13. Meritocracy and its Discontents

The Rise of the Genotocracy

Essay examining whether meritocracy is an effective device for legitimising socioeconomic inequality. It looks at two ways in which it could be said to do that – by allocating wealth and prestige according to merit, and by creating opportunities for those born in low-income families – and concludes that the first only creates the appearance of fairness (an argument made persuasively by John Rawls) and the second is a largely unfulfilled promise. 

This is a more nuanced, carefully argued version of the argument I made in The Rise and Fall of Meritocracy, which appeared in Quadrant in 2015 (see below). It appeared in April-June issue of The Political Quarterly, Volume 21, Issue 2, 2020.

My father Michael Young’s objection to meritocracy, as set out in his dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033 (1958), was rooted in his belief in equality. By equality, I don’t mean what his friend Tony Crosland described as ‘soft’ equality – equality of opportunity. Rather, I mean equality of outcome – ‘hard’ equality. Indeed, it was partly because he was an egalitarian socialist that Michael was suspicious of equality of opportunity: if everyone is competing on a level playing field, that gives the appearance of fairness to the game’s result, regardless of how unequally the medals are distributed. As a former Communist who could never quite forget Marx’s historical materialism, he looked forward to the day when socialism would replace capitalism and feared that the meritocratic principle, by helping to legitimise socioeconomic inequality, would delay that new dawn.

Unlike my father, I am a classical liberal. I believe in the doctrine of inalienable natural rights as set out by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government and think the legitimacy of the state derives from its being the best guarantor of those rights. My preferred metaphor is the state as a gardener, nurturing an environment in which people are able to pursue their own good, in their own way, provided they do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it (to paraphrase J.S. Mill from the Introductory to On Liberty). As soon as the state goes beyond that role and violates those rights in the name of some ultimate goal, it loses its legitimacy. Which is to say, I believe in equal rights, equal treatment and equal opportunities and celebrate the victories of the chartists, suffragettes, civil rights activists and others who have compelled the state to recognise those rights. But I do not believe in equality of outcome. As Friedrich Hayek and others have pointed out, the difficulty with end-state equality is that the attempt to bring it about invariably involves the violation of our natural rights, and it rarely succeeds. I don’t just mean that the creation of the socialist Shangri-La usually involves the confiscation of property by the state. Even after that initial levelling, it is unlikely that the state will just “wither away”, as Friedrich Engels put it, because natural abilities are distributed unequally. Left to their own devices, some men will inevitably accumulate more wealth and status than others and the only way to redress that, if you want to preserve end-state equality, is through the state’s use of coercive power. Which is why the socialist dream of universal brotherhood has, in almost every case, ended in dictatorship.

So I rather like meritocracy for the same reason my father was so suspicious of it: because it helps to legitimise the inequalities of outcome that are the inevitable consequence of keeping state power in check. I believe that type of inequality can be justified by appealing to natural rights alone, but the virtue of meritocracy is that it provides socioeconomic inequality with an additional source of legitimacy. And I say this not as someone who is fond of outcome inequalities for their own sake – I am not – but as someone who believes them to be an unavoidable by-product of limited government – characterised by the rule of law, the separation of powers, an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, free speech, and so on – and that any more extensive form of government will breach our natural rights. Socioeconomic inequality is a cost not a benefit of limited government, but it is a lower cost than those associated with the maximalist socialist state.

How does meritocracy help to secure people’s consent to socioeconomic inequality? By (1) allocating wealth and prestige according to merit, which, on the face of it, is fairer than the hereditary principle; and (2) creating opportunities for those born with very little, so if you start with nothing that doesn’t mean you will end up with nothing, or that your children will. If you think a free society in which our natural rights are protected is preferable to one in which they are at risk from an overbearing state, and social and economic inequality is one of the costs of reining in state power, then you should embrace the meritocratic principle for helping to make limited government more sustainable.

But is meritocracy really capable of playing that legitimising role? Let us consider these two mechanisms in turn. First, does meritocracy allocate wealth and prestige in a way that appears to be fair? The sociologist who narrates The Rise of the Meritocracy – a fictional character created by my father – defines merit as “IQ + effort”. Is it fair to allocate socioeconomic status (SES) according to merit? Not according to the philosopher John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice (1971), he appeals to the fact that people do not deserve their natural gifts – and the consensus among intelligence researchers is that genetics plays a bigger role than the environment in creating differences in IQ – to argue that a meritocratic society would not be any fairer than one in which your wealth and status is entirely determined by your initial starting place in society. Your “genetic endowment” is, according to Rawls, dependent on a “natural lottery”. The “better endowed” from a genetic point of view, like those who are lucky in the social circumstances of their birth, have done nothing to deserve these advantages, any more than the winner of any other kind of lottery deserves their prize, so they do not deserve what flows from them, such as their elevated SES in a meritocracy. The implication of this is that, as a principle for allocating wealth and status, meritocracy is no fairer than the hereditary principle. On the contrary, it is another manifestation of that principle, only instead of people inheriting privilege via tax-efficient trusts they inherit it via parental DNA. (Which is not to say that all parents who enjoy natural gifts will pass them on to their children, only that all children born with natural gifts will have got those gifts from their parents’ DNA.)

Rawls’s argument is not a decisive blow against meritocracy. It is too deterministic, for one thing. Wealth and prestige do not simply flow from these natural endowments. A considerable amount of hard work is also involved – merit is “IQ + effort” – and rewarding that effort does seem fair. In response, it is worth pointing out that Rawls believes the “superior character” that enables some people to make the effort to cultivate their abilities “depends in large part on fortunate family and social circumstances” and that is something they can claim no credit for. This is what Rawls calls the “social lottery” and allowing it to influence people’s chances in the game of life is no fairer than relying on the “natural lottery”. Even if we reject this analysis and insist there is a good deal of agency involved in the cultivation of one’s genetic endowments, there is still what you might call a “gearing” difficulty – because some people are blessed with more natural gifts than others, the same amount of effort by different people will reap different rewards, depending on their “genetic endowment”. An effortocracy, in which wealth and status is entirely dictated by how hard people work, would look very different to a meritocracy.

You can see how an hereditarian socialist – someone who does not base her egalitarian political ideals on the belief that all human beings have the same natural capacities, but believes nature plays a bigger role than nurture when it comes to influencing differences in behaviour, personality and intelligence – might make use of research findings in behavioural genetics to advance the case for redistributive taxation. If no one deserves their natural abilities, and there is a strong correlation between IQ and SES, then the rich do not deserve to keep all their wealth. When people like me talk about meritocracy and genetics in the same breath, people often hear it as a Social Darwinist defence of the status quo. But you could just as easily – more easily, perhaps – appeal to the link between IQ and SES to make an argument for redistribution. Indeed, at least one left-leaning behavioural geneticist has done precisely that. (Hereditarianism could also be invoked to challenge other conservative beliefs, such as the view that homosexuality or transgenderism is a choice, and that obesity, addiction and various forms of mental illness are matters of personal responsibility. As the philosopher Alan Ryan put it, “a belief in the importance of inherited differences in IQ need not encourage apocalyptic conservatism.” )

However, there is another, more fundamental problem with Rawls’s argument: it mixes up desert with entitlement. A person may not deserve her wealth in a meritocratic society – because it is at least partly contingent on factors that are “arbitrary from a moral point of view”, as Rawls’s puts it – but that does not mean she’s not entitled to it, which depends on how she came by it. As Rawls’s great Harvard sparring partner, the philosopher Robert Nozick points out in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), so long as a person’s acquisition of a holding has not involved violating anyone else’s rights, she is entitled to keep it and bequeath it to her children or, indeed, to anyone else. Nozick calls this the entitlement theory.

I said above that the unequal distribution of wealth and status that is the inevitable consequence of reining in state power can be justified by appealing to natural rights alone, but the meritocratic principle confers additional legitimacy. However, it looks as though the first way it does this – by coating inequality with the appearance of fairness – only works if you invoke a Nozickian, rights-based defence of inequality, which begs the question, “Why bother with the meritocratic defence at all? Why not just appeal directly to a Lockean conception of natural rights?” It is also worth pointing out that Nozick himself is not a fan of meritocracy. He regards it as just another “patterned” principle of distributive justice – that is, a principle that maintains that a distribution is only just if it conforms to a particular pattern. A meritocratic pattern may look fairer than a hereditary pattern, but trying to impose such a pattern on a society and maintaining it will inevitably involve violating people’s rights. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick quotes Hayek, who was also sceptical about the meritocratic principle, to underline this point: “our objection is against all attempts to impress upon society a deliberately chosen pattern of distribution, whether it be an order of equality or of inequality.”

