Recently I came across a The Guardian book interview with author Michael Sandel about this recent book The Tyranny of Merit. The Wikipedia biography of Michael J. Sandel describes him as a Minneapolis born American political philosopher who currently holds the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government Theory at Harvard University Law School. He teaches an influential and most popular course ‘Justice‘ which was the university’s first course to be made freely available online and on television in 2007.

In his recent book interview, Sandel discuses extensively about meritocracy and he believes that “the liberal left’s pursuit of meritocracy has betrayed the working classes and argues for a politics centered on dignity“.


The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the word meritocracy as a “system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit”.

A paradox lies at the heart of this new American meritocracy. Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege … . But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards.

From the Merriam Webster dictionary

In the Guardian’s Julian Coman’s interview, Michael Sandel argues that the meritocracy is corrosive leftwing individualism.

The solution to problems of globalisation and inequality – and we heard this on both sides of the Atlantic – was that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their effort and talents will take them. This is what I call in the book the ‘rhetoric of rising’. It became an article of faith, a seemingly uncontroversial trope. We will make a truly level playing field, it was said by the centre-left, so that everyone has an equal chance. And if we do, and so far as we do, then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work will deserve their place, will have earned it.

The following selected notable quotes directly adopted from the Guardian’s Julian Coman’s interview with Michael Sandel:

  • A new respect and status for the non-credentialed should be accompanied by a belated humility on the part of the winners in the supposedly meritocratic race.
  • We need to rethink the role of universities as arbiters of opportunity, which is something we have come to take for granted. Credentialism has become the last acceptable prejudice. It would be a serious mistake to leave the issue of investment in vocational training and apprenticeships to the right. Greater investment is important not only to support the ability of people without an advanced degree to make a living. The public recognition it conveys can help shift attitudes towards a better appreciation of the contribution to the common good made by people who haven’t been to university.
  • This is a moment to begin a debate about the dignity of work; about the rewards of work both in terms of pay but also in terms of esteem. We now realise how deeply dependent we are, not just on doctors and nurses, but delivery workers, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, lorry drivers, home healthcare providers and childcare workers, many of them in the gig economy. We call them key workers and yet these are oftentimes not the best paid or the most honoured workers.
  • The Black Lives Matter movement has given moral energy to progressive politics. It has become a multiracial, multigenerational movement and is opening up space for a public reckoning with injustice. It shows that the remedy for inequality is not simply to remove barriers to meritocratic achievement.

My Own Take

We all have our opinions about the value of meritocracy in society, however I trust our elected leaders to make appropriate policy changes. As an independent citizen, I leave this discussion to professionals, activists and philosophers to influence or create political pressures to the lawmakers to design right policy prescriptions.

Meritocracy at the individual level is not bad, as I myself and my children are beneficiary of the system. Having come from a low income family, education and hard work were the only available tools for our social and financial uplifting. In many other parts of the world where there are fewer opportunities for social and financial uplift except the education and hard work.

More detail on interview here is link to the Guardian interview article.