September 11, 2020

The idea of meritocracy is still a commonsensically good one to most people in public life, and to the man and woman in the street. But it has been under sustained attack in recent years. Much of the attack has come from the United States, which once saw itself as a meritocratic breakaway from aristocratic Europe. Recent books by Daniel Markovits, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Sandel and Thomas Frank have all attacked meritocracy not just for being insufficiently meritocratic and too biased towards privilege, but also as a principle.

My own new book, Head, Hand, Heart, shares some of this critique, but my complaint is more that the type of merit that the modern meritocracy favours has been too narrowly focused on Head/cognitive ability. In order to shift more prestige and reward to the relatively neglected Hand and Heart aptitudes, we may, paradoxically, require more meritocracy in those spheres.

And while all of these books critique the principle, none of them really answers the question: if it is not merit that determines the allocation of reward and status, then what does?

Most mainstream politicians in developed democracies remain firmly wedded to the idea of meritocracy. It seems, after all, to combine fairness — rewarding people according to their abilities, not their family connections — and efficiency — getting the right people into the appropriate top jobs for the benefit of society as a whole. Moreover, it is easy and objective to measure through exams and related tests, or at least appears to be so.

Partly for those reasons, it was the moderate Left that first took up the banner of meritocracy and equality of opportunity in the 1980s and 1990s. It challenged undeserved privilege while avoiding the unattainable, and unpopular, goal of socialist transformation and equality of outcome and provided a story for the moderate Left at a time when it was conceding much of the economic argument to the Right. Meritocracy, it might be said, was a substitute for socialism when the latter seemed unviable.

Further reading
The war on social mobility

By James Kirkup

Thatcherites didn’t talk about meritocracy so much but practised it, including in the Tory party itself where the estate agents were taking over from the grandees with estates. By the Major years, and even more for Cameron modernisers, meritocracy and equality of opportunity had become part of political common sense for Tories too. A new political consensus had been born.

Much of the intellectual Left, including in the UK, has now discarded the meritocracy banner. It is not hard to see why. It has been in the ascendancy as a political idea at a time when income inequality, especially in the US, has been reaching grotesque levels and social mobility seems to have slowed or even stalled. Meritocracy, by allowing a few people from disadvantaged homes to climb the ladder, stands accused of providing a fig leaf of legitimacy to old and new unfairnesses.

In the US, of those born in the lowest 20% of the income spectrum, only 5% make it to the top 20%. Meanwhile, more students from families in the top 1% of the income spectrum attend Ivy League universities than students from the whole of the bottom 50%. It is a similar story in the UK with those from the richest 20% of families seven times more likely to attend a Russell Group university than those from the bottom 40%.

Moreover, our experience with partial meritocracies has focused attention on just how hard it is to establish meaningful ones. In a free society that allows parents to pass on advantage to their children they will do so, and even without the extra leg-up of private education that will often be decisive in shaping life chances. As Polly Mackenzie puts it: “There are endless debates about whether ability comes from our genes, or the environment in which we are raised. It doesn’t matter… My parents gave me my genes and they gave me my childhood.”

So meritocracy can quickly ossify into a kind of oligarchy. Even if you don’t mind the tyranny of the talented, just wait, it will become the tyranny of the talented’s children, as American philosopher Tim Sommers pithily puts it.

The apparent impossibly of anything but a partial and flawed meritocracy has switched attention to the undesirability of the very principle itself. Much of the recent critique draws on the work of the pioneer meritocracy sceptic Michael Young, a socialist and one of the authors of the 1945 Labour manifesto. Young did not like meritocracy partly for simple egalitarian reasons: he did not like any inequality of reward and status whether based on merit or inheritance or anything else.

Further reading
Does class still count?

By James Bloodworth

Michael Sandel is not a socialist but his book The Tyranny of Merit shares Young’s dismay at the idea that where we stand in the social pecking order is fair because it is merited. This can create despair among the losers, especially in modern secular societies which have eroded traditional meaning-generating social roles and religious consolation. And it can create hubris among the winners who believe their high status is deserved, ignoring both the luck and the social infrastructure that underpins their success.