What about the second way in which meritocracy legitimises inequality – that in a meritocratic society people born on the wrong side of the tracks will have more opportunities than they would in a class-bound society? If you measure opportunity by the number of people participating in higher education, that certainly seems to have happened since the introduction of open examinations for entry into Her Majesty’s Civil Service in the 1870s, which my father identified as the start of the meritocratic era. In 1920, 5,060 students obtained university degrees in the U.K.; in 2017/18, that number had climbed to 777,005, with the Department for Education estimating that roughly half of all English 17-30 year-olds now participate in higher education. We see a comparable increase in the United States. In 1894 there were only 63,000 students enrolled in higher education institutions in the U.S., representing just one per cent of the population. Today, the number is 20 million, approximately 40% of all 18-24 year-olds.

However, when it comes to inter-generational social mobility, Britain and America are not faring very well in spite of the huge expansion in the higher education sector. In one recent league table, Britain was rock bottom, with America third from bottom. In Social Mobility and its Enemies (2018), Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin point out that there is a ‘stickiness’ at either end of the income distribution curve in the U.K., so those born in the bottom income quintile are likely to end up poor and those born in the top quintile are likely to be rich, and those quintiles have become more ‘sticky’, not less, in the past 50 years. In The Meritocracy Trap: The Tyranny of Just Deserts (2019), the Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits produces lots of data to show how dominated America’s elite universities are by young people from rich households. “At Harvard and Yale, more students come from households in the top one percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half,” he writes. The standard response of the meritocrat to points like these is that they show that Britain and America are not yet sufficiently meritocratic and we need to take various steps to make them more so, such as spending more money on early childhood intervention programmes. However, it does not follow from Britain and America’s flatlining inter-generational social mobility that they are not mature meritocracies.

In Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are (2018), the behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin argues that the heritability of SES – that is, the correlation between differences in SES and genetic differences within a given population – is one way of measuring how meritocratic a society is. It is an imperfect measure, to be sure, since it ignores the effort side of my father’s equation (it downplays human agency) and focuses on IQ and other heritable psychological traits linked to SES. But nevertheless it enables us to evaluate the impact of environmental differences such as parental occupation on different outcomes and it turns out they are not as significant as most people think, at least not in the Western world. According to Plomin, the research evidence suggests that in contemporary Britain SES is highly heritable. School achievement, for instance, is about 60% heritable, while occupational status and income are about 40% heritable. You might think that still leaves a lot of room for nurture, but Plomin distinguishes between nurture and the environment more generally and marshals evidence from behavioural and molecular genetics to show that, in the U.K. and other Western countries, the most salient aspects of the environment when it comes to influencing things like educational attainment are unsystematic, random experiences, not the home you are brought up in or the school you attend (which is how he defines ‘nurture’). What we think of as nurture has a negligible effect on how people turn out, says Plomin, which suggests Britain is well on its way to becoming a mature meritocracy in spite of low levels of social mobility.

That’s also the view of the sociologist Peter Saunders. In Social Mobility Myths (2010), he argues that in the U.K. cognitive ability is more important than class origins in influencing class destinations – twice as important, to be exact. “To the extent that it is possible to predict somebody’s occupational destiny, it is their ability and their motivation that matters much more than the social class into which they were born,” he writes. He bases this, in part, on an analysis of the famous longitudinal study of social mobility carried out by the sociologist John Goldthorpe and his colleagues at Nuffield College, Oxford which involved a nationally representative sample of 10,000 men. The strong correlation between the social class of fathers and sons within this cohort does not mean Britain is unmeritocratic, according to Saunders. If you factor in the men’s IQs, he says, the level of mobility is exactly what you would expect it to be in a perfect meritocracy. He writes: “The social mobility histories of the 10,000 men interviewed for Goldthorpe’s study in 1972 are almost precisely what we would have expected to find had they and their fathers been recruited to their class positions purely on the basis of their intelligence.”

So the fact that the rate of inter-generational social mobility in the U.K. and the U.S. is quite low does not mean they are not meritocracies. But if they are, why is social mobility flatlining? Could there be something about meritocratic societies that makes it harder, not easier, for people born into poverty to pull themselves up by their boot straps? If so, that would invalidate my second reason for supporting meritocracy.
How might this mechanism work? Let us imagine a society in the not too distant future that is a fully-fledged meritocracy. In that society, the people at the top would also be the most able, and the people at the bottom the least able, and the reason you would not have much movement between these two poles ( ‘stickiness’, to use Major and Machin’s term) is because many of the psychological traits linked to SES are genetically influenced and children genetically resemble their parents. That is, the reason there is not more inter-generational social mobility in this notional meritocratic utopia is because intelligence and other psychological traits linked to SES are not randomly distributed across the population, but passed down from parents to their children via their DNA. Of course, some parents of above-average intelligence will have children of below-average intelligence, and vice versa, and reversion to the mean will ensure that, for the most part, the children of parents who are intellectual outliers will be closer to the norm. Nevertheless, in aggregate, parents of above average intelligence will have children of above-average intelligence and the opposite is true of parents of below average intelligence. In this way, meritocratic societies have a tendency to ossify – to degenerate into genetically-based caste systems.

That is exactly what has begun to happen in America, according to The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Up until the mid-20th Century, this tendency was kept in check, they argue, in part because of limited opportunities for gifted people born in the bottom half of society to rise, and in part because highly intelligent men and women, being rare and geographically dispersed, did not often meet. However, a number of things changed over the course of the 20th Century. Economic growth and technological progress created a rise in demand for educated workers, which in turn meant an explosion in the number of university places from the mid-1950s onwards. As more people entered higher education and standardised testing became more widespread, America’s best universities became more selective, with the brightest students going on to even more selective graduate schools to prepare them for entry into the elite professions, thereby transforming the socioeconomic elite into a cognitive elite. At the same time, more women began to be admitted to college and as a result the opportunities for highly intelligent men and women to pair up and have children increased – a function not just of their being in close proximity, but of ‘assortative mating’, a well-documented phenomenon whereby people tend to choose mates who are similar to themselves, both physically and mentally. And this tendency of the intellectually gifted to pair-bond was exacerbated by what Herrnstein and Murray call “cognitive partitioning” – “the increasing segregation of the cognitive elite from the rest of society”. The upshot is that American men and women with high IQs have become more likely to mate and produce children of above average intelligence. Not quite as intelligent as them, in aggregate, but bright enough to stand a better chance of getting high-paying jobs in the knowledge economy than the children of parents who are not themselves members of the meritocratic elite. Regression to the mean still occurs, but according to Herrnstein and Murray it has begun to happen more slowly as a result of this convergence of social and historical factors – slow enough to create an ossification problem. (For related reasons, the same sorting mechanism is also at work on the left-hand side of the IQ distribution curve.)

Herrnstein and Murray cite plenty of data that purportedly proves this “genetic stratification” has begun to happen. For instance, they refer to the work of the sociologist Robert Mare who found that the odds of a college graduate marrying someone who was not a college graduate declined from 44% in 1940 to 33% in 1980. Are these parents producing children of above average intelligence? Yes, for the most part, says Murray. In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012) he writes:

The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle-class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children. For example, one of the basics for having a decent chance of getting into an elite school is a high SAT score, with ‘high’ defined as at least 700 on the SAT verbal and SAT math. Among college-bound seniors who took the SAT in 2010, 87% of the students with 700-plus scores in the math and verbal tests had at least one parent with a college degree. Fifty-six per cent of them had a parent with a graduate degree.
Similar data is presented by Daniel Markovits in The Meritocracy Trap, although he steers clear of attributing the differences in SAT results between rich and poor children to genetic differences. On the contrary, he attributes them to the amount of time and money America’s meritocratic overlords lavish on their children’s education, estimating they spend around $10 million more on education per child than the average middle class family.

