There have been two stages in the literary response to the revolts of 2016. The first had many writers, somewhat hysterically, declaring the “end” of liberal democracy. History will judge these works poorly. Democracy has proved more resilient than many claimed. The second, which we are living through today, is delivering a more insightful critique of where our societies went wrong. And it is the latter, to which Sandel contributes, that will do more to help us to heal our divided societies.
The Tyranny of Merit is an important work, and makes a profound point that our leaders would do well to understand. The idea that inequality matters little, and that instead all we need to do is build a better meritocracy, educating our way to a bigger knowledge economy, is wrong. It has been tested, and it has failed. Instead, we need a completely different attitude to education and work. Rather than focusing only on “distributive justice”, Sandel argues, we need a greater measure of “contributive justice”, giving workers the “social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value”. This will require us to transform our education and training systems, to rebalance what we spend on elite education with technical and vocational training.