by UnHerd Staff
Monday, 16
May 2022
Video
15:38

Michael Sandel: Why the elites don’t deserve their status

The Harvard professor of political philosophy makes the case for the end of merit
by UnHerd Staff

Do we deserve what we have? Are the elites any better than the rest of us? Do the right people get to run the world? 

One political philosopher who attempts to tackle these big questions is Professor Michael Sandel. A Harvard professor since the 1980s and world famous author of many bestselling books, including ‘What Money Can’t Buy’, and most recently, ‘The Tyranny of Merit’, Sandel has made the case for overhauling Western neoliberalism.

The alternative society Sandel suggests is more forgiving of failure and confers cultural status onto building community rather than capital. In a wide-ranging conversation with Freddie Sayers, Sandel explores how elite institutions from the Ivy League to Wall Street have given us the wrong idea about who deserves power.

Michael Sandel is appearing at the Restitch Social Fabric Summit in London on May 24. 

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Steven Brown
Steven Brown
1 month ago

I think Professor Sandel’s opinions regarding the need to reimagine the value of work, the degeneration of Universities (my words, not his) from seats of learning to box-ticking social sorting machines (his words) and the limitations of technocratic ‘excellence’ are well founded. I’m less convinced by the central plank of his argument, namely no-one really deserves their good fortune or their lack of such.
No amount of social engineering is going to overcome the inherent desire of any parent to elevate their children over everyone else’s. You can complain that those with money can afford to confer economic privilege on their kids, but no one, regardless of where they are in the pecking order of life, get’s out of bed 5 days a week (or more) to provide for someone else’s family. The moral virtue Professor Sandel speaks of is laudable and I agree our society could do with more of it, but the implicit critique that those who have achieved success, or are just lucky in life somehow have a moral obligation to everyone else is nothing more than the politics of envy, draped in the sheep’s clothing of social justice.
Professor Sandel is right to suggest that many at the top of society are no better than many at the bottom (insert name of least favourite politician here), but if you honestly think individuals or collective action can control the trillions of random events that lead all of us to our place in life, and thus create a fair society, I fear you will live with perpetual disappointment, because I’m not sure any society could ever agree what ‘fair’ actually is.

Last edited 1 month ago by Steven Brown
Robin P Clarke
Robin P Clarke
1 month ago
Reply to  Steven Brown

The real superior minds, such as (in science) Michael Faraday and Mendel and Boltzmann and Semmelweis, (in music) Schubert, Schumann, Bach, Bruckner, and (in painting) Van Gogh, would not be infected with any sense of entitlement. A real genius includes humility in his toolkit, quite besides the contempt they encounter from others. “A prophet is not recognised in his own land.”
The people who are so arrogant are thus because while they are constantly lauded as leading experts and geniuses, in reality they are not, just authoritarian-minded products of the hopelessly flawed expertise system as described in the book Experts Catastrophe. For some free chapters search for
Experts Catastrophe pseudoexpertise

Zenobia Storah
Zenobia Storah
1 month ago

Struggled to maintain much interest in and respect for man’s ideas once he revealed that he has apparently been totally oblivious to the actions of a corrupt elite during the covid era. Bizarre for a professor of political philosophy to have missed that one. Suggests he might be as out of touch as the very elites he critiques.

Last edited 1 month ago by drzenobiastorah
Robin P Clarke
Robin P Clarke
1 month ago
Reply to  Zenobia Storah

Of course he lacks insight into the flawed system of supposed “expertise”, because he is a part of that flawed system himself. As was explained in the book Experts Catastrophe re which see my other comment here for more details.

Jane Hewland
Jane Hewland
1 month ago

So often with these daily agonisings on Unherd, the answer is the one evolved over thousands of years, yet casually discarded by us all – Faith. At one point he says “there ought to be public spaces where people of different walks of life can come together…” Freddie actually does say churches? But Sandell brushes that aside as if parks and union clubs have the same status and purpose. How can clever people like him be so thick?

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 month ago
Reply to  Jane Hewland

“the answer is the one evolved over thousands of years, yet casually discarded by us all” 

As it has been in consistent decline for 150 years or so, it doesn’t seem like it’s such a great answer, even if it had been discarded by us all, which is far from true. Decline almost in lock step with the various changes brought by socio-economic progress (less personal vulnerability, greater individual power, more education). Not too hard to guess why that might be. Not so much a casual discarding as a gradual realisation that faith is really well named, there is no evidence for it.

Timothy Corwen
Timothy Corwen
1 month ago

The problem is what is the alternative? Building community means political manoeuvring and in-group connections, rather than competent agency.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
1 month ago

When have we actually had equality? Go back as far as you like and there have always been kings and paupers. Even in the animal kingdom there are winners and losers . We instinctively lean towards using all the resources we have towards ourselves and our offsprings. That is natural.
However there are 2 things of value i take away from this interview . The vital role of humility and gratefulness. The understanding that no one can make the mobility upwards without stepping on the creations & gifts of others. Hence your achievement is not your making alone.
And all trades and professions have a certain value, depending on who is looking at them. Who is generating more value? A banker or a teacher? Our soulless society grades them inappropriately to our moral detriment . The corruption of our education from value building to wealth building has encouraged the box ticking exercise, such that what we are learning in our centres of education, itself is becoming meaningless and warped. The elite buy into such education and keep the institutions populated with their own kind – like a club. The public is mesmerised by the idea of education and it’s monetary implication and continues to feed this cycle. This has become worse since worship has moved from principles to science . Neither require worship as they are both based in truth but humans are prone to worship without understanding. Worship of science however can lead to money, hence the corruption and a desperate need to reconstruct the setup of our educational institutions. A job that is valuable to society should be monetarily compensated higher than one that simply increases your own wealth. Is that even achievable?