The income/achievement gaps on the SAT are enormous. Students from families earning over $200,000 per year (roughly the top five percent) score 388 points higher than students from families earning less than $20,000 per year (roughly the bottom 20 percent); and students whose parents hold graduate degrees (roughly the top 10 percent) score 395 points higher than students whose parents have not completed high school (roughly the bottom 15 percent). In each case, these gaps in raw scores place the average elite student in roughly the top quarter of all test takers and the average disadvantaged student in the bottom quarter.

This tendency for meritocracies to degenerate into even more rigidly stratified societies than the ones they’ve replaced – self-perpetuating cognitive oligarchies – causes the collapse of the meritocratic society at the end of my father’s book in the year 2033. At one point, the naïve narrator enthuses about this biosocial trend, not realising how corrosive it is:

By 1990 or thereabouts, all adults with IQs of more than 125 belonged to the meritocracy. A high proportion of the children with IQs over 125 were the children of these same adults. The top of today are breeding the top of tomorrow to a greater extent than at any time in the past. The elite is on the way to becoming hereditary; the principles of heredity and merit are coming together. The vital transformation which has taken more than two centuries to accomplish is almost complete.

But is that really happening in contemporary Britain and America? Are the top of today breeding the top of tomorrow? Not according to Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher, a sociologist and an economist, respectively. In The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History and the Future (2017) they look at whether assortative mating based on genetics increased in the U.S. over the course of the 20th Century and conclude that it has not. They point out that The Bell Curve’s hypothesis relies on treating a certain level of educational attainment as a proxy for the possession of certain genetic characteristics. If assortative mating by phenotype (years in education) increases, that must mean assortative mating by genotype has increased. But what if that assumption is wrong? Since the publication of The Bell Curve, a revolution in molecular genetics has taken place and it is now possible to test Herrnstein and Murray’s hypothesis using molecular genetic data, something Conley did in 2016 with Benjamin Domingue, an assistant professor of education.

Quick sidebar: Rapid progress has been made in the last few years in identifying the genetic markers linked to intelligence via genome-wide association studies, known as GWAS. These studies, usually involving sample sizes of hundreds of thousands, aim to identify loci throughout the genome associated with an observed phenotypic trait. This is an exciting development since, until recently, behavioural scientists had to rely on family studies, twin studies and adoption studies to demonstrate that differences in general cognitive ability are linked to genetic differences. Now, they can point to actual genetic markers known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms – SNPs – that explain more than 11 per cent of the variance in IQ. That’s more than is explained by parental education and, in the next few years, as the datasets get larger, we will be able to predict as much as 30 per cent of the variance in IQ based on these genetic markers. This makes it nigh on impossible for anyone to claim that differences in intelligence between individuals are all to do with nurture and nothing to do with nature.

Conley and Fletcher do not dispute that assortative mating by phenotype increased during the 20th Century. They note that the percentage of American men with college degrees who married women with college degrees increased from 32% in 1960 to 65% in 2000, although they point out that data like this is inconclusive because the increase could be explained by the higher number of female graduates in 2000 than in 1960, so even if men and women chose who to marry at random, the number of graduates getting married to each other would increase. But on the specific issue of whether genetic assortative mating (GAM) has increased, they are confident it has not. In his paper with Domingue, Conley looked at genetic data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study of more than 20,000 Americans, and examined whether married couples from the cohorts born later in the 20th Century were more similar in terms of the genetic markers associated with educational attainment – as identified in a 2013 GWAS with a sample size of 126,559 – than couples from the cohort born earlier. The answer is no – in fact, they were slightly more dissimilar – which suggests GAM did not increase over the course of the 20th Century.

Conley and Domingue also found that a polygenic risk score based on this same set of genetic markers was also marginally less likely to predict years in education in the second half of the 20th Century than it was in the first. In other words, the link between genetics and SES has grown weaker rather than stronger since 1900 – SES has become less heritable. That does not conclusively show that Herrnstein and Murray are wrong about the existence of a cognitive hereditary elite, but it suggests that the more conventional explanation for stagnant levels of inter-generational social mobility is correct, namely, that America’s elites are increasingly able to pass on their superior status to their children by spending time and money on their education, not because their children are more and more likely to be born with high polygenic scores for educational attainment. The solution, then, could be more meritocracy. Conley and Fletcher write: “Though we are a mere decade and a half away from the 2033 date on which Young predicted the final ‘revolt’ against an entrenched meritocratic system (in the U.K.) would occur, it seems – if the present results are to be believed – that we are still considerably removed from the dystopian nightmare he imagined more than half a century ago.”

However, before accepting this conclusion – that Britain and American are not becoming “genotocracies”, which is Conley’s word for genetically-based caste systems – it is worth pointing out that in the past six years researchers have identified many more of the genetic markers linked to educational attainment. The SNPs linked to attainment in the 2013 study that Conley and Domingue rely on only predict two-to-three per cent of the attainment variance. More recent studies, involving sample sizes of over a million, have identified over 1,000 independent genome-wide-significant SNPs linked to attainment and they predict between 11-13% of the variance. To find out whether America is more or less meritocratic than it was 100 years ago, we would need to re-run Conley and Domingue’s test on the same dataset, or apply a comparable test to a different dataset, using a more-up-to-date, larger number of SNPs. It is worth noting that a similar piece of analysis relying on more recent polygenic scores for educational attainment was used to compare Communist and post-Communist Estonia and the researchers concluded that the latter is more meritocratic, i.e. polygenic scores for educational attainment predict more of the variance in socioeconomic status in contemporary Estonia than they did during the Soviet era – twice as much, in fact.

Like Conley and Fletcher, Robert Plomin is sceptical about Herrnstein and Murray’s hypothesis. He gives two reasons for thinking there is not much risk of a meritocracy degenerating into a genotocracy. First, because the environmental variables that influence socioeconomic status are, according to him, more or less random and “random effects will not create stable castes”. Second, because parents and their children are genetically similar but not identical. This means that, in aggregate, the children of parents whose mean IQ is above average will have above-average IQs – and vice versa – but the dissimilarity means the IQ of their children will vary quite a lot, with some of them below average (and some of the children of parents whose mean IQ is below average will have above-average IQs). Therefore, there is still some scope for movement up and down the ladder, even in a mature meritocracy. He concludes: “This reshuffling of DNA differences in the genetic lottery prevents the evolution of a rigid genetic caste system.”

Even though Conley and Fletcher think my father’s pessimism about meritocracy was over-stated, they caution against complacency. While Britain and America have not yet degenerated into genotocracies they may in time, thanks to the revolution in molecular genetics. People do not currently make use of genomic data when it comes to selecting mates, but they may when it becomes more widely available – and once genome-wide association studies have pinpointed more precisely the genetic markers associated with desirable phenotypic traits. As they put it: “What if eHarmony and OkCupid merged with 23andMe and a key feature of your profile was your educational polygenic score rather than your actual academic degrees?” If that starts happening at scale – which is not too fanciful – the biological caste system Herrnstein and Murray warned of could become a reality.

To paraphrase Irving Kristol’s book about capitalism, I give meritocracy two cheers. It helps a little when it comes to securing people’s consent to the outcome inequalities that are inevitable if you limit the powers of the state – but it does not do enough, judging from the populist revolts of 2016 – and the cognitive elite has not yet become a hereditary elite, although it may in time. There are also the practical benefits to consider. All things being equal, a country’s economy should grow faster, its public services should be run more efficiently, its politicians should make better decisions, diseases should be eradicated faster, and so on, if the people at the top possess the highest IQs and make the most effort.

Two faces of a single calamity: how the war against inequality backfired dramatically

Review in the Spectator of The Meritocracy Trap by David Markovits. Published on 21st September 2019.

n 2015, Daniel Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, delivered a commencement address to that year’s graduating class in which he attacked the idea of meritocracy. It was, he said, a gilded cage that imprisons the elite and leaves the rest feeling excluded and undervalued. For Markovits to make these remarks at one of the cathedrals of the meritocratic church — students at Yale typically score above the 99th percentile in the nationwide Law School Admissions Test — was a kind of heresy and it attracted enough attention for him to secure a book deal. Four years later, The Meritocracy Trap is the result.

