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The problem with power couples Meritocracy has been corrupted by a new ruling class

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

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.

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James Rowlands
James Rowlands
3 years ago

What is the mathematical probability that the best (and fair) choices for the Democratic Party out of 250 million for President were Clinton and also Clinton’s wife…..?

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

Something very close to zero. I think the Americans noticed and voted for the other guy.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

To be fair, Bill Clinton did at least seem to be smart and credible at the time. And he really did come from nothing. Hillary, not so much.

Simon Newman
Simon Newman
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Bill is smart & amoral. Hillary is not very smart and amoral.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Newman

Still, credit where credit is due, Bill Clinton was the only sitting US President to get his brains blown out in the White House Oval Office and survive and when it came to it Hillary just wasn’t cut out for the job.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Newman

I don’t think she’s dumb, but she doesn’t have the same kind of political nous, particularly about people. And Bill managed to charm people who met him thinking he was a real slime ball.
Both however are completely amoral.

Bill W
Bill W
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“To be fair, Bill Clinton did at least seem to be smart and credible at the time.”: not sure about that.

Robert Pay
Robert Pay
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Hilary best Bill at Yale but Bill is likeable!

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

Chris Rock did a routine about this years ago – being a president’s wife doesn’t qualify you to be the president. As he said “I’m a comedian, but if my wife was stood up here, nobody would be laughing.”

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

When Bill was President , Hillary said something like I;m not just a housewife who bakes cookies’ claiming political imput into his agenda. Who was probably the most popular first Lady-Barbara Bush who may have whispered advice in her husband’s ‘shell-like’ but didn’t do it publicly. Hillary Clinton’s place in Obama admin seemed a bit strange & she didn’t create a popular distinct personality separate from Bill that would warrent her running for Presidency.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Douglas Murray’s, quite rightly if true, got a right old bee in his bonnet about Carrie Symonds’ undue influence on government policy at the moment thanks to her relationship with that bloke she’s just married.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Peter Scott
Peter Scott
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

Quite. And the Bushes.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

And the Kennedys.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

I previously didn’t have the time or inclination to know much of the detail of US politics until Hillary ran for president. Something very obvious struck me when I heard of the email saga. How could a seasoned politician, whose husband had served two terms as president claim to not know the rules? She was either dumb as a box of rocks or rotten.

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

Hilary’s brain and Bill’s male clubability was probably the best …

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

‘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 under that, the rather wonderfully named ‘Mark Skid’, his real name I’m sure, pithily tweeted in reply,

‘not a refugee in sight’.

International Rescue Committee indeed.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Yes, there are few more repulsive products of the current system than David Miliband.

Lee Floyd
Lee Floyd
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

He’s a man who knows what side his toast is buttered, and he’s got a lot of butter.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Lee Floyd

Rewarding failure. Like all those Lib Dems promoted upwards when they lost their seats in 2015.The most unlikely people are given well paid jobs ie Tom Watson who now promotes music.

Waldo Warbler
Waldo Warbler
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Exhibit 3: Nick Clegg

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Waldo Warbler

Yes its almost unheard of for a leader of a party to lose their seat. What qualifications does he have for Facebook job?

Waldo Warbler
Waldo Warbler
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Connections.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

‘What qualifications does he have for Facebook job?’
None, except for looking pretty in a suit.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

What qualifications does he have for Facebook job?”

He is an evil slime-ball, this means a great deal to his boss. He will pay extra for that.

David J
David J
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Clegg probably hits the spot.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

But there is such a lot of such types; and they are the ones in charge currently. – Parliament, Civil Service, MSM, all the quangos….

Waldo Warbler
Waldo Warbler
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

I never had much time for either Milliband brother; but I have held David in particular contempt since his slithering spearheading of the anti-democratic EU Constitution/Lisbon – against the wishes of the peoples of Europe and in contradiction to Labour’s promise of a referendum.

Last edited 3 years ago by Waldo Warbler
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Waldo Warbler

The Milliband father, being a radical Communist, would not join the British military till Stalin said to. Wile Stalin and H**ler had a pact the Communists in UK did not join, after the Germans invaded USSR they all joined, as told to do.

