This week I’m very pleased to have with me the political philosopher Michael Sandel. I’ve been an avid reader of Michael’s work for decades, ever since coming across his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice in the 1980s. Michael’s latest book, 2020’s The Tyranny of Merit, couldn’t be more timely. In it, Michael elaborates a critique of the meritocratic ideology that divides society into winners and losers, each of which has earned the fate that has befallen them.
In our conversation, Michael lays out his argument in the book, which takes issue with the notion that an individual’s economic success or failure is an index of their character. The idea that the wealthy deserve their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty ignores the powerful economic forces that shape the outcomes of people’s lives, forces that operate well outside the control of the people affected by them. We discuss the distinction between profit and value, and the ways that the cultural and economic rise of tech, finance, and knowledge work has stripped the dignity and honor from formerly dignified and honorable professions. The rise of populism since Trump’s election serves as compelling evidence that society’s “losers” recognize the bad hand they’ve been dealt, but Michael’s critique of meritocracy has made him an influential figure in China as well, where meritocracy is arguably an even more powerful cultural force.
It’s an honor to have such a distinguished figure on the show. I have the feeling that what Michael says here will ring true for many of my listeners, so I’m looking forward to your comments.
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0:00 Some of Michael’s key works
4:01 Meritocratic ideals and meritocratic fantasies
10:07 The animus against elites
16:26 Shouldn’t innovators reap their rewards?
23:09 Does more profit create more value?
28:42 Renewing the dignity of work
37:43 The uses of punishment
43:57 Our responsibility to national and global communities
46:17 Michael: Diversity has “monopolized” discussion of affirmative action
52:52 China’s reception of Michael’s critique of meritocracy
Recorded November 18, 2022