It is essentially a fleshing out of the argument he made in 2015, although he says in the acknowledgments that he’s been thinking about the subject for two decades. For Markovits, meritocracy didn’t begin with the Northcote-Trevelyan Report in 1854, which made entry into the Civil Service dependent on competitive examinations, but is a more recent phenomenon. At least it is in the United States, which is the focus of this book.

To hear Markovits tell it, meritocracy is the serpent that ruined the pastoral idyll that was America in the middle of the last century. Not that everything was rosy in the garden. He’s careful to note that racial prejudice was widespread in the 1950s — he describes racism as America’s ‘original sin’ — as was discrimination based on ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. But among the white, church-going masses, class differences were minimal and, for the most part, the nation was infused with an air of democratic equality that created a sense of mutual belonging.

Back then, economic inequality was low-end rather than high-end; that is, the gulf between the middle class and the poor was greater than that between the middle class and the rich. And, as the ‘American Century’ rolled on, a ‘War on Poverty’ (1964) was declared and the problem of persistent, inter-generational deprivation was much reduced, if not eliminated. Poverty is now at between a half and a sixth of its midcentury level, depending on how you measure it.

Unfortunately, the introduction of meritocratic admissions policies at Yale and other elite universities in the 1960s — and the concomitant growth of graduate schools, particularly in medicine, business and the law — led to the emergence of a wealthy, meritocratic elite which now constitutes a modern-day aristocracy. And that is nothing short of a catastrophe, according to Markovits.

Today, the top 1 per cent of American households now earn about 20 per cent of the total income and the top 0.1 per cent earns about 10 per cent. That’s double the share earned by the top 1 per cent in the period between 1950 and 1970 and triple the share earned by the top 0.1 per cent. But as the salaries of those at the top have skyrocketed, median incomes have remained largely stagnant, creating a yawning chasm between the highest earners and the rest. 2015 marked the first year since John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society (1958) in which a majority of Americans could no longer call themselves middle class.

Markovits lays nearly all of America’s contemporary problems at meritocracy’s door, from the rising suicide rate among middle-aged white men to the fact that women with a high-school education or less have more than half of their children out of wedlock (compared with just 3 per cent of women with a college degree). And he’s adamant that there are no compensating benefits, such as an increase in social mobility. As far as that’s concerned, meritocracy has been an abject failure. ‘At Harvard and Yale, more students come from households in the top 1 per cent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half,’ he writes.

Gaining admission to the best universities and graduate schools is a racket, according to Markovits. The meritocratic elite have become masters at passing on their privilege to their children, not via tax-efficient trust funds, but through expenditure on education. Whether it’s paying for ‘education consultants’ to help get their four-year-olds into New York pre-schools that charge upwards of $50,000 a year, raising money to build lavish new facilities at exclusive high schools in affluent suburbs, or shelling out $100,000 on private tutors, the super-rich will do whatever they can to purchase a competitive advantage for their children. In total, he estimates that America’s status-obsessed overlords spend around $10 million more on education per child than the average middle-class family.

But the most striking part of Markovits’s argument is the misery he claims this system inflicts on its supposed beneficiaries. In 1962, the American Bar Association declared that there were 1,300 billable hours per year available to the normal lawyer. Today, at a top law firm, employees on the partner track are expected to bill 2,400 hours a year. ‘Billing 2,400 hours requires working from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., six days a week, without vacation or sick days, every week of the year,’ he writes. Some law firms require associates, even partners, to work 100 hours a week and one analyst at an investment bank claimed to have worked 155 hours in a single week, leaving him with just 13 hours for everything else, including sleep. Needless to say, these poor drudges are afflicted with a long list of ailments, from anxiety and depression to a lack of Vitamin D.

The weakest part of the book is the final chapter, entitled ‘What should we do?’ Having concluded this blistering polemic against meritocracy — ‘unprecedented resentment’, ‘near-universal harm’, ‘two faces of a single calamity’ — Markovits then makes two rather anaemic proposals. The solution to this pestilence, apparently, is to remove the tax breaks from private schools and colleges unless they admit half their students from families in the bottom two thirds of the income distribution, and to reform payroll taxes so employers have an incentive to create more middle-class jobs. Not sure that will be enough to slay the beast.

The Meritocracy Trap is an entertaining read, full of useful facts, and contains some penetrating insights into the shortcomings of what amounts to a secular religion, not just in America but across the West. As a critique of the concept, it’s not quite up there with The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), my father’s book in which he coined the word, but will force apologists like me to think hard about how best to defend it. It won’t be easy.

Britain is becoming more meritocratic, not less


Column for the Spectator about how statistics comparing the percentage of 16 year-olds at independent schools with the percentage of privately-educated journalists, MPs, cricketers, etc., are misleading. Published on 29th June 2019.

You have to admire the Sutton Trust’s PR skills. For those who don’t know, the Sutton Trust is a social mobility thinktank that is constantly drawing attention to just how unmeritocratic contemporary Britain is. Every time it produces a report about the dominance of the privately educated Oxbridge elite, the media slavishly regurgitates it, even though the Trust has been churning out essentially the same report every year since it was founded in 1993, and even though, according to the Trust, 40 per cent of people in the media went to independent schools and 39 per cent to Oxbridge. You’d think the stubborn survival of the English class system wouldn’t come as a shock to them, but apparently it does, judging from their breathless, scandalised reaction each time the Sutton Trust points it out.

In the latest report, released on Tuesday, we’re told that two-fifths of Britain’s ‘elite’ attended private schools, including 43 per cent of the England cricket team, 48 per cent of FTSE 350 CEOs and 59 per cent of permanent secretaries. This in spite of the fact that only 7 per cent of British adults were educated privately. For Oxbridge, the discrepancy is worse. A measly 1 per cent of the population went to one of those two universities, yet their alumni account for 44 per cent of newspaper columnists, 57 per cent of the cabinet and an eye–watering 71 per cent of senior judges.

Cue howls of outrage from the usual suspects. ‘Our top professions are a closed club, dominated by a wealthy and privileged elite who attended the same private schools,’ thundered Jeremy Corbyn. ‘Labour will give every child the chance to flourish and radically transform society — to break the cycle of entrenched privilege.’ Needless to say, Corbyn did not add that, as a privately educated person himself, he would be stepping aside in favour of Angela Rayner, and there was no mention of John McDonnell, who went to a private Catholic boys’ school.

How reliable is this meritocracy audit? It’s pinch-of-salt time, I’m afraid. Take the ‘7 per cent’ figure. Turns out that’s the percentage of British 16-year-olds who were at fee-paying schools in 2017-8. But why not 18-year-olds, given that nearly all the members of the elite professions have done A-levels? The answer is that 16 per cent of 18-year-olds are educated at private schools, according to the Independent Schools Council. Still anomalous, but less so.

Then there’s the fact that, for the most part, the Sutton Trust has examined the educational background of people at the top in fields such as law, business and the civil service. The focus of the report is power and influence in modern Britain, so that’s fair enough, but it does mean that the people under the microscope are predominantly middle-aged. The upshot is that the report tells us how unequal educational opportunities were 25 years ago, when those folks were at school, rather than today, when things aren’t as bad. As recently as 1993-4, the percentage of A-level students getting three As who were from independent schools was 42 per cent; by 2017-18, it had fallen to 28 per cent.


More importantly, the report overlooks the fact that all the top independent schools, where many of the elite hail from, not to mention Oxford and Cambridge, have become meritocratic institutions. Not wholly meritocratic, to be sure, but no longer finishing schools for scions of the ruling class. Even 25 years ago, you had to do pretty well in Common Entrance to win a place at a first eleven public school, and the bar has risen since, with more places being set aside for clever children from modest backgrounds.

At Eton, for instance, 21 per cent of pupils in 2015-6 were on bursaries, with 73 of them paying no fees at all. It’s not surprising, then, that the products of these highly selective schools are over-represented in the elite professions, just as grammar school pupils are. The solution is to make these top schools even more meritocratic and drive up standards in state schools. One thing that goes unmentioned in the report is that a state sixth form in East London received 41 Oxbridge offers this year, higher than the majority of private schools.

To be fair, Sir Peter Lampl, the founder of the Sutton Trust, has been lobbying the government to bring back the assisted places scheme, making it easier for bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend private schools. Things may not be as bleak as his report suggests, but more power to his elbow.

