RSA Minimate: The Tyranny of Merit | Michael Sandel

RSA Minimate: The Tyranny of Merit | Michael Sandel


Meritocratic hubris. This is the tendency
of winners to inhale too deeply of their success. To forget the luck and good fortune that helped
them on their way. It’s the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve
their fate. And, by implication, that those on the bottom deserve theirs too.
A lively sense of the contingency of our lot conduces to a certain humility. The idea that
‘there but for the grace of God or the accident of fortune, go I’. But a perfect meritocracy
banishes all sense of gift or grace or luck; it diminishes our capacity to see ourselves
as sharing a common fate. And so, it leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise
when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit
a kind of tyranny. Now, seen from below, the hubris of elites
is galling. No one likes to be looked down upon. But the meritocratic faith adds insult
to injury. The notion that your fate is in your hands – that you can ‘make it if you
try’ – is a double-edged sword, inspiring in one way, but invidious in another. It congratulates
the winners but denigrates the losers – even in their own eyes. For those who can’t find
work or make ends meet, it’s hard to escape the demoralizing thought that their failure
is their own doing – that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed. This gives
rise to a politics of humiliation. It combines resentment of the winners with nagging self-doubt.
It’s a potent ingredient in the volatile brew of anger and resentment that fuels populist
protest. To reinvigorate democratic politics, we need
to find our way to a morally more robust public discourse; one that takes seriously the corrosive
effect of meritocratic striving on the social bonds that constitute our common life. Disentangling
the intolerant aspects of populist protest from its legitimate grievances is no easy
matter. But it is important to try. Understanding these grievances -and creating a politics
that can respond to them – is the most pressing political challenge of our time.

42 Comments on "RSA Minimate: The Tyranny of Merit | Michael Sandel"


  1. If I was going in for brain surgery, I'd want the most competent person to be performing it. Whether they achieved the competency through hard work or "just" being born that good.

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  2. I agree with most your videos, not this one. Meritocracy isnt the problem, ppl resigning to the idea that they may never succeed because of listening to b.s. like this, that's a problem

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  3. the stupidest thing I've ever heard. This is a great video guide on how to literally make yourself poor and keep yourself there

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  4. TYRANNY: cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power or control.
    MERIT: denoting above-average performance.
    Michael Sandel is a TYRANT!!!!

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  5. This goes so well beyond politics, but using politics as banner of change is the easy way of avoiding the true issue, personal accountability. True, there is luck involved with much of the success of certain people, but at the same time there is preparation and perseverance which is seldom attributed. Notice I didn't mention talent; there are many untalented people who were both prepared and persevered until an opportunity came along and took it. They weren't even the best suited for the job but their preparation and stick-to-it nature allowed them to move beyond what was referenced to as "common life" in the video.

    Yes, just because you "try" hard, it doesn't mean that you will get what you want. But you can't expect to force something to happen if you only do the exact same thing day after day. Also, you have to be rational about your goals. Finally, there is no achievement in just "trying." You either do it (whatever that may mean for your specific situation) or don't.

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  6. It's all about being humble because you know that not all people who has a high/low position is because it's deserved, it could be maybe result of hard work, nepotism or just luck, so you should help and listen others and not looking them as trash who deserve 100% their misery. It's obvious that hard work is like 90% of the success, but some people circumstances never allow to achieve their goals. So, people in the button know that most of their politicians are there result of nepotism, and at the same time that that elite look them as just a bunch of lazy and stupids who don't deserve nothing because they don't work hard. This leads to instability due lack of comprehension from both sides, but specially the political because they have more tools to solve problems.

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  7. How did this get from hubris is bad to populism is bad? I'm not sure I followed the argument. I may have been distracted by the snakes.

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  8. Beautifully drawn and animated but the art injects a whole lot of political bias that wasn't in the original source audio. The art implies conservatives = bad! liberals = good! But that's not what Sandel seems to be saying here. He's calling out the meritocracy, which is now just as likely to be urban technocrat liberals as it is wealthy conservatives.

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  9. Nothing is perfect in this world but offered Meritocracy or Equality of Outcomes. Give me Meritocracy every time.

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  10. If you want something to work well, you need some form of meritocracy. When you need a dangerous form of surgery, you want a well performing surgeon and not some diversity hire. When an organization helps many people and effects many lives, having it ran by competent people benefits the masses. Meritocracy may have down sides but it is still far superior to any competiting systems.

