In some horse races the best runners have to carry lead weights to give the others a chance. In life, argues Michael Sandel, we give advantage to the winners and then pretend they deserve their success.
Sandel is better at the diagnosis than the cure. He points out what we all already know: that the well-paid, the well-bred and the well-educated like to think they deserve what they have but really most of them cheated. It’s easier to become Prime Minister if you went to Eton and easier to become President if your father was a property billionaire. He doesn’t give credit as he should to the exceptions: Gordon Brown, Theresa May, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could be said to have made it on their own.
He is good at dismantling the cheap language of recent politics — a world in which we are promised opportunity for all but don’t get it. He’s compelling, too, in diagnosing the growing use of discriminatory language in a world in which we like to pretend that discrimination has fallen back. Maybe he should give more credit to the real advances in freedom that have come from the politics he disparages, especially in gay rights and the rights of women. These are not empty ones.
He starts with a truism that’s untrue in a prologue presumably intended to get the word coronavirus into the text.
First, he beats up that easy target “market-driven globalisation”. Then he turns on Trump as “not a likely source of solidarity we need now”. But the point is Trump — like Putin, and Brexit — is the sort of thing you end up with if you sneer at a liberal, open global system which did more than most alternatives to cut poverty and increase well-being.
There’s a boring section in the middle of the book which seems to judge the failures of a meritocratic society by the admissions policies at the smarter kind of American university. This is of interest to Sandel, since he teaches at one. We don’t need to read it.
What I do want to read is an answer to the flawed society Sandel diagnoses. What does he want instead of meritocracy (which he is right to say doesn’t and can’t exist)? Does he want a better, more honest version of what we already have or something else? It’s not clear. He suggests there may be some value in “the dignity of work” but that is easier to say if you work at Harvard than in an Amazon warehouse.
He doesn’t touch one possible answer: a society in which the people draw their identity and worth from more than the achievements of one lifetime, from place and family and tradition and a sense of service to fellow people. I’m not sure I want to live in an ordered, less free world like that. Perhaps Sandel’s next book should propose an American aristocracy. Harry and Megan are in LA right now. Maybe it’s not so far off.
The Tyranny of Meritocracy: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael Sandel (Allen Lane, £20)