Kevin Sun

The Tyranny of Merit (review)

A counterintuitive but compelling case against meritocracy.

January 16, 2023

Being against meritocracy is a pretty counterintuitive position. I think most people would agree that we should strive towards a meritocratic society and away from other systems like serfdom and aristocracy. For example, consider the heated debate over affirmative action: critics say that it erodes meritocracy since applicants are judged according to non-merit factors, while defenders say that it promotes meritocracy by leveling the playing field. But both sides implicitly agree that meritocracy is the "correct" goal and only disagree on what (if anything) we should do to achieve that goal.

Michael Sandel (Rhodes scholar, Harvard professor, high merit, etc.) critiques meritocracy as a goal in The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? The core ideas in this book resonate with me, but again, the whole thesis is somewhat counterintuitive, so I'm writing this post to help me remember a few main ideas — perhaps they'll resonate with you as well.

Hubris and Humiliation

In 1958, another Michael named Michael Young coined the term "meritocracy" to describe a dystopia, not an ideal. Young believed that if society implicitly ranks people meritocratically, then those on top would develop an attitude that Sandel repeatedly refers to as "meritocratic hubris." According to Young, these winners would "know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts" and think they "deserve to belong to a superior class." The elite would be "so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern." As an example, Sandel cites the infamous "basket of deplorables" comment made by Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, as the winners develop hubris, the "losers" would be inflicted by self-doubt, because they failed to succeed despite ostensibly having the same opportunities as the winners. At least in an aristocracy, children of poor parents never had a chance of becoming rich, so they're less likely to blame themselves if/when they remain in a lower socioeconomic class. In contrast, Young postulates that in a meritocracy, the non-winners would develop low self-esteem and humiliation: "Are they not bound to recognize that they have an inferior status — not as in the past because they were denied opportunity; but because they are inferior?" He predicted that this negativity would boil over and cause a populist revolt in 2034. In The Tyranny of Merit (published in 2020), Sandel asserts "that revolt happened eighteen years ahead of schedule" as Britain voted for Brexit and America for Donald Trump.

For those who think that the elections of Brexit and Donald Trump weren't really bad outcomes, Sandel points out several other trends that he views as negative side effects of meritocratic thinking. For example, American politics (and beyond, but the book mainly focuses on the United States) has become more toxic and our society is highly polarized. Furthermore (we'll return to this later), many students experience mental health problems in college and during the college admissions process. To top it off, especially among people without a bachelor's degree, there has been a rise in deaths of despair.

Clearly, Sandel thinks that society could be improved. But would a pure meritocracy be better? Imagine that we somehow eliminated all sources of discrimination and privileges, so that everyone had "the chance to go as far as their talents and their work ethic and their dreams can take them," as Obama once put it. The first thing to note is that there could still be inequality, and potentially lots of it. [1] In fact, according to Sandel, "The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality." So for those who think extreme inequality is inherently problematic, transforming society into a pure meritocracy wouldn't be an effective solution. But perhaps the inequality that emerges in a meritocracy is morally justifiable. After all, a society in which anyone can climb the socioeconomic ladder based on their merit, rather than their race, parents' wealth, or other such factors, sounds like the American Dream! It's tempting to think that in a pure meritocracy, people deserve what they get, but Sandel disagrees.

He points out that in a meritocratic society, the genetic lottery would still be what it is: a lottery. Inheriting talent is just as arbitrary as inheriting wealth, and few people consider the latter to be a characteristic of a fair society. Furthermore, even those born with great talent need to be lucky enough to live in a society that rewards those talents. Sandel points out that LeBron James is not responsible for the fact that people love watching basketball. Perhaps James has increased the popularity of the sport, but it was already popular before he was even born. The winners in a meritocracy must be lucky enough to be born in the right place, at the right time, with the right genes.

But what about hard work? If someone works really hard, then don't they deserve the rewards that they receive? Sandel says that although effort plays a role in people's outcomes, the meritocratic ideal "inflates the moral significance of effort" since "success rarely comes from hard work alone." To me, he seems reluctant to link one's genes with one's propensity to work hard (as he did with talent), but I believe there is some evidence of this link, which implies that how hard someone works is also subject to the randomness of the genetic lottery. Of course, all of this was a thought experiment: we don't actually live in a purely meritocratic society. In reality, luck plays an even bigger role in our lives.

Sandel concludes that the meritocratic ideal is flawed since the winners aren't responsible for their genes or the values of their society. So what should we aim for instead? He doesn't want to toss the idea of merit altogether. Instead, he wants to reduce the levels of hubris and humiliation it generates by "rethinking the way we conceive success, questioning the meritocratic conceit that those on top have made it on their own." He illustrates how this could be achieved in two important domains: higher education and work.

Higher Education

Although the student body has become far more inclusive in terms of gender and race, Sandel claims the traditional aristocracy "has given way to a meritocratic elite that is now as privileged and entrenched as the one it replaced." A well-known study from 2017 found that at the "elite" colleges, there are "more students who come from families in the top one percent (14.5%) than the bottom half of the parent income distribution (13.5%)" and "only 3.8% of students at these colleges come from families in the bottom quintile." Across all institutions, the share of nonwhite undergraduates has certainly increased, and so has the share of undergraduates in poverty, but the latter has increased by much smaller amount.