David and his even creepier brother remembered fondly the dinners Hobsbawn had at their family table (the unrepentant communist, Stalinist), the father and Hobsbawm being top “British’ Communist academics spreading the filthy philosophy to the university young. What a nest of vipers they all are.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I think we have all read this article many times in recent year. But it cannot be said too often that the ongoing charitable status of the public schools is a wicked disgrace.

Bill W
Bill W
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“wicked disgrace”: as an Oxbridge and former state school educated boy, I am not besotted with the public school system but think your comment re charitable status is OTT. If education isn’t worthy of qualifying as a charitable purpose, God help us. FWIW, I think whole charitable thing needs a complete rethink. I can think of far less worthy charities than ones which educate people.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

‘I can think of far less worthy charities than ones which educate people.’

So can I. But I draw the line at Eton etc being allowed to operate as charities because they only educate a very small proportion of the young.

Bill W
Bill W
3 years ago
Reply to  Eleanor Barlow

I don’t follow that logic. I think similar reasoning (the relevant institution’s services were used by a small proportion of the population) to deny the a very well known and deserving national charity grants from the National Lottery some years ago.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Eleanor Barlow

Also each student there is one less the Government has to pay for – And you wish to punish them for that? Also the parents paid tax on the money they pay in fees. The government should pay Charitable schools for every student at the going rate your typical Comp charges. ‘School Vouchers’ Are a timely need!

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Public schools are businesses. They make money from school fees and donations.And the parents chose to send them there, so if they are paying tax twice, that’s their problem. They can afford it.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“But it cannot be said too often that the ongoing charitable status of the public schools is a wicked disgrace” But that is totally untrue. They make no profit. They educate. Why do your class war kind wish to destroy one of the last things which are still great in GB?

Robert Pay
Robert Pay
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The real scandal is the pitiful status of state schools


Last edited 3 years ago by Robert Pay
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

This week’s Spectator echoes this point in reference to the Brexit vote and the decision by the UK electorate to effectively give two fingers to unaccountable technocrats and, theoretically at least, a thumbs up to the meritocrats.

‘Brexit was not a drawbridge moment. It was a means of better managing globalization in a way that carries more democratic consent…. Britain is now fast-tracking the immigration of highly skilled workers from around the world as part of a new, fairer, points based immigration system’

Ironically, perhaps those who might have the most to lose from this change of tack are those who currently doggedly choose to pigeonhole the majority of those who voted for Brexit as ill-educated, white, working class, racist, xenophobic bigots for whom the wonderfully euphemistically named ‘free movement’ often meant something very in different in terms of its real world consequences.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

This writer has some very ideas of what a Right Winger thinks “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”
I never heard a rightwing person say meritocracy is anything like that. He needs to tell us what Brexit voters think of meritocracy as I cannot guess what his answer would be.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

This has been said elsewhere and, much as I personally dislike sport, it does provide a useful analogy.

Nothing better illustrates this erosion of meritocracy than the recent European Super League debacle.

Big American sport is invariably about big money. It is first and foremost a business and the sport bit comes a mighty poor second.

Its hugely wealthy owners invest huge amounts in them and they in turn generate huge revenues and thus they have a system where, to all intents and purposes, any sense of jeopardy is removed. Teams can lose and lose bad consistently, but they can never, ever be relegated by design.

What this essentially means is that it operates as a cartel, a closed shop where nobody else really ever gets a look in and in the very rare event that there are those that might they have to be able to pony up a mountain of dough up front before they can join in the money making game.

Forever finding means of permanently protecting and securing one’s ‘investment’ is the name of the game and this was essentially what the uber wealthy owners of those Premier League teams were attempting to do in their failed pursuit of their so-called ‘super league’.

This is in much the same way that these ‘anti-meritocrats’ are forever looking for and finding ways of gaming the system in their and their progenies’ favour with the ideal aim of eliminating that constant sense of jeopardy and precarity that informs, both for good and ill, most people’s everyday lives.

