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The Tyranny of Merit

What's Become of the Common Good?

Michael J. Sandel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Tyranny of Merit Download image

ISBN10: 0374289980
ISBN13: 9780374289980


288 Pages



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These are dangerous times for democracy. We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favor of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the American credo that "you can make it if you try." The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fueled populist protest and extreme polarization, and led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens—leaving us morally unprepared to face the profound challenges of our time.

World-renowned philosopher Michael J. Sandel argues that to overcome the crises that are upending our world, we must rethink the attitudes toward success and failure that have accompanied globalization and rising inequality. Sandel shows the hubris a meritocracy generates among the winners and the harsh judgement it imposes on those left behind, and traces the dire consequences across a wide swath of American life. He offers an alternative way of thinking about success—more attentive to the role of luck in human affairs, more conducive to an ethic of humility and solidarity, and more affirming of the dignity of work. The Tyranny of Merit points us toward a hopeful vision of a new politics of the common good.


Praise for The Tyranny of Merit

"Now’s a good time for both sides to sit down for a very serious talk, with The Tyranny of Merit required reading for all."—Arlie Hoschschild, The New York Times

"One of the most famous public intellectuals in the English-speaking world . . . The Tyranny of Merit is Sandel’s response to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump . . . Sandel draws on a vocabulary that challenges liberal notions of autonomy in a way that has been unfashionable for decades. Words such as 'dependency,' 'indebtedness,' 'mystery,' 'humility,' and 'luck' recur in his book. The implicit claim is that vulnerability and mutual recognition can become the basis of a renewed sense of belonging and community."—Julian Coman, The Guardian

"The Tyranny of Merit is original, lively and no mere critique: unlike many others who have written on the 'sorting' of society into winners and losers, Sandel produces a persuasive argument about the kind of community we should seek . . . The Tyranny of Merit is an important work, and makes a profound point that our leaders would do well to understand."—Nick Timothy, Daily Telegraph

"Brilliant . . . Sandel’s critique is as compelling as his plea for the renewal of social bonds is powerful. Besides debunking a series of myths—that success is self-made, that humans are self-sufficient, that educational attainment matters more than the dignity of work—the book is a brave attack on technocracy as the foundation of a just social order."—Adrian Pabst, Prospect

"This is a remarkable book about justice. In his unique and powerful moral voice, Michael Sandel digs at the roots of our divisions, dissects the causes of inequality, and dismantles the lazy orthodoxy of those on the left and the right. Accessible and profound, The Tyranny of Merit is a revelatory assessment of pervasive unfairness in our society, driven in part by a naïve and myopic reliance on the notion of merit. In a time of easy rhetoric and thoughtless tribalism, this provocative book is a must-read for anyone who still cares about the common good. You will catch yourself wondering, again and again, 'Why have I never thought of it that way?' No good faith reader will come away from this book unchanged."—Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and Author of Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law

Astute, insightful, and empathetic, Sandel exposes the cruelty at the heart of some of our most beloved myths about success. A must-read for anyone struggling to understand populist resentment, and why, for many Americans, the American Dream has come to feel more like a taunt than a promise. A crucial book for this moment."—Tara Westover, author of Educated

“The Tyranny of Merit deftly exposes the flaws and fallacies of meritocratic philosophy. In lucid, illuminating prose, Sandel makes a compelling case for uprooting inequality and building a fairer society shaped by true principles of justice. A seminal work.”—Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

"The Tyranny of Merit is truly a great book. It is the rare book of political theory that will be widely accessible, make news, and provoke healthy debatedebate that will strengthen our democracy regardless of the side one takes. And it will resonate widely, even profoundly, about the situation we are all in."—Elliot Gerson, Vice President of the Aspen Institute

"A rich, incisive analysis of how the meritocratic ideal contributes to contemporary political crisis."Publisher's Weekly


Read an Excerpt


In March 2019, as high school students awaited the results of their college applications, federal prosecutors made a stunning announcement. They charged thirty-three wealthy parents with engaging in an...

About the author

Michael J. Sandel

Michael J. Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University. His books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? were international best sellers and have been translated into 27 languages. Sandel’s legendary course “Justice” was the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and has been viewed by tens of millions. His BBC series “The Public Philosopher” explores the philosophical ideas lying behind the headlines with participants from around the world.

© Stephanie Mitchell

Michael J. Sandel

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