Adrian Wooldridge, the political editor of The Economist, has written on topics as diverse as Alan Greenspan, the history of radicalism in British psychology, and the evolution of the modern Republican Party. In his latest book, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, he seeks to counter recent attacks on the ideal of meritocracy.
In this week’s conversation, Adrian Woolridge and Yascha Mounk discuss the hidden radicalism of the meritocratic ideal, China’s embrace of meritocracy, and the West’s misguided rejection of it.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: We’re in a strange moment where it’s become very fashionable to attack meritocracy. There’s been a spate of books saying meritocracy is a problem. I had Michael Sandel discuss his book about that about a year ago on the podcast. What do you want to contribute to that conversation?
Adrian Wooldridge: Well, first of all, the notion that meritocracy is a problem is actually a very old sort of notion. That term “meritocracy” was invented by Michael Young in 1958 with his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, and that was meant to be a critique of meritocracy. [Young] was saying that meritocracy is an absolutely awful system because it makes the people who win feel horribly smug, and the people who lose feel unbearably depressed. Nevertheless, when Michael Young’s book came out, it was interpreted by everybody, much to his chagrin, as actually a celebration of this change. And most of us, I think, for most of the last 40 or 50 years, have thought of meritocracy as a good thing, that it enshrines open [and] fair competition.
But what we have actually seen in the last few years is a real darkening. In other words, people right across the board have woken up to the negative side of what Michael Young was saying. And this goes all the way from Black Lives Matter, who are very critical of meritocracy, to academics like [Yale Law Professor Daniel] Markovits and Sandel who are sitting at the very heart of the meritocratic machine and saying this isn’t a very nice thing, either.
I think now, the onus is to say [that] this is an idea that’s central to the creation of our civilization—are we right to get rid of it? And I am on the side of saying we should be very, very careful about getting rid of it. I decided to write this book looking at the history of meritocracy and looking at what it actually meant in practice. And I think that we’ve been very casual with democracy, very casual with capitalism, very willing to be hypercritical of those two things. Certainly in the case of democracy, we’ve seen the dark side of criticizing it. I think we’re about to see the dark side of criticizing meritocracy as well.
Mounk: One of the things that strikes me in this conversation is [that] there’s sometimes a confusion of terms. I grant that Michael Sandel’s book, for example, has important insights about the darker side of a meritocratic ethic, that there are people who get to Harvard, where he teaches, and then go out and make a lot of money, who think of themselves as Masters of the Universe and think that they deserve all of the good fortune, and that everybody else deserves all of the bad fortune. But that is sometimes used to discredit an idea that seems to me to be actually much older than Michael Young’s [idea] of meritocracy, which is the importance of merit—the importance of promoting those who will perform the best into society’s most important positions. And that seems to me to be something that is deeply bound up with the history of liberalism and the history of modern states. It seems to stand at the heart, for example, of the French Revolution. You’ve thought very hard about the history of meritocracy. How do you think [that history] can add to the conversation today?
Wooldridge: You have to grasp the history in order to understand the nature of the meritocratic idea. And the meritocratic idea is essentially a critique of a particular sort of society, which has existed in most of the world throughout most of history, ordered according to the principles of inheritance: that you inherit your position from your parents; the principle of family connection, that families do their very, very best to get their children or their cousins into their affinity group jobs; or even that positions are bought and sold on the open market. It’s actually something that is profoundly tied up with human nature: If we don’t construct a bunch of institutions that constrain our behavior, we end up with nepotism, with corruption in various sorts. People have a natural desire to help their own children.
Meritocracy was a real creation that took time, and that took a certain self-denying ordinance—we were pushing against some of the most obvious things about human nature. So, meritocracy has a relatively brief history, in the sense that it’s the creation of the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and of what I call the the “English Revolution,” the Gladstonian revolution of the 19th century—all of which were taking the old social order and tearing it up, saying, “Let’s reconstitute the social order on the basis of a set of new principles, open competition, testing people’s promise and ability, getting rid of nepotism, getting rid of feudal restrictions.”
I think that has a fundamental importance for the way we organize the world today. If you interpret it properly, it is always dissolving inherited aristocracy and is always creating room for mobility, and always creating room for marginalized groups. So, rather than being this tool of oppression or the tool of past power that Sandel or Markovits or Young think it is, if you go to its historical essence, you find an extremely radical idea.