The human desire to do so is entirely understandable, but the fact that ‘the system’ allows it to happen so clearly and consistently at the enduring expense of the interests of others is the problem here.

It’s stifling, it’s unfair, it’s not representative, it creates a sense of entitlement, it’s divisive and, frankly, as the writer says, it’s damaging for all of us in the long term.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Simon Coulthard
Simon Coulthard
3 years ago

Show me an idea that money and influence can’t corrupt

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
3 years ago

Christian discipleship.
Real Christian discipleship – any phony version means eternity in Hell – absolutely requires self-denial big-time and the endurance of persecution.
The Saviour said so, explicitly; and lived that supremely.
You can only get on board that plane out of this world’s way of ‘life’ (= zombie existence) into God’s modality of being (total fulfilment, ideal happiness, immortality) if you undergo the programme.
Anything fake won’t work.
(To be fair, even here and now, if you are enrolled in the programme and doing what the Teacher tells you, you have great sudden accessions of joy from time to time: enormous encouragements which hit you like a big warm breeze, and show you that your life is valuable, meaningful, has a plan and fine purpose.)

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

Have you read “Tartuffe?”

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
3 years ago
Reply to  Colin Haller

Yes. And as Moliere insisted, in his prefaces and other remarks about his play, he wa satirising religious hypocrisy, not sincere devout discipleship.
What makes that drama so gripping and worrying is its perfect account of the kind of obsession which leads people to discount all contrary evidence.
It is particularly apt and relevant nowadays. In the face of overwhelming evidence that (a) hardly any active dangerous white supremacists exist in the USA, that country is on a war-footing – not against the large number of rioters, looters, and physical attacks aplenty on people in its cities – but on this imaginary enemy. (b) However much the EU discredits itself, belief in it, on the part of the Ruling Caste in the West and championship of it among many other persons, actually increases.
Moliere’s account of Orgon’s devotion to Tartuffe expresses this perfectly.
It is like Mrs Norris in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, ‘whose attachment seemed to augment with the demerits of her niece’.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

Shame the Saviour never existed, any more than Osiris or Dionysis or Moses existed.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

How do you know?

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

For an account by a dismayed keen atheist who investigated and found the very much historical evidence in favour of believing He existed and died and rose from the dead, please read Lee Strobel’s book ‘The Case for Christ’ or see the movie derived from that research.

Lee Floyd
Lee Floyd
3 years ago

Confused and confusing….if a meritocracy is perverted, it can no longer be a meritocracy, so queries over the new direction of perverted meritocracies is a debate over cronyism, nepotism and corruption. All the things meritocracy was supposed to replace?

Dawne Swift
Dawne Swift
3 years ago

We need to take away charitable status from British private schools. I worked in one for 10 years and the idea that they are charities is laughable.

Kathleen Stern
Kathleen Stern
3 years ago
Reply to  Dawne Swift

Agree wholeheartedly. I taught in a grammar school,then 13|18 comprehensive,then sixth form college. These had many diligent,ambitious and hardworking students who deserved to succeed. Why should the public schools,selecting predominantly by wealth and connections, be treated as charities just because they have a token towards openness by admitting a few of the disadvantaged? It just aids the wealthy to become ever more so and corrupts by creating a class of ‘privileged who you know students’ to become more so.

Bill W
Bill W
3 years ago
Reply to  Kathleen Stern

They deserve charitable status because of their purpose, education, is worthy of charitable status. Just like hospitals and caring for the poor. If you think so called public schools have an unfair advantage, fair enough, but removing charitable status ain’t IMO going to solve it. Bring back grammar schools, for example, instead.

Last edited 3 years ago by Bill W
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Kathleen Stern

So how much tax did the schools you worked in Pay?

imackenzie56
imackenzie56
3 years ago
Reply to  Dawne Swift

The whole idea of charitable status in toto should be eliminated. Having spent much of my career in the American equivalents–“non-profits” and “not-for-profits” I can assure you that they have become the safe homes for the seond-rate offspring of the upper middle class and these organizations now pay huge sums in benefits and often salary to elite “executives” who would never cut it in a real business, but went to right liberal arts college. It’s a con job.

