Just another meritocratic dynasty (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

May 31, 2021   7 mins

The meritocratic idea has been one of the great drivers of progress. It swept aside race and sex-based barriers to competition, built ladders of opportunity from the bottom of society to the top and put rocket-launchers under the economy. It did all this by reconciling the two great tensions at the heart of modernity: between efficiency and fairness, on the one hand, and between moral equality and social differentiation on the other.

Meritocracy screens job applicants for competence — vaccines save our lives rather than poisoning us because highly trained scientists develop them and other highly trained scientists test and regulate them — but, at the same time, it gives everybody a chance to put their names into the sorting hat.

Yet the meritocratic idea is under assault from all directions: from progressives who denounce it as a tool of white male privilege, right-wingers who dismiss it as an instrument of androgynous cosmopolitan elite and uber-meritocrats at Yale and Harvard who regard it as a “trap” and a “tyranny”.

This assault contains a great deal of foolishness. The history of the rise of meritocracy is a history of the opening up of opportunities to marginalised groups and previous attempts to deconstruct it, most notably with Britain’s comprehensive revolution, have only reinforced class-based inequalities. But it also contains a worrying amount of truth: there is clearly something wrong with a system that means that more than 30% of places at Oxbridge go to students who attend private schools that cater for just 7% of the population, and that America’s thirty-eight elite colleges have more students from the top 1% of the population than from the bottom 60%.

The problem with meritocracy, however, is not its traditional accoutrements of open competition and objective tests, but its corruption by money, family connections and favouritism — a corruption that has, subtly but relentlessly, converted meritocracy from a device that was designed to open up opportunity into a way of preserving class privilege.

The term meritocracy was coined by Michael Young in 1958 to describe a new ruling class that was defined by IQ and effort rather than, as with the old ruling class, lineage and noblesse oblige. With the market revolution from the 1980s onwards this new ruling class was reshaped by two profound forces: the marriage of merit and money as the successful found clever ways of passing their educational privileges to their children, and the globalisation of the elite as surging flows of goods, information and, above all, money tied the world together.

This involved not just a “reshaping of the meritocratic idea” but a subversion of it. In the mid-19th century, reformers such as Macaulay and Trevelyan hoped that open competition would remoralise the political elite by replacing greedy aristocrats with diligent public servants. The marriage of money and merit reintroduced self-seeking to the heart of the establishment. The introduction of open competition was counterbalanced by the creation of a ladder of educational opportunity to link the British establishment with the most obscure village. Globalisation rendered the elite even more distant from the rest of society.

The rise of the “pluto-meritocracy” has been driven by two other developments at the top of society: the children of Michael Young’s meritocrats have learnt how to transmit their privileges to the next generation, either by sending their children to private schools or moving to plush suburbs, and the old rich have started to put more emphasis on academic credentials, recognising that Bertie Wooster was a doomed figure in the world of Google Ideas Conferences and business best sellers. The Economist rich are replacing the Tatler rich and people who don’t realise this risk not just social scorn but economic decline.

There is no better example of the merger of merit and money than the transformation of British public schools since 1980. For the three decades after 1945 the public schools looked as if they would become casualties of the rise of the meritocracy as grammar-school boys took the clubbish old establishment by storm.

Today, once mouldering institutions have reinvented themselves as gleaming merit-factories that mix the offspring of the British elite with the children of the new global rich (more than a third of boarders come from abroad despite the fact that the schools enjoy charitable status because they are supposed to educate children for the British church and state.) Public schools not only produce superb academic results — half of all A and A* grades at A-level in the UK are regularly secured by the 7% of students who are privately educated — but are also outstanding at gilding the academic lily with actors, pop stars and sports heroes (an Old Etonian has won a medal in “sitting down sports” in every Olympic Games since 1992.

Though public-school products no longer glide into Oxford and Cambridge with their previous ease, thanks to intense pressure from the government to diversify their intake, they are increasingly finding a home in the Ivy League instead, which may well end up making them more successful, as well as more divorced from wider British society.

The marriage of money and merit is literal as much as metaphorical: one of the paradoxes of the feminist revolution is that educated men increasingly marry educated women and then collaborate together to make sure that their children are given every cognitive advantage. This is leading to the reinvention of aristocratic institutions such as dynasties and nepotistic connections in new quasi meritocratic forms.

