Book Review: The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel

The Tyranny of Merit is the latest book by Michael J. Sandel, an American Political Philosopher known for his address on the issue of Justice. I encountered this book as I was working on my research on the Meaning of Work, and I have already anticipated the key message of this book in a paragraph on the last article, titled From Merit to the Dignity of Work.

Describing this work as unsettling is an understatement. We are so used to consider Merit and Meritocracy as a positive connotation of our democratic societies, that the questions Sandel poses are not trivial at all especially if considered from the point of view of the United States, where the meritocratic ideal seems to be much more grounded, than in most European Countries.

The Core Concepts

The idea that meritocracy might not necessarily be a perfect positive system lies behind d Sandel’s exploration of the elections that brought Donal Trump to power. But also of the stunning results of Brexit. The reality is that the meritocratic imprinting we have been giving to our western democracies, ungoverned for too long, has given the power to the resentment of the mass of people that, in these same countries, have been carrying the burden of non-equal access to education, job losses due to automation and off-shoring, less and less worker protection, and a narrative that seemed to tell that it was all their fault.

The Tyranny of Merit follows a flow of logical interpretation of the moderns western society, and particularly the US one. At its core, there’s a critique of the meritocratic principle and how this is working today.

the problem with meritocracy is not with the principle but with our failure to live up to it.

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, Page 11

Fact is that meritocracy would require equality in conditions to access work or career, that simply does not exist. It’s almost as if the rules of the game are not respected from the start. What happens is that democracies have substituted an aristocracy by birth, into another one under a new disguise. All data seem to demonstrate this: social mobility is higher in countries in Europe than in the US.

Measures of merit are hard to disentangle from economic advantage.

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, Page 9

If the above is correct, what is the difference with past aristocracies? The issue is in the “moral justification” of the people that are at the top. If you are born as an aristocrat, there’s not much you can really be proud of for having landed into a higher-up position in the social hierarchy. But in our modern democratic world, perception is a lot different.

In an unequal society, those who land on top want to believe their success is morally justified. In a meritocratic society, this means the winners must believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work.

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, Page 12

In this world, there is more and more sentiment of “self-sufficiency”, even if we don’t consider the issues surrounding this. Helicopter parenting, cheating at university exams, reliance on credentials and diplomas that constantly move the goal from undergraduate, to graduate, to masters, to MBAs. At the end, all giving the impressions for those that made it that you won a race.

For the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, Page 14

Gratitude for what? Useless to say it should include everything, from the education system to the mentors and people we met around the way. Yet, what Sandel finds is that the Rhetoric of Rising is impacting most in simply not considering the circumstances that surround them, and that de facto make many of us privileged.

This leads to a true hubris for the winners. The losers have now learnt to use the last system they really have the power to control, democratic elections, to make themselves heard.

Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified.

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, Page 24

The only solution is to work on equality. But which equality? This is an important question that Sandel tries to address tracing it in the current political narrative.

today, the countries with the highest mobility tend to be those with the greatest equality.

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, Page 23

The Evolution of Meritocracy

One of the interesting analysis that Sandel makes is that the notion that meritorious should govern is not distinctive to our time or culture. From Plato to Confucius, there are traces of meritocratic principles in most philosophical systems, including Christianity. What all these traditional systems have in common, though, is the notion that the merit relevant to governing include moral and civic virtue.

Sandel sees a serious problem in today’s view of the meritocracy because of it being a “technocratic version”. In today’s world “common good” seems to be seen solely as GDP’s growth. The value of people’s contribution seems to be linked to how much they can sell, which explains the apparent paradox that an investor betting against a productive company by use of futures and options is “more worth” than a surgeon.

Sandel delivers a great chapter with a sort of “history” of Merit, particularly focusing on the way its concept changed through the various protestant confessions that contributed to the establishment of the USA. In this, there is a strong linkage with what we have seen already when mentioning the Discourse of Work as Salvation because your own merit achieved salvation. Today that discourse is still very much present in the prosperity gospel, by which wealth is also a representation of success and “Christian” merit. A path that has intersected, as we have seen, with that Capitalism ethic that Max Weber so well captured.

The Rhetoric of Rising

The focus that Sandel gives on the Rhetoric of Rising made me think a lot. He defines it as the promise that those wot work hard and play by the rules deserve to rise as far as their talents and dreams will take them.

