Show Hide image

Equality and the elites

How political ideas such as “levelling up” draw on centuries of meritocratic thinking.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

Meritocracy, the idea that one’s place in society should be based on ability and effort, is under heavy attack – its failures having opened wide the doors for Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán and other populist mutants. The core criticism runs thus: meritocracy’s beneficiaries not only enjoy the fruits of a high-quality education and outsized salaries but are insufferably smug, sure of their virtue and superiority. They believe they are winners not because they are lucky to have had the “right” genes or parents who supported them in countless ways, but because they deserve to be winners. The elites may be brilliantly educated and regard themselves as sophisticated, tolerant and liberal, but in reality they are hopelessly disconnected from the societies they rule. They have grown way too big for their meritocratic boots. And if all that weren’t bad enough, it’s getting harder to become a meritocrat in the first place: social mobility, at least in the UK and the US, has declined since its postwar heyday.

But here comes the counter-attack. Adrian Wooldridge sees meritocracy as a revolutionary idea worth improving, not abandoning. He ranges across two and a half thousand years of history, surveying many societies and cultures, to remind us that until relatively recently the talented were almost always a matter of no interest to the rulers – not only unrewarded but undiscovered. In a recent cover story for this magazine (“In defence of meritocracy”, 19 May), Wooldridge expanded on the contemporary political salience of the idea, arguing fiercely that if Labour wants to win elections it must claim – he would say reclaim – meritocracy in order to demolish the perception that it has been captured by “woke egalitarianism”, or at the very least harness meritocracy to define its central purposes and remedy its lack of “vision”.

[See also: In defence of meritocracy]

Wooldridge, for decades a leading figure at the Economist, the global citizen’s anti-populism weekly bible, certainly understands why meritocracy has become unpopular. He is the latest in a long line of commentators to point to the importance of the policy failures of the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crash. In both cases it wasn’t only the politicians who failed or proved untrustworthy but the apparent experts, in intelligence and banking respectively. Meritocracy had soured before the eruptions of Trump, Brexit and the gilets jaunes.

Rousseau, in his 1762 book about education, Emile, argued that if the right people got to the top (became the experts) the masses would surely recognise their superiority and turn to them for guidance. True, Rousseau was writing during the ancien régime, when the most naturally talented were nowhere near the top, but his is a view of meritocracy in which all would recognise the social hierarchy that would result from the rule of the talented, and all would benefit.

Rousseau is just one of the many philosophers – including Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Erasmus, Voltaire, Mill – whose work on this subject is succinctly summarised and sometimes analysed in Wooldridge’s rich stew of a book. Alongside the philosophers are innumerable politicians, theologians, scientists, academics, authors and campaigners. He has dug up a priceless array of quotes from all perspectives on how to define the best people, how to seek them out, how to educate them, how to test them, how to give them power, even how they should behave.

***

For most of human history, a tiny number of men (they were always men) who happened to have the right combination of other qualifications – land, title, family connections – accumulated all the power, money and status. Of course there were exceptions: men whose talent and luck attracted a patron and gave them a position and rich reward. Wooldridge gives us examples – among them Pope Gregory VII, the son of a common labourer; Thomas Wolsey, son of a wool seller; and Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith.

But long after the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions had smashed feudalism and placed new emphasis on individual self-fulfilment, most talented people still couldn’t get to the starting line: wrong gender, wrong parents, wrong religion, wrong race. It took longer for cleverness, measured by tests and exams, to become the principal basis for allocating positions. Wooldridge shines a light, rightly, on the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms to the British civil service in mid-Victorian Britain as a moment when the state gave meritocracy proper roots. The mess of the Crimean War (1853-56) provided the background: the dim and lazy needed to be replaced by the talented, and recruited by “open competition” – though not too open (it was still an all-male affair). As for race, Wooldridge charts the alarming levels of inequality experienced by black households but his focus, in common with the recent storm-provoking Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, is on the differences between individuals within groups, rather than between groups themselves. He is very nervous about group rights, believing in some affirmative action, but focused not on race but on the deprived more broadly.