Furthermore, despite any advantages they had such as tutoring and helicopter parents, even the students who get accepted to college face various mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and perfectionism. To make matters worse, things don't get better in college (or graduate school).

Finally, there's the hubris and humiliation aspect of the whole competition: since many admitted students had to struggle for acceptance, they are prone to developing meritocratic hubris. This is harder to statistically demonstrate than inequality or the rise of mental health issues, but Sandel has observed that his Harvard students resist the idea that they were admitted due to luck or other factors beyond their control. And according to one survey, 77% of Americans believe that most people can succeed if they are willing to work hard, so it's natural to think that those who do succeed must have worked hard and therefore deserve their success. (This figure is 57% in Britain, 46% in France, and 40% in Japan.) Along with hubris comes the flip side described above: humiliation and self-doubt. It's easy to imagine that applicants rejected by colleges feel inferior, and possibly resentful, especially if they believe the process was mostly meritocratic.

Sandel thinks the admissions process shouldn't completely ignore students' academic merit, but it should also ameliorate the negative consequences of ostensibly merit-driven competition. Standard proposals to reform college admissions, such as the elimination of preferences for legacies, could make the situation worse since they promote meritocratic thinking (though they do improve the socioeconomic diversity of the student body). So what should we do instead? Admit students randomly? Actually, yes — Sandel thinks we should have a lottery system, in which colleges decide which applicants are likely to succeed, and then among those, they accept a random subset. This would reduce applicants' stress since it no longer seems like they're completely responsible for the outcome; luck is explicitly required. It would also reduce hubris among those who get accepted, and humiliation among the others. [2]

Furthermore, implementing the lottery system would reduce the prestige of selective universities, and Sandel doesn't want to stop there. Instead, he proposes that more broadly, "we should figure out how to make success in life less dependent on having a four-year college degree." To this end, he supports increasing financial support for technical and vocational education, as well as broadening participation in moral and civic education. Unfortunately, the "elite" institutions have a monopoly on teaching these topics, and he's not happy with how things have been going:

For the most part, they place relatively little curricular emphasis on moral and civic education, or on the kind of historical studies that prepare students to exercise informed practical judgment about public affairs... our leading colleges and universities today are better at inculcating technocratic skills and orientations than the ability to reason and deliberate about fundamental moral and civic questions. This technocratic emphasis may have contributed to the failure of governing elites over the past two generations, and to the morally impoverished terms of public discourse.

Although many colleges have general education requirements, they seem to fall short of Sandel's vision. There is high variance among the various courses, so students naturally hunt for the ones that satisfy multiple requirements, don't demand a lot of work, and might not address important civic questions. I'll admit that as a student, I was sometimes guilty of adopting an attitude of "How do I get this over with?" and I'm sure that many others have felt the same way.

Work and the Common Good

A major reason why higher education (and the accompanying stress, rankings, etc.) is such a big deal is because of the gap in earnings between high school graduates and college graduates. This forms a basic level of inequality. On top of that, the CEO-to-worker pay gap is substantial and widening. Wages have stagnated despite increases in productivity in the past few decades, and the rich have gotten richer. Vast inequality is a clear source of discontent.

Sandel posits that it's about more than just money. He claims, "The meritocratic age has also inflicted a more insidious injury on working people: eroding the dignity of work." It is easy, but a common mistake, to think that the market value of someone's work accurately reflects their contribution to the common good. For example, Sandel claims that "caring for people's health is morally more important than catering to their desire to play slot machines," which calls into question whether it's justifiable for a casino owner to earn thousands of times more than a nurse. Unfortunately, the link between income and value is pervasive in our society today, partly due to meritocratic sorting, and it has depleted self-esteem while generating populist discontent. (Recall the rise in deaths of despair among people without a bachelor's degree.)

This leads to politicians who talk about renewing the dignity of work. Conservatives support achieving this by cutting welfare and reducing taxes for rich corporations; Trump once supported the latter by saying his goal was "for every American to know the dignity of work, the pride of a paycheck." But it seems this would exacerbate inequality, so liberals push for the opposite: they want to raise the minimum wage and increase the availability of things like health care and child care. Unfortunately, Sandel says these are acts of "distributive justice," which isn't exactly what voters want; he claims they also want "contributive justice." Instead of focusing on how we should compensate the less fortunate (which we've largely failed to do anyway), we should shift our attention away from people's role as consumers towards their role as producers.

The standard economic approach regarding the common good is to increase growth by satisfying consumer preferences. Again, this often leads to the mistaken belief that higher earners make more valuable contributions to the common good than lower earners. Sandel proposes an alternative cultural mindset: instead of adding up everyone's preferences into a giant number, there should be "an independent moral judgment that the labor market, however efficient, cannot provide." He cites Hegel and Durkheim, who, unlike many present-day economists, "did not see work mainly as a means to the end of consumption," but rather, "a socially integrating activity, an arena of recognition, a way of honoring our obligation to contribute to the common good."

