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MIT Press / Harvard Law School




This is an invited review essay of Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? (FSG 2020), for the inaugural issue of The American Journal of Law and Inequality (R. Kennedy, M. Minow, C. Sunstein, eds.). Sandel makes three principal arguments: (1) meritocracy is deeply flawed because it worsens inequality and fills meritocracy's winners with hubris and losers with shame; (2) universities should introduce a lottery into the admissions process; and (3) this reform, coupled with increased emphasis on the dignity of labor, will repair the politics of resentment that now roil our country.

I respond in the following ways. First, treating meritocracy as an ideology, I assess the underlying tension in Sandel's logic, which accords primary moral value to the form of politics over outcomes, and status over materiality. Given the complex culture of meritocracy, I question whether its excesses can be curbed, or gross inequality reduced, with an approach that fails to stress material outcomes.

Second, I conclude that Sandel's proposal to reform university admissions could only be realistically implemented at a handful of highly selective and wealthy institutions. Even then, its impact on meritocratic faith or tangible inequality is likely to be exceedingly modest. Worse, randomizing distribution may in fact lead to a backlash among communities that have (over)invested in the means to compete for slots at elite universities and colleges, which would undermine Sandel's objectives. Despite these misgivings, his idea may still be worth a try.

Third, I praise Sandel's concern that meritocracy is contributing to the broader politics of resentment. But I say that his approach to emotions in politics is incomplete, for it focuses too narrowly on white grievance in a single election, and we need to get better at assessing historical claims of anger and disillusionment from multiple communities across time. I conclude by suggesting that Trumpism was not a coherent attack on meritocracy, but one that tried to harness resentment to introduce meritocratic logic into new domains, such as immigration and refugee policy. If we want to reduce meritocracy's dominance in particular social domains, I argue, we must offer a potent substitute that can bring elites and everyday people together. In certain domains such as university admissions or border control where the politics are fraught, that alternative may be the rhetoric of fairness.


Updated with published version of paper on 10/15/22

Working paper available on SSRN

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