Meritocracy is a word used to describe a social system in which those who hold leadership positions in government, business, and social, cultural and educational institutions do so deservedly because they have risen by ability and shown potential for achievement. The word is generally seen as a favorable one by people across the political spectrum in advanced countries. Developing nations too are often urged to adopt more meritocratic systems of promotion as opposed to reliance on family connections, ‘clientelist’ networks, or corrupt cronyism. One might say that meritocracy has conquered the world.
But is this general approval deserved? The original usage of the word was a hostile one. It was coined in the 1958 satirical novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, by Michael Young, a distinguished British social scientist whose achievements included writing the 1945 Labour party election manifesto and establishing the UK Social Science Research Council.
Lord Young, as he later became, rooted this new social class in the definition of merit as Ability + Effort = Merit. A meritocrat was someone who might come from any social background but whose innate ability had been detected through IQ tests and who had then been given a fast-track education to the top of whatever profession seemed to suit him. In the logic of meritocracy his success was seen as just, at least by him and his fellow-meritocrats.
What, however, of those whose lesser abilities consigned them to lower positions and a less prosperous life? Writing from the perspective of 2033, Young’s fictional narrator not only describes how a fully-fledged meritocracy had been built over the previous seventy years but also reported worrying signs that it was increasingly resisted from below by those shunted into lower occupations. He mentions riots, and a footnote reveals that he was killed in the disturbances of 2033.
Not all of Young’s predictions have come to pass—his book is a satire, after all, and a very entertaining one—but some now look prescient. We are aware, for instance, of “cognitive elites” in modern societies who live lives increasingly separate from those of other citizens. The rise of populist parties in peaceful electoral rebellions against European and (in the UK, Remainer) technocratic elites has faint echoes of the closing pages of the book. Meritocracy is a topic that suddenly seems very topical.