The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by Adrian Wooldridge - review by Darrin M McMahon

Darrin M McMahon

Earning Our Stripes

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World


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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 universal education and the eradication of discrimination based on class, race, gender and other elements deemed irrelevant. The fact that these ideals have never been perfectly realised is in the minds of their defenders a spur to work harder to bring them about.

Historically, that has meant challenging hierarchies that distribute position and place largely on the basis of family and connections. One of the merits of Wooldridge’s book is that it reminds us that for most of human history nepotism, along with patronage, clientelism and venality, has been the norm. We are, after all, creatures of blood, hardwired to look out for our own. When we can do so, we tend to secure power and preferment for our families and friends, backing retainers who can help us in turn. In politics and professional life, inheritance and hereditary succession were long the main mechanisms for deciding who should rule and who should get what.

Wooldridge traces some notable exceptions to that general trend in the theories of Plato, the civil service of imperial China (ordered on Confucian principles) and elements of Jewish culture, which envision learning, intelligence and achievement as alternative means to social and political advancement. But his story really gets going with the advent of the Enlightenment in the long 18th century and the American and French revolutions, when partisans pushed self-consciously for an end to special privileges based on birth and blood. Merit would replace ancestry, talent would replace title and closed shops would be opened up to the industrious. The French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’ (1789) put it nicely when it declared that ‘all citizens, being equal before [the law], are equally admissible to all public offices, positions, and employments, according to their capacity, and without any other distinction than that of virtues and talents’.

Wooldridge cites these lines approvingly, italicising the final phrase to emphasise the point that when most observers in the 18th century invoked ‘equality’ they meant equality of opportunity, not outcome. The leading lights of the Enlightenment, such as Thomas Jefferson, were quick to speak of a ‘natural aristocracy’ that would replace the ‘tinsel aristocracy’ of old. Society would always need leaders, they recognised, and hierarchy could never be completely abolished, just arranged on fairer terms. Better to cede the world to come to those most able than to leave it to the plunderers and parasites of old.

As his title indicates, Wooldridge largely agrees. One of the key responsibilities of modern nation-states, in his view, is to help identify and cultivate this aristocracy of talent in the interests of greater efficiency, fairness, prosperity and utility. In the core middle chapters of the book, he provides an overview of attempts to do so in 19th- and 20th-century Europe and the United States. He writes approvingly, for example, of the opening up of Prussian institutions like the civil service, armed forces and gymnasia, and of the energies unleashed by the post-Napoleonic educational system in France, with its competitive examinations and merit-driven grandes écoles. He charts the rise of the ‘intellectual aristocracy’ in Britain, the leading names of which – from Darwin to Huxley to Keynes – alone testify to its new-found importance. He follows the fortunes of American efforts to become what the Founding Fathers intended, a republic of merit, and he devotes a chapter to the early and still controversial attempts to measure talent through statistics and a battery of psychological assessments, culminating in the development of the IQ test.

Wooldridge brings the story to a head in a section on what he calls the ‘Meritocratic Revolution’ of the mid-20th century, which was ‘turbocharged’ by the Second World War. ‘Mass mobilization demonstrated how much talent had been wasted in the past’, leading postwar governments to launch innovative attempts to capture it for the future. Welfare states broadened opportunities for ordinary people. In 1944, the United States introduced the GI Bill, doubling university enrolments virtually overnight. Britain expanded the grammar schools. Venerable elite institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale made efforts to draw talent from wider pools; newer ones like the University of California or the French Ecole Nationale d’Administration aimed to demonstrate how an aristocracy of intellect could justify itself in democratic societies, rendering them both richer and wiser. Finally, in an amusingly titled chapter, ‘Girly Swots’, Wooldridge recounts the story of how remarkable women stormed the citadels of male privilege, muscling their way into universities, political parties and the labour force by dint of brain power and hard work.

All this may sound uplifting, and in many ways it is. Yet Wooldridge’s story, told with a wealth of erudition in brisk and readable prose, is not a triumphalist one. In the first place he is open-eyed about meritocracy’s blind spots, calling attention throughout the book to those whose talents have been systematically excluded or overlooked, most obviously people of colour. He acknowledges, moreover, the many failings and false routes taken by those who would reduce the worth of a human being to an aptitude score, as well as the hazards and difficulties of trying to capture it in the first place. And he is realistic about the stubborn persistence of privilege. Not only have old elites proved adept at refitting themselves to compete in new circumstances, but contemporary cognitive elites have found ways to perpetuate their own positions and places, passing them on to their offspring in a ‘new nepotism’ that is all the more noxious for its accompanying sense of entitlement. ‘Winners’ today are inclined to feel that they deserve all they have, while ‘losers’ feel humiliated. There is good reason, in short, for both populist rage and contemporary calls for social justice.

That dynamic is at the root of the current ‘Crisis of the Meritocracy’, the title of the book’s fifth and final part. Wooldridge rehearses – and largely owns – many of the arguments levelled against meritocracy since the 1950s and voiced with such vehemence on both the left and the right today. Our world clearly is too divided, too unequal, too unfair. But the answer, Wooldridge insists, is not to scrap meritocracy altogether and still less to return to the kind of old-school nepotism and patronage wielded so egregiously by Trump and his ilk. Rather, he argues, we need a concerted push to introduce more and wiser meritocracy, while at the same time striving to remoralise it. That would involve major investments in education and further efforts to pluralise elite schools and universities that still cater disproportionately to the well connected, despite their rhetoric of inclusion. It would also involve fighting seriously to improve social mobility and to challenge the sclerosis of the rich, putting more workers in elected office and on corporate boards, and (though Wooldridge doesn’t say so directly) paying them more. Finally, the cognitive elite needs to relearn humility and a sense of duty and responsibility to the social whole – call it, if you like, noblesse oblige.

All that is a tall order. Yet Wooldridge points out that Western nations have revitalised meritocracy in the past with progressive reforms. Looking to that history now, he suggests, can be the spur to do so again. It is clearly a task of great urgency. In the penultimate chapter, he paints an arresting picture of the current embrace of meritocracy in Asia, particularly China, where, notwithstanding cronyism, corruption and the suppression of groups like the Uighurs, the state is succeeding in tapping into wide swaths of its human talent with considerable success. Wooldridge suggests that Western nations must reform themselves in order to better compete and avert their decline. But the stakes are arguably even higher than that. In a revealing turn of phrase, Wooldridge writes that ‘there is a whiff of the Ancien Régime today’ among Western aristocrats of talent. Unless they can come to terms with the modern Third Estate, their story is likely to end badly.

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