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In Defense of Meritocracy
Cambodian students taking an entrance exam for the Don Bosco Technical School of Sihanoukville, 2008

In Defense of Meritocracy

It’s the worst system for deciding who gets society’s most important positions—except for all the others.

Michael Mandelbaum

How should a society allocate its most important, lucrative, and prestigious positions? In most places, for most of history, the question had a simple answer: by heredity. Monarchs and aristocrats held almost all the society’s power and wealth and passed their positions on to their offspring. Over the last two hundred years a different system came to supplant hereditary privilege. The new system distributes positions through evidence of cognitive and intellectual skills as measured by performance on competitive, standardized examinations. It is called meritocracy.

The first appearance of such a system came a millennium ago in China. Beginning in the 10th century and lasting until the beginning of the 20th, officials in the provinces and at the imperial court were chosen by a protracted and rigorous series of nationwide written examinations. Candidates had to demonstrate, inter alia, their mastery of classic Chinese texts, which was perhaps useful for managing a large land-based Asian empire before the modern era but is of dubious relevance to a contemporary industrial society.

Meritocracy came later to the West. It became established for the first time with the French Revolution, one of whose slogans—“a career open to talents”—captures its essence. The sixth article of the Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued in 1789, concisely defined the concept: “All citizens … are equally admissible to all public offices, positions, and employments, according to their capacity and without any other distinction than that of virtues and talents.”

Since offices, positions, and employments had previously been apportioned not according to an individual’s talents and virtues but rather by his (in the traditional world careers were open only to men) birth, this was a truly revolutionary development. In the 19th and 20th centuries it spread, at an uneven pace, throughout the Western world and beyond. Competitive national examinations became important rites of passage in Great Britain, France, and the United States through the 11-plus, the baccalaureate, and the Scholastic Aptitude Test, respectively, channeling young people to schools and then onward to prestigious careers.

Although its social, economic, and political consequences have had a major impact on the modern world, the theory and practice of meritocracy has lacked a good history—until now. The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by Adrian Wooldridge fills that gap. The author is an editor and columnist at The Economist, the influential London-based weekly magazine that calls itself a newspaper, and the co-author of a number of well-regarded books, most recently Capitalism in America, written with the former chairman of the American Federal Reserve Board Alan Greenspan. Wooldridge’s wide-ranging, informative, and often provocative book depicts the traditional world in which personal background and connections counted for everything, the traces and harbingers of the meritocratic idea that appeared before the French Revolution, and its progress thereafter.

The traditional way of distributing rewards based on birth, which meritocracy largely replaced, has been more or less discredited in recent times; the proponents of a permanent, hereditary, dominant aristocracy are scarce and the most visible remnants of the hereditary principle in the West, monarchs, have lost the political power their ancestors once wielded. Still, meritocracy has not lacked for opposition of various kinds.

The most violent episodes of opposition to it occurred where it began, in China. In the 19th century a failed examination taker, proclaiming that he was “God’s Chinese Son,” led an insurrection that took control of a large part of the country. The Taiping Rebellion, as it was called, lasted from 1850 to 1864 and claimed twenty million lives, the bloodiest conflict ever fought anywhere up to that time. In the mid-1960s the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in which millions of students attacked people in authority, especially teachers. Schools and universities closed and examinations were suspended. Mao declared that China should rely on people who were “red”—that is ideologically fervent—rather than “experts” whom meritocratic procedures had selected. The Cultural Revolution turned the country upside down. By some estimates several million people died and millions more had their lives disrupted or ruined.

The West faces its own serious challenges to meritocracy, although they are not remotely as violent as those in China. Wooldridge devotes the last section of his book to these Western challenges. Three in particular are worth noting.

First, throughout the West the meritocratic system has displayed a tendency to become sclerotic, entrenching elites rather than refreshing them. People who rise to the top have found ways to use their positions to assure success for their offspring, for example sending them to rigorous preparatory schools too costly for most parents to afford and not numerous enough to serve the entire population. At the same time, climbing up the meritocratic ladder has become more difficult. In this way, meritocracy is not functioning as it is designed to do.

