The Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel’s 10th book, The Tyranny of Merit, out this month from FSG, covers a lot of ground for a short text — especially in its sweeping second chapter, “A Brief Moral History of Merit,” which, following Max Weber, describes the surprising emergence of the “fiercely meritocratic work ethic” out of the Protestant Reformation’s “war against merit.” From these origins, Sandel says, would eventually appear such diverse phenomena as mega-churches preaching the “prosperity gospel,” the weakening of the welfare state, and the increasing importance of the university system as a source of not just earning power but personal prestige. President Trump, for instance, likes to say that he went to Wharton, which he insists is “the hardest school to get into, the best school in the world … super genius stuff.”
The Tyranny of Merit hopes to explain the cultural background behind this bit of Trumpian braggadocio, and more broadly to argue that a just political future must recognize that even a perfect meritocracy would be fundamentally unfair. I talked with Sandel about resentment and hubris, the trauma of the elite-university admissions process, the problem with economists, and pull-ups.
Critiques of meritocracy are on everyone’s lips right now. Why?
I think it’s partly due to the events of 2016. The populist backlash against elites was a big part of the vote in Britain for Brexit and the election of Trump in the U.S. That prompted a reflection on what it was about elites that many working people so resented.
Looking back at the last four decades, it’s clear that the divide between winners and losers has been deepened, poisoning our politics and driving us apart. This has partly to do with deepening inequality of income and wealth. But it’s about more than that. It has to do with the fact that those who landed on top came to believe that their success was their own doing, the measure of their merit — and by implication that those left behind had no one to blame but themselves. For people who didn’t flourish in the new economy, this attitude toward success made the inequality of the last four decades all the more galling.