Adrian Wooldridge joins Brian Anderson to discuss the history of meritocracy, modern obstacles to a truly merit-based society, and the geopolitical implications of the West’s growing anti-meritocratic streak. His new book, The Aristocracy of Talent, is out now.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Adrian Wooldridge. Adrian's the political editor of The Economist and writes that magazine's Bagehot Column, an analysis of British life and politics. He's also the author of a brand new book called, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, which is going to be the topic of our discussion today. Adrian, great to have you on the show.

Adrian Wooldridge: Well, thank you so much for having me.

Brian Anderson: As you note in the book, meritocracy shapes our world these days from top to bottom. Now it spans partisan divides in the US and the UK. It determines where we live, with whom we interact and it structures major institutions throughout the West and in the East as well, of course. So I think it would be helpful just to clarify our terms, and how you use the term meritocracy and what should it look like in principle and how is it being implemented these days in practice.

Adrian Wooldridge: Meritocracy, in the broadest sense of the word, means judging people on their individual abilities rather than on the position that they're born into in the world, by their family and on the basis of their family connections. I think that's a broad and widely accepted view, but I think it also has another meaning, which is just as important to that, and that is the notion of trying your very best to provide people with equality of opportunity. Because if you have objective measurements of people's abilities, if you have all positions open to talent, but 1% of the population has fantastic education and 99% of the population doesn't have any education at all, you haven't really got something that could be called a meritocracy. So it means formally freedom of talent to be tested and judged objectively, but informally, it also means a system of mass education, probably mass education, all the way up to secondary school, at the very least.

Brian Anderson: We're governed in the modern world by meritocracy. We hear about it as school children, presidents talk about it as the rightful order of things. Most of us internalize its inner logic if we want to get ahead in the world. But as you show, very interestingly in the book, meritocracy is something that is in fact pretty new historically, and it's a kind of radical idea, and it's certainly an unnatural way for human beings to behave, given our proclivities to group membership, our belonging to kinship networks and other forms of hierarchy.

So I wonder if you could just describe a little bit how the pre-meritocratic world was structured and what changes had to take place, in intellectual life and the business world, across our institutions for meritocracy to emerge.

Adrian Wooldridge: Absolutely. The most important thing to grasp about meritocracy, is that for most of human history, we haven't had it, and we haven't had it as a norm or as an ideal, let alone as a practice. For most of human history, society's been organized according to very, very different principles. Those principles are essentially that you inherit your position in the world, and the world is best ordered if people inherit their positions.

If you look at Shakespeare, for example, he's full of talk about how sons should follow their fathers into their jobs, that society is untuned and disordered if you have social mobility. So, the notion that people inherit their positions is very widely accepted. The notion that the organizing principle in society is not the individual, but the family and family connections, that dynasty is very widely accepted. And also very strangely, the notion that jobs are property which can be bought, sold, given away in patronage is also extremely widely accepted. So, the notion that there should be a tight connection between your ability to perform a job and having that job is a very modern thing.

I came across, in my studies, a nice example of a woman called Mrs. Margaret Scott, who in 1783 was earning 200 pounds a year as a witness to the Prince of Wales. And that's remarkable, because 200 pounds a year is a lot of money in those days. But also it's remarkable because at that time, the Prince of Wales was 21 years old. In other words, she got this job and that was it. And that was the way that the world was all organized, right the way up, I think until the 18th century.

Now, there are two exceptions to this. One is an intellectual exception, which is Plato. Plato comes along in the Republic and envisions a world that is essentially meritocratic, in which people owe their positions to their intellectual abilities, their philosophical abilities, their leadership qualities. And society is divided into three classes; the men of gold, men of silver, and men of bronze. And for that to work, he says, you must have equality of opportunity because men of gold could emerge in any of the classes. You have to constantly sift through the population for people of talent.

And secondly, and this is the extraordinary radical thing that Plato says, he says women might just as likely be people of gold as men. He says there's no reason to exclude women from what he called the guardian class. So he's very, very radical and his ideas sort of halt the West; they're there in the Renaissance, they're there in the 19th century inspiring meritocratic idea. So that's one sort of pre-meritocratic, meritocratic as it were.

And the second is the Chinese system, which from the early middle ages onwards, uses a system of mass examinations to select scholar bureaucrats for the Imperial Palace. So at a time when England is governed by people with names like Erik Bloodaxe, China is governed by Imperial bureaucrats selected by examinations. And relatively early on, these examinations are taken by about 10% of the population, an extraordinarily large percentage of the population. And there's a degree of such—obviously if you're coming from a privileged background, you're more likely to succeed in these examinations, but there's still a significant degree of social mobility as a result of that.

So we have to envision a society basically organized according to the principles of inheritance of positions, but this Platonic idea of an aristocracy of talent is there in the Western mind and this practice over in China of social mobility based on examinations. Then something big happens in the late 18th and 19th centuries. That is the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the sort of British liberal revolution; all of which make a reality of an aristocracy of talent, of open competition. And these three revolutions really completely changed the world.

