“High on a throne of royal state . . .
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised
To that bad eminence.”
Hell is a meritocracy. Yet in America the meritocratic ideal is universally applauded. Everyone agrees—or pretends to agree—that the angel of justice smiles upon the triumph of merit. Indeed, the hopes enshrined in the “American Dream” are predicated largely on the rule of merit, and who would be fool enough to attack the very foundation of that collective dream? The notion that everyone—regardless of the contingencies of birth, creed, race, ethnicity, or sex—should have an opportunity to rise to whatever station in life his or her merit can achieve is deeply rooted in American history. By the late 19th century, this ideal was well established, though our contemporary understanding of “equality of opportunity” emerged only in the post-World War II era. Only during the last half-century has the rule of merit been transformed into a vast bureaucracy intended to ensure everyone an equal place at the “starting line,” and it is only when the central state makes itself the ultimate guarantor of the rule of merit that a meritocracy may thrive. Of course, equality of opportunity has produced remarkable results. However, behind the facade of this apparent success lurks a paradox: At the apotheosis of meritocracy we discover that it morphs into an insidious new aristocracy, one which trumpets the egalitarian ideal all the more stridently to disguise its monopoly on the levers of power.
This transformation was in fact foreseen, albeit in satiric fashion, by British author Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). One of the socialist architects of Labour policy in the 1940’s under Clement Attlee, Young was well positioned to speculate about the form a meritocratic regime might take. His fictitious narrator, a smug sociologist, speaks retrospectively from the vantage of the year 2034, when the meritocracy, triumphant for decades, has entered a period of crisis. As an apologist for the regime, his intent is to make a case for its historical necessity on the grounds that only a meritocratic social order can make effective use of human resources in an era when nation-states are engaged in voracious economic competition, and that only such an order is truly just. The old aristocracies, he argues, possessed neither merit nor justice. In the industrial age, as demands for efficiency and management by the highly skilled rose exponentially, it became necessary to replace the old ruling class, a class whose only claim to power was the privilege of birth and the ownership of ancestral land. In Great Britain, this revolution required over a century to be accomplished. Yet even before it was properly begun, society had for over 200 years “been the battleground between two great principles—the principle of selection by family and the principle of selection by merit.” Hence, the rise of the meritocratic regime was not a radical novelty but the natural, if convulsive, emergence of a social order whose place in the sun had for too long been withheld. The family, in this view, “is the guardian of individual, the State of collective . . . efficiency, and this function the State is able to perform because citizens are divided in their interests.” Parents selfishly seek to further the interests of their own children. Even when they “desire equal opportunity for everyone else’s children, they desire extra for their own.” Thus the role of the state lies partly in “policing the family, so as to prevent it from having undue influence on the occupational system.”
In Young’s rendering, meritocracy does not seek to destroy the family but to scale back its influence on public life, indeed to privatize the family to such an extent that parents become little more than incubators of genetic material. The smarter the children, the more likely they are to be siphoned off into the eager hands of state-sponsored experts and educators at an early age. Extolling the gradual acceptance of IQ testing, first in the Civil Service and then in the military, Young’s narrator assumes the mantle of a faux humility when he argues that the deepest lesson of modern science is to reveal the law of submission to the “fact of genetic inequality.” Human progress demands it: “For every man enlivened by excellence, ten are deadened by mediocrity, and the object of good government is to ensure that the latter do not usurp the place in the social order which should belong to their betters.” Projecting into the future (from 1958 to 2034) Young imagines a society in which IQ testing has become so refined that retesting of children at regular intervals (to ensure that they are being tracked fairly into their appropriate academic or occupational levels) is no longer necessary. By 2015 the testing was so reliably predictive of future mental development and capacity that children could be placed on a single life track at the tender age of three. Both “comprehensive” secondary schools and private schools were gradually replaced by a tiered system of state-controlled education in which the most intelligent were segregated in what the British have traditionally termed “grammar” schools. From an early age and at every socioeconomic level it was made certain that “no ability should escape through the net.” As for the curricula, specialization—especially scientific specialization—was the keynote long before children reached the university level. Little attention was given to classical learning, which had been the “undoing” of the old public schools. Yet one aspect of the older elite system was retained: “Public schools had learned how to release students from dependence on their families by creating substitutes for the narrow loyalties of kinship. The grammar schools needed all the more to do the same since so many of their pupils came from homes belonging to a lower culture.”
