The Rise and Fall of the Meritocracy? By Toby Young

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To coincide with the University of Nottingham’s debate about the state of meritocracy in contemporary Britain (24 October 2018), we’re sharing this piece by Toby Young where he explores the question: What lies beyond the meritocracy?

Toby Young, journalist and founder of the West London Free School, will be speaking alongside CEO of the Young Foundation, Helen Goulden; head of the CLASS Think Tank, Faiza Shaheen; Former Downing Street Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy. The event is supported by the Centre for British Politics, M4C (Midlands for Cites) and the University’s Department of History.

This piece continues our September blog series with answers also shared by Yvonne Roberts (journalist and writer, The Observer), David Goodhart (writer, head of integration and demography unit at Policy Exchange) and Philip Collins (writer, The Times) – visit the blog for more. 

The Rise and Fall of the Meritocracy? by Toby Young

Were the populist revolts that swept Europe and America in 2016 anticipated by Michael Young sixty years ago? It sounds far-fetched, but the society Michael describes in The Rise of the Meritocracy is remarkably similar to our own. Although the Britain he describes is superficially attractive, it has some dark undercurrents and is eventually brought down by a popular uprising in 2034.

Michael was my father and he died in 2002 at the age of 86, having lived a remarkably full life. In addition to being a distinguished sociologist – the first to lecture at Cambridge and the co-author of Family and Kinship in East London – he wrote the 1945 Labour manifesto, started Which? magazine and came up with the idea for the Open University. He was also married three times and had six children. I’m the fifth of those children.

Somehow, amidst all this, he found time to write The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire in the same vein as 1984 about a future path Britain might take if we didn’t make some serious re-adjustments. The 21st Century Britain Michael imagined is one in which a person’s occupational status is based on merit, which he defined as ‘I.Q. + effort’, and he coined the word ‘meritocracy’ to describe this future.

On the face of it, allocating wealth and prestige according to merit is more attractive than the hereditary principle. For one thing, it seems fairer: in a meritocracy, privilege is earned, rather than inherited. There’s also more scope for social mobility, both upwards and downwards, so where you end up in life isn’t determined by where you start. Martin Luther King was appealing to something like this principle when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Finally, a society in which the most intelligent, driven people are allowed to flourish is likely to be more prosperous than one in which they’re held back by the colour of their skin or the circumstances of their birth.

But my father disliked meritocracy because he believed everyone should share equally in life’s bounty – or, at least, more equally than they did in Britain in the 1950s. The problem with equality of opportunity, he thought, is that it made the unequal distribution of rewards seem fair. In his eyes, meritocracy was an ideological device for legitimising the extreme inequality thrown up by free-market capitalism. He intended it as a term of disapprobation, not approval.

As a classical liberal, I part company with him on this. I think egalitarianism poses a much greater threat to humanity than meritocracy. If the history of the 20th Century teaches us anything, it is that the dream of creating a more equal society often leads to the suppression of free speech, the imprisonment of a significant percentage of the population, widespread starvation and, in some extreme cases, state-organised mass murder. I believe the best bulwark against all utopian political projects, whether left-wing or right-wing, is a small state underpinned by the rule of law and I rather like meritocracy for the same reason my father disliked it – because it helps to secure people’s consent to the inequality that is the inevitable consequence of limited government.

But Michael came up with another objection to meritocracy that I find more troubling, which is the tendency of meritocratic societies to degenerate into self-perpetuating oligarchies.

His argument starts with a controversial premise, which is that the qualities the meritocratic principle selects for, namely I.Q. and an ability to work hard, are genetically based. In the early days of a meritocratic society, when these qualities are distributed randomly between classes, the application of this principle produces a good deal of upward and downward social mobility. But as this sorting process continues over the course of several generations, this movement begins to tail off. Why? Because the qualities meritocracy rewards, being genetically based, are possessed in disproportionately large amounts by the children of the meritocratic elite. Eventually, a society that started out as fluid and dynamic becomes even more ossified and hierarchical than the aristocratic society it replaced – a rigid class system underpinned by biology.

Indeed, this is what happens in the meritocratic dystopia of the future imagined by my father and it’s the principle cause of its collapse. My worry is that the populist revolts of 2016 are symptoms of a similar process at work in the most advanced societies of the West. That diagnosis is borne out by an analysis of electorates across the West: as a general rule, the more uneducated people are, the more likely they were to vote for populist candidates and causes and vice versa. Education is the new fault line in politics, with the least educated feeling the most alienated and disenfranchised.

The conventional wisdom is that Britain isn’t anywhere close to being a meritocracy. Successive prime ministers have said they want to create much more equality of opportunity, with Theresa May accompanying this with a call for more grammar schools. But if my father’s analysis is correct, the reason there’s so little social mobility in contemporary Britain (and America) is because we’ve become too meritocratic. And that claim isn’t as outlandish as it seems. According to Peter Saunders, a former professor of sociology at Sussex University, Britain is more meritocratic than most people think. “I have looked at the role that intelligence as measured by I.Q. scores plays in determining where people end up in the class system and what you find is that it is the single most important factor,” he says. Saunders is not a lone voice, either.

A similar conclusion was reached by Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve and it has been confirmed by numerous research studies since. Not that I.Q. is the only factor, or a larger factor than all the other factors combined when it comes to socio-economic status. But the single most important factor. What about the claim that qualities like intelligence are genetically based? According to Professor Plomin, a geneticist at King’s College, London, I.Q. is more than 50 per cent heritable, which is to say that there’s a strong correlation between variations in intelligence within any given population and the genetic variation in that population. It seems my father was on to something: if Britain really is on its way to becoming a fully-fledged meritocracy, as Peter Saunders and others think, how well people do in life is at least partly determined by their DNA.

Now, it doesn’t follow from this that Britain has become a genetically-based caste system or that the populist upheaval sweeping Europe and America is an expression of ordinary people’s anger at this phenomenon. But that certainly seems to be the direction of travel and it will place an increasing strain on Western democracies.

The question is, what can we do about it?

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