The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by Adrian Wooldridge

How does the concept "meritocracy" reconcile the two great tensions at the heart of modernity—and what must we do to revalue it in our societies? Banner image: Shutterstock/lightpoet

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This extract is from The Artistocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, by Adrian Wooldridge (published in the United Kingdom by Allen Lane, June 2021), and draws from the introduction and conclusion of the book. It is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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A Revolutionary Idea 

It is now a commonplace that the ideas which have shaped and sustained Western societies for the past 250 years or more are faltering. Democracy is in retreat. Liberalism is struggling. Capitalism has lost its lustre. But there is one idea that still commands widespread enthusiasm: that an individual’s position in society should depend on his or her combination of ability and effort. Meritocracy, a word invented as recently as 1958 by the British sociologist Michael Young, is the closest thing we have today to a universal ideology.

The definition of the word gives us a sense of why meritocracy is so popular. A meritocratic society combines four qualities which are each in themselves admirable. First, it prides itself on the extent to which people can get ahead in life on the basis of their natural talents. Second, it tries to secure equality of opportunity by providing education for all. Third, it forbids discrimination on the basis of race and sex and other irrelevant characteristics. Fourth, it awards jobs through open competition rather than patronage and nepotism. Social mobility and meritocracy are the strawberries and cream of modern political thinking, and politicians can always earn applause by denouncing unearned privilege. Meritocracy’s success in crossing boundaries – ideological and cultural, geographical and political – is striking. […]

Down with meritocracy!

Even at the best of times, ruling ideologies provoke sharp criticisms. In volatile and dyspeptic times, they can quickly become an object of hatred. The meritocratic idea is coming under fire from a formidable range of critics who roundly denounce our ruling ideology as ‘an illusion’, a ‘trap’, a ‘tyranny’ and an instrument of white oppression. This criticism has yet to shift popular opinion, which remains stubbornly loyal to the meritocratic idea. But it is already gaining traction not just in the ivory tower but also in influential public-policy circles. The criticism comes from a wide range of different sources – from elite academics as well as angry populists. It feeds on some of our most profound anxieties about everything from racial injustice to the psychological strains of hyper-competition. […]

Critical race theorists are fiercely hostile to the meritocratic idea, which they regard, at best, as a way of justifying social inequality as natural inequality and, at worst, as an offshoot of eugenic theory. […]

Conservative populists may be on the opposite side of the ideological divide from critical race theorists, but they share their fierce hostility to meritocracy. Populists delight in criticizing meritocrats for being ‘smug’, ‘self-righteous’ and ‘out of touch’. They also have more substantial objections. They complain that the so-called cognitive elite has done a dismal job of running the world: the financial crisis was driven by highly qualified ‘quants’ who built a mathematical house of cards, while the Iraq debacle was masterminded by neo-conservative intellectuals who promised that the entire adventure would be a ‘cake walk’. […]

Some of the sharpest critics of meritocracy come from the very heart of the meritocratic system itself. Daniel Markovits is the Guido Calabresi Professor of Law at Yale Law School, an institution that admits only 1 per cent of applicants and then offers them a golden ticket into the new American elite. In The Meritocracy Trap (2019) this self-acknowledged uber-meritocrat argues that ‘merit is nothing more than a sham’. Meritocracy is now the opposite of what it was intended to be, he argues: a way of transmitting inherited privilege from one generation to another through the mechanism of elite education. Members of the elite spend millions of dollars purchasing educational advantage for their children, sometimes by moving to the right school districts, sometimes by sending their children to the right private schools, but always by providing them with a rich diet of extracurricular activities. At the same time, poorer children are trapped at the bottom of the ladder, weighed down from the get-go by poor infant care, poor schools and general lack of opportunity. This palace of illusions is also a factory of misery. The successes of the system are crushed by overwork: documents to read late into the night; emails to answer at all hours; an ever-buzzing smartphone.

Read more on the Forum Network: "The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All" by Martin Sandbu, European Economics Commentator, The Financial Times

Read more on the Forum Network: "The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All" by Martin Sandbu, European Economics Commentator, The Financial TimesRead more on the Forum Network: "The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All" by Martin Sandbu, European Economics Commentator, The Financial Times

There is truth in all these complaints. The critics are right that the theory of meritocracy can often be a disguise for class privilege. […] Critical race theorists are right that black people are often the worst affected by the uncritical assumption that everybody deserves what they get. The critics are right that the distinction between winning and losing can be much too sharp. […] They are also right that meritocracy is an unbending taskmaster. […]

We should nevertheless be cautious about rejecting an idea that is so central to modernity. Critiques of liberalism or democracy, even if they are partially justified, have led us to some dark places. […] At the very least, a few questions are in order. What exactly is the problem with the meritocratic idea? Is it that it supports the status quo (the left-wing criticism)? Or is it that it keeps everybody in a state of constant anxiety (the communitarian criticism)? Are meritocracy’s problems inherent in the idea itself? Or are they the product of a failure to implement meritocracy vigorously enough? […] And is there a better system for organizing the world?