Second, meritocracy has increasingly become associated with economic inequality. Meritocratic systems are not, and are not designed to be, egalitarian in every way. While they do provide equal opportunity, unequal outcomes invariably result because people have different talents and abilities. Some will do better than others, but the winners will earn their success through their own efforts and that success, at least in theory, will benefit society as a whole since the best-qualified people will fill the most important positions.

Over the last four decades in the West the system has worked more or less as intended in that the most proficient exam takers have obtained the most remunerative positions. Because of the way both national economies and the global economy have evolved, however, the gap between the most affluent segment of society and all the rest has widened sharply.

Economic inequality has reached levels unseen for more than a hundred years. This has generated popular resentment at the economically successful and therefore at the social practices to which they owe their success. Wooldridge considers that resentment, in combination with the calcification of the meritocratic process and other developments, to be responsible for the upsurge of populism in the Western world over the past decade that brought Donald Trump and other previously unlikely figures to power and caused Great Britain to leave the European Union.

Finally, especially in the United States but in other countries as well, meritocracy faces opposition on the grounds that it is unrepresentative in that the pool of winners it yields does not contain the numbers of people from some groups that is proportional to these groups’ share of the total population. It follows, according to this criticism, that “offices, positions, and employments” should be allocated according to ethnic and racial group membership rather than by individual merit as measured by tests. This proposition has for several decades influenced the admissions policies of America’s selective institutions of higher education; it has spread to the wider society; and it plays an increasing role in the public policies of the Democratic Party. It brings with it three considerable drawbacks.

First, it relinquishes one of the achievements that meritocracy at its best confers: economic efficiency and material progress. There is something to be said for a police force having at least some members from the racial and ethnic groups for which it has responsibility regardless of test scores. There is far less to be said for selecting neurosurgeons or virologists on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Indeed, a society that does so consistently has every chance of degrading its neurophysiological health and retarding the development of therapies for diseases such as the coronavirus. It is no accident that China built the second-largest economy in the world, to the benefit of hundreds of millions of poor Chinese, and placed itself on the cutting edge of technological innovation only when it abandoned the Maoist system of allocating positions and embraced—again—meritocracy.

In addition, since, as Wooldridge notes, meritocracy is associated with rapid economic growth, abandoning it is likely to make societies that do so less wealthy; and because East Asian countries have become the most enthusiastic practitioners of selection by merit, they will become not only wealthier but also, in the case of China, more powerful than the West.

The flight from meritocracy also has the perverse and ironic consequence of restoring the system of allocating positions that, over the decades, meritocracy supplanted. Apportionment by group membership gives pride of place once again to heredity—albeit ethnic and racial—rather than achievement. The anti-meritocratic policies of recent years in fact restore to a prominent social role the hereditary principle that dominated traditional Europe, the overthrow of which was regarded in the West as a powerful and welcome sign of progress. They also violate one of the central precepts of Western public life, namely, that people should be judged and treated as individuals. In the name of what its advocates call social justice, therefore, racial and ethnic quotas reinstate a practice that Western societies, over the course of several centuries, had come virtually unanimously to consider unjust.

Finally, a policy of allocating positions and opportunities by group membership threatens to turn the societies and economies of the countries that adopt it into racial and ethnic spoils systems, with each constituent group striving to elbow aside all the others. This is a recipe for the kind of bitter conflict based on tribalism that plagues much of the world but which Western societies have managed for the most part to avoid since World War II.

To be sure, the practice of merit-based selection does not work perfectly in Western countries, and at the end of his book the author offers some useful suggestions for improving it, in particular to make it fairer. His principal conclusion, however, is that “the best way forward lies … in treating people as individuals rather than as members of groups [and] in distributing opportunities and jobs on the basis of ability and achievement.”

The evidence that Wooldridge assembles in his book supports that conclusion. The Aristocracy of Talent makes a persuasive case that, as a way of allocating positions and opportunities, meritocracy deserves the assessment that Winston Churchill made of democracy: the worst system except for all the others that have been tried.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).

Image: by Albeiro Rodas, public Domain,