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  11. Word salad with no substance.
    I can see why the author doesn't appreciate the subject of merit.

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  12. This video seems to be arguing we cannot be compassionate unless we believe people are suffering through no fault of their own. Surely one way to express compassion is by recognising that people contribute to their own suffering, sympathising with their mistakes, and helping them improve their lives. I don't see why we cannot have a meritocracy and compassion too.

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  13. This line of thinking does not seem like a productive path for the overall success of most people and in my opinion. This almost this sounds like a political/market version of no child left behind further limiting opportunity and possibly creating a more submissive population (just accept this average way of life just like everyone else and no reason to take risks or try harder cause the rewards are greatly reduced). I think this also oversimplified/leading logic type of thinking that comes from having an understanding of game theory, but due to the complexity and non-discrete nature of reality nor considerations of unintended consequences.

    On top of that historically any changes to the policy for the rich/companies will face immense resistance with legal lobbying aka. bribery aka. special interest. Changing anything with unions is always a game to see when the cat will jump out of the slowly boiling pot and maybe bite cutting off valuable services and causing a ripple effect through the economy. The overall state of influences of big oil, tech, big pharmaceuticals, and the militarily industrial complex dwarfs the overall interest of the people. Just look at how net neutrality is playing out, “war on drugs”, teacher salaries, and war in Iraq.

    Possible solution: I think we need something similar version of separation of church and state for the separation of private interest from elected interests, as well as more consequences contracts to the people for politicians to hold consistent interests. I don’t think we need to limit success or merit but set clear boundaries for self-interest/special interest is allowed and were people interest are.

    Possible solution2: Let game theory play out with winners and losers finding their own Nash equilibrium for society with moments of disparity and success for large groups of people.

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  14. This entire argument proceeds from an appallingly simplistic assumption stirred into long-discreted marxian BS.

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  15. People are missing the point of the video. Criticising meritocracy does not mean you to banish the best construction workers, the best medicine men, the best chefs – from work, that would be absurd. Instead it wants to signify that in a world of absolute meritocracy, those of lesser talent and capabilities, those who are "unworthy" – they have no place to go to. Society wants to reject them and treat them cruel and aggressively, offering them no livelihood because they are simply "not good enough", even if they can be competent in their field in a different, or more local environment and be respected for it. What this video asks is not to demonise the losers, who often do the best they can under their own financial circumstances, or upbringing, or education, because people just need to get by, and they deserve a basic living standard, decency and respect every step of the way.

    Without this respect or a place in life, where do these "losers" go to? They become angry and form populist, prejudiced parties because they are angry at the way their life is treated and their populist politicans point the cause to foreign workers or minorities, and try to tell you you belong in their "special club" that's going to "take this country back". They are swayed to fight their fellow workers, who also have it hard in life and also are struggling to survive, when instead they need to be angry at and challenge this value system, sponsored by capitalists and corporate leaders, that says that "losers are scum" and "it's your fault". Be angry at them, not your fellow worker.

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  16. Do we change our philosophy on merit? Or do we make it so merit is the only thing that matters

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  17. What does it really mean to deserve something? Does a person who inherited wealth deserve it more than a poor person who stole it?

    There's no objective way to deserve something, you just have it, until you don't.
    But if you want to live in a functional society; then it's useful to have people work towards their own success in a way that doesn't screw others over.
    Everyone ought to see that as long as we're brought up in a society, everything is a collective effort to some extent. But those who succeed still deserve praise, as long as they're willing to show some humility.

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  18. Everyone has a certain kind of talent and speciality but lack of opportunities or money make them go into another field where they only work for money. Middle-class people are carrying the burden of their nation by paying a maximum of their income into tax and in return they get nothing. The harsh truth of our society.

