Meritocracy is bad for us, says top academic

Obama’s victory speech: “With hard work and talent, anyone can be a success.” © Getty

Is society too focused on the idea of self-improvement? For years, politicians have promised that hard work equals success. Now one leading philosopher says the idea of merit is a myth.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where anything is possible, tonight is your answer.”

On a cold November night in 2008, thousands stood transfixed as they watched Barack Obama, a young black man from Chicago and the next US president, deliver a stunning victory speech. His message was clear: with hard work and talent, anyone can be a success. As they listened to his words, the crowd broke out into chants of “Yes, we can.” For many Americans, it was a time of unprecedented hope and optimism.

Today, 12 years on, the Western political landscape looks very different. In 2016, the American establishment was shocked by the election of Donald Trump, a controversial reality TV star. Meanwhile, in the UK, Brexit has led to the downfall of two prime ministers – so far.

This dramatic transformation of the political sphere was sudden, and it has left many political commentators scratching their heads.

The answer to their questions may be found in a new book published last week by “rock star” philosopher Michael Sandel, who has reached audiences of millions from his desk at Harvard.

In The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel argues against what he calls “the rhetoric of rising”. He explains: “Those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their efforts and talents will take them.”

For years, left-wing politicians have told voters that the way out of poverty – and the answer to the problems of globalisation and inequality – is going to college or university. “Education, Education, Education” was the famous catchphrase of the former UK prime minister, Tony Blair. Likewise, Obama warned Americans that without “a good education”, they would struggle to earn a living wage.

For Sandel, this is an argument with two fundamental flaws.

First, there is no such thing as a level playing field. Just 7% of all UK pupils attend private schools, but 42% of Oxbridge places go to private-school pupils.

Second, he believes that not only does a meritocracy not exist, but that it shouldn’t.

As Sandel puts it: “The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.”

It is a suggestion that has left blue-collar workers feeling betrayed. In response, they have turned to populism. In 2016, 64% of white Americans without a college degree voted for Trump.

If left-wing candidates are ever to win again, Sandel argues, they need to dismantle the very idea of meritocracy itself.

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted society’s dependence on low-paid delivery drivers, bin collectors and care home staff, not only on professionals like doctors and nurses.

Instead of universities, politicians should invest in vocational training and apprenticeships. And the people that do go to university? They should be more humble, says Sandel.

So, is society too focused on the idea of self-improvement?

A dangerous myth

Yes, say some. Individuals should not be responsible for their own success. Those who believe otherwise risk ignoring an awkward truth – the majority of university places and highly paid jobs still go to the most privileged people in society. There is nothing wrong with not pursuing higher education. All workers who are vital to the economy should be valued and given the respect they deserve.

No, say others. It is ridiculous to say that talent and hard work do not matter. Society needs people who are highly skilled, like doctors, engineers or computer programmers, and it is only right that they should be rewarded for their achievements. If we gave up on the idea of self-improvement, no one would ever have a reason for striving to reach their goals.

You Decide

  1. Is hard work more important than talent?
  2. Should everyone aim to go to university?


  1. Make a list of five things that you think are necessary for a person to become successful. Then compare it with others in your class. Are your lists the same or different?
  2. Do you think all children have equal opportunities in your country? Write half a side explaining your point of view.

Some People Say...

“The power of fortune is confessed only by the miserable, for the happy impute all their success to prudence or merit.”

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Anglo-Irish writer and satirist.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that those who are born into low-income households are less likely to be successful than their wealthy peers. A UK government report published in 2019 showed that advantaged children are nearly 80% more likely to end up in professional jobs than those from a working-class background. Moreover, people with professional jobs from disadvantaged backgrounds earn 17% less than their privileged colleagues.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds how, or indeed if, governments should address this problem. In the US, affirmative action – the practice of favouring people from groups who have previously been discriminated against – has proved highly controversial. Supporters say the policy is vital to ensure racial, gender and class diversity in both education and employment. However, critics argue the practice amounts to reverse discrimination.

Word Watch

Causing a lot of angry public discussion and disagreement. Trump based his campaign on a rejection of globalism and an embrace of patriotism. However, he was criticised by opponents for mocking a disabled reporter, and making racist and sexist comments.
The UK’s departure from the European Union. David Cameron resigned the morning after the Brexit vote. His successor Theresa May resigned in 2019 when British lawmakers refused to accept her exit deal with the EU.
Michael Sandel
An American political philosopher. He was a scholar at Oxford University before becoming a professor at Harvard University Law School.
Politicians with left-wing views believe that power and wealth should be shared more equally among all parts of society. Many left-wing politicians in the West have agreed that, overall, globalisation has had a positive impact on society.
A nickname for Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Of the UK’s 57 prime ministers to date, 43 have studied at either Oxford or Cambridge.
The idea that status comes from talent or ability, not privilege or social class. Sandel argues that many voters feel “humiliated by meritocracy and this entire political project”.
Blue-collar workers
People in industry whose jobs involve physical activity, whereas “white-collar” office workers traditionally needed to wear white shirts to work. As factories have moved abroad to find cheaper labour, many blue-collar workers have lost their jobs.
When candidates or parties try to appeal to “ordinary people” who feel their concerns have been disregarded by conventional politicians. In 1998, UK newspaper the Guardian published only 300 articles containing the word “populism”. In 2016, that number had jumped to 2000.
Sandel believes the “Clap for Carers” movement may be a pivotal movement in society, with key workers finally getting the recognition they deserve.

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