Written by: Stephen Hsu
Primary Source: Information Processing
Read Toby Young’s new article The Fall of the Meritocracy. The adoption of civil service and educational placement examinations in England and France in the 19th century was consciously based on the Chinese model (see Les Grandes Ecoles Chinoises). Although imperfect, exams work: we have no better system for filtering talent. But few are willing to acknowledge this basic fact.
Quadrant Magazine: In 1958, my father, Michael Young, published a short book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2023: An Essay on Education and Equality. It purported to be a paper written by a sociologist in 2034 about the transformation of Britain from a feudal society in which people’s social position and level of income were largely determined by the socio-economic status of their parents into a modern Shangri-La in which status is based solely on merit. He invented the word meritocracy to describe this principle for allocating wealth and prestige and the new society it gave rise to.
The essay begins with the introduction of open examinations for entry into the civil service in the 1870s—hailed as “the beginning of the modern era”—and continues to discuss real events up until the late 1950s, at which point it veers off into fantasy, describing the emergence of a fully-fledged meritocracy in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. In spite of being semi-fictional, the book is clearly intended to be prophetic—or, rather, a warning. Like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), The Rise of the Meritocracy is a dystopian satire that identifies various aspects of the contemporary world and describes a future they might lead to if left unchallenged. Michael was particularly concerned about the introduction of the 11+ by Britain’s wartime coalition government in 1944, an intelligence test that was used to determine which children should go to grammar schools (the top 15 per cent) and which to secondary moderns and technical schools (the remaining 85 per cent). It wasn’t just the sorting of children into sheep and goats at the age of eleven that my father objected to. As a socialist, he disapproved of equality of opportunity on the grounds that it gave the appearance of fairness to the massive inequalities created by capitalism. He feared that the meritocratic principle would help to legitimise the pyramid-like structure of British society.
In the short term, the book achieved its political aim. It was widely read by Michael’s colleagues in the Labour Party (he ran the party’s research department from 1945 to 1951) and helped persuade his friend Anthony Crosland, who became Labour Education Secretary in 1965, that the 11+ should be phased out and the different types of school created by the 1944 Education Act should be replaced by non-selective, one-size-fits-all comprehensives. Crosland famously declared: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f***ing grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” Today, there are only 164 grammar schools in England and sixty-eight in Northern Ireland. There are none in Wales.
But even though my father’s book helped to win the battle over selective education, he lost the war. The term “meritocracy” has now entered the language, and while its meaning hasn’t changed—it is still used to describe the organising principle Michael identified in his book—it has come to be seen as something good rather than bad. The debate about grammar schools rumbles on in Britain, but their opponents no longer argue that a society in which status is determined by merit is undesirable. Rather, they embrace this principle and claim that a universal comprehensive system will lead to higher levels of social mobility than a system that allows some schools to “cream skim” the most intelligent children at the age of eleven.
We are all meritocrats now
Not only do pundits and politicians on all sides claim to be meritocrats—and this is true of most developed countries, not just Britain—they also agree that the principle remains stillborn. In Britain and America there is a continuing debate about whether the rate of inter-generational social mobility has remained stagnant or declined in the past fifty years, but few think it has increased. The absence of opportunities for socio-economic advancement is now seen as one of the key political problems facing Western democracies, leading to the moral collapse of the indigenous white working class, the alienation of economically unsuccessful migrant groups, and unsustainable levels of welfare dependency. This cluster of issues is the subject of several recent books by prominent political scientists, most notably Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015) by Robert Putnam.
Unlike my father, I’m not an egalitarian. As Friedrich Hayek and others have pointed out, the difficulty with end-state equality is that it can only be achieved at too great a human cost. Left to their own devices, some men will inevitably accumulate more wealth than others, whether through ability or luck, and the only way to “correct” this is through the state’s use of coercive power. If the history of the twentieth century teaches us anything, it is that the dream of creating a socialist utopia often leads to the suppression of free speech, the imprisonment of a significant percentage of the population and, in some extreme cases, state-organised mass murder.
Having said that, I recognise that a lack of social mobility poses a threat to the sustainability of liberal democracies and, in common with many others, believe the solution lies in improving our education systems. There is a consensus among most participants in the debate about education reform that the ideal schools are those that manage to eliminate the attainment gap between the children of the rich and the poor. That is, an education system in which children’s exam results don’t vary according to the neighbourhood they’ve grown up in, the income or education of their parents, or the number of books in the family home. Interestingly, there is a reluctance on the part of many liberal educationalists to accept the corollary of this, which is that attainment in these ideal schools would correspond much more strongly with children’s natural abilities.  This is partly because it doesn’t sit well with their egalitarian instincts and partly because they reject the idea that intelligence has a genetic basis. But I’m less troubled by this. I want the clever, hard-working children of those in the bottom half of income distribution to move up, and the less able children of those in the top half to move down. …
Young follows the meritocracy and social justice argument where it ultimately leads: to DNA.
… However, there’s a problem here—let’s call it the challenge posed by behavioural genetics—which is that cognitive ability and other characteristics that lead to success, such as conscientiousness, impulse control and a willingness to defer gratification, are between 40 per cent and 80 per cent heritable. I know that many people will be reluctant to accept that, but the evidence from numerous studies of identical twins separated at birth, as well as non-biological siblings raised in the same household, is pretty overwhelming. And it’s probable that in the next few years genetic research scientists will produce even more evidence that important aspects of people’s personalities—including those that determine whether they succeed or fail—are linked to their genes, with the relevant variants being physically identified. The implication is that a society in which status is allocated according to merit isn’t much fairer than one in which it’s inherited—or, rather, it is partly inherited, but via parental DNA rather than tax-efficient trusts. This is an argument against meritocracy made by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971): You’ve done nothing to deserve the talents you’re born with—they’re distributed according to a “natural lottery”—so you don’t deserve what flows from them.
It’s worth pausing here to note that Rawls accepts that not all men are born equal, genetically speaking. Some do better out of the “natural lottery” than others and that, in turn, has an impact on their life chances. This is far from universally accepted by liberal commentators and policy-makers, most of whom prefer to think of man as a tabula rasa, forged by society rather than nature. …
… The reason liberals are so hostile to the concept of IQ—and particularly the claim that it helps to determine socio-economic status, rather than vice versa—is because they have an almost religious attachment to the idea that man is a piece of clay that can be moulded into any shape by society. After all, it’s only if human beings are infinitely malleable and not bound by their inner nature that the various utopias they dream of can become a reality, from William Morris’s Earthly Paradise to the New Jerusalem of my father’s Labour Party. …
… But the new technologies thrown up by genetic research will mean they no longer have to deny this obvious truth. If it becomes possible to select human embryos according to their possession of genes associated with certain character traits, such as intelligence, the Left’s utopian political projects can be resurrected. Margaret Mead was right after all: human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, you just have to start a lot further back. It is not through changing the culture that we will be able to solve the chronic social problems besetting the advanced societies of the West, but through changing people’s genes. …
Latest posts by Stephen Hsu (see all)
- Frank Herbert interview on the origins of Dune (1969) - February 15, 2018
- Genetic testing and embryo selection: current status and ethical issues - February 15, 2018
- The History of Synth Pop (video documentary) - February 11, 2018