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  19. So in summary, you are saying that "nobody deserves anything?" Well your conclusion still sounds equivalent to saying that God/luck chooses everything we get. Sounds like you are accidentally supporting the perspective you claim to oppose. Also your definition of Meritocracy seems inaccurate. Sounds like you want to destroy all standards of measuring quality of work. Ironically this video and your channel is supported by a type of Meritocracy which measures support by likes and subscribes. Would you still post videos every week if you got zero likes? You use a lot of drawings and sound effects seemingly to distract from the fact that your premise actually doesn't make logical sense but end your explanation with "but it is important to try." Try what? Try to destroy all forms of measuring justice and quality of work? Ironically, the idea of prohibiting standards of justice results in arbitrary and tyrannical decision making. Perhaps what you call Meritocracy is actually tyrannical leaders pretending to use Merit-based standards, but actually the standards are not actually understandable because they are mostly arbitrary. You have a little 3 minute video which tries to completely shut down the merit of Meritocracy, but ironically has no substantial merit to people who oppose tyranny.

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  20. These comments are rife with extrapolation. This man is trying to bring awareness to the social disparity that an ideal meritocracy tends to create; not argue the illegitimacy of them altogether. As he said, a perfect meritocracy is a double edged sword that creates feedback loops which uplift the competent but also bury the underprivileged. Those who think he's proposing Marxist policy are mistaken, as it's his intent to warn us of the populism that is fueled by said social disparity. Although it is incredibly difficult to diffuse this disparity without inhibiting the function of the meritocracy itself, we need to at least try and work towards reducing the stigma towards the less merited in order to keep tensions from rising so we don't risk losing the system altogether.

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  21. What I find stunning is that this supposedly " meritocratic " system rewards those who own, yet not those who actually work. Everyone knows billionaires are rich through the work of others.

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  22. H. Ross Perot was a mere salesperson for IBM. When he saw a market beyond what they were offering, and they refused to consider it, he left and started a company to deliver to that market. He only hired the best people he could find, paid them very well (quickly firing the non-performers along the way), built a very successful business and retired a billionaire. That's true MERITocracy. His merit, his people's merit.
    When Steve Jobs' buddy Woz created a better home computer, Steve set out to take it to the world. When he saw the Xerox skunk works' incredible achievement wasting away in their typing pool because "We're a copier company, not a computer company," the Mac was born and the rest is history. It's the history of American exceptionalist meritocracy. The meritous insight and performance of Ross Perot, many others, Steve Jobs and so many of their great hires, incredible people like Guy (The Macintosh Way) Kawasaki.
    Not one of these people accomplished anything by wishing and hoping, they did it by acting. And certainly not by blaming, or whining, or waiting for stolen handouts from no-product "activists" and "philosophers".

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  23. Agreed with all that until it became a brexit thing. Sigh. Yes all leave voters are thick racists.

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  24. Life reproduces and takes up both literal and conceptual "space". Since this "space" is finite, then so must the definition of successful life include "destroy" either by out-competing or outright. Meritocracy is baked into the definition of life.

    All of this is very cold.

    "Populism", as the artist demonizes, is a natural reaction to the modern condition. With the ever increasing scale of modern life, we do not simply worry about a random disease or flood, but also if some investor thousands of miles away and feet high decides your company, because of its ideals, "just needs to go". What else can a fellow drop of water in this ocean do but to join some part of a greater whole? Populism is just one of many solutions on this spectrum, many quite understandable and appropriate.

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  25. I find this explanation of the populist phenom enlightening. This meritocracy has been brewing for a long time. We have long since abandoned "all for one and one for all," to our downfall. The idea is explained further on Preet Brabara's podcast. It is well worth the time to listen.

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  26. We would only live in a meritocracy if everyone had the same opportunities and abilities, and of course we all know that doesn't exist in the real world.

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  27. i have been to that job center every day and no job what thefuck, america the what, job center minus a job

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  28. in a system with competition, players sorting their day to gain money, you, dear michael sandel, present an idea that could lead people to understand, if they so wish so. if they so wish so

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  29. I am not sure I agree. The tyranny of merit is only applicable to the middle and lower classes. Even there, it is propagated not by these classes, but by the powerful and the rich. They design the hoops through which the masses must jump, and if they can jump high enough, they are allowed a microdose of power.

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  30. According to statistics, based on the post-mortem studies, clever people constitute 6% of the population, and geniuses — 2%.

    In the near future, with the help of the computerized tomography with the resolution of 1—2 microns, it will be possible to diagnose mental abilities by the size of certain fields and subfields in the cerebral cortex of a living person. This is called "cerebral sorting".

    Then, and only then, the idea of meritocracy will receive its true underpinnings.

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  31. Well done to the artist. This was one of the best RSAs I've seen… and also to Mr Sandel for his clearly articulated lesson

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