In 1971, as he debated Ronald Reagan at the height of the Vietnam War in front of 2,400 Californian students, an 18-year-old Michael Sandel received an early lesson in defeat. “I grilled him in my best high school debater’s style, but I didn’t really land much of a blow,” the Harvard political philosopher recalled when we spoke. “He deflected each question and explained his view with good humour and with great respect for this young, long-haired questioner.”
The experience, Sandel told me, “taught me that political debate is not about winning on the debating points. It’s about rhetoric, it’s about listening, it’s about connecting on a human level.”
This lesson has shaped Sandel’s approach ever since. He may have spent much of his career critiquing the market fundamentalism espoused by Reagan but, in common with the former US president, Sandel could lay claim to the title “the great communicator”. His Harvard University course entitled Justice, the first to be made freely available online by the university, has been viewed by tens of millions of people worldwide.
In his most recent book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Sandel, 68, challenges one of the ideas that few politicians of the left or the right dare question: meritocracy. Though the term was coined in 1958 by the British sociologist Michael Young in his dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, it has since been embraced unironically. Rather than debating whether or not meritocracy is in fact desirable, politicians and commentators more often disagree over how to achieve it.
Sandel is an exception. “The ideal itself is flawed. Meritocracy has a dark side,” he said. “And the dark side is that meritocracy is corrosive of the common good. It encourages the successful to believe that their success is their own doing and that they therefore deserve the bounty that the market heaps upon them. It leads us to forget the luck and good fortune that helped us on our way. It leads us to forget any sense of indebtedness to those who make our achievements possible, from parents and teachers to community to country.
“So it generates hubris among the winners. They believe that their success is their own doing and they also believe, implicitly at least, that those who struggle must deserve their fate as well.”
Sandel attributes the political convulsions of recent years – such as the Brexit vote and the 2016 election of Donald Trump – to this phenomenon. “Working people who are not part of the credentialled, professional classes rightly resent this way of thinking about success.”
In his recent book The Aristocracy of Talent, Adrian Wooldridge, the Economist’s political editor, contends that the problem is not the “tyranny of merit” but the “war on merit”. So accustomed have we become to the benefits of meritocracy, he argues, that we risk losing them. How does Sandel respond to this charge?
“It’s easy to confuse merit – the idea that it’s a good thing to have qualified people in various jobs and social roles – with meritocracy, which is an account of who deserves what.”
Sandel alighted on the example of the Argentine footballer Lionel Messi (who recently signed a £94m three-year contract with Paris Saint-Germain). “I could work and practise football 24 hours a day and never be as good as Messi. So his talent, that’s his gift, that’s not his doing. Furthermore, Messi lives in a society and at a time that prizes football, and this counts. Had he lived back in the days of the Renaissance, his talents would not have been in such demand. They cared less about football than about fresco painting.”
How does Sandel believe governments should end the “tyranny of merit”? “We should focus less on arming people for meritocratic competition and focus more on the dignity of work. We woefully underinvest in vocational and technical training and apprenticeships. The US spends $164bn helping people go to university and $1bn supporting people who pursue the vocational path.”
Sandel lamented that “over the last three decades, centre-left parties have failed the working class. We’ve seen this in the US, we’ve seen it in Britain, we’ve seen it in France.”
What does he make of Joe Biden’s presidency to date? “He is not the captive of the meritocratic political orientation of his predecessors. And this has partly to do with the fact he was the first Democratic nominee for president in 36 years without a degree from an Ivy League university.” Sandel cites Biden’s redistributive $1.9trn stimulus package, and his willingness to defy criticism from economists of the Barack Obama and Bill Clinton eras, as evidence that the US president has “broken with neoliberal economics”.
One politician who has been directly influenced by Sandel is Olaf Scholz, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate vying to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. In December 2020, when the SPD was polling far behind the Christian Democrats, Scholz hosted a public dialogue with Sandel and he has since cited The Tyranny of Merit (a German bestseller) on the campaign trail and in media appearances.
“Among certain professional classes, there is a meritocratic exuberance that has led people to believe their success is completely self-made,” Scholz has said. “As a result, those who actually keep the show on the road don’t get the respect they deserve. That has to change.” The Scholz campaign’s emphasis on “respect” has helped transform the SPD’s fortunes.
“One aim of The Tyranny of Merit is to prompt a rethinking of social democratic politics, away from market meritocracy and towards the dignity of work, and a broader notion of social contribution. It’s encouraging to see Scholz picking up these themes,” Sandel told me in response. (Both Sandel and Scholz will this time hope for a happier result than that endured by the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who hosted an address by Sandel at the 2012 Labour Party conference.)
“It’s striking that meritocratic rhetoric has been so prominent at a time when inequalities have been widening,” Sandel reflected at the close of our conversation. “But the reason for this, morally and psychologically, is that the winners want not only to enjoy their winnings, they want to believe that they deserve them.”
Is Michael Sandel hopeful of change? “I am cautiously optimistic that we are at the beginning of a time when we can rethink the way we configure our economy, the way we contend with inequality and the way we conceive who deserves what and why.”
This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play