The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, by Adrian Wooldridge (Skyhorse, 504 pp., $24.99)

Olympics fans aside, meritocracy doesn’t have many friends these days. Social-justice advocates view the meritocracy as a swindle, giving white people an excuse to hoard their privilege and leaving minorities only crumbs. On the right, populists look at a recession, forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a globalized economy that has taken away their jobs and destroyed their towns and regard the designated experts with disgust. Crème-de-la-crème meritocrats such as Harvard professor Michael Sandel and Yale law professor Daniel Markovits decry the smugness, entitlement, and soul-draining rat race promoted by our machinery of higher education, the very system that gives them their own prestige.

The great virtue of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, by longtime Economist editor and writer Adrian Wooldridge, is that while acknowledging the harsh truths of these critiques, it forces us to ponder the next question only tepidly addressed by others on this beat: If not meritocracy, then what? How should societies allocate status and the power to make the big decisions?

Scour Wooldridge’s expansive history of the conundrum, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find satisfying alternatives. In fact, from his telling, you might conclude that raw evolutionary psychology rather than studied political science or ethics best explains how most societies have operated. Families and clans, not individuals, were “the basic unit of society,” he writes. Sons inherited land and titles, daughters were bartered for more, and both passed their unearned privileges onto their own children regardless of their progeny’s character, intelligence, or interest in doing certain jobs. Likewise, serfs grew their superiors’ food, and servants dressed their masters in silk breeches for no reason other than that they were born to do so. If a peasant was blessed with Einstein’s brains or Lincoln’s political wisdom, it would make no difference in his or her life path; “tillers tilled and thatchers thatched,” as Wooldridge writes. No doubt the hoi polloi grumbled about their masters, but the arrangement was widely accepted as natural and just. It was individual ambition that represented a danger to what was thought to be a God-given social order.

Of course, the powers-that-were had every reason to advance the idea that inherited privilege was divinely ordained—but the truth is, for many centuries favoring kin was about the only game around. Plato was the first to imagine a system that would give power to those more worthy. The guardians of his Republic would be “men of gold”: those with natural talents, pedigree be damned. Notably, he believed the family was the biggest threat to the just polity; kin would always embrace kin. To short-circuit this stubborn fact, he proposed taking future guardians of each generation away from their parents in order to prepare them for leadership through intensive physical, intellectual, and philosophical training. (Plato doesn’t specify how he would locate the prodigies.)

The only other proto-meritocratic social order came from Asia. As early as the tenth century, the Chinese developed their famous exam system that, with many modifications, continues to sort the wheat from the chaff today. A grueling, multiyear preparation, it allowed farmer’s sons the chance to escape the dead-end bleakness of village life and become “mandarins” in the Forbidden City. Still, the emperor inherited his position.

In other parts of the world, a few exceptional low-born strivers could bypass the ancient barriers of entrenched hierarchy. England had an unofficial system of “sponsored social mobility,” in which a lord or church worthy would take notice of a clever plebian and mentor him to prominence. Cardinal Wolsey, the son of a wool seller, groomed Thomas Cromwell, who later became Henry VIII’s consigliere and fixer—a stunning rise for the son of a blacksmith. Noblemen lent support to talented artists and thinkers from undistinguished backgrounds. The Duke of Buccleuch was patron to the philosopher Adam Smith; ironically, his protégé was part of the Scottish Enlightenment, which would weaken the logic of inherited nobility that had given the Duke his riches. Wooldridge speculates that the emergence of larger and more complex states also challenged the ancien regime as states found themselves in need of more capable bureaucrats than a pampered, inbred aristocracy could produce. After all, kings and dukes needed shrewd minions to administer and collect taxes to support their palaces and wars.

Understood in the context of this tenacious history, meritocracy was a genuinely radical idea. It took bloody revolutions, religious wars, and centuries of dispute to undo the old system of lineage and shift toward modern thinking about merit. The Protestant Reformation played a role in this process by releasing individual conscience from the all-powerful word of priests and kings. Calvinism moved individual hard work to the center of moral and religious life. Enlightenment philosophers harped on the corruption and mediocrity of titled aristocrats of their day. The philosophes began the nature–nurture debate that continues today: were the talented just born that way—“natural aristocrats”—or were their gifts the result of training and education? In either case, the individual was to be judged and rewarded according to his merit, not family ties.