Socially segregated Oxbridge colleges are a dreadful idea

Blog post for the Spectator arguing that comprehensive-only Oxbridge colleges would entrench privilege, not dismantle it. Published on 10th January 2019.

The Guardian has published a piece by Andrew Adonis urging Oxford and Cambridge to set up ‘access colleges’ which would only admit applicants from comprehensives.

I’ve long been a fan of Adonis. He did more to drive up standards in state schools as a Labour education minister than most Conservatives do as education secretaries. Unlike his partisan colleagues, he has also been wholly supportive of the free schools programme and gave me some much needed words of encouragement when I was trying to set one up. So I was disappointed to see him resurrect this old idea. The last time it was run up the flagpole, five years ago, I opposed it in an Oxford Union debate and my views haven’t changed.

Adonis rightly points out that Oxbridge has a poor track record when it comes to recruiting students from disadvantaged areas like Rochdale, Sunderland and Weymouth. Last month, the Sutton Trust published research showing that just eight top schools – most of them private – got more children into Oxbridge than 2,900 comprehensives combined. But the solution isn’t to create special colleges that only admit applicants from comprehensives. Rather, it is to raise standards in those 2,900 schools.

If Oxford and Cambridge followed Adonis’s advice, they would effectively be saying that children at comprehensives can never compete on a level playing field. Indeed, Adonis says precisely this in his article. Educational standards are so high at ‘top’ private schools and grammar schools, he says, that comprehensives can never hope to match them. That is profoundly demoralising to those of us trying to raise standards in non-selective state schools and who used to regard Adonis as one of our champions. Comprehensives will only appeal to people from all walks of life, including the professional elite, if the education they’re providing is every bit as good as that at ‘top’ schools. That won’t happen if Oxford and Cambridge hold them to a lower standard.

Adonis says this proposal is no different from all-women colleges, but he neglects to say that these are on their way out. When I was at Oxford, there were three women-only colleges — Somerville, St Hughes and St Hilda’s — but all of them now admit men. One of the reasons was that, being single sex, they struggled to attract good applicants. Bright, ambitious women didn’t want people to think they’d only got into Oxford because of positive discrimination, and I suspect state-school-only colleges would have difficulty attracting the best applicants from comprehensives for the same reason.

Adonis says it’s nonsense to think his new ‘access colleges’ wouldn’t perform as well as the existing ones. “The idea that 3,000 state schools can’t produce a few hundred able Oxbridge students, with the right encouragement and extra support, is farcical,” he writes. “A century ago they said that about women.”

But the fact is, the three remaining women-only Cambridge colleges do struggle to compete. One is second from bottom of the Tompkins Table (the Cambridge University league table), and another is fourth from bottom. The best performer is Newnham, which is ranked 22nd out of 29. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of positive discrimination. This isn’t because women don’t have the intellectual firepower to compete with men. Rather, it’s because these colleges struggle to attract the most intellectually able applicants and the same would be true of Adonis’s colleges.

It’s also worth noting that since Oxford phased out single-sex colleges, the percentage of women admitted to the university hasn’t gone down; in 2017, Oxford admitted more UK-domiciled female undergraduates than men.

One of the most unattractive things about Adonis’s proposal is that it would reinforce the misconception that Oxbridge is a bastion of class privilege. Suppose a handful of Oxbridge colleges became comprehensive-school-only. The inevitable consequence is that all the other colleges would become just that bit posher. Not only would that be undesirable in its own right, it would confirm the impression among potential applicants from comprehensives that Oxford and Cambridge are the last redoubts of the English class system where people like them are treated like second-class citizens.

Adonis’s proposal would only exacerbate the problem. The main reason kids from comprehensives are under-represented at Oxbridge is because not enough of them apply. In 2017, 35 per cent of UK Oxford applications were from the independent sector, in spite of private schools educating just seven per cent of the British population. During my time as an Oxford undergraduate, I joined an outreach scheme that involved travelling to comprehensives in areas like Rochdale, Sunderland and Weymouth and trying to persuade sixth-formers to apply. The most common reaction was that Oxford was for posh people — not the likes of them. I did my best to counter this impression by talking about the state-school boys and girls who were thriving at Oxford, as well as pointing out that the quality of the teaching was second to none. It rarely did any good. They were convinced they’d be out of their comfort zone. If Adonis’s ‘access colleges’ had existed back then, and I was able to tell them that they could apply to special institutions within Oxford that only admitted kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, that would hardly have dispelled their anxiety. On the contrary, they’d have worried that that would make them stand out even more.

I thought this prejudice was the legacy of Brideshead Revisited, broadcast a few years earlier. But this attitude still persists today and applies as much to Cambridge as it does to Oxford. I blame people like Lord Adonis, who continue to attack Oxbridge for being ‘elitist’. State-school-only colleges wouldn’t dismantle this myth; they would perpetuate it.

I like the idea of meritocracy as much as my father hated it

Column for the Spectator about why I’m a qualified enthusiast for meritocracy. Published on 3rd November 2018.

Last week I spoke at an event at Nottingham University to commemorate the 60th anniversary of The Rise of the Meritocracy, the book by my father that added a new word to the English language. A dystopian satire in the same mould as Nineteen Eighty-Four, it describes a nightmarish society of the future in which status is based on a combination of effort and intelligence rather than inherited privilege.

1965 The Rise of the Meritocracy - Michael Young.jpg

That sounds like an improvement and, to my father’s annoyance, the word ‘meritocracy’ has come to stand for something politically desirable when he intended the book to be a warning. As a lifelong socialist, he didn’t like meritocracy because he thought it gave the appearance of fairness to the economic inequalities thrown up by free-market capitalism, thereby delaying the emergence of a more egalitarian society.

In my speech I explained that I liked meritocracy for much the same reason. I regard inequality as an inevitable by-product of limited government, which history teaches us is preferable to excessive state power. In common with many utopian socialists, my father believed the state would just ‘wither away’ once it had overseen a massive redistribution of wealth and power, but I’ve always been sceptical. Such optimism is contingent on a conception of human nature that is belied by science, particularly evolutionary psychology: that man is a peace-loving, altruistic creature who can be depended upon not to engage in predation, cruelty, warfare, sexual enslavement and homicidal violence once the workers’ paradise has been created.

I believe, with Kant, that out of the crooked timbre of humanity no straight thing was ever made, so all utopian political projects, whether originating on the left or the right, will inevitably involve a massive escalation in state power as their architects battle to contain our unruly natures. Better to trust our existing laws, institutions, customs, traditions and religions to keep us in line. If we can add meritocracy to this array of checks, so much the better.

But there’s a problem, which is that it seems to be undermining confidence in our system rather than underpinning it. Two books published last week — National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell and Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities by Eric Kaufmann — emphasise the extent to which the electoral upsets of the past few years have been fuelled by resentment against the merito-cratic elite.

As has been well documented, education level was a better predictor than income of whether a person voted Leave or Remain, just as it was of whether someone plumped for Hillary or Trump. Both books make the point that it isn’t just lack of opportunities that have alienated the poorly educated in Britain and the US. It’s also the elite’s callous disregard for their anxieties about the erosion of their communities. When the white working-class — and non-whites, too — express their concerns about mass immigration, they’re dismissed as ‘-racist’ and ‘xenophobic’.

One of the other speakers at the Nottingham University event was Dr Faiza Shaheen, director of the Corbynite think-tank CLASS. That stands for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, but its name is misleading in that Shaheen seemed more concerned about transgender rights and other identitarian causes than she did about the plight of Labour’s traditional supporters. To my ears, she sounded like a subscriber to the new woke version of Marxism in which the bourgeoisie has been replaced by straight white males and the proletariat with women and minorities.

Since this inevitably involves attacking ‘white privilege’ and ‘the patriarchy’, it’s a political narrative that seems unlikely to win back estranged working-class voters. On the contrary, Shaheen’s solution to our broken system seemed to be more meritocracy, urging members of the male, pale and stale establishment to make way for people like her. To underline the point, she is Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate in Chingford and Wood Green, Iain Duncan Smith’s constituency.