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
1 month ago

An excellent comment. Yes, unfairness and inequality are inevitable, a part of the universe we inhabit – but they need not be as extreme as they are today.
Yes, humility and gratefulness – both of which will help us to value other people more than we do. The media (and others) see their role as to run down other people. Politicians are not valued as they should be (we easily forget that most of them are there because they want to do good). Doctors and teachers feel undervalued by the torrent of criticism that comes their way. Retail staff are undervalued (“You don’t want to spend your life stacking shelves in a supermarket do you?” Well, why not, if it suits you. We need retail workers and we should be grateful to those who are willing to do this work.)
The term meritocracy was coined by Michael Young, wasn’t it? And he could see that the concept could lead to the distorted value system that Sandel describes.

Last edited 1 month ago by Henry Haslam
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago
Reply to  Henry Haslam

Yes, Michael Young did coin the term, and he nver meant it as a positive, his whole book was a warning against such a system. Whilst it’s not just luck that allows someone to succeed, after all one needs to see what luck has put into one’s way and then go for it, luck still has a major role to play. as well as money, of course. If one’s parents can afford a good school rather than the cr*p local school this gives one a huge leg up, but again if one doesn’t take advantage of what money has bought then failure is still in the offing, It is possible through sheer hard work and will-power to rise, but it is very hard without the advantages conferred by wealth and connections.

Robin P Clarke
Robin P Clarke
1 month ago

Prof Sandel makes valid points here, but fails to identify the most key problem of our current system.
This is that the criteria of “merit” are hopelessly flawed. There is a gigantic fallacy that exam grades are a good indicator of intellectual excellence (and low grades a good indicator of its lack), when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.
This results in an intense bias towards mindless memorising and rigid conformity with “what we know”, and a gigantic discrimination against independent-minded questioning original creativity. No geniuses can get through the current “meritocratic” system which is why we no longer see them recognised anywhere (except via an illusion that “best-selling” author = great genius).
The maximised ability at mindless memorising is incompatible with the most important of abilities, to pause and UN-learn what one has learned in error.
This flawed system then continues on through the flawed protocols of higher degrees and “publication records” and “citation records”.
As a result we have a catastrophic void of real talent at the top where the real leading experts and intellectuals should be.
More details of this flawed system, and some of the resulting catastrophes can be read in the book Experts Catastrophe, available from Amazon and bookshops and also with some free chapters via the website you will find via a websearch of:
Experts Catastrophe pseudoexpertise .

Last edited 1 month ago by Robin P
Slopmop McTeash
Slopmop McTeash
1 month ago
Reply to  Robin P Clarke

This is that the criteria of “merit” are hopelessly flawed. There is a gigantic fallacy that exam grades are a good indicator of intellectual excellence (and low grades a good indicator of its lack), when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

please defend this assertion

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 month ago
Reply to  Robin P Clarke

…and thankfully ‘the experts’ (in inverted commas as there is in fact no such single coherent group) understand this, which is why in a psychology 101 class you will be taught that IQ is merely what an IQ test measures’. i.e. intelligence is too broad and complicated for a test, but the IQ test is as close as we’ve got, and has consistently been found to have good reliability and validity.

Moreover,and more thankfully, grades only help to get you into an interview. The fend-for-yourself World is the real intelligence test – those with this imperfectly understood quality tend to do well.

You could equally claim that standards are being brought low (if indeed they are), by democratisation/popularisation leading to poor academic standards. Universities are leaning away from a central ethos of being places of education and more to being places of coddling, cronyism and profit.

Last edited 1 month ago by Dominic A
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 month ago

There is the far more widespread flipside to the winners assuming they deserved it.
That is the corrosive belief that anybody who does well was just lucky.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 month ago

Yes, unless they are a footballer, then they are immensely hard-working heroes, deserving every penny for gloriously pushing pigskin orbs into nets.

Michael Sinclair
Michael Sinclair
1 month ago

We have, and rely far too much on ‘experts’ whose knowledge base is well defined by parameters, and next to no polymaths – people with a wide range, depth of knowledge and interest in many subjects from which a synthesis can be made as to resolution.

Emily Schroeder
Emily Schroeder
1 month ago

A worthwhile listen and very interesting. Thank you.

Bill W
Bill W
1 month ago

I am sympathetic to this argument about “meritocracy”.
Got a bit boring though.

Ryan Lawrence
Ryan Lawrence
1 month ago

FGDFGER

Michael Josem
Michael Josem
1 month ago

Is there a transcript of this available somewhere? I’d like to quote various parts at length.

sarah 0
sarah 0
1 month ago

If everything is valued equally, wouldn’t that dampen the human desire to strive for anything?

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 days ago

Just finished listening to this podcast after doing some complex bike repairs. As evidence of Sandel’s thesis about the value and difficulty of handwork, I had to pause the interview of good professor from Harvard while concentrating on truing a wheel… some handwork is much harder than brainwork, and should be valued equally.

Francesca O
Francesca O
1 month ago

Wow. this is a professor. Not an idea in his mind. Such a lack of originality and true thinking you wonder he deserves his place.

Slopmop McTeash
Slopmop McTeash
1 month ago

Maybe children from well off families are more intelligent than children from poor families. Maybe there is a reason why the rich are rich and the poor are poor. Maybe intelligence is, to an extent, inherited just as are many other attributes.
I read in a book: By their fruits shall you know them.

Last edited 1 month ago by D Hockley