From a political perspective, this rhetoric is pretty recent. Sandel’s traces its beginning from Reagan and Thatcher and their critique of the welfare state. What was planted there was a conceptual seed by which in a liberal society market forces would reward those who work hard, essentially stating that being poor was eventually equating to a choice of “being unwilling to work”. This rhetoric has become present in many ways today, also because this went in parallel with the evolution of organisations that started outsourcing.

If work was to become less secure, then every worker had to be more responsible in its way of working and in its effort, which can be a partial explanation of why the average amount of worked hours started to climb after those years.

There’s another indication on how much this rhetoric has picked pace among people. Ho many books, articles, podcasts, blogs and so on are focusing on motivation? In effect, this rhetoric has been often translated into the organisational language as the level of motivation or level of engagement of the workforce. How much advertising, but also simple blog post titles, tell you that you deserve something? Think just about L’Oreal motto Because you’re worth it.

This mirrors very well an effect that many organisations have been experimenting for some time. The constant focus of talent management practices on HiPos, High Potential, created a high-level of negative-morale among the bulk of employees in the organisation, which I once heard being labelled as PoPos Passed Over and Pissed Off. This often because of a wrong application of the Pareto Principle to Potential.

The concept where this rhetoric seems to be more embedded, after reading Sandel’s words, seems that of Leadership. When we distinguish leaders from managers, we seem to formulate an additional layer of distinction above the traditional hierarchical structure. By reading the more recent trends Leadership Models, there’s more and more the notion that you become a leader, rather than being born as one. Which also contributes to this rhetoric, especially when considering how many workers simply proclaim themselves as leaders.

We need to manage this rhetoric because it is dangerous in an organisational setting, the moment it institutionalises a hubris between the winners and the losers.


The Tyranny of Merit is definitely a must-read for anybody that wonders about the raising populism around the world and sees its effects. It is also essential reading for any person working in HR, in Organisation Design, or any other business leader that is looking at humanising organisations.

One of the main reasons is that one of the aspects that surrounds meritocracy as identified by Sandel is in large part, a corporate endeavour. Credentialism is the practice of requiring more and more credentials, in terms of diplomas of increasing complexity. An element that business schools have supported with the willing support of many corporations. What this produces is a consideration that Sandel makes: at a time when racism and sexism are out of favour (discredited though not eliminated), credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice.

Credentialism in organisations is the son of the “Discourse of Work as Job“, whereby jobs have been described in terms of detailed tasks, responsibility and requirements, including credentials. It might apparently seem necessary, and probably for most roles, a certain level of requirements is important to be framed. The issue is when these, for example, start including expensive MBAs, or private sector credentials of dubious validity—an element to consider.

The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, Page 121

Above all, the consideration that made me think the most about this book is that merit is defined by those at the top already. Which is the issue at the core of Diversity in Organisations. If white male defines the merit criteria, it’s understandable why women, or other minorities, won’t make it to the top. And this within the frame of an effectively meritocratic endeavour.

I think that Sandel also greatly identifies two elements that are core in reverting to the positive meaning of merit. The first is accepting our own privilege, recognising it and through this awareness be able to act upon it. The second is expressing gratitude for the number of inputs that we receive every day and are important for our success. These two sentiments joined will allow us to escape the meritocratic hubris and stop looking from the top at those that didn’t make it so far.

The other element that The Tyranny of Merit really helps well framing is the need to especially recognise the importance of Work as a source of social recognition and esteem. The reason why I embraced in my quest on the meaning of work is exactly that I feel that the relationship between organisations and individuals is often broken. After all, we associate work to simple financial value in the form of remuneration. There’s more than that, and it is that social recognition and esteem. It’s easy to see how this is challenged today. Think about the teachers and professors that constantly assaulted by helicopter parents because of negative feedback to a student. For the parents, this is a fight in the name of their children, that risk not making it in the outside meritocratic environment. For the teacher is a constant fight for the recognition fo their work.

Sandle mentions a lot the need for new political stances on this. I will let the reader make up his mind own his suggestions, proposed to satisfy whatever political background you might have. Working in an organisation, I think this just raises the duty for us to challenge also the strongest assumptions that seem to underpin our systems. And consider the value of humility as a foundational element of the survival of our systems instead.

The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?
Genre: Social Science | Rating: 5/5
By Michael J. Sandel
Hardcover | 288 pp. | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 15/09/2020 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9780374289980
Buy on Amazon

The Tyranny of Merit Reviews on GoodReads

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Sergio Caredda

Digital Knowmad | Multipotentialite | HR Leader | Transformation Agent | Future of Work thinker | On a mission to re-embed Human into HR.

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