The Fall of the Meritocracy Toby Young - zoon van Michael Young, auteur van The Rise of the Meritocracy
The left loathes the concept of IQ -- especially the claim that it helps to determine socio-economic status, rather than vice versa -- because of a near-religious attachment to the idea that man is a piece of clay that can be moulded into any shape by society
In 1958, my father, Michael Young, published a short book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, 18702023: 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 peoples 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 1870shailed as the beginning of the modern eraand 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 propheticor, rather, a warning.
Like George Orwells 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 Britains 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 wasnt 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 Michaels colleagues in the Labour Party (he ran the partys 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 its the last thing I do, Im 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 fathers 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 hasnt changedit is still used to describe the organising principle Michael identified in his bookit 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 meritocratsand this is true of most developed countries, not just Britainthey 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, Im 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 states 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 childrens exam results dont vary according to the neighbourhood theyve 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 childrens natural abilities.  This is partly because it doesnt sit well with their egalitarian instincts and partly because they reject the idea that intelligence has a genetic basis. But Im 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.
In other words, I think the answer is more meritocracy.
I approve of the principle for the same reason my father disapproved of it, because it helps to secure peoples consent to the inequalities that are the inevitable consequence of limited government. It does this by (a) allocating wealth and prestige in a way that appears to be fair; and (b) creating opportunities for those born on the wrong side of the tracks, so if you start with very little that doesnt mean youll end up with very little, or that your children will. If you think a free society is preferable to one dominated by the state, and the unequal distribution of wealth is an inevitable consequence of reining in state power, then you should embrace the principle of meritocracy for making limited government sustainable.
The challenge posed by behavioural genetics
However, theres a problem herelets call it the challenge posed by behavioural geneticswhich 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 its probable that in the next few years genetic research scientists will produce even more evidence that important aspects of peoples personalitiesincluding those that determine whether they succeed or failare 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 isnt much fairer than one in which its inheritedor, 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): Youve done nothing to deserve the talents youre born withtheyre distributed according to a natural lotteryso you dont deserve what flows from them.
Its 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. Indeed, this is the thinking behind government programs like Home Start, which aim to transform the life chances of disadvantaged young children by improving their environments. The fact that so much left-wing political thought rests on this assumption is the main reason the Left has reacted with such hostility to all attempts by geneticists and psychologists to link differences in intelligence to genetic differences.
Now, Rawlss argument isnt a knock-down objection to meritocracy. For one thing, its too deterministic. Great wealth doesnt simply flow from an abundance of natural gifts. A considerable amount of effort is also involved, and rewarding that effort does seem fair, even if some people are born with stronger willpower and a greater aptitude for hard work than others. Nevertheless, theres a gearing difficultybecause some people are more gifted than others, the same amount of effort will reap different rewards, depending on their natural endowments.
Theres another, more fundamental problem with Rawlss argument, which is that it conflates desert with entitlement. A person may not deserve his or her wealth in a meritocratic society, but that doesnt mean theyre not entitled to it. Thats a separate question that turns on how it was accumulated. As Robert Nozick points out in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), provided a persons acquisition of wealth hasnt involved violating anyone elses rights, theyre entitled to keep it and bequeath it to their children. The standard that Rawls judges meritocracy by is unrealistically high. Throughout history, peoples status has rarely, if ever, been deserved. Even supposing it was possible to reach agreement about how to measure desert, it would require an all-powerful state to ensure that wealth and prestige were distributed according to that metric and, as with end-state equality, wed end up paying too high a price in terms of liberty.
Putting aside the issue about whether a meritocratic society is any fairer than the one we live in at presentor fairer than an aristocratic societyits hard to argue that it isnt more efficient.
All things being equal, a countrys economy will grow faster, its public services will be run better, its politicians will make smarter decisions, diseases are more likely to be eradicated, if the people at the top possess the most cognitive ability.
The ossification problem
However, theres a practical difficulty with meritocracy that I think is harder to deal with than any of the philosophical points made by Rawls, and that is the low probability that meritocracy will produce a continual flow of opportunities over the long term. On the contrary, it may eventually lead to them drying up.
Suppose we do manage to create the meritocratic education system referred to above. It would produce a good deal of upward and downward social mobility to begin with, but over the long term, as the link between status and merit grows stronger, youd expect to see less and less inter-generational movement. Why? Because the children of the meritocratic elite would, in all likelihood, inherit the natural gifts enjoyed by their parents. In time, a meritocratic society would become as rigid and class-bound as a feudal society. Lets call this the ossification problem.
