Is the Meritocracy Fair of Foul?

How do you define a “meritocracy”? Editor and prolific author Adrian Wooldridge has an excellent answer. First, it is about people getting ahead because of their natural talents. Second, it is grounded in a society that provides education for all so that there is equality of opportunity. Third, it does not permit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or similar traits. Lastly, it provides jobs through fair processes, as opposed to nepotism or patronage. Most people approve of these basic characteristics, yet the term “meritocracy” has been losing favor for decades. In a lengthy exposition, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, Wooldridge provides a history of meritocracy and proposes a rehabilitation of the term.

An academic with strong credentials who moved into journalism as an editor and writer, Wooldridge has the background and interests to tackle this ambitious task. Aristocracy of Talent is encyclopedic, drawing heavily upon history, philosophy and politics for centuries. Wooldridge’s comfort in bringing extensive sources into mix, as well as forging broad arguments, drives the narrative smartly. He bypasses questions and concerns. It is a book brimming with assertions and confidence, moving from Plato to the Hapsburgs, from the French Revolution to the creation and implementation of IQ tests. Wooldridge draws upon a wide swath of references. For example, his use of the the history of the development of the Chinese state bureaucracy, the mandarins, is very strong. It reminded me of Max Weber’s work on the same topic. Wooldridge’s ability to use these kinds of references in this global context makes for a very provocative read. The book is at its best when it is the most historical, threading together different culture. As it moves closer to contemporary times, the assertions in Aristocracy of Talent are less effective.

Wooldridge’s big picture lens is consistently focused on politics and political philosophy. It is with this priority that the example of the leadership of the Chinese emperors rings as so relevant. Absent from the book, though, is adequate examination the massive changes in western life from the late 1800s on: the development of the professions, the rise of science, and accompanying massive economic shifts. Societies may or may not seek the best trained when it comes to positions of political influence. The consequences of that may or may not be significant. However, indifference to education and talent is not possible when it comes to technological innovation, to research, or to the complexities of managing a modern business or corporation. Meritocratic paths of advancement became essential to economic effectiveness by the start of the twentieth century. That entire thread of change, the rise of professions and paths to professionalism, does not feature prominently in this book.

As many historians have studied, opportunities for wealth and career became significantly more tightly connected with education with professionalization, a process that began in the late 1800s and accelerated throughout the twentieth century. Political elites did not drive these tectonic changes. Instead, it was the demands of a new economy that sped the growth of the meritocratic ideal. Along like lines, the G.I. Bill after World War II, which Wooldridge examines in detail, did not have a profound impact simply because it put servicemen in college. College education after the war increasingly aligned itself with economic needs. College-educated veterans were able to find higher paying jobs and build long-lasting careers in fields that simply were not present decades earlier.

Challenges to points of access after WWII also impacted meritocratic practices. Advances for women and people of color was far from secure. It remains a challenging topic, particularly when supposedly “meritocractic” processes can serves as hurdles or gates to entry. Are we truly providing education for all in a society free of prejudice based on race, gender or other characteristics?

Wooldridge does not spend much time with these complaints. Instead, he asserts that more recent criticisms of meritocracy are driven by those who want society to have equality of outcomes. While that may be true for some, is it true for all? Wooldridge lumps together criticisms of meritocracy from those on the left with those coming from populists. Again, is that really the case?

Wooldridge is correct in attributing much of society’s growth to the rise of the intelligent. What are the alternatives? That said, he does not put his intellectual talents towards considerations of the distribution of wealth today and the factors that have reshaped economic equity in the past few decades. Can we confidently claim that rise in the number of billionaires and the persistence of poverty is due to intelligence and talent? Or are there other factors at play? Considering the growing inequality and the extraordinary gains of those at the top one percent of the wealthy, I would suggest looking beyond meritocracy. Unfortunately, that thread is not part of Aristocracy of Talent. Criticisms of wealth begetting privilege and data about who has and who does not are not in Wooldridge’s oeuvre.

The absence is frustrating, for Wooldridge most certainly has the skills, tools and context to appreciate arguments against meritocratic assertions that are neither grounded in idealistic liberalism nor resentful populism. Many complaints about the meritocracy, as currently practiced, are not ideological, but rather are empirical. What does the data show about access to high quality education and key jobs? Were Wooldridge to challenge himself, perhaps spending time at a public university, he might appreciate alternative viewpoints. All one has to do is listen to the millions of students who seek a fair shake at getting an excellent education and the opportunity to be hired at a top company to understand that many do not see meritocratic possibilities. They perceive unfairness. This is not about scandals or cheating, either, points that Wooldridge raises. Instead, it is about the over-representation of the wealthy in what many had hoped would be real opportunities. Declines in social mobility are not imaginary, and they are very much felt by those whose who know that there chances are slim when it comes to getting a strong education and a well-paying job.

I very much agree with Wooldridge’s initial argument regarding the value of meritocracy, especially when it comes to realizing the definition he sets out. Moreover, I agree, too, that meritocratic thinking and practice has been essential in building the modern world. Where I differ from The Aristocracy of Talent is that I do not see the evidence that we are currently living those meritocratic ideals that Wooldridge so eloquently provided. His bar is high. Let us see if it is possible for us to live it.

The comprehensive Aristocracy of Talent is a provocative book, a work that engages and requires the thoughtful reader to question assumptions and assertions. And while I believe that the book misses the mark on several key arguments, it is and will remain an important work in the field. The question of how we see more of those meritocratic ideals in our lives is the necessary next question.

David Potash