Sandel: “Summon Chance to Chasten Meritocratic Hubris”

Millions of YouTube viewers will be familiar with Michael Sandel of Harvard University’s lectures on Justice. He has been described as “a philosopher with the global profile of a rock star”, so it is greatly encouraging when in his book The Tyranny of Merit he emphatically endorses the use of lotteries for admission to elite universities.

His condemnation of actual existing Meritocracy is well worth a read, not least the societally damaging effects of hubris and self-worth among the elite ‘winners’; and the despondency and nihilistic voting for Brexit and Trump by the ‘losers’ and indeed all the non-credentialled.

In Chapter 6 makes a heartfelt and extended plea for the extensive use of lotteries for admission to not just Ivy League, but all selective colleges and universities. This Sandel says would “summon Chance to chasten Merit”.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with the American S.A.T. (Standardized Attainment Test), a sort of IQ test inflicted on 18-year-olds. This, Sandel suggests, could be used to establish a threshold for entry into the selection lottery and nothing else. This level of ‘Merit’ should be no more onerous than that imposed when the SAT was originated in the 1940s.

From this device Sandel argues that winners will be saved much  stress and avoid much of the (wasted?) effort of working towards the impressive list of activities that fills out their application form. Losers will gain too. No more rejections, and being made to feel  inadequate, despite losing narrowly. Much more psychologically healthy all round!

Sandel goes on at length to counter possible objection to lottery entry:

1. He has a hunch that academic quality of the graduates will not suffer by randomly accepting lower-scoring SAT applicants. (Oh dear! If only he’d picked up on the long-running examples in the Netherlands he’d know his ‘hunch’ is correct.)

2. Diversity of the accepted students is an automatic result of a lottery, but maybe some applicants may have an additionally recognised disadvantaged background. Is Affirmative Action with reserved seats the only answer? No, says Sandel, give them extra lottery tickets!

3. Outrageously, some universities have ‘legacy’ places for children of alumni or staff. These too, if allowed to persist, should be dealt with by extra lottery tickets.

4. Highly prestigious colleges (by which Sandel definitely means his own Harvard) may lose some of their shine. And a good thing too, says Sandel.

One other curiosity Sandel deals with is the dodgy practice of the uber-rich ‘buying’ a place for their offspring by making a massive donation, such as funding a Chair or Institute. Sandel would like to see this made transparent and honest, with an auction for a limited number of places.

With my economist’s hat on, I heartily agree!

In the next Chapter Sandel deals with the dire effect of Meritocracy on the world of work — jobs and employment. I looked forward to his recommendation that jobs, promotions and redundancies could benefit enormously from a bit of lottery action.

Sadly Sandel doesn’t see it that way. Instead he advocates developing a field of Contributive Justice to complement to already flourishing field of Distributive Justice. We are all more than just passive consumers in society. We want to have a chance to contribute something useful as well, a fundamental aspect of our well-being. (Yes, but how?)

Reference for the book: Sandel, Michael E (2020) The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the Common Good?

(I listened to the audio version of this book read by the great man himself. A slow speaker, it helps if you have speed control on your gadget!)

5 Responses

  1. I enjoyed reading the book too, especially the chapter on the moral history of merit. I read Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as a sociology undergrad and it was interesting to be reminded how a theology of unearned grace can be distorted into its diametric opposite prior to secularisation.


  2. I also recently read his book, “The Tyranny of Merit.” It is important, and refutes oft-asserted shibboleths of politicians across the spectrum. However, the book is somewhat repetitive (could have been a long article instead of a whole book).


  3. […] ‘Summon Chance to Chasten Meritocratic Hubris'” [Equality by Lot]. “[Michael Sandel’s] condemnation of actual existing Meritocracy is well worth a read, […]


  4. […] ‘Summon Chance to Chasten Meritocratic Hubris’” [Equality by Lot]. “[Michael Sandel’s] condemnation of actual existing Meritocracy is well worth a read, not […]


  5. […] ‘Summon Chance to Chasten Meritocratic Hubris’” [Equality by Lot]. “[Michael Sandel’s] condemnation of actual existing Meritocracy is well worth a read, not […]


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