“Meritocracy” is a relatively new term.

It refers to a set of principles which were at first revolutionary but which rapidly came to be thought of as the natural order of things.

The idea has taken something of a battering in recent years, as an examination of two recent and important books — The Tyranny of Merit, written by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel in 2020, and The Aristocracy of Talent, written by journalist Adrian Wooldridge and released in June — shows.

Wooldridge provides a useful definition of meritocracy. It allows people to progress based on natural talents, attempts to secure equal opportunity by providing universal education, forbids discrimination based on irrelevant characteristics and awards jobs by open competition.

In spite of the obvious appeal, the philosopher Sandel zeroed in on this system, which he said was at the heart of the social dysfunction which is fuelling a populist revolt.

Sandel writes,

“The relentless emphasis on creating a fair meritocracy, in which social positions reflect effort and talent, has a corrosive effect on the way we interpret our success (or the lack of it). The notion that the system rewards talent and hard work encourages the winners to consider their success their own doing, a measure of their virtue — and to look down upon those less fortunate than themselves.”

“Meritocratic hubris reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.”

From the 1990s onwards, Sandel describes his experience of encountering a growing conviction among Harvard students that their success was their own doing, and not down to the good fortune of birth.

He later experienced similar attitudes being exhibited by students in a fast-rising China, and cites a number of examples of politicians from across the world increasingly using what he calls the “rhetoric of rising” which emphasised the ability of people to succeed, and the need to ensure people got what they deserved.

While the idea that people rise or fall according to their efforts and perseverance is attractive, there is a danger here too.

In the mid-20th century, educational reformers such as the Harvard president James Conant prioritised the use of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to determine college admissions to open these institutions (previously a preserve of the wealthy) to intellectually-gifted youths of all backgrounds.

This would bring about a truly meritocratic system, but generations on from this change in educational approach, both Sandel and Wooldridge agree that the results are far from perfect.

SAT scores in the US closely track family wealth, and the student profile on elite campuses is in no way representative of the nation writ large: more than 70 per cent of those attending the most 100 competitive colleges come from the top quarter of the income scale, while only 3 per cent come from the bottom quarter.

Even generous financial aid packages to low-income students make little difference as most cannot make it through the ultra-competitive admissions process. Moreover, the intensive nature of the educational race is also having deleterious effects on those young people who do manage to get in.

Sandel cites examples such as growing anxiety, the rise of intrusive parenting and much-publicised scandals where wealthy parents bribed officials to ensure their children would be admitted.

Of greater concern though are the broader ramifications within a country where the economic divide between college graduates and non-college graduates is increasingly becoming a political and cultural divide as well.

Sandel’s book provoked much discussion, and likely contributed to the decision of Wooldridge — a longstanding Economist journalist– to write a broader account of the rise of meritocratic systems globally.

Wooldridge’s work is divided into five parts: the world before the rise of meritocracy; ancient examples of meritocratic theory and practice; the initial emergence of such systems during the Enlightenment-era reforms; the acceleration of the meritocratic revolution; and lastly, the revolt which we have witnessed against meritocracy on both the left and the right.

As was the case with his previous books like The Right Nation and God is Back, Wooldridge shows his journalistic skills by including illuminating stories from history, including the large-scale use of examinations in China during the Ming Dynasty.

Nationwide exams held on a biennial basis were taken by 10 per cent of the population, with successful applicants being granted certain social privileges and proceeding to another level and then another, until some gained entry into the corridors of power.

The meritocratic spirit could be promoted, and demonstrated, by certain groups as well as governments. Jews learned to overcome the legal barriers placed in their way by emphasising the importance of education and making themselves useful to the broader community, while in east Asia, Chinese minority communities came to acquire enormous economic influence in spite of their small numbers.

There was always a ceiling to the achievement of those who came from the “wrong” group, though, and it was not until recent centuries that this began to change.

Although Napoleon’s reign in France was not especially long, the legal system which he created swept away many group-based distinctions, while his grandes écoles which educated talented candidates from every class to serve in his army and civil service remained crucial long after Waterloo.

Indeed, the use of rigorous examinations to determine entry into France’s famed École nationale d’administration (ENA) would ensure that the country’s civil service is indelibly shaped by meritocratic principles.

Victorian Britain also moved in this direction; the landmark Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854 ushered in a new era in the country’s civil service where jobs would be earned, not bought.

A growing emphasis on merit went hand-in-hand with greater democratisation and industrialisation.

Britain’s grammar school system made clear distinctions between children based on their academic abilities, and this system (which Wooldridge explains initially had support from both the Left and the Right) achieved a great deal as more educational opportunities opened up to working- and middle-class families.

Both Sandel and Wooldridge focus extensively on the influential critique of meritocracy which was offered by the British left-wing sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy.

In it, Young argued that meritocracy humiliated the losers in the system while filling the winners with hubris.

Young’s argument gained adherents within the Labour Party, who after returning to power in the 1960s scrapped the grammar school system.

One of Wooldridge’s most persuasive points is about the effects which this had on the British education system.

The proportion of children attending fee-charging “public schools” had been falling when academic selection was nearly universal, as the existence of high-quality grammar schools deprived them of potential students.

Since the grammar schools were destroyed, Britain’s public schools have experienced a resurgence, and they now account for half of all A grades at A-level exams in spite of only 7 per cent of students attending them, while also producing disproportionate shares of the country’s top athletes, not to mention a grossly disproportionate share of the students in Oxbridge.

Wooldridge’s longer book allows more space to expand upon the social problems which plague Western societies, and though he challenges Sandel’s argument by insisting on the need for meritocracy, he too accepts that these problems exist.

Both authors work in prestigious institutions and yet are capable of admirable self-awareness in diagnosing what ails us.

Interestingly, there is also a considerable amount of common ground when it comes to proposed solutions.

Sandel urges that we reconsider the way in which success is conceived and calls for technical education to be prioritised, while pointing to statistics showing a massive gap in what America spends on helping people to go to college and what their Department of Education spends on career and technical education.

Wooldridge echoes this point and suggests that the relative dearth of anti-meritocratic sentiment in the German-speaking world may be down to the fact that far more young people there pursue apprenticeships.

Yet there are clear differences too. To partially correct the problems in American higher education, Sandel suggests moving away from the SAT system and distributing places in oversubscribed colleges like Harvard in a lottery system open to all qualified students.

Wooldridge opposes this idea on the grounds that it would prevent academics from making distinctions based on ability, but he suggests many other possible reforms to Britain’s high school system, including a greater role for academic selection and insisting that fee-charging schools allocate more places to children from poorer families.

While both arguments strike a chord, Wooldridge’s is the stronger.

Not only does he present a convincing picture of what the alternatives to meritocracy are based on historical experience, he also insists on the need to recognise the market incentives which encourage people to develop their talents within educational and economic systems which make this possible and profitable.

Where much of Sandel’s work is theoretical, Wooldridge’s book is practical, and he directs the reader’s attention to the fact that while the Western world may have grown disillusioned with meritocracy, the rising powers like China certainly have not. It is necessary to reform the system, but the basic principles of the system underpinning it have been essential in creating prosperity and allowing people to aspire to more. If the future is to be a brighter one, merit will still need to have pride of place.

James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including…