What everyone gets wrong about meritocracy

It’s time society gave more to those who have no desire to “escape” their class and who simply want to live a decent, dignified life.

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It is fashionable to talk about meritocracy again. Bookshelves groan under the weight of new volumes laying out its flaws. I wrote a short polemic on the subject in 2016 – The Myth of Meritocracy – though it is arguably more popular to discuss the limitations of meritocracy today than it was back then.

Meritocracy is commonly defined as a social system by which people ascend the economic and social hierarchy based on “talent” and effort rather than wealth or social class. For decades now politics in Britain has been saturated in the ethos of meritocracy and its accompanying language of “social mobility”. Politicians of all parties have obsessed over hoisting “poor but bright” kids into the ranks of the middle classes.

More recently, the well-documented discontent at the bottom of society in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump has led to a renewed focus on meritocracy’s shortcomings. The 1990s and 2000s – the peak meritocratic era – were defined by liberal hubris and rule by technocrats. Turning Britain into a meritocracy became an obsession: politicians shared the belief of Plato, who dreamed of a society run by those “who have the ability to think more deeply, see more clearly and rule more justly than anyone else”.

Yet the rotten fruits of the meritocratic era – the Iraq war, the financial crisis, former industrial heartlands in the West swaddled in poverty and resentment – prompted the obvious question: are we truly governed by those who “see more clearly”?

In Britain, merit is largely defined by the possession of academic qualifications. Going to university is considered a sign that a young person has the required merit to “get on”.

The loss of esteem attached to manual and routine work is particularly striking in Britain. Those who don’t go to university – or those who go to second-rate universities – typically earn less over a lifetime than their university-educated peers. They are also subjected to a subtle yet constant barrage of cultural condescension from the professional classes.

Popular culture itself is increasingly built around the idea of transcending working-class life and finding status and financial security through fame or a lucky break. Britain’s National Lottery was launched at the height of meritocratic optimism in 1994; today the entertainment industry marinates the public in talent contests that encourage the poor to think of themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”, as the writer John Steinbeck once described the ideology that prevailed among the losers under America’s meritocratic system.

[see also: Class isn’t dead – and Labour needs to relearn how to talk about it]

It is perhaps understandable, then, that those left behind by the meritocratic order should grow resentful. We look down on jobs (and the people who do them) that do not fit the parameters of what David Goodhart has called Britain’s “bloated cognitive class”. This meritocratic snobbery “creeps into the language of everyday life”, Goodhart writes in his recent book Head Hand Heart.

Moreover, meritocratic status hierarchies seem to foster the idea that those who succeed possess a greater degree of moral worth. “Newspapers are far more likely to highlight the accidental death of a promising 22-year-old medical student than a 22-year-old who works as a hairdresser,” as Goodhart puts it.

Michael Young, an early critic of meritocracy, memorably predicted such a dystopian outcome. In his 1958 novel The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young depicts a perfectly tuned meritocracy where “by imperceptible degrees an aristocracy of birth has turned into an aristocracy of talent”.

Thus, one of the more perverse outcomes of the meritocratic ethos is cruelty: the rich no longer believe in noblesse oblige, the idea that with privilege comes responsibility. It is of course important not to overstate the extent to which the old aristocracy ever gave a damn about the poor. But under aristocratic governance there was at least a degree of social pressure encouraging the rich to provide something for the less well off. Under a meritocracy – clinical, streamlined, fair (in a very narrow sense) – this impulse evaporates like steam from a kettle.

But meritocracy’s critics have their own blind spots. Leftists condemn meritocracy for its hollow rhetoric of equality of opportunity. As I wrote in 2016, meritocracy without redistribution inevitably cannibalises itself though the unequal outcomes it generates: the privileges of the parents become the privileges of the child. The United States, a country founded on the idea of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps meritocracy, is one of the most unequal countries in the world; it also possesses some of the worst rates of social mobility.

It is therefore encouraging that we are looking afresh at meritocracy with a critical eye. Yet I’m not sure the terms of the debate are as binary as they are sometimes presented. I left a run-down seaside town ten years ago to come to London and study to be a journalist. I therefore cannot throw out the idea of social mobility altogether. It has benefitted me immensely.

But perhaps it’s time we gave more as a society to those who have no desire to escape or to join the ranks of the middle classes; to those who simply want to live a decent, dignified and financially secure life. There is evidence to suggest that intelligence is (at least to some extent) heritable, so it makes no sense for it to be bound up with societal notions of a person’s moral worth.

We also need to stop thinking about meritocracy in binary terms. The aim should not be to create a perfectly oiled meritocracy where brainy children are catapulted into the elite while the rest are consigned to indignity and drudgery. But nor would it be wise to adopt the anti-meritocratic posture of the egalitarian left, whereby people are urged to “rise with their class rather than out of it”. Such slogans are usually mouthed by those who have already done well for themselves – it’s easy enough to tell somebody else that they should reject social advancement for ideological reasons.

For a brief moment last year, as we stood on our doorsteps and clapped for healthcare workers and carers, the working class regained some of its old esteem. Long-standing meritocratic assumptions of who is valuable to our society were shattered. As the pandemic recedes, this should prompt us to re-evaluate our concept of a fair and socially mobile society.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to “get on”. However, I suspect we would be a happier and more harmonious country without the corresponding loss of status and dignity that meritocracy seems to necessitate for the system’s “losers”, the millions of people who live “ordinary” lives and who have been turning to populist leaders to assuage their resentments.

[see also: In defence of meritocracy]

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize.

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