Is the rise of meritocracy good or bad?

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The view that all men are born equal is still popular. But evidence that nature is as important as nurture has been mounting

“When most people talk about ‘meritocracy’ they use the word to describe a political ideal, something to aim for rather than avoid. But it was originally coined as a term of approbation rather than approval.

How do I know this? Because it was my late father Michael Young who invented the word.

In 1957 he published The Rise of the Meritocracy, which was a dystopian satire in the same vein as 1984 and Brave New World. It described a nightmarish society of the future in which status was determined by a combination of IQ and effort.

Far from being a dynamic, fluid society where your life chances are dictated by worth not birth, it is every bit as rigid and stratified as the British class system. In fact, it is worse because in a meritocracy those at the bottom of society do not have the excuse that they weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

My father acknowledged that meritocracy could produce a certain amount of churn when it is first introduced; with plenty of upward and downward social mobility. But after a couple of generations this movement begins to tail off.

His reason for thinking that was controversial at the time and remains so today: he contended that the qualities a meritocratic society rewards, such as intelligence and drive, are at least partly biologically-based and, as such, are passed on from parents to their children via their DNA. That means that after a few generations the meritocratic elite becomes a self-perpetuating oligarchy. The hierarchical structure of our class system reproduces itself, but this time it is underpinned by biology.

Far-fetched? Some people certainly think so. The view that all men are born equal – that we are essentially blank slates and any differences that emerge are due to differences in our environments – is still a popular one, particularly on the Left. But the evidence that nature is at least as important as nurture has been gradually mounting up, with Darwinian anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists and behavioural geneticists weighing in on the side of nature.

It is entirely possible that my father was right about this and wrong about meritocracy. People don’t deserve their wealth in a meritocratic society any more than they do in an aristocratic society – the most successful are still just members of the lucky sperm club.

But do people ever really deserve their status? Doesn’t fortune always play a part, regardless of how society is arranged? Perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it and we should think instead about what sort of society is likely to be the most successful in terms of economic productivity, scientific discoveries, new technologies, artistic achievements, etc. From that point of view meritocracy has something to be said for it.”

Toby Young is a journalist and director of the New Schools Network, a free schools charity

Further reading

Breaking the class ceiling

Social mobility in HR: One practitioner's journey

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