Brian Anderson: Later in the book, in chapters 14 and 15, you described some of the problems though that meritocracy ran into during the second half of the 20th century. I'm thinking of Michael Young's book on meritocracy, which was a real critique. In the '60s and '70s, it was challenged by egalitarians. They argued that individual differences were basically fictitious. They attacked tools like IQ tests that purported to measure such differences. And they insisted that an unequal society, even if it was ordered by merit, was something undesirable and unjust.

And then in the '80s and '90s, you write, it was corrupted meritocracy by a wealthy elite that began to marry solely within its own ranks and began to enrich itself, basically; it became a kind of cronyism. You would have to say that these challenges, debated as charges of a meritocracy in name only, are now driving political movements on both sides of the political aisle.

So I'm wondering, are these problems fatal, ultimately, to the meritocratic project? As you know, it's something relatively new. Or can the ideal of meritocracy be somehow rescued from these problems?

Adrian Wooldridge: Absolutely. Well, it's very important to remember that the term meritocracy was introduced by Michael Young in 1958 as a criticism. He thought that meritocracy was a terrible thing. He thought it was a terrible thing because it actually worked, in his opinion. But it worked in such a way that the people who got to the top on the basis of their merits were insufferably smug. And the people who were left at the bottom were insufferably depressed, because they couldn't blame that poor performance on social injustices. It's their fault.

So Young has this incredibly interesting critique that meritocracy is actually working, it's transforming society in a way. It's really creating a ladder of opportunity from the bottom to the top of society. IQ tests, he thinks, are great. He thinks they're working really, really well, but he thinks the ideal is itself a monstrosity that we need to get away from.

So he takes the standard left wing criticism of meritocracy that it's a sham and turns it upside down. It says, it's not a sham, but it's because it's not a sham that it's so bad. I think that's why his critique is fascinating. I also think that it's wrong. But I think one of the things that happens, as you've just noted, in the '80s and '90s, is that it does become a bit more of a sham in the sense that you get a self-perpetuating sort of cognitive elite or intellectual oligarchy, which passes its privileges onto its children.

But I think the reason that it becomes much more of a sham is precisely because the egalitarian critique of meritocracy, which Michael Young was associated with, begins to bite, in the sense that it begins to get rid of selection by merit, begins to get rid of the use of IQ tests—certainly in Great Britain, a bit less in America—and begins to remove the ladders of opportunity from the bottom of societies at the top of society, which makes meritocracy a reality.

And it's exactly the same time that the public sector in education is losing faith in merit, the private sector in education is gaining much more faith in merit. So it's making itself more meritocratic. So the cognitive elite, as it were, captures this idea and uses it to its own advantage, not largely, but to a significant extent because the Left has lost faith in it. So it's a very double-edged sword that Michael Young is wielding there.

So there are two critiques going on. One is that meritocracy is a terrible idea. The other is that it's a sham. The first of those tends to actually reinforce the second. Now, the critique has become absolutely pervasive. So the Left hates meritocracy because it doesn't like the notion that people have different abilities. The Right doesn't like meritocracy because it thinks it's a sham, which an arrogant cognitive elite uses to reinforce his position. And a lot of academics don't like it because they think that it's crooked in some way, which is one reason why I wrote this book, which was to push back against this growing consensus, because I think it's completely wrong about meritocracy. There's a number of things I would say about meritocracy.

One, is that it's a revolutionary principle, that it's born in revolt against the society of inherited privilege. Its essence is to criticize inherited privilege. Secondly, that it's a self-correcting and self-improving set of ideas. So whenever meritocracy has begun to calcify, as you might say, it's calcified in America in the '80s, '90s, it's always managed to reach into itself and improve itself.

So if you look at what happened in America after the American Revolution, it began to sort of calcify with the Jeffersonian, the revolutionary elite, they tended to hold positions. And then it was jolted again into life and began to expand, to incorporate new sections of society, immigrants, plutocrats, the business elite, women as well as men. So it broadens itself out and it keeps broadening itself out massively after the Second World War.

So what I argue in this book is that whatever's wrong with meritocracy is often and ideally cured by more meritocracy, not less meritocracy. And indeed when we've had revolts against merit, as we did in the '60s, it quite often leads actually to less social mobility, rather than to a solution to the problem.

Brian Anderson: Very interesting. You conclude the book on a striking note that really looks at the world geopolitically. You note that earlier, we had discussed briefly the Asian history of meritocracy, Chinese history of meritocracy. But Asian societies as a whole, have generally adopted a meritocratic approach to social order. This can take a variety of forms. So in China, you have the red meritocracy these days, that that really brings together political corruption with neutral rules. In Singapore, you've got educational stratification and a very competitive culture in both business and government and across Asia, kind of focus on standardized test performance.

So, what are the geopolitical implications if you have an Eastern world that is increasingly meritocratic, or certainly, consistently meritocratic, and a West that has come to find a dissatisfaction in the meritocratic idea?

Adrian Wooldridge: They win, we lose. I mean, that's simply put, but that is the conclusion. That is the result of this. If you look at meritocracy, if you look at institutions, and if you look at countries, and if you look at groups of countries, there's a very simple pattern that emerges. And that is the people who adopt meritocratic selection, that is selecting people on the basis of talents and promoting them on the basis of their performance, those institutions win. Those institutions do really well.

