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Book: The Tyranny of Merit - What's become of the common good

  • Paul Donovan

The Tyranny of Merit - What's become of the common good by Michael J Sandel - Published by Allen Lane. £20

The publication of this book could not have come at a more timely moment, with the political world shaken by Trump, Brexit and latterly Covid.

Philosopher and political thinker Michael Sandel outlines how the the idea of meritocracy has developed into a tyranny, dividing societies between have and have nots, thereby fuelling nationalism and the ascent of authoritarian politicians like Donald Trump.
And the answer lies with the concept of the Catholic Social Teaching idea of the common good.

Sandel tracks how the idea of meritocracy has been twisted in the neo-liberal context to help create an ever richer self-serving elite.

Politicians such as Barack Obama, Tony Blair and the Clintons are soundly criticised for their view that the neo-liberal system was ok, it just needed managing more fairly and efficiently. The technocratic approach was championed by Obama, who loved to refer to the smart and dumb. His tenure in office saw divisions grow, with those feeling they had no stake in the society increasing. This laid the groundwork for the arrival of Trump.

The American dream idea that everyone can succeed if they just try hard enough is exposed, with the stats showing how increasingly difficult it has become in the last 40 years for working people to advance at all if they lack degrees.

The Labour and Democratic Party's have become dominated by the credentialised.

Sandel points out that the Attlee Cabinet of 1945 was made up of 25% of people without degrees - seven had been miners including, Aneurin Bevan.

In the UK now, 70% of the population don't have degrees but only 12% of MPs don't, with 25% going to Oxbridge.

In the US, 95% of the House and 100% of those in the Senate, since 2000, have had college degrees.

Sandel is not making a case against educated people in power but the meritocratic idea that has grown that if you don't succeed in getting a degree it is due to individual failure.

The credentialised have become cut off from the rest of the population and worst still come to despise the less educated. This has helped inequaility grow in the globalised neo-liberal world.

The vacuum created has provided a space for the growth of division, nationalism and anti-migrant attitudes.

So the whole political system has turned on its head, with the less educated, who used to vote for left liberal parties, now supporting right wing authoritarians. Whilst, the educated vote for the left liberal options.

Sandel presents an excellent analysis of how we reached the dangerous divided situation of the world today, which sees authoritarian nationalists forging ahead.

The author's solutions centre around the idea of the common good, with an emphasis on fairness in educational selection and a restoration of the idea of dignity in work. He advocates a screening out of university applications that have no chance, whilst the vast majority go into a great lottery system. In this way people buying their way in or gaining advantage via extra tuition can be averted.

On work he advocates tax, particularly on finance sectors, involved in speculative accumulation, so there can be a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor.

Most important though is a restoration of solidarity, a belief that everyone has value and is valued for who they are and what they do. This aspect could fly better in the post covid world, where the value of nurses, care workers, supermarket staff and street cleaners has been recognised over and above say that of hedge fund managers.

Michael Sandel has produced an excellent analysis of how the US and UK societies reached the divided positions they now hold. He points to some ways forward, though there is much still to be done on that side.

The resurrection of the idea of the common good is welcome providing a pointer as to how a healing process can begin for this broken world.


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