The Rise of the Meritocracy
The Rise of the Meritocracy is a book by British sociologist and politician Michael Dunlop Young which was first published in 1958. It is written as an essay from 2033 and describes a dystopian society in a future United Kingdom in which intelligence and merit have become the central tenet of society, replacing previous divisions of social class and creating a society stratified between a merited power-holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited.
- At the beginning of my special period, 1914, the upper classes had their fair share of geniuses and morons, so did the workers; or, I should say, since a few brilliant and fortunate working men always climbed up to the top despite having been subordinate in society, the inferior classes contained almost as high a proportion of superior people as the upper classes themselves. Intelligence was distributed more or less at random.
- Every selection of one is a rejection of the many.
Chapter 1 – Clash of Social Forces
- Today we frankly recognize that democracy can be no more than aspiration, and have rule not so much by the people, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.
- Indeed, the more riches a father bequeathed, the more often his children did nothing apart from the labour of spending their money.
- Even if they had no property, parents wanted their children to find, if not the same job, then a slightly better job than themselves.
- If all went to orphanages, all would have equal opportunity, true, but at the cost of making everyone equally unhappy.
- As members of a particular family, they want their children to have every privilege. But at the same time they are opposed to privilege for anyone else’s children. They desire equal opportunity for everyone else’s children, extra for their own.
- The internal class system was eventually changed by the international class system with which Englishmen were likewise obsessed – for ever discussing whether their country was a first-class power, or (after some setback) second-class, third-class, or no class at all. At the beginning of the last century the fear was of Germany; in the middle years, of American and, even more, of Russian competition; at the end, of the Chinese.
Chapter 2 – Threat of Comprehensive Schools
- Till the middle of the century practical socialists identified equality with advancement for merit. The trouble started when the left wing emphasized a different interpretation of equality, and, ignoring differences in human ability, urged that everyone, those with talent as well as those without, should attend the same schools and receive the same basic education.
- The idealists were backed by the discontented, people who had suffered from the judgement of educational selection, and were just intelligent enough to be able to focus their resentment on some limited grievance, the streaming of infant schools, the eleven plus exam, the smaller classes in grammar schools, or whatever it might happen to be. They were backed by parents whose children were allotted, in all fairness to everyone’s eyes except their own, to secondary modern schools; and frustrated adults who blamed their own schooling for later disappointments, and wanted to deprive others too of the chances which they felt themselves had missed.
Chapter 3 – Origins of Modern Education
- The egalitarian doctrine that any man can be trained to substitute for any other was so deeply rooted that our ancestors only slowly came to appreciate the full significance of the one simple fact: that all professions are competing with each other for a limited supply of intelligence.
- As Sir Hartley Shawcross said in 1956 – ‘I do not know of a single member of the Labour Party, who can afford to do so, who does not send his children to a public school, often at great sacrifice – not for snobbish reasons or to perpetuate class distinction, but to ensure his children get the best’.
- The upper classes, for fear of the duties, very largely stopped passing money from one generation to another upon death. The established practice was for grandparents, while still alive, to transfer property not so much to their children as to their grandchildren for the purchase of a privileged education.
- The private schools, less at home in the world of industry, technology, and science, gave too much attention to Athens and too little to the atom.
- As men became more like machines, machines became more like men, and when machines were built to mimic people, the ventriloquist at last understood himself.
Chapter 4 – From Seniority to Merit
- Our grandfathers did not fully realize that promotion of adults on merit, with all that it implied for industrial organization, was as necessary as promotion of children on merit.
Chapter 5 – Status of the Worker
- The upper-class man had to be insensitive indeed not to have noticed, at some time in his life, that a private in his regiment, a butler or ‘charlady’ in his home, a driver of taxi or bus, or the humble workman with the lined face and sharp eyes in the railway carriage or country club – not to have noticed that amongst such people was intelligence, wit, and wisdom at least equal to his own, not to have noticed that every village had its Jude the Obscure.
- Hence one of our characteristic modern problems: some members of the meritocracy, as most moderate reformers would admit, have become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern, and so tactless that even people of low calibre have been quite unnecessarily offended.
- People of low intelligence have sterling qualities: they go to work, they are conscientious, they are dutiful to their families. But they are unambitious, innocent, and incapable of grasping clearly enough the grand design of modern society to offer any effective protest.
- The flower of that experiment of the 1940s was the Pioneer Corps. When this indispensable body of hewers and drawers was confined to men with IQs below the line required to get them into the Intelligence Corps, the rise in efficiency was spectacular. The morale of these dull-witted men was better. They were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with. They were amongst equals – they had more equal opportunities since they had more limited ones – and they were happier, had fewer mental breakdowns, and were harder working. The Army had learnt the lesson of the schools: that people can be taught more easily, and get on better, when they are classed with people of more or less equal intelligence, or lack of it.
- The success of open competition in government employment established the principle that the most responsible posts should be filled by the most able people; the Pioneers that the least responsible jobs should be filled by the least able people. In other words, a society in which power and responsibility were as much proportioned to merit as education.
- What is the purpose of abolishing inequalities in nurture except to reveal and make more pronounced the inescapable inequalities of Nature?
Chapter 6 – Fall of the Labour Movement
- Parents had to be educated to understand it was a sin to seek high positions for stupid children – if they did so, the advantage of the community would be sacrificed to the selfish interests of one small family amongst many.
- The great dilemma of industrial society is that ambition is aroused, in lesser measure but still aroused, in the minds of stupid children and their parents as well as in the minds of the intelligent. This is inevitable since no one has been able to foresee with complete accuracy where ability is going to sprout. Everyone has to be ambitious so that no one with talents of a high order shall fail to make use of them. When ambition is crossed with stupidity it may do nothing besides foster frustration.
- One of the symptoms of rampant ambition was the upgrading by name alone of occupations which could not be upgraded in any other way. We no longer have to be so hypocritical. We can recognize inferiority and dare to label it so. But in those days rat-catchers were called ‘rodent officers’, sanitary inspectors ‘public health inspectors’, and lavatory cleaners ‘amenities attendants’.
Chapter 7 – Rich and Poor
- When the basic injustice was remedied, and the intelligent from every class were given their full opportunities, those who would have been enemies of the established order become its strongest defenders.
Chapter 8 – Crisis
- ‘Intelligence’ is as much qualification for power in the modern state as ‘breeding’ was in the old.
- The classless society would also be the tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man.
- The top of today are breeding the top of tomorrow to a greater extent than at any time in the past. The elite is on the way to becoming hereditary; the principles of heredity and merit are coming together.
- The flaw is that intelligent people tend, on the whole, to have less intelligent children than themselves; the tendency is for there to be a continuous regression towards the mean – stupid people bearing slightly more clever children as surely as clever people have slightly less