So if you compare public companies against family companies, public companies do better, because they're more meritocratic. If you look at countries which have adopted meritocratic promotion over those that haven't, meritocratic countries do better. So look at Singapore, which in the 1960s was an irrelevant swamp land, it now has some of the world's highest living standards. That was because Lee Kuan Yew said, "We are going to be a meritocracy. We're going to be a brain-intensive country."

Compare Singapore with any other similar country like Sri Lanka, which is actually richer than Singapore in 1960, and Singapore's done better because it's been more meritocratic. If you look at groups of countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, Northern European countries, which are rigorously meritocratic, very much more competitive than their rather kum ba yah-style socialism suggests, and compare them with Southern European countries like Spain and Italy, which are very familial, very nepotistic. The Northern European countries win.

So there's a massive evidence that shows that meritocracy is the key to economic success. So fortunately there's been a convenient marriage between democracy and meritocracy in the West for quite some time, which has meant that the West has been able to pull ahead and this great engine of meritocracy has been harnessed by the democratic West. But now the democratic West is beginning to turn against meritocracy at exactly the time when the Eastern countries are re-embracing it.

And I said that China was the world's first great meritocratic society, and that helped it become one of the world's wealthiest societies. But meritocracy in China became very atrophied because they're obsessed with a narrow range of tests, which essentially tested people's ability to do Confucian puzzles, to produce beautiful poems, and to recite the works of Confucius. What's happened now is, they've taken that tradition of testing for Confucian knowledge and instead applied it to science, engineering through all of these things that are much more closely related to wealth creation. So they reinvented their meritocratic tradition in a highly modern form. Singapore, again, took the Confucian tradition, partly from Britain actually. And when Lee Kuan Yew went to Cambridge and was very impressed by the system there, and partly from the United States. And they see in that a formula for success in the future.

So I think that America's gone quite a long way now to moving away from meritocracy. We have Boston Latin School replacing admission by tests and academic performance by lottery, Lowell School in San Francisco doing that. That's insane. That's crazy. That's institutional suicide. You have universities moving away from SATs toward what they might describe as cuddlier sorts of tests, but in fact, much more biased, much less objective tests. And you have revolts against gifted education programs right across America at the moment, and an emphasis against excellence, I think, because excellence is potentially discriminatory.

And I think to do that at a time when your biggest rival power is going in the opposite direction, and when that opposite direction, it can be documented to demonstrate that it's economically extremely powerful, is, I think, a potential act of civilizational suicide.

Brian Anderson: To get back to the kind of practical agenda of your book, what is the best case to be made for meritocratic ideals again, in the West and in the United States is obviously, key to educational reform. But how do we do this?

Adrian Wooldridge: Well, I argue in my book that there are two really very, very strong arguments for meritocracy. One is the argument that I've just outlined, which is an argument for efficiency. It's economically efficient, and that can be shown on the basis of numerous measures. But the other is, I think it's just, and I think that most people intuitively understand that it's just, that you should judge people on the basis of their performance, on the basis of their abilities, on the basis of their capacity to do a job.

Now the strongest argument against that is that we don't, in some way, owe our talent to anything other than luck. I think that's a very partial reading of things. I think we owe our talent to a combination of luck. And if you happen to be born musical or academically very able, that is good luck. But even the most able people have to work very hard. They have to absorb a huge amount of knowledge. They have to sacrifice leisure for swatting, for working very hard. And because of this combination of ability and effort, which makes merit, I think that it's reasonable for a society to reward people who have that combination of ability and effort with more money, more opportunities and rewards commensurate with their talents.

And I think that to do that is to take individuals seriously. If you say that talents are just arbitrary things which individuals have regardless of their working and their studying, then you create a system whereby institutions can just give away opportunities on the basis of lotteries, ultimately, because you don't deserve it. I think that merit has to do with desert, and desert has to do with your ability to translate raw abilities into marketable, saleable talent. So I think there's a justice. There's an argument from efficiency there and there's an argument from justice for some sort of meritocratic allocation of opportunities.

Now, I do take seriously the criticisms of Michael Young and many current anti-meritocrats, that there is something rather snobbish, rather self-satisfied about today's cognitive elite. And I do think that the cognitive elite owes its position to hard work, but it also owes it to a measure of luck. And we need to create some sort of set of social mechanisms which revives the notion of duty, revives the notion that to those to whom a lot is given by society, from them a great deal is sort of demanded as well.

So people who do occupy these positions of privilege also have to give back to society. That was the great 19th-century revolution in Britain was all about instilling a sense of social conscience into the ruling elite. And again, in America, in the late 19th century, early 20th century with Roosevelt and the rest, you had the same thing. And I think we need another period of re-moralization of the meritocracy.

Brian Anderson: Thank you very much, Adrian Wooldridge. His new book is called, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World. I really appreciate you coming on the show today. We'll link to the book in the description, and you can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_mi. As always, if you like what you've heard on the show, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Adrian Wooldridge, thanks very much.

Adrian Wooldridge: Thank you so much.

Photo: DNY59/iStock

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