This is precisely what happens in the dystopian future described in my fathers book. The sociologist narrator writes:
"By 1990 or thereabouts, all adults with IQs of more than 125 belonged to the meritocracy. A high proportion of the children with IQs over 125 were the children of these same adults. 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 vital transformation which has taken more than two centuries to accomplish is almost complete.
Most people think of this as a wholly theoretical danger that wont arise until some distant point in the future, if then.
The conventional wisdom among social commentators in Britain and America is that their societies cant possibly be meritocratic because of the low levels of social mobility. But a lack of movement between classes is only evidence of this if you assume that natural abilities are distributed more or less randomly across society. What if thats not true? It could be that two things have been happening in the advanced societies of the West that have been obscured by the intense focus among policy-makers on the impact of environmental factors on childrens life chances. First, our societies could be more meritocratic than theyre generally given credit for; and, second, the vital transformation described by my father, whereby the meritocratic elite is becoming a hereditary elite, could already be under way.
Lets examine the two parts of this hypothesis in turn.
How high is the correlation between IQ and socio-economic status?
The view of most liberals is that the correlation between IQ and socio-economic status in the West isnt very high. Once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians), there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes, writes the New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (2011). Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (1995), thinks that IQ accounts for no more than between 4 and 10 per cent of career success. However, this is at odds with the scientific research. As the social scientist Tarmo Strenze says in the introduction to his 2006 meta-analysis of longitudinal studies on the topic, summing up decades of research:
Although it is sometimes claimed in popular press and textbooks that intelligence has no relationship to important real-life outcomes, the scientific research on the topic leaves little doubt that people with higher scores on IQ tests are better educated, hold more prestigious occupations, and earn higher incomes than people with lower scores.
In The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray arguepretty convincinglythat the correlation between intelligence and socio-economic status has become stronger in America since the 1950s as access to higher education has become more competitive and the economy has become more knowledge-based, particularly at each end of the IQ distribution curve. They dont claim that a persons IQ is the sole determinant of whether they succeed or fail, only that its an increasingly important factor. Using a variety of evidence, they show that cognitive ability is a better predictor of achievement in school and occupational status than the standard environmental factors singled out by liberal policy-makers.
At the bottom of American society, according to Herrnstein and Murray, is a class of people they describe as very dull. Members of this group possess IQs of 80 or below, often struggle to complete high school, and are either unemployed or working in low-paying jobs. They analyse the data thrown up by the National Longitudinal Survey of Labour Market Experience of Youth (NLSY), a study of 12,686 people, 94 per cent of whom were given an intelligence test, and conclude that IQ is a better predictor of low socio-economic statusand the associated problems of poverty, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, criminality and drug abusethan any competing variable, including parental socio-economic status. According to their analysis, someone with an IQ of 130 has a less than 2 per cent chance of living in poverty, whereas someone with an IQ of 70 has a 26 per cent chance.
At the pinnacle of American society, by contrast, there is a cognitive elite. Typically, members of this group possess IQs of 125 and above, have postgraduate degrees from good universities and belong to a handful of high-IQ professions, such as accountants, lawyers, architects, chemists, college teachers, dentists, doctors, engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, natural scientists, social scientists and senior business executives. According to Herrnstein and Murray:
Even as recently as midcentury, America was still a society in which most bright people were scattered throughout the wide range of jobs. As the century draws to a close, a very high proportion of that same group is now concentrated within a few occupations that are highly screened for IQ.
A British sociologist called Peter Saunderswho, like the fictional sociologist in my fathers book, is a celebrant of meritocracyechoes many of the findings of The Bell Curve. Saunders argues that in Britain cognitive ability is over twice as important as class origins in influencing class destinations. He bases this, in part, on an analysis of a 1972 study of social mobility carried out by the sociologist John Goldthorpe and his colleagues at Nuffield College, Oxford, which involved a nationally representative sample of 10,000 men.
The fact that theres a strong correlation between the socio-economic status of fathers and sons within this cohort doesnt mean Britain is un-meritocratic, according to Saunders. He shows that if you factor in the mens IQs, the level of mobility is almost exactly what youd expect in a perfectly meritocratic society. In Social Mobility Myths (2010), he writes:
The social mobility histories of the 10,000 men interviewed for Goldthorpes study in 1972 are almost precisely what we would have expected to find had they and their fathers been recruited to their class positions purely on the basis of their intelligence.
