The Rise of the Meritocracy is told from the perspective of a pro-meritocracy sociologist, writing in 2033 in an attempt to explain the social unrest that had recently broken out. Hard scientists and engineers are at the apex of the U.K. meritocracy of the 2030s, but sociologists and psychologists seem to have done pretty well for themselves too. The psychologists design the ever-more-accurate intelligence tests used to separate the elite from the rest; the sociologists help design the strange society that results.Fox has posted about the problems presented by meritocracy several times – as, come to think of it, I have – but without offering any solutions. We can probably all agree that it is bad to call people who don't test into the meritocracy "morons" and treat them as second class citizens. But as I keep asking, what is the alternative to meritocracy? What should we do instead of giving the best jobs to the smartest and hardest working people? Since I don't see any alternative to this, and because I don't want to live in Young's dystopia, my goal is to flatten the pyramid, using high taxes on the rich and so on to make job success less important. But that is a hard sell in a world that keeps electing conservatives.
In the first half of the book the narrator describes the rise of the new elite as various institutions enabling status and wealth to be handed down from parent to child are dismantled and replaced by meritocratic selection. This was a process already well underway in the U.K. and U.S. when Young wrote the book.
The SAT college admissions test in the U.S., for example, rose to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s as a way for top colleges to select the smartest high schoolers from around the country instead of drawing so heavily from elite East Coast prep schools. Who could be against that? A lot of the subsequent changes that Young’s narrator describes -- big increases in teacher salaries, the eclipse of elite private schools such as Eton, the declining importance of seniority in the workplace -- sound like they might be progress too.
It’s when Young gets into “Part Two: Decline of the Lower Classes,” that the trouble with meritocracy becomes more apparent. Those who don’t do well on the aptitude tests are treated increasingly as second-class citizens, unworthy of respect or political voice (his narrator charmingly refers to them as “morons”). And those at the top become increasingly smug about it. Writes Young's narrator:
Today the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts and for their own undeniable achievement. They deserve to belong to a superior class.
As a result, the class system under meritocracy ends up becoming more rigid and harsh on the lower classes than what went before. Eventually, the social peace breaks down. Resentful “morons” begin to cause trouble, as do smart parents of not-so-smart children and smart women frustrated with being put on the mommy track. The book ends with the uprising still in progress.
Friday, November 18, 2016
The word "meritocracy" is a fairly recent invention. It comes from The Rise of the Meritocracy, a 1958 novel by British sociologist and Labour politician Michael Young, which is generally described as a dystopian satire. Justin Fox summarizes: