Meritocracy has come in for some hard knocks of late. Critical race theorists, egalitarians and others on the left deride meritocracy as ideology, a mechanism for perpetuating and legitimising hierarchy, elite privilege and structural inequities. Populists on the right are no less contemptuous, dismissing elites who claim to owe their positions in society to superior ability and effort as the shills of a system that is ‘rigged’. Prominent critics, meanwhile, like the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel or the Yale law professor Daniel Markovits, inveigh against what they have described in recent books as the ‘Tyranny of Merit’ or the ‘Meritocracy Trap’, arguing that our current system of preferment is as bad for the few it benefits as for the many it leaves behind.
To rise to meritocracy’s defence in this climate would seem, then, either foolish or brave. A longtime editor at The Economist with a doctorate from Oxford in history and ten books to his name, Adrian Wooldridge is certainly no fool. In fact, he has written a timely book that is a reminder that meritocracy, for all its flaws, may well be, like the democracy it has sometimes served, better than the alternatives. At the very least, we should be cautious about consigning it to the dustbin of history too soon.
‘Meritocracy’ is a modern word – it was coined as recently as 1958 by the British sociologist Michael Young – and the full suite of its ideals are modern too. They include social, political and economic advancement based solely on talent and open competition, equality of opportunity rooted in high-quality