The relevant question is surely not whether meritocracy has faults. It is whether it has fewer faults than alternative systems. Meritocracy’s advocates don’t argue that it’s perfect. They argue that it does a better job than the alternatives of reconciling various goods that are inevitably in tension with each other – for example, social justice and economic efficiency and individual aspiration and limited opportunities. […]

Renewing Meritocracy

The meritocratic idea made the modern world, sweeping aside race and sex-based barriers to competition, building ladders of opportunity from the bottom of society to the top, and electrifying sluggish institutions with intelligence and energy. Discrimination on the basis of race and sex is now illegal across the advanced world. Women take up more than half of the places in most Western (and in many emerging country) universities. Kamala Harris, a woman of Jamaican and Indian heritage, is vice-president of the United States, and may well follow Barack Obama to the Oval Office. None of that would have been possible without the meritocratic idea.

Meritocracy succeeds because it does a better job than the alternatives of reconciling the two great tensions at the heart of modernity: between efficiency and fairness on the one hand, and between moral equality and social differentiation on the other. It screens job applicants for competence. Vaccines save our lives rather than poisoning us because highly trained scientists develop them and other highly trained scientists test and regulate them. But, at the same time, meritocracy gives everybody a chance to put their name into the sorting hat.

The golden ticket

The comfortable idea that there is a tight link between liberal democracy and prosperity has been damaged, if not discredited, by the rise of China and other authoritarian modernizers. Yet a glance around the world suggests that meritocracy is a golden ticket to prosperity. Singapore, perhaps the world’s poster child of meritocracy, has transformed itself from an underdeveloped swamp into one of the world’s most prosperous countries, with a higher standard of living and a longer life expectancy than its old colonial master. The Scandinavian countries retain their positions at the top of international league tables of prosperity and productivity in large part because they are committed to education, good government and, beneath their communitarian veneer, competition. By contrast, countries that have resisted meritocracy have either stagnated or hit their growth limits. […]

Read the OECD Economic Outlook 2021—providing the major global economic trends and prospects for the next two years

A raft of cross-country surveys reinforces this impression. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has repeatedly demonstrated that high social mobility promotes economic growth. Both the World Bank and Transparency International show that corruption is inimical to long-term prosperity. Nicholas Bloom, of Stanford University, and John Van Reenen, of the London School of Economics, have collected data on management practices in over 11,000 firms in 34 countries to produce a veritable Domesday Book of management. They demonstrate that countries that favour recruiting professional managers through open competition have higher growth rates than those that favour recruiting amateur managers through personal connections. […]

Taking talents seriously

The most powerful argument for meritocracy, however, is moral rather than economic. What distinguishes human beings from mere lumps of flesh and blood is the fact that we possess talents and abilities that can be honed through hard work and commitment. It’s certainly true that we are all of equal moral sub specie aeternitatis and that we possess a bundle of rights (to a vote or free speech) not because we are clever or useful but because we are human. On the other hand, people are also masters of their own fates and captains of their own souls. They fashion themselves by struggling against ‘the fell clutch of circumstance’ and the ‘bludgeonings of chance’. Treating people as mere atoms of equality or victims of circumstances infantilizes them, and perhaps dehumanizes them.

Paradoxically, treating people as moral equals also entails treating them as moral agents, who, by exercising their moral agency, can become socially unequal. Meritocracy is the ideal way of making sense of this paradox. By encouraging people to discover and develop their talents, it encourages them to discover and develop what makes them human. By rewarding people on the basis of those talents, it treats them with the respect they deserve, as self-governing individuals who are capable of dreaming their dreams and willing their fates while also enriching society as a whole.

Find out more about The Artistocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, by Adrian Wooldridge (published in the United Kingdom by Allen Lane, June 2021)

Find out more about The Artistocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, by Adrian Wooldridge (published in the UK by Allen Lane, June 2021)

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Tackling Covid-19  New societal contract  Integrity

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Adrian Wooldridge

Political editor & Bagehot columnist, The Economist

Adrian Wooldridge is The Economist‘s political editor and writes the Bagehot column; an analysis of British life and politics, in the tradition of Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist from 1861-77. Adrian also used to write the Schumpeter column on business, finance and management. He was previously based in Washington, DC, as the Washington bureau chief where he also wrote the Lexington column. Prior to his role in Washington, he has been The Economist‘s West Coast correspondent, management correspondent and Britain correspondent. He is  the co-author of “The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea”, “A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalisation”, “Witch Doctors”, a critical examination of management theory, and “The Right Nation”, a study of conservatism in America.  His most recent books are “The Great Disruption: How Business Is Coping With Turbulent Times (2015) and “Masters of Management: How the Business Gurus and their Ideas have Changed the World—for Better and for Worse” (2011).


Go to the profile of André F VIEIRA
6 months ago

Great piece from Wooldridge, thanks for showing the different facets of Talent.
Talent can change during the lifetime of an individual - sometimes it appears later in life, sometimes it decreases, sometimes it increases.