Kwame Appiah, with whom I was lucky enough to have a conversation in Jaipur, talking about the invention of (and the myth surrounding) the term ‘meritocracy’. It’s a fascinating consideration by one of the finest sociological minds of the 21st century, talking about Michael Young, one of the finest sociological minds of the 20th century. What thoughts do you have after reading this?
“The new ruling class was determined, the author wrote, by the formula ‘IQ + effort = merit’. Democracy would give way to rule by the cleverest – ‘not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.’ This is the first published appearance of the word ‘meritocracy’, and the book aimed to show what a society governed on this principle would look like.
Young’s vision was decidedly dystopian. As wealth increasingly reflects the innate distribution of natural talent, and the wealthy increasingly marry one another, society sorts into two main classes, in which everyone accepts that they have more or less what they deserve. He imagined a country in which ‘the eminent know that success is a just reward for their own capacity, their own efforts’, and in which the lower orders know that they have failed every chance they were given.
But one immediate difficulty was that, as Young’s narrator concedes, ‘nearly all parents are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring’. And when you have inequalities of income, one thing people can do with extra money is to pursue that goal. If the financial status of your parents helped determine your economic rewards, you would no longer be living by the formula that ‘IQ + effort = merit’.
The carapace of ‘merit’, Young argued, had only inoculated the winners from shame and reproach.
His deeper point was that we also need to apply ourselves to something we do not yet quite know how to do: to eradicate contempt for those who are disfavoured by the ethic of effortful competition.
‘It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit’, Young wrote. ‘It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others’.
But there is a further, final irony. A major reason he had accepted the title [of Baron Young of Dartington] (‘guardedly’, as he told his friends) was that he was having difficulties meeting the expense of travelling up to London from his home in the country. Members of the Lords not only got a daily allowance if they attended the house; they got a pass to travel free on the railways. Michael Young entered the aristocracy because he needed the money.”