The American Revolution was a hinge moment in this history. Though the fact has become obscured amid today’s race-based revisionism, the revolution was first and foremost dedicated to overthrowing the dynastic habits of the Old World and its fusty, corrupt lords and dukes. Enlightenment-influenced American revolutionaries and the French who followed soon after believed that ordinary folks of talent and excellence should be recognized and given opportunities to lead. It helped that geography removed settlers in the new world from old lineages. With the important exceptions of African slaves and American Indians, Americans were all immigrants who chose to move to a distant, unknown wilderness; they had reason to be impressed by innovators who would help them adapt to their environment and create new ways of dealing with old problems. Even as they have never fully surmounted either nepotism or racial bias, they had to be a pragmatic people.

Wooldridge makes the case that meritocratic ideals were crucial to the emergence of the modern world. Without a commitment to recognizing and rewarding individual ambition and talent, there would be no mass education to sort and develop each person’s abilities; no Industrial Revolution; no important innovations in transportation, medicine, or construction; and perhaps only a forme fruste of liberal democracy. The British introduced grammar schools to educate bright working- and middle-class kids; France expanded its baccalaureate to include ambitious country boys or girls, and as it industrialized, the U.S. became more meritocratic. In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, establishing a Civil Service Commission intended to weed out Tammany Hall–style favoritism and discover competent bureaucrats; England had a similar law.

The meritocracy reached its zenith in the early and mid-twentieth century. One accelerant was the emergence of IQ and other aptitude tests between the two world wars. The tests remain extremely controversial, especially on the left. But Wooldridge notes that until the 1960s it was radicals who were most enthusiastic about the science of intelligence. Socialists such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb viewed it as a way to smash class barriers and expose those hidden diamonds in the rough. Many successful people today who grew up poor and might have missed out on scholarships and elite schooling but for standardized testing would agree with them.

Whatever its potential advantages, the advent of IQ testing also signaled a coarsening of meritocratic ideals. From Plato on, merit had a moral as well as an intellectual dimension. When the founders spoke of talent, it was frequently accompanied by the word “virtue”; the Victorians emphasized the “duty” required of their elites. Public service remained an elite profession well into the twentieth century. But by World War II, testing enthusiasm and an increasingly technocratic, bureaucratic, and globalized economy left the moral dimension homeless and built up the prestige of raw mental dexterity. This technological hubris has given us a society dominated by Silicon Valley titans and Ivy League royalty.

Further demoralizing meritocracy today is the enduring human instinct to put family and clan first. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the rich had turned elite higher education into a gilded ghetto for their children via an extravagant menu of private schooling, tutoring, internships, service trips to Central America, and letters of recommendation from well-connected family friends. (Wooldridge mentions that Christopher Hitchens told him how much he hated having to write letters of recommendation to D.C.’s elite preschools for friends.) Wooldridge argues that the “marriage of merit and money” and the ruling class’s success in rigging the system for their friends and family is at the root of populist revolts like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

Given its decadent state, is meritocracy, like the ancien regime in the eighteenth century, heading for the guillotine? It sometimes seems that way. The education establishment is losing confidence in its meritocratic mission. “We reject ideas of natural gifts and talents,” declares the current draft of the California Math Framework. Gifted programs and selective-exam schools are being hunted down like big game. Higher education wobbles between its established purpose of finding and growing young talent and the conflicting goal of advancing social-justice egalitarianism. Wooldridge holds out hope that a “wiser,” “remoralized” meritocracy, cleansed of nepotism and elite hoarding, is still possible. He points to the success of Asian countries like China and Singapore newly committed to their own forms of merit-based hierarchies.

The question for Americans: Which approach is better-suited to confront the immense technological, governmental, and global challenges that we face?

Photo: HOMONSTOCK/iStock


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