The Tyranny of Merit | Michael Sandel - RSA

The Tyranny of Merit | Michael Sandel

Video 10 Comments

  • Democracy and governance
  • Economy

We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds of success are stacked in favour of the already fortunate.

Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the promise that "you can make it if you try". And the consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fuelled populist protest. How do we restore social solidarity and create the conditions for genuine equality of opportunity? In this powerful new RSA Minimate, Michael Sandel confronts the defining political challenge of our time.


The minds behind the award-winning RSA Animate series are back! RSA Minimates are super-short, information-packed animations for busy people. All audio excerpts are taken from live, FREE events at the RSA’s HQ in London, and animated by Cognitive. This animation was produced by RSA Senior Events and Animations Producer, Abi Stephenson.

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  • As a researcher into income related health inequality I became interested in this. By the time Brexit came along I voted to leave having become so disillusioned with the way cosmopolitan graduate liberal elite were so neglectful and abusive of those who are less well educated, who lost out through globalisation, mass migration and the graduatisation of work. It is surprising and satisfying to find on of academias great liberals validating my concerns. Michael Young’s predictions about the dangers of a meritocracy that ignores its duties have materialised. Even now, even after Trump and Brexit, there is little sign of reform or self examination. Great book. David Goodhart’s “Head, Hand and Heart” is an excellent companion. Both should be read by every academic, with a note to look in the mirror afterwards... 

  • The message that "the game is rigged, so however hard you try you will always be on the bottom" is, arguably, far more damaging than anything mentioned here. Success in life (which is far more complex and varied than the vertical ladder imagery used here) can be achieved in many different ways, and is a situation shared by people from many varied backgrounds. In my experience, those who get to where they want to be in life are those who didn't listen to those who told them that they were playing a rigged game that they could never win. Those who did listen to those pessimists ended up living a self fulfilling prophecy in which every piece of bad luck that befalls them is seen as part of the grand Neo-liberal/capitalist/right wing/tory/western conspiracy against them.

    We need to give people confidence that, we might not all get to where we want to be in the same way, but hard work and a great attitude, whilst not sufficient, is necessary.

  • I get very frustrated when leaders when challenged about action on gender diversity,  answer that they believe in a meritocracy and so won’t countenance any positive action to promote women because they say they believe in a meritocracy! In other words the male pale stale boards of today exist because they are all the best candidates. Obviously I’m just focusing on gender but it holds true for all diversity. Many believe that they are playing on a level field. Only the minority sees the fact that it’s not level. 

  • A very big, important subject from Michael Sandel. Perhaps the new PM will increase the Selective Schools Expansion Fund significantly, with more places for disadvantaged pupils, the apparent lack of which has been criticised. Thus creating more ladders. But generally speaking, is there any merit in the concept of an early life plan for school pupils? (How could be done, would it create more stress or lessen it?) It probably would have to be voluntary, another facility the school provides, in which a qualified person is employed to run the scheme in junior and senior schools, and of course, extra funding would be needed This could enable all pupils to look forward to the potential of a positive life. Something holistic in conjunction with exams and career advice. Boris seems to be paying a rewarding amount of attention to  education and it could go hand in hand with considering universal top up payments for income, which is regularly talked about and being trialled elsewhere. Also, astute fiscal intervention is being discussed amongst the candidates, stimulus budgets which could encompass education. All hugely interesting and a great opportunity.

  • As a career coach educating people in improving employability skills to move to where they would like I can certainly attest to the value of taking initiative and 'doing something' ... of, course ... the most effective 'something'. There is a lot about 'the employability triangle' ... career identity, personal adaptability, and human/social capital that responds to personal push ... and that could be the first step for each person. 

    However, this approach takes place in some social context over which the person has no control. Ben Hur managed to free himself from the oar and saved the Roman general ... and improved his social capital greatly ... but most slaves on that galley failed the swimming test! This has to be a joint exercise ... sure, without wanting to take that first step nothing is possible ... but we (all) have to provide pathways as a group for the individual. In February I attended the  'Team Human' seminar at RSA House, and my takeaway was 'being human is a team sport'. We have for a long time accepted this as the common wisdom but we have to keep operationalising the concept in emerging economic contexts. It has worked so well in every society in giving so many millions the opportunities to develop at every level ... why stop now?