At the end of The Rise of the Meritocracy, the disenfranchised masses rise up and overthrow their new masters in 2033. That means we have 15 years to fix things, assuming my father’s prophesy is accurate. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think a Corbyn victory would help.

It is unfair to blame Oxford for the low number of black undergraduates

Blog post I wrote for the Spectator in response to David Lammy MP’s attack on Oxford colleges for the low number of black students admitted each year. It was published on 20th October 2017.

David Lammy has been making headlines today, accusing Oxford of ‘social apartheid’ because it offers so few places to black British students. This claim is based on an FOI request Lammy submitted to the university asking how many black British A-level students each college has offered places to in the last six years. The most eye-catching statistic is that 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not offer a place to a single black British pupil with A-levels in 2015 and Oriel College has only offered one place to a black British A-level student since 2010.

There is no doubt that Oxford does admit too few black British students, but it is worth pointing out that this data has been sliced and diced to paint the bleakest possible picture. Of the 10 ‘colleges’ that didn’t make any offers to black British applicants in 2015, four are Permanent Private Halls, not full colleges, and admit very few numbers of students, black or white. Another – Harris Manchester – is a former Private Hall and only admits students aged 21 or over.

The picture is marginally better if you look at the data for 2016, with the number of ‘colleges’ in the offending category falling to nine, and better still if you include all black British applicants – not just those doing A-levels. If you include students taking the International Baccalaureate and other post-16 qualifications, Oriel made offers to four black British applicants between 2010 and 2016. Not great, obviously, but better than one.

Do these statistics suggest Oxford is guilty of racial discrimination? Lammy does not come straight out and say that, but he certainly drops some thinly-veiled hints. ‘Difficult questions have to be asked, including whether there is systematic bias inherent in the Oxbridge admissions process that is working against talented young people from ethnic minority backgrounds,’ he says.

That is unfair. Twenty seven per cent of all the students at Oxford – undergraduate and post-graduate, British and overseas – are from BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. If you just look at British domiciled students admitted to the university as undergraduates in 2016, that figure falls to 15.9 per cent, but that’s still pretty respectable given that only 13 per cent of the UK population is BME. The fact that Oxford is now admitting so many BME students, and that the percentage of students it’s admitting from state schools is trending upwards, is not surprising given that the university spends millions of pounds a year on widening participation, and millions more on financial aid for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is true that the acceptance rate for applicants for undergraduate places is lower for BME students than it is for white students – 16 per cent and 24 per cent respectively – but that isn’t because the university is guilty of ‘systematic bias’. Rather, it is because BME students apply in disproportionately large numbers for the university’s most popular courses – Economics and Management, Medicine, PPE, Law and Maths. If you factor in the lower acceptance rates for those subjects across the board (only seven per cent in Economics and Management, for instance), that explains most of the discrepancy.

As I have written before, the reason there are so few black British undergraduates at Oxford is because so few apply. In 2016, Oxford received 12,193 applications from students domiciled in the UK, of which 328 were black British. (Of those, 54 were offered places and 34 got in.) Why so few applicants? Because not enough black students are getting the three As at A-level they need to stand a realistic chance of securing a place. If you want to boost the number of applicants you need to increase the number of black British students meeting that standard and the way to do that is to improve post-16 education, particularly in urban areas.

A sixth form which is pointing the way is the LAE (London Academy of Excellence), a free school in Newham. LAE was set up by a consortium of independent schools and opened in 2012. Since then, it has been sending large numbers of BME students to top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. This year it sent 148 pupils to Russell Group universities, with 15 going to Oxbridge. The majority of these students are BME.

David Lammy is right to draw attention to the low numbers of black British students at Oxford. But he is pointing his finger in the wrong place. The fault does not lie with Oxford, which really isn’t guilty of ‘systematic bias’, but with our schools. If he wants to boost those numbers he should be calling for more free schools like LAE – and I’m happy to report that a second LAE has just opened in Tottenham in David Lammy’s constituency. If we can set up an LAE or similar in every city in England, the number of black British students at Oxford will increase significantly.

Meritocracy isn’t fair

Column for the Spectator about a programme I made for Radio 4 about meritocracy. It was published on 8th April 2017.

I’ve just made a programme for Radio 4 about the populist revolts that swept Britain and America last year. Were they predicted in a book written by my father, Michael Young, almost 60 years ago? I’m thinking of The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire that imagines a 21st-century Britain governed by a highly educated technocratic elite. Eventually, the intellectual and moral hubris of these Masters of the Universe is too much for ordinary people and they’re overthrown in a bloody revolution in 2034.


It often surprises people to learn that my father’s critique of meritocracy was underpinned by his belief that human differences are rooted in genetics, a view many on the left associate with neo-liberal economics and the libertarian right. How could the man who wrote the 1945 Labour manifesto and played an important part in creating the welfare state be a hereditarian? Surely the creed of socialism depends on believing that all men are born with the same innate capacities, and the reason some succeed and others fail is because of environmental differences?

Before trying to solve this puzzle, let me summarise the reason Michael thought meritocracy was doomed to fail. The problem, according to him, is that the abilities rewarded in a meritocratic society, namely, exceptional intelligence and drive, are natural gifts rather than learned characteristics. So you get plenty of social mobility when the principle first takes hold but, as a meritocratic society matures, this begins to tail off because the offspring of those at the top are more likely to have these traits than the children of those at the bottom. Of course there are exceptions. Genetic variation means highly able children are born to parents of lower intelligence and vice-versa. But the children of the cognitive elite still have the dice loaded in their favour, and that remains true even if you eliminate environmental advantages. Over time, my father believed, the fluidity and dynamism unleashed by meritocracy would be replaced by a rigid caste system underpinned by biology, leading to widespread discontent.

Was that the cause of the electoral revolts of last year? The conventional wisdom is that it can’t possibly have been, because Britain and America aren’t genuine meritocracies. However, when you ask people why they think that, they automatically point to low levels of social mobility, and, by itself, that doesn’t disprove my father’s hypothesis. On the contrary, it could be evidence that both countries are on their way to becoming mature meritocracies. You have to look at other things, such as the extent to which IQ predicts socioeconomic status, and whether it is indeed genetically based. I interviewed several leading authorities on these subjects for my radio programme, including Peter Saunders, a former sociology professor at Sussex University, and Professor Robert Plomin, a behavioural geneticist at King’s College, London. It turns out my father may have been on to something, although I should say that neither Saunders nor Plomin share his pessimism about meritocracy degenerating into a genetically based class system. Of all the people I interviewed, only Charles Murray, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, endorses this prognosis.

Murray himself has been the target of left-wing student protests ever since he co-authored The Bell Curve in 1994, a book that documented the emergence of America’s meritocratic ruling class and warned of the potentially harmful consequences of segregating society according to IQ. He happens to be a conservative, but often points out that there’s nothing inherently right-wing about believing variations in human personal characteristics, such as intelligence, are based on genetic differences. It doesn’t automatically lead to social Darwinism or eugenics, as some on the Left seem to think. After all, if the exceptional abilities of the meritocratic elite are characteristics they were born with and have done nothing to deserve, then they don’t deserve the rewards that flow from them. Seen in this light, the hereditarian critique of meritocracy could be the basis of an argument for more redistributive taxation.

My father thought social status should be based on how decent and kind people are, not whether they happen to have the right genes. Idealistic, perhaps, but the Left would be wise to try to incorporate the findings of behaviour geneticists into their political philosophy rather than continue to deny them. Why? Because they’re almost certainly right.

Click here to listen to the Radio 4 documentary. It was broadcast on 12th April 2017.

How today’s ruling class uses meritocracy to stay at the top

Column for the Spectator about the way meritocratic credentials are brandished by the ruling class to legitimise their power. Published on 3rd January 2017.

After Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan completed their report on civil service reform in 1854, in which they made the controversial recommendation that recruitment should be based on a competitive exam, the government carried out what today would be called a consultation. Among the more interesting objections was the view that the reforms would make the civil service less democratically accountable. This argument was summarised by Helen Andrews, an Australian policy wonk, in a fascinating essay entitled ‘The New Ruling Class’ published last summer: ‘Civil servants who felt they owed their jobs to no one and nothing but their own merit would be independent, which was also to say impervious to checks and balances.’

