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Meritocracy isn’t always a good thing

Civil-service exams in China

Adrian Wooldridge’s history of meritocracy, The Aristocracy of Talent, describes the repeated efforts in history to base societies on merit alone, “not bloodlines or bank balance”. In Ming-dynasty China, the rulers were so determined to ensure a meritocratic society that guards searched candidates before they sat exams (to prevent cheating) and professional scribes copied their scripts “to prevent the examiners recognising anyone’s handwriting”.

Wooldridge concedes that “such frenetically competitive systems” have their downsides, says Ferdinand Mount in the TLS. During the Middle Ages, monarchs and bishops “talent-spotted likely lads from modest backgrounds… and raised them to positions of great power”. Becket, Wolsey and Cromwell are prime examples, although the “sticky ends” to which the trio came could be seen as a rather drastic form of “performance review”.

The problem with meritocracy is that those who come out on top usually end up “feathering their own nests”, marking “their own homework” and hardening into “new aristocracies”. In the US today, elite colleges such as Harvard and Yale have more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60%. At Harvard, the average parental income is $450,000 a year. And new elites tend to be blind to their own hypocrisy. At Google’s annual camp to discuss climate change in 2019, the guests needed 114 private planes and a fleet of superyachts to get them there.

Wooldridge admits meritocrats can be “intolerably smug”, but he’s too forgiving of the likes of Cromwell and Napoleon. “Unless you want a ruthless rat race, equality of opportunity cannot rule on its own without going hand-in-hand with other sorts of equality, of access to justice, to healthcare and education, social arrangements designed to suit us all as we are, not merely as vehicles to speed the fortunate few to their proper destination.”

Read the full article here. The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge is out now (Allen Lane £25).