Since Herrnstein and Murray published The Bell Curve, more evidence has emerged that theres a strong correlation between IQ and socio-economic status in America. Tino Sanandaji, a research fellow at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics, has drilled down into a dataset tracking a representative sample of the US population and discovered that those with IQs above 120 typically earn twice as much as those with average IQs. Christopher F. Chabris, a professor of psychology at Union College, estimates that a random person with above-average intelligence has a two-thirds chance of earning an above-average income, while a random person of below average intelligence has only a one third chance.
Many people will recoil from this hypothesis because theyll read it as a justification of inequalitya form of social Darwinism.
After all, if our society is on the way to becoming a fully-fledged meritocracy, doesnt that mean the resulting distribution of wealth and power is justified? The answer is: not when you factor in the heritability of the traits that are linked with socio-economic status. As Rawls points out, no one deserves their natural abilitiesand, for that reason, the closer the link between IQ and socio-economic status, the less defensible inequality becomes. I happen to think there are other, pragmatic justifications of inequalitynamely, the terrible human cost of trying to bring about end-state equalitybut thats not contingent on this particular hypothesis or the more general claim that many of the differences in peoples personalities are linked to genetic differences. Even if all men were tabulae rasae and they all started out on a level playing field, they would still end up in different places, if only because some would be luckier than others. Any attempt to correct that would inevitably involve unacceptable levels of state coercion.
The truth is, theres nothing inherently right-wingor anti-egalitarianabout the conclusions of Herrnstein, Murray, Saunders and others. If anything, the claim that theres now a strong link between IQ and status in the advanced societies of the West, seen against the background of behavioural genetics, is an argument for more redistributive taxation, not less.
Has the meritocratic elite become a hereditary elite?
What about the second part of the hypothesisthat the principles of meritocracy and heredity are coming together? Even if you accept that the developed world is more meritocratic than its generally given credit for, it doesnt follow that the top of today are breeding the top of tomorrow, to use my fathers phrase. Is there any evidence that the children of todays cognitive elite will become the cognitive elite of tomorrow? Yes, according to Herrnstein and Murray.
Herrnstein first put forward this ideathat the cognitive elite was becoming a hereditary elitein a 1971 essay for the Atlantic called IQ, later expanded into a book called IQ in the Meritocracy (1973). His argument can be summed up in a syllogism: If differences in mental abilities are inherited, and if success requires those abilities, and if earnings and prestige depend on success, then social standing will be based to some extent on inherited differences among people:
"Greater wealth, health, freedom, fairness, and educational opportunity are not going to give us the egalitarian society of our philosophical heritage. It will instead give us a society sharply graduated, with ever greater innate separation between the top and the bottom, and ever more uniformity within families as far as inherited abilities are concerned. Naturally, we find this vista appalling, for we have been raised to think of social equality as our goal. The vista reminds us of the world we had hoped to leave behindaristocracies, privileged classes, unfair advantages and disadvantages of birth
By removing arbitrary barriers between classes, society has encouraged the creation of biological barriers. [My emphasis.]"
Herrnstein and Murray make the same point in The Bell Curve when discussing falling social mobility:
Most people at present are stuck near where their parents were on the income distribution in part because IQ, which has become a major predictor of income, passes on sufficiently from one generation to the next to constrain economic mobility.
And Murray returns to this theme in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 19602010 (2012). The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools, he writes, is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children.
By way of evidence, he points out that 87 per cent of college-bound seniors who scored above 700 in their SATs in 2010 had at least one parent with a college degree, with 56 per cent of them having a parent with a graduate degree. He concludes: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.
Why should this be happening, given that IQ, like many other heritable characteristics such as height, regresses to the mean? Herrnstein and Murray think a large part of the explanation is the increasing tendency of people to select their partners according to similar levels of intelligence, thanks to assortative mating or homogamy. This is a well-documented phenomenon whereby humans are more likely to mate with those who have the same characteristics as them, particularly IQ.