Mounk: That seems right. I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy, which, by comparison to most societies in the history of the world, is a very meritocratic society. But a lot of young people there do not feel that if they do very well in high school, they’ll get into the best college—and if they have a degree from one of the best colleges, will have a lot of opportunity to pursue their dreams, and so on. They have the sense that the person who gets the job is il raccomandato—not the person with the best set of references, [but] the person with a cousin who has power over it. What do you think the impact today would be of following the advice of Michael Sandel and Markovits? What do you think would happen if meritocracy actually atrophied in the United Kingdom, United States, or in continental Europe?
Wooldridge: Well, I think a lot of the answer is actually [revealed in the case study of] Italy: Itss very easy to get rid of meritocracy. I don’t think meritocracy is “got rid of” in the sense that you abolish it. What you do is you allow it to weaken, you allow it to atrophy. You allow, “Let’s make an exception for my nephew. Let’s make an exception for his nephew.” You have lots of little exceptions that seem unimportant at the time, but when they mount up, they mount up to a much more nepotistic and much more familial sort of social system.
I think there are two problems with Italy, if you think about it. Economic efficiency—it’s just not a very dynamic economy, and it’s becoming less dynamic. So, if you look at the years after the Second World War, Italy did all right, at first, when family companies could bring in their nephew and still work rather well. But since the 1990s, when information technology has become much more important as the key to growth, Italy has fallen further and further behind. So the price of having a nepotistic economy is getting bigger as we have a more IT-driven society. Italy is, I think, a stagnant society, as is Spain in some ways. Northern Europe tends to be more meritocratic [than Southern Europe], and it’s more economically dynamic.
But also, I think you have an unjust society in the sense that people are not judged on the basis of their talents and ambitions [but] are judged on the basis of their family. People are not allowed to express their talents, so they become very frustrated. I think not taking people’s talents as defining parts of their character is unjust. If you look at the history of migration, migration is almost away from close, nepotistic, familial-based societies towards more open, more meritocratic societies. You have this massive flow of people from Greece [and] Italy towards places like Britain and the United States, which are further advanced on the meritocratic curve. I think the future is Italy, if we go down the Sandel route.
Mounk: It’s interesting to try to enumerate the harms of a lack of meritocracy. You mentioned inefficiency—the fact that the most talented people don’t inhabit the most important positions. That has a very negative impact on economic growth and other kinds of goods that we might want. We can think of the economic opportunities that Germany—thank God—[presented] to two Turkish-German immigrants that allowed us to have the Pfizer vaccine. If they hadn’t been able to rise through the ranks of society, that would have had a very significant impact on our ability to deal with a pandemic this year. You talked about the injustice of people feeling [that] “Well, my station in life is fixed. And it is what it is—if I may have all this talent, I’m never going to be able to use it.”
Wooldridge: Absolutely. I think if you’re going to take people seriously as human beings, you have to take their talents seriously. You have to take into account the fact that there are people who have potential, who can develop that potential, and who are at their most fulfilled when they are expressing that. I think a good society is a society [with] the development of talent at [its] very heart. You have to be willing to test your talent. There’s a lot of criticism by the anti-meritocratic people about the terrible examination system, [with] everybody spending a life doing examinations. Most of us don’t like doing examinations. But doing examinations is also a way of developing our talents. Because we have to work, we have to master a body of material. And it’s also a way of testing our talents against other people, against other abilities. So, I think many of the things that people find not so nice about meritocracy [are part of the] sorting process. [But] this examination process also has a brighter side, and that brighter side is developing talents that could easily remain undeveloped or hidden, and which also become integral to their identities.
Mounk: I think the strongest criticism of meritocracy is not that there’s something bad about meritocracy in itself; it is that our society is not, in fact, meritocratic. What do you think about the point that—when you look at rates of social mobility, when you look at how well your parents’ educational status or income predicts what kind of education you're likely to achieve—the real problem in our society is that meritocracy is a myth? It’s a nice way of sanctifying the ruling class, but it’s not the mechanism that determines who rules. And if that [assessment] is true, what’s the implication of that? I take it that your point of view, and probably mine, is to say, “Well, insofar as we’re failing to live up to the idea of meritocracy … let's reform our institutions so that we live up to it more fully.”
Wooldridge: We clearly agree on that. But if we step back and look at the broad sweep of history, we do in fact live in a meritocracy, as compared with most previous other societies. We formally have open competition. We formally frown on, or don’t allow by law, all sorts of practices that were very common in society in the 19th century. And we do have a system whereby, in many ways, the most important asset that you can have is brainpower, whereas in the 18th century being a landed gentleman was what mattered. Now, if you have a high IQ, you’re likely to be very successful in life.