Robert Pay
Robert Pay
3 years ago
Reply to  Dawne Swift

That will make them even more elite. The big issue is state education

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago

Meritocracy is clearly a good thing. What we have at the moment is NOT meritocracy.

Waldo Warbler
Waldo Warbler
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

“Meritocracy is clearly a good thing.”
Perhaps – but we have to face some of the consequences. I try not to use myself as an example, but in this case, I will. I am from a very poor Northern English background. My parents had no clue how to apply to university. I was fortunate to do well at university, and now have multiple degrees, I have managed to maintain a sucessful commercial career as well as continue academic work. I am married to a woman who has a similar story of “improvement” (inlcuding parents born into poverty, she now has multiple degrees and is in one of the well-paid professions).
Do you think our offspring have better chances in life than someone from my background who went into coal mining? Given the genetics of intelligence, he probably has a head start in that regard – but you can be sure that our constant interactions with him help him develop.
So, genetically, financially and in terms of preparedness and advice, he is significantly advantaged. What, if anything, is to be done about it?

Last edited 3 years ago by Waldo Warbler
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

A system that requires people to pass exams only takes in people who have the skill ( or go to the crammers) to get the grades. Why does an artist need 6 O Levels & 4 A Levels? If you recruit for the services or police you need people to respond to a situation , not present 2000 words on diversity.There are quite a few examples of people who got on in the older aristocratic system ie Captain Cook, because someone recognized they were outstanding. Nowadays they would probably be prevented from entering the system as they haven’t the proper qualifications.Perhaps people in the system are frightened of people with genuine talent and just prefer jobsworths?

Robert Pay
Robert Pay
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Yes, we inadvertently tell people they have failed if they don’t go to “uni” and then prevent them from accessing jobs by use of degrees


Simon Newman
Simon Newman
3 years ago

Because ability is to a large extent inherited, a couple generations of actual meritocracy creates a divide where the elites actually are significantly more competent. Of course as this tales off, there is regression to the mean of the ancestral population. But if you did have genuine meritocracy + assortive mating for long enough, you would get social classes highly stratified by ability. Is this a desirable outcome?

Andy Jackson
Andy Jackson
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Newman

Indeed, it is amazing how many articles like this completely miss out the extent that IQ is genetic inheritable (50% inheritability or more).
Intelligent couples are likely to be wealthy
Intelligent couples are likely to have intelligent children.
The success of children of wealthy couples is because the parents are intelligent, not because they are wealthy

Waldo Warbler
Waldo Warbler
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Jackson

I woudl re-write your last sentence:
“The success of children of wealthy couples is partly because the parents are intelligent, not just because they are wealthy.”

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Waldo Warbler

Grandfather has a good idea and creates a business. The son works with the father but marries out of his class. Their son goes to private school and wants nothing to do with the business and when he inherits sells the business and moves abroad. Doctors and lawyers were around before meritocracy and often its a family tradition. The exam system created the civil service which has expanded to create work for its own class.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Newman

Is it desirable for smart people to be stifled and unable to fulfil their talents due to an artificial system that holds them back because of to whom they were born? Do you think competent and smart people being told they are barred from success by an accident of birth generates social harmony in the long run? Or maybe those people will be more of a problem as (presumably smart) trouble makers?
I don’t really know what anti-meritocratic people are proposing. Are we going to reintroduce a new artificial aristocracy frozen at the current social status quo? That will capture some people on the wrong side, why exactly do they have any incentive to recognise the legitimacy of this new status conferred on said people. Or are we going to confiscate property from smart people who have benefitted from relative meritocracy in the last 200 years in some kind of Pol Pot style experiment and force them to work back on the field for people who are descended from actual aristocrats 200 years ago?

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Simon Baseley
Simon Baseley
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Newman

“Ability is inherited”.
Did anyone tell Calum Best, Sean Lennon and Georgia May Jagger?  