One hundred and sixty-three years later, this warning about the first-ever meritocrats, namely, that they would come to see themselves as an elite whose intelligence and expertise trumped the will of the people, seems rather prescient. Isn’t that exactly why the European and American elites got such a bloody nose in the EU referendum and the US presidential election?

Some will object to describing people like David Cameron and Hillary Clinton as ‘meritocrats’, as if that term should only apply to people who have raised themselves up by their bootstraps. But one of the oddities of meritocracy is that it has been more enthusiastically embraced by those born on the right side of the tracks. The well-to-do have seized upon the trappings of meritocracy as a way of legitimising and perpetuating their privileged status — drilling their children to pass entrance exams to highly selective schools, encouraging them to attend the best universities, and generally doing everything they can to ensure they’re bristling with the right credentials when they apply for membership of the professional elite.

Which isn’t to say that no one from an underprivileged background ever broke into this club, or that every scion of a rich and powerful family ended up at a world-class university; only that meritocracy hasn’t been responsible for as much social mobility as its original prophets hoped. Fifty years ago, the meritocratic principle may have accounted for a good deal of movement, both up and down the NRS social scale (A, B, C1, C2 and so on). But today its beneficiaries are more and more likely to be the offspring of our meritocratic overlords. To give one of Helen Andrews’s examples, in 1985 fewer than half of students at selective American colleges came from families in the top income quartile; in 2010, the figure was 67 per cent.

Members of the meritocratic elite would dispute that it has become as closed and sclerotic as the aristocratic class the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms were designed to supplant, and point to the number of women and minorities who’ve been admitted to the club in recent years. However, the fact that these new recruits aren’t white men doesn’t mean they weren’t born into educated well-off families. Equality of opportunity has come to mean diversity to the cosmopolitan, liberal elite, not social mobility.

The fact that the ruling class in Europe and America has taken on this meritocratic plumage, and believes itself to be wholly deserving of its status, explains why it attracts so much opprobrium among those who lack the right credentials. As a rule, the less educated a British or American voter, the more likely they are to have plumped for Brexit or Trump in 2016. Last year’s seismic election results weren’t just a revolt of the losers from globalisation against the winners; they were a revolt of the uneducated against the meritocratic elite. And with some justification, since the chances of someone born into a poor, uneducated family joining this exclusive club are extremely slim.

In the eyes of some, the solution is more meritocracy. That is, you improve the quality of education available to the least well-off, encourage universities to engage in more outreach and shame large employers into recruiting more fast-streamers from underprivileged backgrounds. But it would also help if the meritocratic elite started to behave with a bit more humility. Just because they have postgraduate degrees and know the catechisms of political correctness doesn’t mean they’re entitled to take decisions affecting tens of millions of people without having secured their democratic consent. The first critics of meritocracy 163 years ago put their finger on a problem still unsolved.

The fall of the meritocracy

This is an essay about meritocracy and whether it can survive that was published in Quadrant, an Australian periodical, on 7th September 2015. 

In 1958, my father Michael Young published a short book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2023: An Essay on Education and Equality. It purported to be a paper written by a sociologist in 2034 about the transformation of Britain from a feudal society in which people’s social position and level of income was largely determined by the socio-economic status of their parents into a modern Shangri-La in which status is based solely on merit. He invented the word “meritocracy” to describe this principle for allocating wealth and prestige and the new society it gave rise to.

The essay begins with the introduction of open examinations for entry into the civil service in the 1870s – hailed as “the beginning of the modern era” – and continues to discuss real events up until the late 1950s, at which point it veers off into fantasy, describing the emergence of a fully-fledged meritocracy in Britain in the second half of the 20th Century. In spite of being semi-fictional, the book is clearly intended to be prophetic – or, rather, a warning. Like George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), The Rise of the Meritocracy is a dystopian satire that identifies various aspects of the contemporary world and describes a future they might lead to if left unchallenged. Michael was particularly concerned about the introduction by Britain’s wartime coalition government in 1944 of the 11+, an intelligence test that was used to determine which children should go to grammar schools (the top 15%) and which to secondary moderns and technical schools (the remaining 85%). It wasn’t just the sorting of children into sheep and goats at the age of 11 that my father objected to. As a socialist, he disapproved of equality of opportunity on the grounds that it gave the appearance of fairness to the massive inequalities created by capitalism. He feared that the meritocratic principle would help to legitimise the pyramid-like structure of British society.

In the short-term, the book achieved its political aim. It was widely read by Michael’s colleagues in the Labour Party (he ran the party’s research department from 1945-51) and helped persuade his friend Anthony Crosland, who became Labour Education Secretary in 1965, that the 11+ should be phased out and the different types of school created by the 1944 Education Act should be replaced by non-selective, one-size-fits-all comprehensives. Crosland famously declared: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” Today, there are only 164 grammar schools in England and 68 in Northern Ireland. There are none in Wales.

But even though my father’s book helped to win the battle over selective education, he lost the war. The term “meritocracy” has now entered the language and while its meaning hasn’t changed – it is still used to describe the organising principle Michael identified in his book – it has come to be seen as something good rather than bad.[1] The debate about grammar schools rumbles on in Britain, but their opponents no longer argue that a society in which status is determined by merit is undesirable. Rather, they embrace this principle and claim that a universal comprehensive system will lead to higher levels of social mobility than a system that allows some schools to “cream skim” the most intelligent children at the age of 11.[2]

We are all meritocrats now

Not only do pundits and politicians on all sides claim to be meritocrats – and this is true of most developed countries, not just Britain – they also agree that the principle remains stillborn. In Britain and America there is a continuing debate about whether the rate of inter-generational social mobility has remained stagnant or declined in the past 50 years, but few think it has increased.[3] The absence of opportunities for socio-economic advancement is now seen as one of the key political problems facing Western democracies, leading to the moral collapse of the indigenous white working class, the alienation of economically unsuccessful migrant groups and unsustainable levels of welfare dependency. This cluster of issues is the subject of several recent books by prominent political scientists, most notably Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015) by Robert Putnam.

Unlike my father, I’m not an egalitarian. As Friedrich Hayek and others have pointed out, the difficulty with end state equality is that it can only be achieved at too great a human cost. Left to their own devices, some men will inevitably accumulate more wealth than others, whether through ability or luck, and the only way to “correct” this is through the state’s use of coercive power. If the history of the 20th Century teaches us anything, it is that the dream of creating a socialist utopia often leads to the suppression of free speech, the imprisonment of a significant percentage of the population and, in some extreme cases, state-organised mass murder.

Having said that, I recognise that a lack of social mobility poses a threat to the sustainability of liberal democracies and, in common with many others, believe the solution lies in improving our education systems. As noted earlier, there is a consensus among most participants in the debate about education reform that the ideal schools are those that manage to eliminate the attainment gap between the children of the rich and the poor. That is, an education system in which children’s exam results don’t vary according to the neighbourhood they’ve grown up in, the income or education of their parents, the number of books in the family home, etc. Interestingly, there is a reluctance on the part of many liberal educationalists to accept the corollary of this, which is that attainment in these ideal schools would correspond much more strongly with children’s natural abilities.[4]This is partly because it doesn’t sit well with their egalitarian instincts and partly because they reject the idea that intelligence has a genetic basis. But I’m less troubled by this. I want the clever, hardworking children of those in the bottom half of income distribution to move up, and the less able children of those in the top half to move down.

In other words, I think the answer is more meritocracy. I approve of the principle for the same reason my father disapproved of it, because it helps to secure people’s consent to the inequalities that are the inevitable consequence of limited government. It does this by (a) allocating wealth and prestige in a way that appearsto be fair; and (b) creating opportunities for those born on the wrong side of the tracks, so if you start with very little that doesn’t mean you’ll end up with very little, or that your children will. If you think a free society is preferable to one dominated by the state, and the unequal distribution of wealth is an inevitable consequence of reining in state power, then you should embrace the principle of meritocracy for making limited government sustainable.