Michael Young’s son Toby (who was a pupil of Sandel’s in his youth) takes a different view. “I like meritocracy for the same reason that my father disapproved of it: because it helps to secure peoples’ consent to the inequalities that are the inevitable consequence of limited government. I say this not as someone fond of inequality but as someone who believes limited government is preferable to a large coercive state.” Meritocracy does this by helping to create wealthy, dynamic societies; by allocating reward in a way that at least seems fairer than the alternatives; and by creating opportunities for some of those born on the wrong side of the tracks.

We meritocracy sceptics have to acknowledge that Young junior is still winning this argument, the meritocracy critique remains more persuasive in the seminar room than in the cauldron of modern politics. When I say to people that turning society into a competition that the most able win and the majority lose is a recipe for creating populist resentment, most people readily agree. Most people also accept the general egalitarian/Christian sense that all humans are of equal moral worth which ultimately underpins the meritocratic critique.

But these vague sentiments do not translate into practical policy ideas beyond the familiar notion that we should tax the rich, push minimum wages as high as possible and respect essential workers, even if low skilled, as we did in the early days of the pandemic.

The issue is this: there will always be hierarchies of competence and ability and those will tend to generate related hierarchies of both status and income. We can (and do) mitigate the latter but it is much harder to do something about the former. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has eloquently put it: “The goal is not to eradicate hierarchy and turn every mountain into a salt flat; we live in a plenitude of incommensurable hierarchies, and the circulation of social esteem will always benefit the better novelist, the more important mathematician, the savvier businessman, the faster runner, the more effective social entrepreneur.”

It is not in the gift of politicians to control the distribution of status, beyond some nudging at the margins, and when they have tried to do so and claimed to be implementing Marx’s “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” it has not turned out well.

Further reading
Don't call it poverty porn

By Jenny McCartney

Moreover, nobody, not even Michael Young, really objects to the principle of meritocratic selection for jobs, particularly the most important ones. We want our best nuclear physicists to be in charge of our nuclear research programme; it is not something that can be chosen by lottery. And who wants to be operated on by a surgeon who failed their exams? So, the puzzled voter might ask, “you want meritocracy for jobs, but you don’t want a meritocratic society, how does that work?”.

It is a subtle distinction but a real one, somewhat akin to Lionel Jospin’s wanting a market economy but not a market society. And the key word is want. The minimum that meritocracy critics require is an acknowledgement of what Sandel calls the “dark side” of meritocracy, that it is a pragmatic labour market principle not an ideal for the good society. The reward to merit should be balanced by other principles such as the equal moral worth of all citizens and an awareness of the fact that merit is generated by society, through family, education and so on, as well as by the individual. (Listen to Yascha Mounk’s excellent interview with Sandel on his The Good Fight podcast.)

This, however, does not produce an especially distinctive politics for meritocracy critics, beyond a mild form of social democracy. My own approach in Head, Hand, Heart offers an alternative with more traction. I argue that the problem is not so much meritocracy itself, though the principle deserves a proper scepticism, but rather the rise and rise of the cognitive meritocracy in recent decades. This has over-promoted one form of human aptitude. The political task is to try to spread some of the reward and status hoarded by the cognitively blessed to those with aptitudes related to Hand (technical and craft) and Heart (caring and emotional intelligence). It is a call for a wider understanding of what constitutes merit and indeed skill.

The cognitive takeover of the past 40 years has been actively promoted by public policy and has now become dysfunctional. It has created too narrow a definition of a successful life: do well at school, go to a good university and into a decent professional job. It has also, with the expansion of higher education driven forward by Tony Blair, created a single ladder up to safety and success through the modern university. There used to be many more little ladders up and more promotion from below in big organisations, now around 40% of jobs are graduate-only.

Further reading
Which is worse, work or no work?

By Peter Franklyn

So, the answer is not so much to suppress the idea of meritocracy — which remains the worst system for allocating reward apart from all the others — but to spread it more widely. This is easier said than done. Non-cognitive forms of merit in craft or care are often harder to quantify. As Madeleine Bunting points out in her new book Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care the containment of pain and distress is elusive and hard to measure, and care is usually embodied work in a culture dominated by the abstract and analytical.

And we typically apply cognitive criteria even in non-cognitive fields. If you ask an economist why people working in care homes are so poorly paid he or she will say because anyone can do it. But that is just saying that minimal qualifications are required. Anyone who has worked in a hospital or care home, or even visited one, knows that there are good carers, middling ones and poor ones, as in other areas of life. Yet we often lack the meritocratic selection mechanisms for distinguishing and rewarding them.

The ‘spreading rather than suppressing’ approach to meritocracy now has history on its side. For we are reaching Peak Head. The knowledge economy doesn’t need as many knowledge workers as had been assumed, and AI is increasingly coming for the middling and lower cognitive jobs. Education policy, social mobility policy and even economic policy in the UK have all been partly premised on the idea of an ever expanding cognitive-professional class of graduates. But in recent years this has slowed to a crawl: in 2000, the proportion of the workforce in the top two social classes in the UK was 35%, today it is 37%.

Higher education is still pumping out graduates while the graduate premium is less than 10% for the majority of men (once you control for education differences prior to college) and more than one third of graduates are not in graduate jobs more than five years after graduating. This is creating a crisis of expectations which may lie behind both the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn eruptions. Meanwhile there are recruitment crises in nursing, care homes, skilled trades and middling technical functions.

Further reading
Which is worse, work or no work?

By Ian Birrell

Much of the expansion of the cognitive meritocracy was necessary at the time. And it is far better to have a mass graduate elite of one third of the population than the much narrower elite when I went to college. But no thought ever seems to have been given to what I call the 15/50 problem, meaning when 15% of your school peers go to college and you don’t it is not a big deal, when nearly half go and you don’t it is a different matter.

This is not, of course, an argument against the importance of intelligence and knowledge in our society both for individuals and for a post Brexit Britain that must remain a global centre of education, science and innovation. But we have got things out of kilter. The mass knowledge economy jobs are going and the future is likely tilt more towards care, coding and craft. The idea that a majority of people would be taking up prestigious professional jobs requiring analytical intelligence and delivering a sense of purpose and even self-expression, is not going to happen. Most people still regard work as just a means of earning a living and get their sense of meaning and self-expression away from work. This may apply to even more of us in the future.

Nietzsche spotted a long time ago that the idea of democratic equality runs up against the reality of big variations in human ability and that democracy would thus find it hard to escape a plague of mass resentment. It has done pretty well so far, at least since the Second World War. But if mass resentment is not to make a reappearance, people need to feel respected and useful. That in turn requires a better spread of reward and status across those three clusters of aptitude relating to Head, Hand and Heart. Democracy is now demanding it.

Head, Hand, Heart, The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century is published by Allen Lane

Join the discussion


  • October 10, 2020
    "Perhaps part of the problem is the idea of growth as being central to Progress" ... Yes. Your theory as to WHY the cognitive is valued so much more highly is convincing. I'd been pondering this very question for some time. Thank you. Perhaps as we reach 'Peak Head' to quote David Goodhart, in... Read more

  • MC
    September 24, 2020
    Research has shown that many of those in the most satisfying jobs are doing something creative with their hands: butchers, bakers, builders, gardeners. None of these trades would be regarded as cognitive in our narrow education system but provide huge amounts of satisfaction both as full-time... Read more

  • September 12, 2020
    Very good essay. Perhaps part of the problem is the idea of growth as being central to Progress rather than sustainability, resilience and sufficiency. This seems to set up a hierarchy of worth by which growth is at the top because it is cognitive ability that inevitably shapes growth and progress... Read more

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