Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy — January 11, 2015

Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy

Boring cover: Yellow inner rectangle on brown outer rectangle, with the book's title and author written on the yellow rectangle

Oh, such a clever book. Such a clever, clever book. It’s what would happen if [book: The Complete Upmanship] were written by a Ph.D. sociologist. It is hilarious in a very dry, British way literally right up to the final footnote on the final page.

[book: The Rise of the Meritocracy] is written from a future-retrospective perspective after Britain has turned fully meritocratic. Now everyone’s place in society is based purely on their merit, not on any other irrelevant details of their personality. To get there, we first had to neuter the power of entrenched wealth; this was achieved through punitive (100%?) estate taxation. Of course this led the wealthy to give their money away while still alive, so more taxation had to be added there.

Then we had to eliminate preference on the basis of seniority. At first this would seem to be anti-meritocratic, but the idea is that, if we want to measure merit, we should measure merit directly rather than measure seniority as its proxy. Hence workers were rigorously tested throughout their lives; whenever they deserved to rise through the ranks, they did so, perhaps leapfrogging those senior to them in the process.

There’s an assumption lurking under all of this, which Young makes explicit only toward the end: economic output is considered the overriding goal of the society. That’s why it makes sense (this comes early on) to get rid of general schools that keep the talented and the less-talented together, and to instead separate out the wheat from the chaff; to do otherwise would be to harm the nation’s overall productivity. In the interests of productivity, then, the bright students must be pulled away from the dull students as early as possible. Hence, essentially, eugenics develop, to identify the talented as soon as possible; again, to do otherwise would be to waste those talents during their formative years. Naturally, of course, any meritocratic system of testing would ensure that if your talents only mature later in life, you should be just as able as the early bloomers to advance to the talented track.

One predictable outcome of all of this is that the children of the talented are overwhelmingly — not 100%, but overwhelmingly — talented. We thus seem to have reinvented the hereditary aristocracy, only this time under the ostensibly benign guidance of talent rather than nobility. By the time Young tells his fictional future story, the population has largely grown to internalize the wisdom of the existing social order, just as (Young says somewhere) those born during the era of the hereditary nobility never questioned the wisdom of granting power in proportion to landownership. Of course, there are those among the lowest classes who scream from the fringes, but they’re disorganized. And since, by this point, all the most talented people have been siphoned off into a meritocratic upper class, the lower classes are represented by only the least talented. So the system is nicely self-reinforcing.

Tremendous, disturbingly hilarious read. Highly recommended.