Michael Sandel’s Tyranny of the “Common Good”

by | Nov 28, 2020

Sandel’s bottom line: you did not earn anything. It is all determined or blind luck. Sandel’s goal is to induce unearned guilt in everyone who does well in life.

The goal of Michael Sandel’s book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, is to divorce personal competence and choices from morality, life success and happiness. He uses a combination of false claims, selected news reports, distortions and collectivism to buttress his assertions.

A major thrust is to claim that people do not earn what they achieve. Consider that successful people often come from wealthier families. True, but what he leaves out is that parents who are wealthy typically got their wealth partly due to their intellectual ability. Because IQ is heavily genetic, they tend to have higher IQ children who are more likely to get more education and to get into the better schools. (Admissions cheating is wrong but it is not the core issue).

He claims that SAT scores are basically set by training for the test; this is false. Training has only a modest effect on SAT scores. He denies that SAT is a measure of IQ; actually, it is if you know the psychology literature.

He is upset by the fact that social mobility is not greater, but mobility is heavily dependent on ability and effort. What about effort? He says that effort is determined by family environment, but there are no studies that prove that.

Then he says you are lucky to live in a free society where you can prosper; yes, but so what? Everyone one in our country has the same freedom to make choices.

Sandel’s bottom line: you did not earn anything. It is all determined or blind luck. Sandel’s goal is to induce unearned guilt in everyone who does well in life. To be consistent, of course, the author should not take credit for writing his book. The assault does not stop there.

He claims that people who do better (winners) scorn and humiliate those who do less well and make them feel inferior.  Who does this sort of thing? No one I have ever known. Most of us respect anyone who earns an honest living. The assault does not stop here.

Making money, Sandel asserts, is not connected to overall moral worth and should be. Here there is a huge equivocation. In fact, anyone who earns an honest living is worthy of admiration regardless of their income; it is moral to take responsibility for your own life. But this is not acceptable to Sandel, because the best people by his moral standard do not necessarily make the most money. But what is his moral standard? Contribution to the common good. But what is the common good? Here Sandel gets quite vague because the common good is a dubious concept. If it means: the right of each individual to pursue their own happiness thru voluntary trade and association with others (as I am sure the Founding Fathers intended it to mean) ok, but he does not define it that way and clearly does not mean that.

So, what is left? Sandel does not say, but it would have to be something like the greatest good for the greatest number. But this would simply mean mob rule; the greatest number could do, literally, whatever it pleased with or to the smallest number.

Or, Sandel could mean, as a variant on this, the state will decide how much each person should be paid. This would then be what?  The tyranny of the common good as defined by everyone but yourself.

To avoid such horrors, the Founding fathers rejected democracy (unlimited majority rule) and created a republic with a constitution to protect the rights of every individual to pursue their own, personal happiness.so long as they respect the legitimate rights of others. The choice here is clear: it is Sandel vs. America.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is: EdwinLocke.com

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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