Contemporary critiques of Young’s satire generally overlook its immediate political and social context. Meritocracy had already in the 1940’s become a subject of controversy, especially on the left. Perhaps by design, Young’s sociologist narrator is difficult to position. He has no qualms about presenting himself as an advocate of elite rule, and at times he sounds like one of the meritocratic Tories of the Thatcherite era, but he might be more accurately described as a man of science who disdains party factionalism. To the extent that The Rise of the Meritocracy engages in partisan rhetoric, its primary target is the radical egalitarianism of the socialist left. However, while virtually everyone on the left in those days was concerned about the rise of an unjust meritocracy (one that would abandon the working classes), Labour was dominated largely by leaders willing to accommodate some degree of meritocratic hierarchy so long as provisions were made for the children of the poor and working classes to gain equal access to social mobility, while making the managerial elite more accountable to the greater social order. This was the view of influential Fabians like Margaret Cole, who worried in 1952 whether the burgeoning “managerial-technical society we are now creating” would transform Britain into “a Burnham or Orwell nightmare or a socialist democracy.” She believed that a positive outcome depended upon whether the educational system could create an egalitarian “social consciousness.” Young himself was no doubt in some sympathy with Coles’s view. Even so, it suits his satirical purposes to cast the socialists, accurately enough, as the “midwives” of the meritocratic regime. His narrator gloatingly cites Labour pamphlets from the 1930’s that promoted meritocratic reforms in industry and education. Of course, in pursuing such aims the socialists were striving to undercut the hidebound traditions of nepotism, seniority, and privilege that dominated so much British life. But they sowed more than they knew. Did not the formidable G.B. Shaw rail against the “haphazard Mobocracy” and long, instead, for the “dictatorship, not of the whole proletariat, but of that five-percent of it capable of . . . pioneering the drive toward its divine goal”?
In Young’s meritocracy, the ruling class is no longer disturbed by “self doubt and self criticism.” While the widening gap between classes has become virtually unalterable, the elite know that “success is just reward for their . . . undeniable achievement.” They are, moreover, an elite that worships at the altar of technocratic efficiency and the principle of utility. These are the fixed stars in the moral cosmos of the meritocracy. The rule of merit, not unlike the rule of Calvinist election, has sorted the whole of society so that everyone has found his predestined place, content because he knows that it is the place he deserves. Young’s narrator admits, in a moment of hilarious candor, that in the 21st century, “some members of the meritocracy . . . have become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern.” His solution? He urges that elite youth in the nation’s universities should be more assiduously trained in a “proper sense of humility.” For the moment, he laments, “the efficiency of public relations with the lower classes is not all that it should be.” Nevertheless, even as this miracle of social efficiency betrays imminent signs of collapse, he continues to insist that the cognitive segregation of classes—in education, in occupations, in leisure—is the very essence of a compassionate society. The greater the segregation, the less likelihood that the “stupid” will be reminded of their inferiority. The turbulent era of class warfare, which had so disturbed social harmony in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was merely the result of a justified perception on the part of the lower orders that their “betters” had no rational claim to power and status. His defense of the meritocracy never hints at a recognition that the Darwinian distribution of intelligence might be perceived by the losers in the genetic lottery as an equally arbitrary arrangement. One might observe that at least the Calvinist elect had the courage of their convictions, and made no attempt to console (or segregate!) the masses condemned to reprobation.