We have seen the creation of meritocratic dynasties such as the Clintons, Cuomos and Romneys and the United States, and the multiplication of meritocratic power couples such as Michelle and Barack Obama in America, Tony and Cheri Blair in Britain and Francoise Hollande and Segolene Royale in France. We have also seen the production of all-elite children: one of the most depressing rituals of my year is to read the annual Record of Balliol College, Oxford, my alma mater, with its self-satisfied litany of “all Balliol” marriages and “all Balliol” babies.

Assortative mating acts as a powerful multiplier of inequality — and one that has much more impact on the overall tenor of society than the existence of a handful of billionaires. The obvious reason for this is that two university graduates will earn very many multiples of two high-school drop-outs: one American academic study found that if people married each other at random, the overall level of inequality would be much as it was in 1960.

The more subtle reason lies in self-segregation and self-cultivation. High IQ couples tend to gather together in a handful of highly educated cities (London, New York, San Francisco, for example) and in handful of rich neighbourhoods within those cities (Islington in London, Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York). The property prices in these cities are now so inflated that middle-class families are forced to move out, leaving an uneasy mixture of digital Brahmins and service-sector Untouchables.

They can also bring huge resources, both personal and financial, to educating their children, providing them with an enriched vocabulary when they are tiny, surrounding them with Baby-Einstein style learning tools, sending them to the best schools available, scheming them to get them into the best universities and then providing them with free board and lodging as they cycle through a succession of higher educational qualifications, internships and low paying “starter jobs”.

For the most ambitious members of the meritocratic elite no longer content themselves with running national institutions. They aspire to run global ones as well, most obviously in the private sector, but also in universities, philanthropies and multilateral institutions. The further people rise up their professional pyramids the more they interact with their peers around the world, forging, in the process, a common global class, selected and promoted by academic qualifications and linked by an ever thicker web of connections — university and business-school ties; membership of the boards not just of companies but also of charities and arts organisations; business deals and investment flows — all of which are marinated in a common set of attitudes and assumptions.

Globalisation exaggerates many of the meritocracy’s worst tendencies: the belief that you owe your success in life entirely to your own merits combined with distance from the little people. Older elites usually owed their wealth to physical things, particularly property, which, by their nature, bound them to particular places, particularly nation states. Old elites were trained in national universities that taught them that their first obligation was to their own countries. The new elites are trained in self-consciously global institutions, such as business schools that celebrate things like global supply chains and consultancies that force them to spend their twenties and thirties living on aeroplanes and in international hotels. They operate in a world that has no connection with the quotidian concerns of everyday people or, indeed, everyday decency: David Miliband, who abandoned British Labour politics for a lavishly paid job running the International Rescue Committee in New York City, once tweeted a photograph of a very scenic-looking Aspen proclaiming that it was a beautiful place to discuss refugees.

And so it is understandable that there is so much criticism of “meritocracy”, given its current debased form. But throwing the meritocratic baby out with the plutocratic bathwater would be both counter-productive and foolish: counter-productive because removing meritocratic mechanisms such as SAT tests will actually make it easier for rich people to buy their way into universities (a cynical view of what is going on in the United States is that the Anglo-Saxon elites are turning against meritocracy because they are being outcompeted by Asians); dangerous because meritocracy has been one of the keys to the West’s prosperity.

The proper solution to the problem of the corruption of meritocracy is to purify it rather than abandon it. Expunge any remnants of the old world of favouritism (it is astonishing that America’s elite universities still preserve preferences for the children of legacies, who still make up about a quarter of Harvard’s student body). Give academy schools more freedom to select their pupils on the basis of academic promise (it is astonishing that Britain has secondary schools that specialise in the performing arts but not in mathematics). Force private schools to earn their charitable status by giving, say, half their places to poorer children who are selected on the basis of raw ability. Make much more use of standardised tests in selecting people for competitive jobs.

There is nothing wrong with meritocracy that more meritocracy cannot cure — but we need to make sure that we supply that “more” sooner rather than later, before the entire system comes crashing down under the weight of its growing contradictions.

Adrian Wooldridge’s new book, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, will be published on June 3rd by Allen Lane.

Adrian Wooldridge is Political Editor and Bagehot columnist for the Economist. His book, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, is published by Allen Lane.