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The myths of meritocracy

Why would we want to live in a world split between smug winners and humiliated losers?

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When the British sociologist Michael Young coined the word “meritocracy” in 1958, he meant it as criticism. His satirical dystopia The Rise of the Meritocracy foresaw a society in which class was dead and your personal merit determined where you landed up. Young intuited that this would create a society divided between smug winners and humiliated losers. His narrator, supposedly writing in 2033, predicts a losers’ revolt in 2034. “That revolt arrived 18 years ahead of schedule,” writes Michael Sandel, the superstar Harvard political philosopher, in The Tyranny of Merit. The British writer David Goodhart, the founder of Prospect magazine, whose recent The Road to Somewhere made him the scourge of liberal Remainers, joins the ­attack on today’s faux-meritocracy with his new work Head Hand Heart.

At times it feels as if Goodhart and Sandel have written the same book (and with the same publisher, Allen Lane). Both apply Young’s argument to our times. Like Young, they go beyond the familiar claim that cognitive meritocracy doesn’t work, to make a more interesting case: that it shouldn’t. They argue, in Sandel’s phrase, against “the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart”. Both authors set out a convincing political programme for a post-meritocratic society that would channel more rewards and dignity to the two-thirds or so of Britons and Americans without university degrees. In Goodhart’s terms, that means redistribution from “head” (brain-workers) to “hand” (manual labourers) and “heart” (carers). Judging by this spring’s national ovations for “key workers”, and strong support in polls for raising taxes on rich people and corporations, this platform could win an election. It would be revolutionary.

The one ideal pushed by all British prime ministers since the 1960s, and by US presidents until Donald Trump, is meritocracy. “New Labour is committed to meritocracy. We believe that people should be able to rise by their talents, not by their birth or the advantages of privilege,” announced Tony Blair in 1996, to the disgust of the 81-year-old Young. Twenty years later, Theresa May said, “I want Britain to be the world’s ­greatest meritocracy… where it’s your ­talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.”

Meritocracy – a word now drained of Young’s irony – has become our generation’s version of utopia. The meritocratic definition of merit is simple: exam-passing. “The swot, once a figure of fun, has had the last laugh,” writes Goodhart, citing research findings that Americans with IQs over 120 earn twice as much as those with average IQs. The upper reaches of the corporate sector, which used to have room for uncredentialled people, are becoming graduate-only. In Britain, all new nurses have needed a degree since 2013, police officers too from this year. All this has upsides (graduate nurses achieve better clinical outcomes, Goodhart admits) but it pushes those without degrees down the pyramid into unskilled jobs.

Graduates are now offered something that was historically reserved for a tiny class: personal success. The promise to them is mobility, not equality. If you are working class and “bright”, you can abandon your town for a “good” university, London and a career (rather than a mere job). Goodhart quotes Justine Greening, the former Tory secretary of education, saying: “All the years I spent growing up in Rotherham, I was aiming for something better… owning my own home, an interesting career, a life that I found really challenging.” She joined the ruling cognitive class in London. Meanwhile, 68 per cent of those left behind in Rotherham voted Leave. That’s meritocracy.

A country in which two of the last three prime ministers passed through Eton and Oxford’s Bullingdon Club together patently isn’t meritocratic. This summer’s A-levels fiasco was only the latest reminder of the failure of British meritocracy on its own terms. Even so, the meritocratic ideal retains a natural appeal to today’s politicians, because most of them rose through the cognitive fast stream. In 1979, when many Labour MPs came from the trade-union movement, 41 per cent didn’t have a degree. By 2017, only 16 per cent did not. On the right, even ­David Cameron, son of the chairman of the establishment club White’s, has a First from Oxford. Our rulers think of themselves as meritocrats.

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In the US, Barack Obama led a governing coalition of (to use Damon Runyon’s terms) “Harvards” and “Yales”. Sandel quotes the journalist Jonathan Alter: “At some level Obama bought into the idea that top-drawer professionals had gone through a fair sorting process, the same process that had propelled him and Michelle to the Ivy League, and were therefore in some way deserving of their elevated status.” Credentialled politicians were always willing to listen to fellow alumni working in finance.

The centre-left political project became the battle to make meritocracy more meritocratic, by letting graduate women, ethnic and sexual minorities succeed, too. Hillary Clinton, who targeted “the highest and hardest glass ceiling”, told one campaign rally: “I want this to be a true meritocracy… I want people to feel like they can get ahead if they work for it.”

But by then most people had realised they couldn’t get ahead no matter how hard they worked. The only route into life’s fast stream was acceptance into the right ­university aged 18, and the ruling class had captured the pass. Higher education, always touted as enabling social mobility, now probably restricts it, writes Goodhart. American Ivy League colleges “take more students from the wealthiest 1 per cent of families than from the entire bottom half of the country,” writes Sandel. Scores in America’s university-entry Scholastic ­Aptitude Test closely track family income. Any rich kids who fail can fall back on affirmative action for the  1 per cent: US universities reserve many places for the children of alumni and donors.

Oxbridge has its own backdoors. Young’s son Toby missed the A-level grades he needed for Oxford, but Young knew the ­admissions tutor and sealed Toby’s entry with a phone call. The episode exemplifies why even drastic government intervention cannot make meritocracy truly fair: a successful family confers advantages of social capital that sometimes last centuries. Oxbridge has upped its intake from state schools, but the proportion remains below 70 per cent, and many beneficiaries are upper-middle-class people who attended state school, such as Toby. Toby has since  parlayed his Oxford-enabled journalistic status into parading around as an upholder of meritocracy, determined to defend ­Oxford’s failure to admit more students from ethnic minorities.

