The War on Meritocracy
Meritocracy made the modern world. Now the revolt against merit threatens to unmake it.
By Adrian Wooldridge
The meritocratic idea is so fundamental to modern societies that we take it for granted. We expect to be given a fair chance when we apply for a job. And we are outraged at the mere smell of nepotism or favoritism or discrimination. “All Americans have the right to be judged on the basis of individual merit, and to go just as far as their dreams and hard work will take them,” Ronald Reagan proclaimed in 1984. “We believe that people should be able to rise by their talents, not by their birth or the advantages of privileges,” Tony Blair said fifteen years later and an ocean away.
Yet taking something so fundamental to the health of both our economy and our polity for granted is the height of folly. Look at the history of the West and you don’t have to go back very far to find a world where jobs were handed from father to son or sold to the highest bidder. Look at the rest of the world and you can see governments riddled with corruption and favoritism. The meritocratic idea is necessarily fragile: humans are biologically programmed to favor their kith and kin over strangers. We are right to think that the modern world, with its vibrant economy and favor-free public sector, would be impossible without the meritocratic idea. But we are wrong to think that meritocracy will be with us forever if we proceed to douse its roots in poison.
The old world
The pre-modern world was founded on the basis of the very opposite assumptions from meritocracy: lineage rather than achievement and willing subordination rather than ambition. Society was ruled by hereditary landowners (headed by the monarch) who seized their positions by fighting and pillaging and then justified them by a combination of God’s will and ancient tradition. Civilization was conceived of as a hierarchy in which people occupied their God-given positions. Ambition and self-promotion were feared. “Take but degree away, untune that string”, Ulysses says in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, “And, hark, what discord follows!” People were primarily judged not on the basis of their individual abilities but on the basis of their relationship with family and land. British aristocrats still come with place names attached: the higher the rank the bigger the place.
Jobs were allocated on the basis not of individual merit but through three great mechanisms: family connections, patronage and purchase. Kings inherited their positions regardless of their ability to rule the country. Charles II of Spain was such a mess of genetic problems that his head was too big for his body, his tongue was too big for his mouth, and he constantly drooled. Aristocrats either gave jobs to their favorites or else sold them to the highest bidder to finance lavish lifestyles at court. And there was only a loose relationship between income and work: In 1783, a Mrs. Margaret Scott was receiving a sizable salary of £200 a year for acting as wet nurse to the Prince of Wales, who was twenty-one at the time. One of the two solicitors on the staff of the British Treasury failed to turn up to work for forty years, from 1744 to 1784, until a busybody had the temerity to complain about his poor attendance.
The meritocratic idea was a revolutionary assault on all of these assumptions — the dynamite which blew up the old world and created the material for the construction of the new one. It changed the tenor of the elite by reforming the way that society allocates the top jobs. It transformed education by emphasizing the preciousness of raw academic ability. It did all this by redefining the elemental force that determines social structures. “When there is no more hereditary wealth, privilege class, or prerogatives of birth,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “it becomes clear that the chief source of disparity between the fortunes of men lies in the mind.”
But the meritocratic idea was even more than this: it was an attempt to restrain one of mankind’s most basic instincts — the instinct to favor one’s own children over the children of others — in the name of the collective good. “Throughout the animal kingdom,” observes Mary Maxwell, a biologist, “nepotism is the norm for social species. I go further: the practice of nepotism defines social species.” This helps to explain Plato’s intellectual gyrations in The Republic. Plato was the first westerner to draw up a blueprint for a meritocracy: he argued in favor of social mobility because privileged people might produce “children of bronze” and non-privileged people might produce “children of gold”. But how could you prevent successful families from hoarding top positions or unsuccessful families from being ignored? Plato thought that the only way to do this was an extreme revolt against nature: take children away from their birth-parents to raise them communally and prevent “guardians” from owning any property so that they put the collective above the individual.
The meritocratic idea was at the heart of the four great revolutions that created the modern world. The most fundamental of these was the industrial revolution which transformed the material basis of civilization and unleashed the energies of self-made men. This was reinforced by a succession of political revolutions. The French Revolution was dedicated to the principle of the “career open to talents”. Feudal privileges were abolished; the purchase of jobs was prohibited; elite schools were strengthened. The footsoldiers who marched across Europe were all encouraged to think that they had a “field marshal’s baton” in their knapsacks. The American Revolution was driven by a vision of equality of opportunity and fair competition. Thomas Jefferson talked of replacing the “artificial aristocracy” of land with the “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents”. David Ramsay, a South Carolina historian and politician, celebrated the second anniversary of American independence by arguing that America was a unique nation in human history because “all offices lie open to men of merit, of whatever rank or condition.”
Great Britain was the scene of the most subtle of these revolutions: the liberal revolution that saw power transferred from the landed aristocracy to the intellectual aristocracy without a shot being fired. The revolutionaries first subjected established institutions such as the civil service and the universities to the magic of open competition and written examinations and then gradually built a ladder of opportunity from the village school to the dreaming spires of university. “Old Corruption”, as the government was once called, was replaced by perhaps the most honest and efficient civil service in the world. And Oxford and Cambridge were transformed from nests of sinecures into intellectual hothouses.
Meritocratic revolution begat meritocratic revolution. The “ladder of opportunity” revealed that there was far more talent in the general population than the liberal revolutionaries imagined. The application of “open competition” to men inevitably raised the question “what about women?” And the contradiction at the heart of America’s founding document couldn’t last forever: if men were naturally born equal how could you keep black people in chains? Hitherto marginalized groups seized on the meritocratic idea to demand a fair chance for success in life.
The resulting explosion of energy led to both a more just and a more productive society. Women and minorities flooded into higher education. Women now make up more than half of Britain’s university students and ethnic minorities perform better at school than whites. Meritocratic countries grow faster than non-meritocratic countries. Public companies that recruit people on merit are more productive than family companies that make room for favoritism. Mass migration only flows in one direction: from countries that haven’t made the meritocratic transition to those that have.
The new world
A revolutionary idea that has delivered a more productive economy and a more efficient state: what could be better? Yet everywhere it is under attack. Fashionable “anti-racist” thinkers argue that meritocracy is often a disguise for white privilege, or even a weapon to push minorities into penury. Right-wing populists argue that it is the ideology of the smug global elite who have made such a hash of running the world recently. Even the people who run the great meritocratic machine have serious doubts: Yale’s Daniel Markovits has recently written a book called The Meritocracy Trap while Harvard’s Michael Sandel has written one called The Tyranny of Merit.
The critics have some points on their side: the meritocratic idea is in danger of becoming decadent. We are witnessing a dangerous marriage between money and merit as the rich buy educational opportunities while the poor have to content themselves with “bog standard comprehensives”: witness the transformation of Britain’s private schools from fairly lackadaisical institutions into A+ factories today. We clearly need another great push to revive and reinvent the meritocratic idea for a new age. But what we are getting instead is an attempt to dismantle it.
The destruction is particularly far advanced in the United States. The left produces numerous examples of a “war on merit.” The San Francisco Board of Education has banned Lowell High School, one of the country’s most academically successful schools, from using admission tests and introduced a lottery system instead. The school commissioner, Alison Collins, pronounces that meritocracy is “racist” and “the antithesis of fair.” Programs for the gifted and talented are being dismantled across the country. Universities are reducing the importance of Standardized Admissions Tests (SATs), with some going so far as to make testing optional, to emphasize “holistic assessment” instead. The current war on merit is likely to be as counter-productive as Britain’s attack on selective schools in the 1960s and 1970s: middle-class children will find it much easier to game a system based on essays and personal statements than to game one based on exam results.
This assault on merit extends beyond the schoolyard and into the boardroom. Companies are introducing formal or informal quotas in the name of “equity” (which is increasingly taking the place of equality of opportunity as a measure of justice). Loosening meritocratic standards will reduce economic efficiency as we see more square pegs put into round holes. It will also be self-reinforcing: one of the most reliable rules in life is that second-rate people will always appoint third-rate people in order to protect themselves from being shown up. Worryingly, this startling attack on meritocratic principles comes from the right as much as the left. Donald Trump not only gave powerful positions to family members, perhaps a hallowed if disgraceful American tradition, but also left an unprecedented number of senior positions unfilled while driving thousands of experts to seek early retirement.
The war on meritocracy would be self-destructive even if the West ruled supreme. But it is happening at a time when the West is facing its biggest challenge to date — from the rise of China and authoritarian state capitalism. China was in many ways the pioneer of meritocracy: for more than a millennium it was ruled by a mandarin elite that was selected from across the entire country by the world’s most sophisticated examinations. The system died because it failed to adapt to the explosion of scientific knowledge: the questions were much the same in 1900 as they had been in 1600. But China is now reviving its ancient meritocratic system but this time it is looking for scientists and engineers rather than Confucian scholars. We are about to learn that the meritocratic idea can be just as powerful in the service of state-authoritarianism as, until now, it has been in the service of liberal democracy.
The current war on merit is thus a double threat to the modern world. It will rob the West of its economic dynamism while simultaneously encouraging interest groups to compete for resources on the basis of collective rights and group resentments. And it will shift the balance of power relentlessly towards a post-communist regime in the East that has no time for individual rights and liberal values. We still have a chance to prevent this process — just — but only if we are willing to nurture and repair the meritocratic idea that made the West successful in the first place.
Adrian Wooldridge was The Economist's political editor and author of the Bagehot column. His latest book is The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Times on May 31, 2021. It is reprinted with permission.