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Step 20: Tyranny of Merit (pt.1)

Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard philosophy professor, questions the assumption that by working hard and playing by the rules you deserve what you earn. This “meritocratic” notion of justice is observably increasing inequality and fostering a winner/loser culture that led to the populist backlash of Trump and Brexit.

This is PART 1 of 2.

introduction by Mistah Lisa [link]
music courtesy of Feslyian Studios [link]
I apologize for my English accent being Australian. And not even a good one.

Tyranny of Merit, Michael J Sandel, 2020

Part I

“All American have the right to be judged on the sole basis of their individual merit, and to go just as far as their dreams and hard work will take them.”

Ronald Reagan

You can make it if you try.

Barack Obama

What is Meritocracy and why is the commonly held belief that it is a good thing wrong, or at least very misguided?

Sandel exposes several common assumptions, including a breakdown of the leaders of our nation employing the rhetoric of rising. At some point, intelligence is also aligned with credentials or higher degrees from Ivy League’s and Sandel examines how “smart” becomes conflated with your “value” and is even associated at times with “the right thing to do” until intelligence is akin to morality.

Yet, similar to JFK’s best and brightest cabinet leading us into the Vietnam War, Obama’s credentialed cabinet devised the Bank Bailouts that rewarded the intelligent who destroyed our economy. This discredited the Democratic party, if not the trust in the entire government, in the eyes of those hit the hardest: the working class.

Since the measure of our country is increasingly seen through the GDP, rather than civic or moral discourse, we have hollowed out public and political conversations to market-driven solutions and the economy. Yet, Sandel points out that only 15% of the Financial Industry actually produces anything real. The rest is just high-frequency trading and complex derivatives that are more akin to gambling, and have been proven to “extract rents” from the actual economy rather than benefiting it.

Part II

The merit of the market

Our economy of “working hard and getting your just rewards” has failed over half the country. As our GDP has tripled, the lower-half of workers have not seen a wage increase (in terms of what you can buy) in 60 years, allowing all of the economic growth to be concentrated at the top. 

If there is a ladder with 5 rungs for our economy, and we are supposed to climb it, America’s promise of “upward mobility” has become increasing hard to achieve as the rungs are spread further apart and social mobility has stalled.

In the podcast I throw out several stats exploring this inequality in economic terms, but also we must consider how our society views money (market rewards) as “respect.” And then we should keep in mind this straw man argument of “the market is amoral serving supply and demand” is very obviously controlled by our governmental policies to socially declare what we do and do not find virtuous.

We look at Hedge fund managers, Casino owners vs. pediatricians, and Walter White from “Breaking Bad” to consider the disastrously ignoble results of market force determinism to set our values.

Part III


Talent is an odd lottery of luck dispersal. To claim you earned what you have is short-sighted at the least, and hubristically obtuse for most. While as a society we understand some talents are more valuable at various points in time, we also realize that to OVERLY reward the talented leads to vast inequity and a resentful, disenfranchised populace… which as Aristotle mentioned leads to instability.

Those left behind in a meritocracy, primarily the under-educated or 2/3 or our nation, have grown increasingly aware that the elites look down on them, which has in many ways brought about the populist backlash.

Michael Young wrote a satirical dystopian story in 1958 about the shifting of “equality” from birth or wealth to ability or talent. He foresaw that a society based on merit is ultimately subversive to the majority of individuals: it morally condemns those left behind even more brutally than a class system, where at least you knew it was just by chance of birth that you were in your current position.

In the story he predicted a populist revolt in 2034… he was only 18 years off. He also called out Tony Blair that he had “debunked” meritocracy as a positive, and wanted Blair to at least acknowledge the “dark side” of a meritocratic society.

As globalization plus meritocracy swamp the world, what happens to those left behind? There has been a dip in life expectancy, but not because medical science has failed, rather it is because “deaths of despair” have started overtaking all other causes of death, dropping our national rates. Deaths of Despair are self-inflicted means of death, such as suicide, smoking and alcoholism, and primarily affect men 45-54 without a college degree.

Part IV

In conclusion Sandel offers the story of Henry Aaron, where to escape prejudice and poverty he hits homeruns. So we are tempted to applaud merit, but Sandel sys this is a mistake. We should not applaud a system that requires hitting homeruns to escape from a life of poverty and injustice. 

Offering upward mobility out of a shitty situation is not a just society: it merely deforms you so can slip through the bars of your prison. Sandel argues we need more than an equality of outcome or equality of opportunity. We need an equality of condition. Wherein, those who wish to rise may rise, but those who do may still live a life of dignity and culture.

There but for the Grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.

As Sandel says, “Such humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic that drives us apart.”

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Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Meritocracy [link] (2020)

Michael J. Sandel, The public philosopher [link]

Barak Obama quote [link]

David Halberstam, JFK cabinet “The Best and the Brightest” [link] (1972)

Percentage of Americans with a college degree: 34% [link]

Deaths of Despair” [link] & the book [link]

Michael Young, The Rise of Meritocracy [link] (1958)

Elon Musk, “Rags to Riches” [link]

Max Weber [link]

Sam Harris, The Key to Trump’s Appeal [podcast link]

Lebron James pay [link]

One source for wage stagnation [link]

Ratio of CEO pay to average worker [link] & [link] & [link] & [link]

Michael Young “The rise of the meritocracy” (1958) [link]

Movie/TV References

Fight Club: the working class: “we guard you while you sleep… do not fuck with us”

The Mocking Jay, Katniss Everdeen [link]

Breaking Bad, Walter White [link]

For all the lies Trump tells, the one authentic thing about him is his insecurity and resentment against elites.

Michael J Sandel


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