[See also: The subtle art of soft power]

All the time that Wooldridge is chronicling the jagged progress of meritocracy he is in effect reminding the reader why the idea retains its attraction. Intuitively, it still seems both obvious and appealing that society’s top dogs should not be defined by birth, property, class, race or gender, but by ability. But that intuition is not enough of a defence. Wooldridge, like anybody writing seriously about meritocracy, has to pay respects to the fundamental critique put forward by Michael Young, who popularised the term in his 1958 dystopia, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young feared that the meritocrats would become a class, that judgements of ability would be made on too narrow a basis, that the many losers would be assumed to have only themselves to blame. And by putting equality of opportunity front and centre, meritocracy would displace the equality of outcome that he sought.

The work of two great American philosopher-­critics of meritocracy whose criticisms overlap with Young’s are also given an outing: Michael Sandel’s beautifully written The Tyranny of Merit, published last year, which emphasises meritocracy’s abandonment of the virtues of community, and the earlier attack by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls did not think people with high IQs deserved their success. Talent is a morally arbitrary matter, not a reflection of goodness. Even hard work does not make you more deserving of success because a propensity to work is inherited. This is a stringent view – and like Young, Rawls’s idea of justice is bound up with limiting inequalities, not ensuring fair opportunities.

Wooldridge is a less radical figure. He emphasises the need for the talented to be rewarded, especially for their self-sacrifice (“even young Mozart had to practise”) and risk-taking. Without incentives for excellence, there would be fewer talented people and this would impoverish us all. Wooldridge undoubtedly recognises the hurt felt by contemporary meritocracy’s losers. He punches hard against the triumphalism or, at best, incomprehension of the “cognitive elite”. But he does not own up to the immense difficulty of reconciling even an improved meritocracy with the strain of left-wing thought that emphasises the moral case for equality of outcome. Wooldridge has little to say about redistribution of wealth. He is no egalitarian in Young’s sense – at all.

***

But what is Wooldridge’s recipe for meritocratic reform? He is not easy to pin down. His last chapter is a slalom, veering at moments towards the positively eccentric (“high executive salaries can persuade the mass of employees to make great efforts to become the next CEO”) and then drifting leftwards (“inequality in most of the world is far too high for comfort”). He champions what is now seen as a conservative view of selective schools as “escalator[s] into the elite”, but then, and with gusto, lays into Eton, Winchester, Marlborough and other private schools for abusing their charitable status by abandoning Britain’s poorer children and “filling their places with the children of the international elite”. Half their pupils could be drawn from children whose parents can’t afford the fees. And Wooldridge becomes the latest in a long line pleading for better technical education in Britain, with more respect conferred on those with non-academic qualifications.

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Mary Ann Sieghart, Terje Tvedt, Jarred McGinnis and Brad Stone]

All sorts of other ingredients are thrown in. Get rid of referendums, take away power from the rank and file of political parties, tax the digital platforms. These may be desirable but they look like hasty add-ons to his main arguments. But is meritocracy really on the ropes? Wooldridge’s desire to ameliorate it is the starting position of nearly all politicians, including many on the left, even if they don’t frame their rhetoric in these terms. They may not say so but many wrap meritocratic thinking around their policies, with claims of how they would increase social mobility by “levelling up” or by spending more on education, childcare or housing, or by pressing universities to be more accessible to the under-privileged. We don’t have a political and media culture that asks politicians about ideas – what do they actually mean by fairness, or equality of opportunity, or meritocracy? And so they can duck the difficulties that Wooldridge learnedly and entertainingly grapples with. More’s the pity.

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World
Adrian Wooldridge
Allen Lane, 496pp, £25

Mark Damazer is a former controller of BBC Radio 4. He was a trustee of the BBC between 2015 and 2017. 

This article appears in the 07 July 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust