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Sanford Levinson, Exhortation, Transformation, and Politics: Comment on M. Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit, 1 Am. J. L. & Equal. 117 (2021).

Abstract: More than most books, Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?1 presents special challenges for reviewers. The reason, frankly, is that he is writing about “us” (i.e., the likely audience)—and even more certainly those invited to offer systematic reviews. That is, we are, by any measure, “successes” in the American academy (and, perhaps, even elsewhere), whether measured by the institutions in which we teach, the salaries we make, or the more general recognition that we have been privileged to receive at least from people or groups with which we specially identify. What accounts for this success? One flattering response, of course, is that we “deserve” it because of our own inherent capacities and efforts—our own “merit”—however we choose to define that often slippery term. This also entails, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, the proposition that those “below” us in the pecking order have no real justification for any complaints they might have. They are merely envious—and, recall, envy is one of the seven deadly sins—of the success we have rightfully achieved by excelling them in a variety of relevant capacities, ranging from raw intelligence to a willingness to work hard and defer mundane gratifications. And, incidentally, that is true as well if “we” are tempted to demean instead of honor those above us in the relevant pecking order. Not everyone can make (or deserves to make) the all-star team, and we should be grateful for the opportunity to play in the major leagues.