Waldo Warbler
Waldo Warbler
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Baseley

Ability is inherited, but inheritance is not the only source.

Waldo Warbler
Waldo Warbler
3 years ago

Young saw “meritocracy” as a risk to be guarded against, not as a good mechanism for merit-based selection. Merit-based selection is struggling for two reasons:
1.) Associative mating and the perpetuated privileges (per article).
2.) The nonsense of the current ‘victim studies’ pseudo-academic arena (womens studies, queer studies, critical race theory), which deny the very existence of hierarchies of competence.
The fundamental challenge seems to me to be whether we value (a.) justice in opportunity above or below (b.) ensuring competence of people in significant positions.
Quotas and affirmative action mitigate against the latter priority.

Last edited 3 years ago by Waldo Warbler
Peter Scott
Peter Scott
3 years ago

All this essay by Mr Wooldridge is true; and shows two things.
[1] There will always be snobbery, ultimately based on rank created by a series of (essentially deliberate) interactions on the part of the Haves, not least in order to exclude the Have-Nots.
In the distant past this was the creation of an aristocracy based (originally) on military leadership and land. Nowadays it is the new (and I think very bad) aristocracy created in the ways Mr Wooldridge anatomatizes.
It follows that cries for the abolition of the British monarchy on the ground that it creates/promotes snobbery are simply stupid. You eradicate one matrix of social snootiness and dysfunction – another is already waiting to take its place, and it is worse.
All attempts at getting privilege in life to disappear are pointless.
The best that can be done is to train the privileged persons in society in the principle of Noblesse Oblige.
[2] The Great Big Device – which worked like anything – for giving a whopping chance to the children of the Have-Nots was the grammar schools.
They put the world as oyster before any talented youngster eager to work and learn and whose parents (of whatever occupation or social milieu) backed them rather than discouraging them.
This did not produce educational paradise. For that to happen, the ‘Secondary Moderns’ should have been very different kinds of schools. But in an imperfect world it was half a loaf.
Whenever anyone disputes my belief that the Left (broadly speaking) is in the business of destroying civilization and its possibilities, not creating it and opening it up to everyone, I only have to cite what the Left has done with education.

Jeff Mason
Jeff Mason
3 years ago

Good article. Just ask yourself, if facing heart surgery, would you want a surgeon who got into college to fill a racial quota or because his father endowed a chair in some department or because he had the best grades and showed the best promise regardless of race or social standing?

Waldo Warbler
Waldo Warbler
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Mason

The latter, obviously. Another question, however, is whether we want a society where the good grades are almost always won by those who have wealthy and intelligent parents.

Irene Ve
Irene Ve
3 years ago
Reply to  Waldo Warbler

You are contradicting the choice of a surgeon you just made – if social justice is your main concern, then you should choose a surgeon (or any other specialist) who got there via system of quotas.
Life is not fair, quite a bit we get by sheer luck – DNA lottery and a good caring family lottery are things you cannot change, unless you are willing to take babies away from parents at birth (to cancel out any “good family” advantage) and also assign partners for mating so that genetically superior would mate with genetically less lucky (to cancel out any DNA advantage, can be done using DNA sequencing and in vitro fertilisation to avoid any chance of getting below/above the desirable average result).
Unfortunately, complete social justice would also mean freezing biological evolution of human species as we know it.

Last edited 3 years ago by Irene Ve
Waldo Warbler
Waldo Warbler
3 years ago
Reply to  Irene Ve

I have not said that social justice is my main concern. I firmly believe that surgeons should be selected on competence, aptitude, intelligence and other measures of suitability to be a good surgeon.
“…unless you are willing to take babies away from parents at birth…and also assign partners for mating so that genetically superior would mate with genetically less lucky…”
That is a bit of a reductio ad absurdum argument. I am not willing to sign up to such measures, but it does not therefore follow that we should do nothing. Looking at where and how recruitment efforts are made, carefully implementing ‘blind’ selection processes (e.g. no names or photos on CVs) and well-designed grant and scholarship programs for some groups (e.g. the poor) can all help and need not cause injustice.

