Centre for Public Policy at IIMB hosts a talk by Professor Michael Sandel on his new book ‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of Common Good?’

Taking questions from faculty and students, Dr Sandel debunks the myths surrounding a merit-based society and explains how it does not offer solutions to address inequality

Bengaluru: The Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore hosted a virtual talk by Professor Michael Sandel, Harvard University, on Thursday (March 04), followed by an engaging discussion, on his new book, ‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of Common Good?’ The book is themed on ethics and diversity.

The students of the two-year full time MBA programme – Post Graduate Programme in Management (PGP) and the faculty, led by IIMB Director Professor Rishikesha T Krishnan enriched the discussion with their questions for Professor Sandel.

Professor Michael J Sandel said: “We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds 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, he said, is a brew of anger and frustration that has fuelled populist protest. He explained that we must rethink the attitudes toward success and failure that have accompanied globalization and rising inequality. He highlighted the hubris a meritocracy generates among the winners and the harsh judgement it imposes on those left behind. He offered an alternative way of thinking about success – more attentive to the role of luck in human affairs, more conducive to an ethic of humility, and more hospitable to a politics of the common good.

Taking a question on what meritocracy is, Professor Sandel said we tend to think of merit as an ideal. “I do discuss who deserves what and why under the heading of merit. A few examples I give, in my book and in my talks, are of great sports figures who command huge prestige and money, but I am also engaged with those who deserve admission to universities. I do mean merit as a concept that comes up and is contested whenever we are trying to figure out who deserves what and why. The meritocracy of today has hardened into a kind of aristocracy.”

“In recent decades, the divide between winners and others has been deepening. It also has to do with the changing attitudes to success. Do we want a society that brings everyone up to the same starting point at the race and then says, let the race begin! Is that the image of a just society? I suggest that it isn’t. Some have had good coaches, good practice facilities, a special diet, special running shoes…even if they all had the same starting point. There is a lot of luck in who finished first even if they all strived equally hard,” Professor Sandel said. “We should not conclude that the winners, in sports, in academia or in the economy, have done it on their own,” he said, adding that the idea is not to prevent the fast runners from running fast but to get them to understand that the winnings are not theirs alone.

“Achievers should have humility and that humility should lead them to assume that the winnings are not theirs alone since they are indebted to luck, to their gifts and to the society that enabled them to enjoy those gifts. They should accept and embrace the idea that those winnings are not their alone and share those winnings with a wider society that made those winnings possible,” Professor Sandel said.

Universal basic income

Professor Rishikesha T Krishnan, Director, IIM Bangalore, asked Professor Sandel if his ideal socialist world can coexist with the capitalist model. “It’s possible for people to support a capitalist economy to favour a progressive tax system that creates a welfare state and a safety net with some redistribution policies,” Professor Sandel responded. When asked about his views on universal basic income, Professor Sandel said: “Universal basic income can provide a basic living for everyone regardless of whether they have the talents to get work provided it can be funded without undermining funding for healthcare, public services and education. But it should not let policymakers off the hook for not providing jobs with decent pay for everyone in society. Universal basic income cannot be allowed to replace or remove pressure on society to ensure that everyone has access to jobs with dignity.”

On financialization of the economy, Professor Sandel said: “I distinguish between two different kinds of work within finance. Finance is important to any economy provided it performs its traditional social function – allocating capital to socially useful activities to make the economy more productive. But much of the growth in the financialization of the economy in recent decades in rich countries has been the development of the sophistication of financial engineering that consists of speculative bets on already existing assets like derivatives that don’t actually reach the real economy.”

Tackling inequalities

Addressing a question from a student on how to address inequalities between countries, Professor Sandel responded that poor states in a federal system are not necessarily “wealth extractors” or lacking the merit of rich states. “The answer goes beyond economics. It raises the question of the political community. If a political community aspires to be a community that cultivates a common life and shared purposes whatever the difference of language, history, culture and tradition, then it is important not to view poor states as lacking in merit. It is important to include them in development by sharing resources.”

“Higher education is less a vehicle for upward mobility than a reinforcing institution replicating existing patterns of privilege. There are exceptions, of course. Institutions that make a deliberate effort to recruit from places and families where no one, earlier, had the access to higher education do hold out hope,” he said in response to another question.

On what he thinks students should do to address the tyranny of merit, Professor Sandel said he loved the movie, The 3 Idiots, because it in a way illustrated the central themes of his book even though the movie existed before his book! “Not only is there intense competition to enter these institutions leading to damaging pressure on students and extracting an emotional toll, the networking/ sorting/ credentialization function of these institutes is beginning to crowd out the essential education mission of teaching and learning.”

Earlier in the evening, Professor MS Sriram, Chairperson, Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore, introduced Professor Sandel and the book to the audience, and moderated the Q&A part of the talk with Natasha Bhide, a PGP student at IIMB.


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