Only in the final chapter of his apologia for the meritocracy does Young’s narrator openly concede that matters have reached an impasse. The “populist” revolt, which he minimizes, is led by a cadre of old socialists who have rallied around the Technicians Party, allied with a cohort of upper-class feminists. Their movement is not initially a violent call to arms, but an attempt to persuade the genetically privileged youth of the nation voluntarily to abandon their loyalties to the meritocratic elite and to join in solidarity with the workers, even to take up manual occupations. But how does this curious alliance manage to foment an uprising? Young’s alter ego suggests that the key factor is the perception that the merit-based hierarchy had begun to harden into something more sinister: The privileged meritocratic class, through several generations of inbreeding, had become a caste. The principles of heredity and merit had begun to merge. Moreover, when IQ testing in the womb itself became acceptable, one could no longer pretend that “equality of opportunity” had much street cred with the lower orders or those scions of the elite mesmerized by the “mystique” of equality.
While today’s meritocratic regime has not developed precisely as Young imagined it, several parallels are evident—especially the dangerous segregation of classes leading to the evolution of a new caste system. In the U.S., as Charles Murray has demonstrated in his recent book Coming Apart, selective breeding, or what some have called “assortative marriage,” is well advanced among the cognitive elite. It is worth reemphasizing the social danger that this represents. Despite half a century of obsessive concern with civil-rights legislation, America has become a more stratified nation, and this stratification is primarily the result of competition and intelligence (narrowly measured by standardized testing) rather than race, wealth, property, or inheritance (as it was in the past). No longer are the most intelligent scattered throughout the population with the leavening benevolence intended by Mother Nature; they are now, to use Rod Dreher’s apt verb, “strip mined” by the meritocracy and drawn into the nets of the most selective colleges and universities, and thence into select ZIP codes—the urban centers with the highest concentrations of corporate and federal employment. There, they inhabit a world set apart from the rest of America, from the increasingly impoverished and abandoned hamlets of the heartland. As Murray meticulously documents, in those airtight cloisters they cultivate a worldview predicated upon their sense of superiority to the “deplorables” whose atavism represents a nagging obstacle to their arrogant ambition to remake the nation and the world in their own image.
For many decades, middling Americans, awed by the cult of expertise and goaded by nebulous hopes that they and their children might find a place among the blessed, have applauded the apotheosis of merit. Recently, we have witnessed the rise of our own populist revolt, driven largely by prolonged economic stagnation among those (the bottom 80 percent) who have been abandoned by the meritocracy. Yet most Americans still cling with a desperate optimism to the meritocratic myth, not only because its propagandists are unceasing in their efforts but because we have always been a restless and status-hungry people. As early as the 1840’s both Gilmore Simms and Alexis de Tocqueville commented eloquently on this trait. Tocqueville, especially, recognized it as deeply embedded in democratic consciousness. Consider, he wrote, “a social state in which neither law nor custom holds anyone in place, and that is a great further stimulus to this restlessness of temper.” Thus, “an ambitious man may think it easy to launch on a great career and feel that he is called to no uncommon destiny.” But this is a delusion. If we have abolished privilege, we have “come up against the competition of all . . . [and] men will never establish an equality that will content them.” The meritocracy, in league with a corporate ethos that requires for its flourishing the demise of all local loyalties, has enormously inflamed this competition of all against all. We live, as René Girard warned, under the tyranny of universal envy. Competition and the rule of merit are both well and good, but only so long as they do not become all-consuming goods. Yet it is in the interest of our rulers that this Hobbesian hell be prolonged, since their power depends upon it.
How can we—those of us who recognize the danger—hope to combat it? We can begin by rebuilding the only institution that can form a basis for genuine resistance: the family. We can remove our children from the propaganda factories we call schools, and, above all, we can enact what might be termed an “intelligence strike”—that is, encourage by every possible means the most intelligent of our children to remain at home, where they may become the future leaders of local resistance, of vibrant, God-fearing communities capable of refusing the devilish enticements of both the marketplace and the meritocracy.