Irene Ve
Irene Ve
3 years ago
Reply to  Waldo Warbler

Thanks for your reply.

  1. You classified my argument as a reductio ad absurdum, and yet, this is the only way to make a starting position in life for any human being fair and just. Under such a scenario everything in life would depend solely on a person and life choices/decisions he makes. It will not happen in the next 25 years, sure, but genome modification (improvements and choices conscientiously made by parents) looks like a feasible and likely future for human species. In, say, 500 years from now, people might look back at us and find our ways of reproduction utterly barbaric 🙂
  2. Blind selection you suggest – yes, totally agree! Please, add similar practices for the top Universities’ interviews too. During the interview the interviewer should not see the candidate, only some human-like shape on the screen, accents should be hidden, names, age etc. The choice should be made based only on candidate’s answers, his ideas, intelligence, knowledge etc. In fact, I suggested this a few months ago, and was mercilessly voted down by the members of this community!
mark taha
mark taha
3 years ago

People following into theiur parents’ professions is hardly new.Whatever the system there will be people who know how to play it.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  mark taha

That presents a two-fold problem: elected office as a profession instead of public service, and a profession that includes ruling over the lives of others. The legacy doctor, lawyer, electrician, or cook does not have the power to compel me to do anything.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago

“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”
Is there something clearly wrong? Private schools are businesses whose value proposition to its paying customers are high grades and good university places. Hence the people who pay for this expect to get what they pay for both from the school and their children. Private schools need to maintain their figures and quite a few of them do so by encouraging and sometimes forcing children, who might spoil the figures, to go elsewhere. Against this backdrop what is really surprising is that just under 70% of Oxbridge students come from state schools.
Don’t be fooled into thinking Oxbridge provides the best teaching – it does not. It has selected the students most able to teach themselves, because that is what they largely need to do. It will get rid of those who can’t / won’t after the first year. Less able students get a far better education and do far better as a result at less prestigious universities.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

‘Private schools are businesses whose value proposition to its paying customers are high grades and good university places’
A fair point. But this is precisely why those schools should not have charitable status (along with most of the rest of our so called ‘charities’).

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
3 years ago

“from progressives who denounce it as a tool of white male privilege, right-wingers who dismiss it as an instrument of androgynous cosmopolitan elite”

At some point, our brave authors will resist the temptation to include unwarranted equivocations. Reason.com has a patent on this, I believe. This is a problem with leftists singularly, proudly and without apology.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
3 years ago

This article needs editing. Noblesse oblige is the obligation of the feudal nobility to defend and assist their subordinates, not as the author seems to believe, the automatic granting of privilege to noblemen.
Whatever M. Hollande’s failings as president, he knew which sex he was. Francois, please, not Francoise (unless the author know something we don’t….)

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
3 years ago

“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.”
As delusional an idea as any other. How long before “academic promise” and “raw ability” are sacrificed, slaughtered, on the alter of inclusivity ? Oh ! That’s right they already have.
I’m all for meritocracy, even if it’s allowed the “b*****d” middle classes to dominate and shaft the plebs, but I’m also a firm believer in soul, or flavour, Ethos seems to have been trampled underfoot in the rush for equality, or at least an ethos that rooted people within the societies that spawned them. Now we end up with two sides, of supposedly the same coin “Brexit” who seem to be made from entirely different currencies, and care even less what the other side is like, even if, ultimately, it might imperial, or devalue, both.

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
3 years ago

I should have thought that someone who writes about meritocracy would recognize that Young’s work was a satire.
Anyway, the problem outlined here is real. Branko Milanovic in his “Capitalism Alone” explains how both Liberal Democratic Capitalism (epitomized by the US) and Political Capitalism (exemplified by China) both face the same danger — the emergence of a self-perpetuating, hereditary plutocratic elite.
Mind you, nature has some surprises in store for the assortative mating crowd — take a look at the incidence of autism among their offspring. Correlation or causation and all that, I know. Still, it’s happening in increasing numbers, especially among STEM couples.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
3 years ago

Of course this is the outcome of meritocracy, especially combined with a highly capitalistic society where wealth is passed down to one’s children – how do people think those at the top of class systems got to be there – they, or their ancestors, clawed their way up.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
3 years ago

Any political system is doomed to failure if it doesn’t acknowledge and address the natural human desire of parents to do all they can to ensure their children’s success in life.