Sandel illustrates how we can weaken the equivalence of income and moral value via two approaches: a conservative one and a progressive one. Oren Cass, a policy advisor to Mitt Romney, argues that Republicans should focus on enabling workers to find jobs that help them support strong families and communities, which is more important than economic growth if our goal is to create a good society. Cass proposes ideas like wage subsidies ("hardly standard Republican fare," as Sandel points out), boosting the manufacturing and mining industries by scaling back environmental regulations (that's more standard), and restricting trade, immigration, and outsourcing. I doubt Sandel considers himself conservative, but he applauds Cass's efforts to help the less fortunate and improve social cohesion possibly at the cost of maximizing GDP.

For progressives, one appealing target of reform Sandel points out is the looming financial industry. In theory, financial activities help the "real economy" by allocating capital to projects like businesses, roads, and hospitals. But in reality, complex derivatives and other financial instruments actually hurt the economy through rent extraction. High-speed trading and credit default swaps are two examples of "financial innovation[s] of dubious economic value," according to Sandel. On top of that, because financiers have high incomes, they are also perceived to have high status. Neil Barofsky, a former federal prosecutor, describes how this led to the 2008 bailout, which cemented the belief that bankers ought to be paid:

The Wall Street fiction that certain financial executives were preternaturally gifted supermen who deserved every penny of their staggering paychecks and bonuses was firmly ingrained in Treasury's psyche. No matter that the financial crisis had demonstrated just how unremarkable the work of those executives had turned out to be, that belief system endured at Treasury across administrations.

To address these issues, Sandel proposes reducing (or even eliminating) the payroll tax and making up the lost revenue with a "sin tax" on the "casino-like speculation" that happens on Wall Street. This would discourage financial conduct that doesn't help the real economy. It also acts as a moral judgment that expresses society's approval of productive labor and disapproval of Wall Street activities by lumping high-frequency trading with things like smoking cigarettes and drinking soda.


When we focus on the rhetoric of rising and equality of opportunity, people start to think that they deserve whatever they get. Those with higher incomes think they earned it because they worked hard, even though there's tons of luck involved. According to Sandel, this damages "the social bonds and civic attachments that democracy requires." But we don't need to accept an oppressive regime that enforces equality of outcome as the only alternative. Instead, he envisions "a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity." None of us are self-made, and acknowledging our privilege is just the start: we need to go further by reforming the education system and renewing the dignity of work.

I'll end with a few quotes from the book that I found particularly striking:

In the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. presidents rarely sought to sway their audiences by telling them what they deserved. John F. Kennedy never used the term "you deserve." That changed with Reagan, who used "you deserve" more often than his five predecessors combined... Clinton used it twice as often as Reagan; Obama, three times as often, in contexts ranging from the quotidian to the consequential.
The idea that we should all agree on the facts, as a pre-political baseline, and then proceed to debate our opinions and convictions, is a technocratic conceit... our opinions direct our perceptions; they do not arrive on the scene only after the facts are cut and dried.
Being good at making money measures neither our merit nor the value of our contribution. All the successful can honestly say is that they have managed... to cater effectively to the jumble of wants and desires, however weighty or frivolous, that constitute consumer demand at any given moment. Satisfying consumer demand is not valuable in itself; its value depends, case by case, on the moral status of the ends it serves.


[1] In fact, there's a mathematical model called the yard-sale model, which considers the effects of true equality of opportunity. In this model, every person starts with the same amount of money. In each round, two random people are paired up, a coin is flipped, and depending on the outcome, one person in the pair gives some amount of money to the other person. The amount given is equal to a fraction (e.g., 20%) of the poorer person's wealth just prior to the coin flip. Even under these assumptions, which sound reasonably equitable, vast inequality is an inevitable outcome.

[2] If this sounds unimaginable, here are some other articles that support the idea of lottery-based admissions (though not everyone is a fan). David Karger, a professor at MIT, poses a compromise as an experiment: accept a small number of applicants randomly from the set of qualified applicants, and compare their outcomes with the outcomes of students who didn't get accepted. Although his goal is a bit different: given this empirical data, MIT could reject "a super well qualified candidate who will do just as well if not admitted... in favor of a less-well-qualified candidate who will actually make a bigger contribution to society if they come to MIT."

In a similar vein, NeurIPS (a big computer science conference) ran an experiment to determine the amount of randomness in the peer review process. Some of the papers were reviewed by two independent committees, and the results were compared. The conclusion was that process is rather arbitrary. Lance Fortnow points out, "Somehow we have this belief when it comes to conference submissions, that there is some perfect ordering of the submissions and a good [Program Committee] can suss it out. That's not really how it works... Why not make the randomness explicit instead of implicit?" Given the high stakes (for academics) of publishing papers (e.g., finding a job, getting tenure), it can be frustrating when there's so much luck that hides behind a veil of objectivity.