Status anxiety

Meritocracy isn’t fair

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

I’ve just made a programme for Radio 4 about the populist revolts that swept Britain and America last year. Were they predicted in a book written by my father, Michael Young, almost 60 years ago? I’m thinking of The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire that imagines a 21st-century Britain governed by a highly educated technocratic elite. Eventually, the intellectual and moral hubris of these Masters of the Universe is too much for ordinary people and they’re overthrown in a bloody revolution in 2034.

It often surprises people to learn that my father’s critique of meritocracy was underpinned by his belief that human differences are rooted in genetics, a view many on the left associate with neo-liberal economics and the libertarian right. How could the man who wrote the 1945 Labour manifesto and played an important part in creating the welfare state be a hereditarian? Surely the creed of socialism depends on believing that all men are born with the same innate capacities, and the reason some succeed and others fail is because of environmental differences?


Before trying to solve this puzzle, let me summarise the reason Michael thought meritocracy was doomed to fail. The problem, according to him, is that the abilities rewarded in a meritocratic society, namely, exceptional intelligence and drive, are natural gifts rather than learned characteristics. So you get plenty of social mobility when the principle first takes hold but, as a meritocratic society matures, this begins to tail off because the offspring of those at the top are more likely to have these traits than the children of those at the bottom. Of course there are exceptions. Genetic variation means highly able children are born to parents of lower intelligence and vice-versa. But the children of the cognitive elite still have the dice loaded in their favour, and that remains true even if you eliminate environmental advantages. Over time, my father believed, the fluidity and dynamism unleashed by meritocracy would be replaced by a rigid caste system underpinned by biology, leading to widespread discontent.

Was that the cause of the electoral revolts of last year? The conventional wisdom is that it can’t possibly have been, because Britain and America aren’t genuine meritocracies. However, when you ask people why they think that, they automatically point to low levels of social mobility, and, by itself, that doesn’t disprove my father’s hypothesis. On the contrary, it could be evidence that both countries are on their way to becoming mature meritocracies. You have to look at other things, such as the extent to which IQ predicts socioeconomic status, and whether it is indeed genetically based. I interviewed several leading authorities on these subjects for my radio programme, including Peter Saunders, a former sociology professor at Sussex University, and Professor Robert Plomin, a behavioural geneticist at King’s College, London. It turns out my father may have been on to something, although I should say that neither Saunders nor Plomin share his pessimism about meritocracy degenerating into a genetically based class system. Of all the people I interviewed, only Charles Murray, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, endorses this prognosis.

Murray himself has been the target of left-wing student protests ever since he co-authored The Bell Curve in 1994, a book that documented the emergence of America’s meritocratic ruling class and warned of the potentially harmful consequences of segregating society according to IQ. He happens to be a conservative, but often points out that there’s nothing inherently right-wing about believing variations in human personal characteristics, such as intelligence, are based on genetic differences. It doesn’t automatically lead to social Darwinism or eugenics, as some on the left seem to think. After all, if the exceptional abilities of the meritocratic elite are characteristics they were born with and have done nothing to deserve, then they don’t deserve the rewards that flow from them. Seen in this light, the hereditarian critique of meritocracy could be the basis of an argument for more redistributive taxation.

My father thought social status should be based on how decent and kind people are, not whether they happen to have the right genes. Idealistic, perhaps, but the left would be wise to try to incorporate the findings of behaviour geneticists into their political philosophy rather than continue to deny them. Why? Because they’re almost certainly right.

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