The Tyranny of Merit | Michael J. Sandel

Summary of: The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
By: Michael J. Sandel


In ‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?’, Michael J. Sandel identifies and critiques the problems with the US merit-based system and how it fuels social division and wealth disparity. Sandel challenges the common belief in the power of hard work and social mobility, citing studies that reveal the opposite. The book exposes the impact of globalization, education bias, and the flattening effect of market values on the common good. As you read through this summary, you will not only understand the reasons behind these alarming revelations but also explore alternative solutions proposed by Sandel.

The Perils of Meritocracy

Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard University Law School government theory professor, offers a concise critique of the US merit-based system. This insightful book highlights meritocracy’s impact on globalization, education, and class resentment, which fuels pronounced societal divisions. It has received numerous accolades, including Book of the Year for 2020 by The Times Literary Supplement, Best Book of 2020 by The New Statesman and Bloomberg, and Best Book About Ideas of 2020 by The Guardian. Sandel argues for uprooting inequality and constructing a fair society shaped by the authentic principles of justice. It is a seminal work in lucid, illuminating prose.

The Illusion of Equality

Sandel debunks the American belief that equal opportunity leads to less economic inequality by revealing the myth of upward social mobility in the United States. Compared to Europe, social mobility in the US is lower despite American emphasis on meritocracy and hard work.

Inequality and Meritocracy

Sandel argues that a perfect meritocracy leads to an earnings gap in a free market economy, erodes common fate, and diminishes solidarity. Globalization and technology, he says, have left low-earning workers with little hope for improvement. Even left-leaning parties have accepted this as an unalterable fact. The market has become the arbitrator of merit, overwhelming the idea of the common good. While Obama and Clinton centered their campaigns around meritocracy and social mobility, Sanders and Trump barely mentioned either. Sandel’s critique invites us to reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes and seek inclusive forms of economic growth.

The Flaws of Meritocracy

Sandel challenges the widespread belief that more trade, outsourcing, and immigration lead to greater national prosperity, arguing instead that these practices often perpetuate inequality. He also critiques the homogeneity of those in power, cautioning that a shared elite background leads to a lack of diversity of thought. Sandel is critical of the Obama administration’s coziness with Wall Street and its reliance on the meritocracy.

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