In the class-bound Britain of the past, wrote Young, every halfway sensitive upper-class man noticed social inferiors at least as clever as he was: “a private in his regiment, a butler or ‘charlady’ in his home, a driver of taxi or bus, or the humble workman with lined face and sharp eyes in the railway carriage or country pub”.  PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves was the exemplar. Today most of those social inferiors still don’t get a chance. Meanwhile, Britain’s supposedly meritocratic leaders have given us four unforced blunders in 17 years: the Iraq war, the financial crisis, Brexit and the mishandling of Covid-19. Their ­predecessors without degrees – such as Churchill, Nye Bevan (founder of the NHS) and Clement Attlee’s foreign secretary Ernest Bevin (who faced down Stalin) – did better.

[see also: Personal story: Eton and the need to win]

Yet even if cognitive meritocracy produced fair outcomes, Goodhart and Sandel would oppose it. Sandel’s argument in particular restates Young’s: meritocracy creates winners who look down on the resentful losers, with each group in their own neighbourhoods and universes. The winners – such as Sandel’s self-congratulatory students at Harvard – come to feel they deserve their rewards because they work hard. Their cleaning lady, who may have got up at 5am and taken four buses to do three jobs, is probably working harder. Yet she, too, may have swallowed the ideology and come to blame herself for her lowly status. In a society that calls itself meritocratic, you’re encouraged every day to feel that you make your fate alone.

The meritocratic fetishisation of marketable talents overlooks the luck involved in having any. You might be a brilliant printer or coal miner, but there’s no market anymore for those skills. Goodhart raises another awkward issue of luck: “Among behavioural geneticists, if not the wider society, it is now widely accepted that about half the variance in measures of intelligence, as traditionally defined, is accounted for by genes.” He acknowledges the field’s origins in racist eugenics. But his summary of contemporary research is that although there’s no single gene for intelligence (an indefinable quality anyway) thousands of genes play a role, interacting with our nurture. Should we label people as losers ­because they have certain genes and/or grew up in homes with few books?

Our faux meritocracy produces a surplus of uncredentialled losers. What they want  is not simply higher incomes but more respect, argues Goodhart. Angus Deaton, the economist who with his wife and colleague Anne Case studied American “deaths of despair” – people without college degrees killing themselves by suicide, drink or drugs – reports that “what surprised us is how little material deprivation seems to matter with this story”.

The votes for Brexit and Trump were in part uprisings by kids at the back of the class. Trump himself has a complicated relationship to meritocracy. He poses as a self-made man who attended “the hardest school to get into, the best school in the world [the University of Pennsylvania]… super-genius stuff”. He hides his college grades and SAT scores. Yet most Trumpian rhetoric is anti-meritocratic. He promises to restore masculinity and whiteness as sources of respect, and to take uppity women and black people like Hillary Clinton and Obama down a peg. His proud ignorance and semi-literacy are two fingers to the American egghead caste.

In the US, college attendance has fallen since the last financial crisis. But in Britain, the solution to every problem remains more education. This autumn, despite coronavirus, British universities welcomed the largest freshers’ class in history. At the end of September, Boris Johnson promised free college courses for adults without A-levels.

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Goodhart suggests, somewhat hopefully, that the shrinking of the cognitive class will end the meritocratic era. Mid-level cognitive jobs in fields such as law, medicine, accountancy and journalism are indeed being automated or offshored. Growing numbers of graduates, especially from lesser-ranked universities, end up in non-graduate work. A startling percentage appear to learn nothing at university.

But Goodhart downplays evidence that “hand” jobs continue to be automated away, too. And in his eagerness to assail the liberal cognitive class, he rarely acknowledges that cognitive meritocracy, for all its flaws, has given millions of women a route upwards. He displays flashes of nostalgia for the time when most women worked as carers. Still, he is honest enough to acknowledge ­inconvenient facts that nuance his polemic, and he has unearthed many intriguing factoids. For instance, 71 per cent of Britons in 2015 said they had a “good job”, up from 57 per cent in 1989.

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Given that each book is repetitive on its own, it’s best not to read them together. Sandel’s should have been a long magazine essay. He offers the breezier prose, and Goodhart more depth of research, but both books are well-argued, clear, and nicely timed to appeal to the growing disillusionment with meritocracy.

The applause for NHS staff and “key workers” during lockdown was, in part, an attempt to redistribute respect away from overpaid graduates. The odds are that these ovations will ­dissolve into nothing, and that Old Etonian Tory prime ministers will keep succeeding each other ad infinitum.

However, there’s another possible route. Sandel unfolds a programme for dignified lives for all. He wants to stop paying people according to their “market value”; to be more concerned about the well-being of producers (such as factory workers and teachers) than of consumers; to shift taxes from labour to consumption and speculation; and to make universities less selective. Goodhart’s wishlist includes more apprenticeships. This autumn’s new British T-levels – “a classroom-based, ­vocational equivalent to A-levels” – are a start. Together with Brexit, they may eventually dent the UK’s reliance on imported “hand” workers.

A crusade against cognitive meritocracy is an unfashionable vision. But, the post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-Corbyn left needs a fresh offering. You could imagine Keir Starmer turning anti-meritocracy into a Labour platform. The new promise to ­people in Rotherham would be: go to university and London if that’s your thing. Alternatively, stay home, do a respected job that contributes to society, and rise with your community instead of without it. You don’t have to “succeed”.

That vision would hit obstacles. Revaluing care would mean a big rise in taxes on the cognitive class, which has ways of hiding or shielding its money. Revaluing “hand” would probably involve subsidising jobs, slowing automation, and, with it, economic growth. Still, it could prove the left’s most popular platform in decades. Nobody this spring stood on their doorstep clapping for “wealth creators”. 

Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century
David Goodhart
Allen Lane, 368pp, £20

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
Michael Sandel
Allen Lane, 288pp, £20

This article appears in the 06 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos