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The myth of meritocracy

Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty

April 17, 2019   4 mins

For our predictive texts series, we have asked our contributors to select a book which sheds eerily prescient light on our lives today. We weren’t after HG Wells or George Orwell, we wanted something less predictable. Here is the foresight so far.

The fact that the word “meritocracy” originated in the dystopian fiction of Michael Young is usually forgotten among politicians. It’s most commonly used to represent a positive, optimistic goal for those who believe in social mobility and opportunity for all – those who want leadership potential to be judged on capability, not parentage, race, gender, class, or sexuality.

Such an idea is compelling – particularly in the current climate of idiocracy, where we seem to be governed by precisely the least capable people for the job.

But Michael Young’s warnings about the perils of meritocracy deserve a hearing. We may not have a true meritocracy, but we already have many of the faults he predicted in his 1958 novel, The Rise of Meritocracy – a mock-history charting the rise and, in 2033, fall of the concept.

Young had three major things to say about the dangers of a meritocratic society.

The first is that only a certain kind of “merit” would be celebrated – and it would be the kind favoured and promoted by the establishment classes. Essentially, he argued, we would evaluate merit on a scoring system designed to favour the children of the privileged. And so the meritocracy would look faithfully familiar to the class hierarchy it supposedly replaced.

Second: Young observed that those at the top of a society which considered itself meritocratic would inevitably end up smug and arrogant, believing every luxury of their status to be earned and deserved. He foresaw the emergence of something like the divine right of kings: the divine right of the best to live the best lives.

Instead of recognising the obligations owed by all of us to society – and to those less fortunate – meritocrats would shrug their shoulders at the poor (believing that, after all, everyone’s got what they deserve). Perhaps they might even suggest removing the vote from those less capable of exercising correct judgement.

Finally: Young warned us of the impact a meritocracy would have on those at the bottom of this ladder of human capability. It is unjust to live poor because you were born poor, and because the system is set up to preserve the hierarchies of class. But to live poor because society’s rules have judged you and found you wanting – judged you to be without merit? That is to strip a person of all dignity. It is the rage of those denied a place in society that leads to the ultimate downfall of the meritocracy in Young’s account.

We’ve managed to generate every one of these problems in our divided society. We celebrate a certain kind of academic achievement, devaluing vocational pathways into work. Our version of social mobility means taking the brightest people from the places that are struggling – and bringing them to London to become high court judges or merchant bankers. In effect we are asset-stripping towns of talent.

Too many of our political and business leaders are, indeed, smug and arrogant. You can see this in the growing assumption among the very rich – and the largest businesses – that tax is for someone else to pay. Instead of recognising that their success is enabled by a functioning tax-funded state, leaders tell themselves the lie that they are self-made, that their profits are driven exclusively by their own talent and judgment. I don’t have a problem with people being rich, but those who benefit the most from our society should contribute the most to it.

And you don’t need to have been on Whitehall last month during the pro-Brexit march to know that we have a problem with anger among those stripped of their dignity by our economic and democratic settlement.

We need both more and less meritocracy in our society to rid us of these ills.

We need to live up to the ambitions set out by those who call for equal opportunity and social mobility. Talent should be celebrated and rewarded, so that the best can make it to the top no matter their background – because the best people are the ones who will do the best job. We have all seen the disasters wrought by inadequate leaders, kept in place by birth, tradition, or the old boys network.

But a true meritocracy would require radical change. We must prevent the successful from hoarding opportunity for their children with expensive schools, inherited wealth and a social structure that privileges “cultural capital”. A true meritocracy would give every child a level playing field: the chance to make it for themselves, not make it thanks to the bank of mum and dad.

More importantly, still, we mustn’t let talent blind us to our mutual obligations to each other. There are endless debates about whether ability comes from our genes, or the environment in which we are raised. It doesn’t matter. The one thing those two factors share is that you have no control over them. My parents gave me my genes, and they gave me my childhood. It would be as wrong for me to claim credit for my talents as it would be to let them go to waste. Talent, or merit, is an obligation as much as a gift.

And finally, to privilege only the kinds of merit that are prevalent among the people already in charge is, as Young’s dystopia suggests, to prop up elitism. Society has to offer a place to everyone – and celebrate the contribution of us all. There is no hope for a society that sees no merit in the cleaners, the carers, or the refuse collectors.

We are all humans, and as such, we all need dignity. We all have merit, and we all have a role to play in choosing the direction of the country. So we don’t need to call it meritocracy: we can call it democracy, where each finds their place to serve the rest.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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