From Greta Thunberg to Black Lives Matter, activists are fond of pointing out society’s imperfections, but are completely clueless when it comes to proposing alternatives. Meritocracy—and related concepts, such as IQ—is a case in point. When Michael Young coined the term in his famous 1958 book The Rise of Meritocracy, many people shunned the idea that privileges should be allotted on the basis of merits. And sure enough, “meritocracy” is a word that is all too frequently tossed around to justify the status quo, which is admittedly far from ideal.
But what is the alternative? Activists have not considered enough what a world without meritocracy would look like. Adrian Wooldridge’s The Aristocracy of Talent is a powerful reminder that while meritocracy may have its shortcomings, the lack of meritocracy is far worse. Wooldridge looks at the historical record of past civilizations and draws a definite conclusion: without meritocracy, injustice runs rampant, and life is miserable for most people. Furthermore, as he sees it, “meritocracy is a golden ticket to prosperity,” even more so than democracy.
Wooldridge pays close attention to China. Only some deluded people—mostly scholars on the Left—think that China is a democracy. But Wooldridge argues that China is a good demonstration that prosperity does not rely so much on democracy as on meritocracy. And for all its faults, China is advancing at a rapid pace along the meritocratic path; indeed, China has been striving toward meritocracy for centuries, as it was the pioneer of State examinations. Wooldridge worries that if Western societies continue to disregard the virtues of meritocracy, they will soon be overshadowed by China. I might add that the Chinese are fully aware of this; it comes as no surprise that the nation pays no attention whatsoever to woke sensitivities, has no qualms in selecting the best qualified for the task, and mocks woke Westerners with the word baizu.
Critics frequently level two arguments against meritocracy, and Wooldridge tackles them both skillfully. First, they argue that meritocracy is a ruthless system wherein the less talented are left unprotected. This argument has some merit, and for all I know, John Rawls was correct to insist that precisely because of this, taxation is needed to offer a safety net for the least privileged. But hierarchies must still prevail for a society to be productive, and that implies the unequal allocation of rewards so as to provide incentives. Wooldridge wisely argues that “you need above-average rewards to induce people to engage in such a process of self-sacrifice and risk-taking.”
Rawls frequently claimed that the distribution of privileges on the basis of natural talents is unjust, because those talents are unfairly allotted to begin with. Does anybody deserve to be born with a high IQ or loving parents? I concur with Rawls in saying that life is unfair. But, if anything, this is what Thomas Sowell would call a “cosmic injustice,” and to attempt to correct such injustices is useless. Perhaps you could bitterly blame God for the unequal (and unfair) distribution of talents in the world, and you might even be justified in becoming an atheist. But from a societal perspective, we are better off just biting the bullet and accepting the hierarchical arrangements that, ultimately, make everyone better off.
The second argument against meritocracy is that it doesn’t really exist. Wooldridge admits that this argument is more powerful. Indeed, when you think about America’s recent college admissions scandals, it is hard to claim that we live in a perfect meritocracy. Wooldridge acknowledges that Western societies are becoming more calcified, as dominant families are able to prevent social mobility. And precisely for that reason, he thinks some corrective initiatives are needed in order to boost meritocracy.
For example, Wooldridge is not opposed to affirmative action programs that provide opportunities for talented—yet unprivileged—young people to succeed. Yet, he is sensible enough to understand that the role of affirmative action is not to advance diversity at any cost, but rather to build a truly meritocratic society by providing initiatives to people belonging to disadvantaged groups. This implies that affirmative action should be geared toward the less privileged, regardless of their ethnicity. Wisely, Wooldridge argues that when it comes to affirmative action, it is wrong “to exclude some groups of white people from consideration just because of the colour of their skin: what matters is collective deprivation, not skin colour.”
When it comes to college admissions, Wooldridge has some powerful words of indictment. The system is unfair, for example, when it holds back high-performing Asians in order to achieve ethnic proportionality. But the system is equally unfair when “legacy preferences,” or even the ability to play a sport, are given consideration in admissions.
The jury may be out on what exactly the best criteria for college admissions is—or on the allotment of positions and privileges in society at large. But Wooldridge’s book makes a compelling case for what it should not be. As opposed to the view of leftists like Michael Sandel—who makes the bizarre proposal that we toss applicants’ folders down the stairs and randomly select a number for admission—admissions should not be left to chance alone. And, as opposed to the views of many on the Right, money and nepotism should play no role in admissions. Merit may be hard to define—IQ and SAT scores may or may not be part of it—but we must begin by acknowledging that “meritocracy” is not a dirty word, and that rewards based on merit are the way to achieve a more prosperous and just society.