Up until the 1950s, the impact of assortative mating on the stratification of society was kept in check by the limited opportunities for highly intelligent men and women to meet each other. However, as the best universities have become more and more selective, and as women have begun to be admitted in equal numbers, these opportunities have increased. If male and female members of the cognitive elite dont pair up in college, they pair up afterwards in the high-paying firms and rarefied social environments that they gravitate towards. The result is that those on the far right-hand side of the IQ distribution curve have become much more likely to mate with each other and produce highly intelligent children. Admittedly, not quite as intelligent as their parents, on average, but intelligent enough to make them more likely to gain admittance to this exclusive club than the children of parents who arent members of the cognitive elite. Regression to the mean still takes place, but it happens more slowly because both parents are highly intelligentslowly enough to create an ossification problem.
Herrnstein and Murray confine their discussion to America, but theres reason to think the same thing is happening in the UK. David Willetts, the former Conservative universities minister, believes the rise in assortative mating among university graduates helps explain the apparent fall in inter-generational mobility in Britain since the mid-twentieth century. As he puts it in The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Childrens Futureand Why They Should Give It Back (2010):
If advantage marries advantage then we must not be surprised if social mobility suffers
increasing equality between the sexes has meant increasing inequality between social classes. Feminism has trumped egalitarianism.
Can meritocracy survive?
Now, dont misunderstand me. However meritocratic most liberal-democracies are, theyre far from being fully-fledged meritocracies. The evidence suggests that at present the correlation between IQ and educational outcomes is weaker for children from disadvantaged backgrounds than for their peers, with environmental factors playing a bigger part. Consequently, if schools become more meritocratic, disadvantaged children with above-average IQs will benefitand there are still plenty of them who are underachieving at present. Theres also no reason to think social mobility will grind to a halt if the correlation between IQ and socio-economic status ever approaches 100 per cent, even allowing for assortative mating. In Coming Apart, Charles Murray estimates that there will always be 14 per cent of children in the top 5 per cent of the IQ distribution curve who are the offspring of parents with below-average IQs. Admittedly, thats not much when you consider that the remaining 86 per cent will have parents with above-average IQs, but its still sufficient to prevent complete ossificationand many more people on the left-hand side of the curve will produce children with IQs that place them on the right-hand side, even if theyre not in the top 5 per cent. So there would still be some upward social mobility in my fathers meritocratic dystopia, albeit not a great deal of bottom-to-top.
The problem is, it might not be enough. In a post-script to The Rise of the Meritocracy, we learn that the sociologist narrator has been killed in a riot at Peterloo in 2034. In the end, the new social order he describes isnt sustainable because theres too little mobility in a mature meritocracy. Those at the bottom of the pyramid dont simply resent having to eke out a living in menial, low-paying jobs, while the elite live in luxury; they resent being told that they deserve their inferior status. They also dislike the fact that their children have very little chance of rising to the top. The upshot is that they join forces with a dissident element in the ruling class and revolt, overthrowing the meritocratic elite in a bloody coup.
Could this happen in the advanced societies of the West? Is it fanciful to detect traces of this beginning to happen already in the Occupy movements, with their rhetoric against the one per cent and the popularity of insurgent, left-wing political parties in Greece and Spain? Lets assume for the sake of argument that it could and it would lead to all the unspeakable horrors that most other egalitarian revolutions have resulted in. What can we do to prevent it? How can this shortcoming of meritocratic societies be corrected without straying too far from the principle of limited government?
One solution is a guaranteed basic income.
This was an idea first floated at the beginning of the sixteenth century which is currently gaining some traction in various forms on the Left and Right of American politics. It has the merit of addressing the problem posed by the falling value of unskilled labour, as well as the disappearance of blue-collar jobs caused by increasing mechanisation, not to mention the replacement of some white-collar workers by intelligent machines, which the soothsayers of Silicon Valley tell us is imminent. True, it would probably involve increasing taxes for higher-rate taxpayers, and thats unlikely to appeal to conservative-minded voters, but perhaps some of them might become more relaxed about redistributive taxation once they realise how closely a persons success is linked to the hand theyre dealt at birth that theyve done nothing to deserve.
It also has the virtue of replacing the patchwork quilt of means-tested government welfare programs, thereby reducing bureaucracy. A basic income would combine higher taxes with less government, a compromise that some conservatives might be prepared to make. A modified version of it, guaranteeing a basic income to those unable to support themselves, was endorsed by Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973):
So long as such a uniform minimum income is provided outside the market to all those who, for any reason, are unable to earn in the market an adequate maintenance, this need not lead to a restriction of freedom, or conflict with the Rule of Law.
Progressive eugenics ???