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago

No UK secondary schools specialising in maths? Here is a state funded sixth form specialising in maths. Of course, how many meritocrats might know how to get their children in here is another story.

https://www.exetermathematicsschool.ac.uk/

Simon Newman
Simon Newman
3 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

My son is at a maths & science specialist comp.

William Gladstone
William Gladstone
3 years ago

The proper solution to the problem of the corruption of meritocracy is to purify it rather than abandon it. 

Absolutely. To get rid of the corruption the best solution is direct democracy, by definition that cannot corrupt the will of the people.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

That an ignorant person living on government handouts has same same vote as someone who worked hard for 16 years of education, hard at a difficult job, is worldly and intelligent is not reasonable. Democracies always seed their own destruction by the ignorant voting for more at the expense of the nation.

Betty Fyffe
Betty Fyffe
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

A democracy depends on the composition of the demos.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
3 years ago

In 2019,I attended as a guest, the international day at one of the UK’s most prestigious co-ed private schools. I was there because my American friends’ son was leaving.
My associations with the school went back many years. Gone was the scholarly conservatism, replaced by a corporate focused liberalism. Instead of fusty clothes, the women dressed as though at a boutique spa, the men caught between office and gym.
Sitting at a table with my party were a family group, I was reliably informed, among Indian’s wealthiest. In conversation with the mother, she told me that her son,”like all Indian boys, wanted to do maths or engineering”
I asked where he hoped to go.
“Oh, Brown”, she said.
“Good luck”,
“Oh that shouldn’t be a problem, I,m on the board at Brown”
The same old nepotism,aristos, merchants, corporate meritocratic elites, all know where their interests are.
Your solution is sound in addressing the
problems of a platinum meritocracy, regarding education.
Firstly, removing charity status will make it impossible for all but the super rich to go there. However, the middle rank public schools would have to abandon education altogether. The middle class professionals and civil servants struggle as it is, to pay fees. It might force a serious review of our state schools, if more of this group were to use them. Former public schools might then become good semi- state schools, if allowed to keep a measure of independence and employ the teachers they want.
Charity status, should require that they take able children from genuinely disadvantaged backgrounds, otherwise the nimble middle class will work the system.
Secondly, bring back Grammar schools, it was the biggest mistake here in the UK and the greatest hypocrisy of the left,who still send their kids to the remaining ones.

rrostrom
rrostrom
3 years ago

Charles Murray noted a while ago that assortative mating and meritocratic appointment leads to the formation of an elite class that really is elite by nature, not just current status.
The new aristocracy assimilates the best and brightest outsiders (and drops the incapable). This is good in the short term, obviously. But in the long term, it risks the elite becoming a closed circle, dangerously prone to collective delusion. And the danger is greater when all the most able people are inside, and there’s no one left outside capable of challenging the consensus.

Yan Chernyak
Yan Chernyak
3 years ago

Guys in editorial, we perfectly understand your urge to clickbait (though not actually support – you didn’t want to be in a herd, right?) – but this time it is definitely out of hand even for your standards: this article is actually not about problem with power couples and mentions The Clintons who are in the photo only in passing. Seriously?…
It’s actually harmful for your readers: some of them doesn’t want to read more about The Clintons, and could skip this very informative article altogether.
Please consider changing your policy in this regard.

Last edited 3 years ago by Yan Chernyak
Eden K.
Eden K.
3 years ago

“They operate in a world that has no connection with the quotidian concerns of everyday people or, indeed, everyday decency” – really, you think running the International Rescue Committee leaves one completely removed ‘everyday decency’ ? What a strange comment to make.