But I do think that we have a sort of degenerate form of meritocracy or what I call in my book “the pluto-meritocracy”—marriage between plutocracy and meritocracy— which almost has the worst characteristics of both things. Everybody starts off by thinking that they deserve their positions. They’re like George H.W. Bush, who classically “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” That seems to be what has happened in this whole society. In fact, there are all sorts of privileges, which are transmitted in very subtle ways, which ensure that the privileged continue to have that privilege. In Britain, going to a public school, or private school, is very important. In the United States also, to some extent, not quite as clearly as in Britain. You either go to Sidwell Friends, as Obama’s children [did], or you move out to a nice suburb and go to the equivalent of a private school. And you’ve also got a source of mating whereby rich, educationally privileged people marry other educationally privileged people and invest huge resources in their children. You’re getting the globalization of marriage in these global institutions like academic institutions, the World Bank, the IMF, which [are] populated by people who seem to circulate around, marry each other, and live in this global world, floating above the rest of us.
This alliance between plutocracy and meritocracy is producing a sort of quasi-aristocratic, quasi-meritocratic elite who transmit their privileges to their children extremely efficiently, and who can defend themselves against challenges from subordinate groups very effectively. In Britain, for example, we used to have a system of selective education, monitored by IQ tests, called grammar schools, which did lead to a period of much more social mobility. Those schools were abolished at the same time that the private schools were left intact, so you had private schools without a challenger, effectively, in terms of getting people into elite institutions.
My belief is there’s nothing wrong with meritocracy that more meritocracy can’t solve. To put it very simply, the way to break this calcification of the current system is to have more academic selection, more use of objective tests like IQ tests, more early education to make sure that people who are born into less privileged backgrounds can have access to the bottom rungs of the ladder, and more “ladder construction.” One of the things that most worries me is that a lot of the things that appear to be egalitarian actually have the paradoxical effect of entrenching the power of the elites.
Mounk: There are some reforms that I think are an important step towards opening people’s opportunities. For example, there’s a movement within publishing to abolish unpaid internships. I think that is clearly a good way of opening up those careers, because there’s just a financial obstacle for people from underprivileged backgrounds to pursue these careers that can be very rewarding, where in the long run you’re making decent money but where the opening steps are normally very difficult to afford. Perhaps on the other end of the ledger, there might be [...] steps that are supposed to boost equality, but in fact undermine [it].
Wooldridge: Well, the most obvious example of this is what happened in England, when we used to have a system called the “eleven-plus,” which divided grammar school children and secondary school children at the age of 11 on the basis of an examination, which was essentially an IQ test. And this was a very brutal thing. It was abolished on the grounds that it was cruel and divisive, and it was replaced with comprehensive schools.
But the problem with comprehensive schools is they really represent selection by postcode. Comprehensive schools aren’t as good as mixing the classes together. So it was a very well-intentioned thing. But what you’ve got after the eleven-plus was abolished was a decline in the number of people coming from working-class backgrounds going on into elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge on the basis of their performance in these exams.
What’s going on now [is what] you’re seeing in Lowell High School in San Francisco, in Boston Latin School in Boston—schools which have been incredibly successful at getting poor people into the elites, particularly the poor children of immigrants—replacing selection by examination with a lottery. Now, it strikes me that to do something on the basis of a lottery is crazy, because the lottery cannot reveal what you’re looking for, which is academic promise or ability. That's a crazily regressive step.
Mounk: Do you worry that countries in Asia, but particularly China, giving greater opportunities to their most talented people and instituting a system of meritocracy, may [help them] out-compete Britain, the United States, or other Western democracies?
Wooldridge: Absolutely. We talked at the start of this podcast about the history of meritocracy, and I said that it’s a relatively brief history in the sense that meritocratic societies were a product of these French, American, and English revolutions. But of course, the first broadly meritocratic system of society was actually introduced by the Chinese in the equivalent of the early Middle Ages. A statewide examination system selected people on the basis of their scholastic skills to rule the empire, and this started very, very early on. In the ninth century, when Britain was ruled by people with names like Eric Bloodaxe, China was ruled by people who passed these scholastic examinations, [which] at their height were testing about 10% of the population.
