You keep using that word

This essay originally appeared on STET.

In the 1950s, Michael Young—a graduate of the London School of Economics—did what many an earnest new Ph.D. did before him and sent his thesis out for publication. As is their custom, a variety of publishing houses rejected the work, some politely, others less so. One editor advised him to remake the text into a work of fiction, perhaps in an effort to give Young an assignment he could not possibly complete, and so avoid having to reject him outright—but Young was indefatigable. The resulting novel (which featured a “young and ravishing Lady Avocet as the heroine having a love affair with an elderly plumber”) was, again, rejected. Finally, Young imposed upon a friend and fellow publisher who, out of loyalty or pity, agreed to release the work. In 1958, The Rise of the Meritocracy hit the presses, introducing a word that would outlive its progenitor and prove to be both maddeningly popular and egregiously misunderstood.

The book takes the form of a first-person essay wherein the narrator, from his perch in the early 21st century, recites the history of the latter half of the 20th—our past, but then, Young’s potential future. The story is educational if drab. But while Young fails as a writer, the book does have its, shall we say, merits—not as the entertaining tale Young’s editor may have hoped for, but as a thorough and relentless thought experiment. The questions he approaches are these: If we were to create a meritocracy, how might we do it? And what would be the consequence?

Here’s how the narrator (named after the author) describes the events of his past: Beginning in 1963, and proceeding through the subsequent decades, the government and people of Britain methodically eliminate every institution and privilege at odds with a system of pure merit. First, inheritance is wiped out via newly instituted “death duties” which insure that no child begins their life with more wealth than any other. Next, universal education is ensured by paying students to stay in school; pay is set above industry rates to prevent poor students from straying into vocation too early. Teachers’ salaries are increased, commensurate with their fields: science teachers are paid as much as working scientists. To eliminate the inequity of wealthy parents sending their children to superior private schools, the government spends wildly on public schools, effectively putting all alternatives out of business. IQ tests are devised which can accurately predict a person’s future performance in the workforce. Promotion by seniority is eliminated in favor of repeated tests and competition among workers, such that it becomes natural for a young, eager worker to displace an older one whose skills have declined. All in the name of the social good, of course.

Finally, the new meritocracy (as represented by our narrator) reports on all they’ve achieved. No longer is a poor but bright person forced to suffer in the lower classes all her life, with no opportunity for advancement—depriving both herself and the society that could benefit from her work. Just as importantly, the dullard son of the rich is rightfully refused the rewards he would have otherwise received purely by accident of birth. The caste system has been undone and replaced with a class system based purely on merit. Quite the accomplishment! There is much gentlemanly patting of backs.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about the sequence of events that Young-the-narrator describes is just how little imagination it requires: any worthy member of the new (or old) elite could presumably lounge comfortably in his beach chair, margarita in hand, and—without working up too much of a sweat—count off the real-world institutions and privileges which are at odds with a system of merit. Unequal access to schools, hierarchies of needs, nepotism, and so on: all would be obvious targets for someone even half-heartedly considering the idea of meritocracy.

That none of Young’s proposed reforms have taken place should be enough to convince anyone that no real meritocracy exists. Those who claim it does must then be incapable of even that half-hearted thought experiment. (For that matter, anyone who asserts the meritocracy is real is almost certainly too thick to be a member of it.)

But words do not adhere to their creators’ intentions, and the word “meritocracy” has certainly not clung strictly to Young’s definition. In usage it has morphed from a flawed sociological experiment to a disingenuous defense: having failed to introduce the necessary changes to produce an actual meritocracy, the wealthy elite simply appropriated its trappings. The new meritocrat is simply the old aristocrat with a righteous smirk on his face.

What Young did accurately predict are the many ways in which this purported meritocracy might develop. Young’s list of methods for creating a meritocracy can easily be inverted into instructions for obstructing one. And there we may spot many facts of our current predicament: College admissions systems benefit those who can afford tutors and still find time for the ever-important extracurricular activities. Technical workers are judged on their contributions to open source software, naturally privileging those with the leisure (that is, wealth) to do so. Many of the most highly regarded jobs are available only to those with a lifetime of familiarity and access to the latest gadgets and tools. Says Annalee Newitz, quoted in Wired, “So the more that you want to participate in this network of wealth and entrepreneurialism, the more stuff you have to have to participate in it.”

The increasingly baroque requirements for success are balanced only by an insufferable disrespect for those left behind. Florida Representative Steve Southerland has sought to reduce benefits under SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps to a growing population of poor and hungry Americans. His proposed amendment would enforce work requirements on families that receive food stamps, under the presumption that the average recipient of food stamps is disinclined to work, and shouldn’t be given a handout that further discourages them. Never mind that, for many Americans, there are no jobs to be had; or that the few jobs available don’t pay enough to cover basic expenses.

Southerland is one of many “New Puritans” who presume that poverty is a consequence of laziness or ineptitude: that the poor are the way they are not because of systemic barriers which prevent their getting ahead, but because they lack the will to succeed. Assistance then must take the form of a sternly-worded instruction to get off their collective asses. No one can help them but themselves.

In an especially telling example of this philosophy, a young entrepreneur named Patrick McConlogue attempted to demonstrate that a little effort and some friendly encouragement was all it would take to rise from the “unjustly homeless” to the ranks of the elite. He armed a homeless man with a Chromebook and offered to teach him to code; then reacted with astonishment when the man was subjected to the unjust but routine behavior of the NYPD and hauled off to jail without cause.

McConlogue discovers what we imagine Southerland and his ilk already know: the real meritocracy isn’t one in which every person is judged equally, and any privileges or systemic disadvantages are swept out of the way. The meritocracy we have is one in which the illusion of merit is used to justify the neglect of those less fortunate. That meritocracy is deployed not in order to give everyone an equal opportunity to achieve, but to defend the preexisting structures of power.

In 2001, an increasingly disenchanted Young penned an essay for The Guardian, lamenting then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s slapdash use of the word “meritocracy.” He wrote:

The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.

They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.

Put another way: we do have a meritocracy, but it isn’t what we hoped.

At the end of his book, Young describes a nation in chaos. The IQ tests evolve to predict the intelligence of a couple’s children, heralding a kind of merit-based eugenics. Meanwhile, the lower classes turn out not to be the contented idiots the elite hoped they would be. They protest their status, and the indignities accorded to it. Many smartly point out that only a narrow concept of intelligence could be so easily ranked. A manifesto appears, arguing for a classless society in which people are evaluated “not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation, and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their sympathy and generosity.” It asks, “Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes superior to the lorry-driver with unusual skill at growing roses?”

The narrator tosses these concerns aside as quaint, but the reader knows better: the final words in the book come in the form of a footnote from the fictional publisher, noting that the narrator was unable to review the proofs on account of his untimely (and presumably violent) death. In slavish adherence to the principle of merit without any concern for the kind of society it created, the meritocracy sowed its own destruction.

The book’s message is clear: not only is a purely merit-based system unachievable, it is also undesirable. It’s a mechanism not for expanding opportunity but for cementing inequality. It believes that some humans are more valuable than others, and naively proposes that we can measure the difference. It rests on the foundation that those declared less equal will accept their inferiority without resentment. It is thus both unsustainable and morally bankrupt.

The Rise of the Meritocracy concludes with its fall. We should be so lucky.

Related books

Young’s 1958 treatise introduced the word “meritocracy” into the lexicon, something he himself would later regret.