we tend to underestimate when we think about success. But the fact that luck is a factor does not mean that “merit” has no merit. 

  • Writers like Sandel tend to mix together valid forms of success and reward with corrupt or illegitimate forms, labeling the resulting hodgepodge a “meritocracy.” 

  • Capitalism is blamed as having created this meritocracy, but we’ve never had unfettered capitalism. This actually is part of the problem. 

  • Thinkers like Sandel want to replace what they view as a bad system with what others view as a bad system—the tyranny of the state.  

Dan and I plan to finish the book and talk again. In the meantime, his insights helped me understand why professors such as Sandel write books like this—and why, if one values liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility as we do at the Roundtable, one might bristle at even seeing The Tyranny of Merit as the title of a book. 

Watch the full video below:

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