But this time, what they’re selecting for is not your knowledge of the Confucian classics, but your knowledge of science, engineering, biochemistry, mathematics, and the rest of it. They’re creating a new super-scientific, technological engineering elite. The West managed to compete against China when China was looking only for Confucian scholars. But if China is now looking for a much broader range of abilities, particularly focused on science, and if the West is cooling on meritocracy and beginning to dismantle some of the fundamental building blocks of meritocracy, that raises the possibility that China will own the future. Singapore has pioneered this ultra-meritocratic model and has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the Asian world [in 1960], poorer than Sri Lanka, poorer than many African countries, [to] one of the richest countries in the world. If China can do what Singapore has done at a time when America is dismantling all of these structures, I think we face, beyond doubt, a China-dominated century.
Mounk: Let me challenge you on the state of China for a moment. It seems to me that there are two complicated things coexisting in China. On the one hand, you do have this very long tradition of selective examinations, and you have a deeply rooted culture of educational achievement and aspiration [and] a desire for social mobility. On the other hand, of course, you do still have a reasonably sclerotic part of the economic system in which the success of particular companies depends on connections to a political party, in which there is certainly a lot of nepotism at the top, as we can see in the political leadership, but also in the economic elite. How fully a meritocracy is China? And as the country appears to be becoming, in some ways, more firmly controlled by the Communist Party, how sure are we that the Chinese trajectory will be towards more meritocracy rather than less?
Wooldridge: I’m not sure. The figures I’ve seen suggest that access to the top universities is less class-biased in China than it is in the United States. The Communist Party is making a very, very determined attempt to recruit the intellectual elites and the entrepreneurs into its ranks, not just people who can recite the right slogans. They have a sense that in order to remain the leading cadre, they have to be clever about it. I’m not absolutely certain that China won’t degenerate, but what I am certain of is that we shouldn’t underestimate our potential opponent.
If you go to China, you don’t get the impression of a society that’s run by corruption. You get the impression of a society that is bent upon educational and intellectual achievement. We’ve tended to think in the West that the key to our economic dynamism is democracy—the fact that we’re democracies. I’m not sure that that’s true. I think the key to a lot of our economic dynamism has been meritocracy, rather than democracy. Democracy is great, but it’s not the same as a meritocracy, [which is] like a machine that can be used by democracies to make themselves rich, but it could also be aligned to autocracy. What worries me is that meritocracy might be abandoned by democratic societies and taken up by autocratic societies.
Mounk: How do we have a meritocracy without the kind of deference for credentialed elites—who often look after their own material self-interest, who often have political views that are conditioned by the kinds of areas and cities they live in? How do we make sure that our respect for talent doesn’t turn into the rule of a distant political elite?
Wooldridge: I’m deeply ambivalent about this—or to use the less flattering phrase, somewhat self-contradictory about this—because, on the one hand, I see the elites as this Platonic guardian class who have all of these virtues. And then, on the other hand, I look at them in the real world, [thinking], “Well, aren’t these a bunch of awful snobs who think they’re right and look down on the rest of the population, not just because they’re cleverer than the rest of the population, but because they have completely different experiences?” I can see why there is this populist revolt against meritocracy, or pluto-meritocracy, and I think there is some justice in this revolt, because you have a group of people who are not just experts, and not just chosen on the basis of their educational credentials, but also have a certain experience of the world that makes them deeply prejudiced and deeply biased.
I remember that laborious debate that we had in Britain about leaving the EU, and it was quite noticeable that the elites who didn’t want to leave the EU came from a certain set of backgrounds, had a certain set of attitudes, and were quite openly contemptuous of the rest of the country. What we saw with Brexit was an appeal, by people who’ve been ignored, not to be ignored anymore. I think that the way to deal with that, however, is not to get rid of the meritocratic ideal idea as a guiding principle, but to modify it in certain ways.
But I also argue in my book that we need to have a certain return to Victorianism, in the sense that what happened in the middle of the Victorian era in Britain is that you had a very self-indulgent aristocratic elite that was then subjected to open competition. It was told not just that it should seize jobs on the basis of open competition, but also that if you get those jobs, you have a duty to the rest of society to do what’s good for society—to add a cult of public service. And I think what we’ve done in the last few years is to lose this sense of public service, partly because of Thatcherism, quite frankly, and the sense that the elites who are clever should just go for it—accumulate as much wealth as they can, because they deserve it.
You remember that disgusting, appalling advertisement, “Because you’re worth it”? This sort of “Because you're worth it” is crucial to the new elites. And it’s maybe a deformation of meritocracy, but I think there needs to be some sort of sense [in which] it’s not because you’re worth it. If you’re born clever, and if you’re hard-working, it [ought to] multiply your commitment to the rest of society.
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