The challenge posed by behavioural genetics

However, there’s a problem here – let’s call it the challenge posed by behavioural genetics – which is that cognitive ability and other characteristics that lead to success, such as conscientiousness, impulse control and a willingness to defer gratification, are between 40% and 80% heritable.[5] I know that many people will be reluctant to accept that, but the evidence from numerous studies of identical twins separated at birth, as well as non-biological siblings raised in the same household, is pretty overwhelming. And it’s probable that in the next few years genetic research scientists will produce even more evidence that important aspects of people’s personalities – including those that determine whether they succeed or fail – are linked to their genes, with the relevant variants being physically identified.[6] The implication is that a society in which status is allocated according to merit isn’t much fairer than one in which it’s inherited – or, rather, it is partly inherited, but via parental DNA rather than tax-efficient trusts. This is an argument against meritocracy made by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971): You’ve done nothing to deserve the talents you’re born with – they’re distributed according to a “natural lottery” – so you don’t deserve what flows from them.[7]

It’s worth pausing here to note that Rawls accepts that not all men are born equal, genetically speaking. Some do better out of the “natural lottery” than others and that, in turn, has an impact on their life chances. This is far from universally accepted by liberal commentators and policy makers, most of whom prefer to think of man as a tabula rasa, forged by society rather than nature. Indeed, this is the thinking behind government programmes like Home Start, which aim to transform the life chances of disadvantaged young children by improving their environments. The fact that so much left-wing political thought rests on this assumption is the main reason the left has reacted with such hostility to all attempts by geneticists and psychologists to link differences in intelligence to genetic differences. I will return to this below.

Now, Rawls’s argument isn’t a knock down objection to meritocracy. For one thing, it’s too deterministic. Great wealth doesn’t simply “flow” from an abundance of natural gifts. A considerable amount of effort is also involved and rewarding that effort does seemfair, even if some people are born with stronger willpower and a greater aptitude for hard work than others. Nevertheless, there’s a “gearing” difficulty – because some people are more gifted than others, the same amount of effort will reap different rewards, depending on their natural endowments.

There’s another, more fundamental problem with Rawls’s argument, which is that it conflates desert with entitlement. A person may not deserve his or her wealth in a meritocratic society, but that doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to it. That’s a separate question that turns on how it was accumulated. As Robert Nozick points out in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), provided a person’s acquisition of wealth hasn’t involved violating anyone else’s rights, they’re entitled to keep it and bequeath it to their children. The standard that Rawls judges meritocracy by is unrealistically high. Throughout history, people’s status has rarely, if ever, been deserved. Even supposing it was possible to reach agreement about how to measure desert, it would require an all-powerful state to ensure that wealth and prestige were distributed according to that metric and, as with end state equality, we’d end up paying too high a price in terms of liberty.[8]

Putting aside the issue about whether a meritocratic society is any fairer than the one we live in at present – or fairer than an aristocratic society – it’s hard to argue that it isn’t more efficient. All things being equal, a country’s economy will grow faster, its public services will be run better, its politicians will make smarter decisions, diseases are more likely to be eradicated, etc., if the people at the top possess the most cognitive ability.[9]

The ossification problem

However, there’s a practical difficulty with meritocracy that I think is harder to deal with than any of the philosophical points made by Rawls and that is the low probability that meritocracy will produce a continual flow of opportunities over the long term. On the contrary, it may eventually lead to them drying up. Suppose we do manage to create the meritocratic education system referred to above. It would produce a good deal of upward and downward social mobility to begin with, but over the long term, as the link between status and merit grows stronger, you’d expect to see less and less inter-generational movement. Why? Because the children of the meritocratic elite would, in all likelihood, inherit the natural gifts enjoyed by their parents. In time, a meritocratic society would become as rigid and class-bound as a feudal society. Let’s call this the ossification problem.

This is precisely what happens in the dystopian future described in my father’s book. “By 1990 or thereabouts,” writes the sociologist narrator, “all adults with IQs of more than 125 belonged to the meritocracy. A high proportion of the children with IQs over 125 were the children of these same adults. The top of today are breeding the top of tomorrow to a greater extent than at any time in the past. The elite is on the way to becoming hereditary; the principles of heredity and merit are coming together. The vital transformation which has taken more than two centuries to accomplish is almost complete.”

Most people think of this as a wholly theoretical danger that won’t arise until some distant point in the future, if then. As discussed, the conventional wisdom among social commentators in Britain and America is that their societies can’t possibly be meritocratic because of the low levels of social mobility. But a lack of movement between classes is only evidence of this if you assume that natural abilities are distributed more or less randomly across society. What if that’s not true? It could be that two things have been happening in the advanced societies of the West that have been obscured by the intense focus among policy makers on the impact of environmental factors on children’s life chances. First, our societies could be more meritocratic than they’re generally given credit for; and, second, the “vital transformation” described by my father, whereby the meritocratic elite is becoming a hereditary elite, could already be underway.[10]

Let’s examine the two parts of this hypothesis in turn.

How high is the correlation between IQ and socio-economic status?

The view of most liberals is that the correlation between IQ and socio-economic status in the West isn’t very high. “Once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians), there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes,” writes the New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (2011). Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (1995), thinks that IQ accounts for no more than between four and 10% of career success. However, this is at odds with the scientific research. As one social scientist says in the introduction to his 2006 meta-analysis of longitudinal studies on the topic, summing up decades of research: “Although it is sometimes claimed in popular press and textbooks that intelligence has no relationship to important real-life outcomes, the scientific research on the topic leaves little doubt that people with higher scores on IQ tests are better educated, hold more prestigious occupations, and earn higher incomes than people with lower scores.”[11]

In The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray argue – pretty convincingly – that the correlation between intelligence and socio-economic status has become stronger in America since the 1950s as access to higher education has become more competitive and the economy has become more knowledge-based, particularly at each end of the IQ distribution curve. They don’t claim that a person’s IQ is the sole determinant of whether they succeed or fail, only that it’s an increasingly important factor. Using a variety of evidence, they show that cognitive ability is a better predictor of achievement in school and occupational status than the standard environmental factors singled out by liberal policy makers.[12]

At the bottom of American society, according to Herrnstein and Murray, is a class of people they describe as “very dull”. Members of this group possess IQs of 80 or below, often struggle to complete high school and are either unemployed or working in low-paying jobs. They analyse the data thrown up by the National Longitudinal Survey of Labour Market Experience of Youth (NLSY), a study of 12,686 people, 94% of whom were given an intelligence test, and conclude that IQ is a better predictor of low socio-economic status – and the associated problems of poverty, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, criminality and drug abuse – than any competing variable, including parental socio-economic status. According to their analysis, someone with an IQ of 130 has a less than two per cent chance of living in poverty, whereas someone with an IQ of 70 has a 26% chance.

At the pinnacle of American society, by contrast, there is a “cognitive elite”. Typically, members of this group possess IQs of 125 and above, have post-graduate degrees from good universities and belong to a handful of “high-IQ professions”, e.g. accountants, lawyers, architects, chemists, college teachers, dentists, doctors, engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, natural scientists, social scientists and senior business executives. “Even as recently as midcentury,” write Herrnstein and Murray, “America was still a society in which most bright people were scattered throughout the wide range of jobs. As the century draws to a close, a very high proportion of that same group is now concentrated within a few occupations that are highly screened for IQ.”[13]

A British sociologist called Peter Saunders – who, like the fictional sociologist in my father’s book, is a celebrant of meritocracy – echoes many of the findings of The Bell Curve. Saunders argues that in Britain cognitive ability is over twice as important as class origins in influencing class destinations. He bases this, in part, on an analysis of a 1972 study of social mobility carried out by the sociologist John Goldthorpe and his colleagues at Nuffield College, Oxford, which involved a nationally representative sample of 10,000 men. The fact that there’s a strong correlation between the socio-economic status of fathers and sons within this cohort doesn’t mean Britain is un-meritocratic, according to Saunders. He shows that if you factor in the men’s IQs, the level of mobility is almost exactly what you’d expect in a perfectly meritocratic society. “The social mobility histories of the 10,000 men interviewed for Goldthorpe’s study in 1972 are almost precisely what we would have expected to find had they and their fathers been recruited to their class positions purely on the basis of their intelligence,” he writes in Social Mobility Myths (2010).

Since Herrnstein and Murray published The Bell Curve, more evidence has emerged that there’s a strong correlation between IQ and socio-economic status in America. Tino Sanandaji, a research Fellow at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics, has drilled down into a dataset tracking a representative sample of the US population and discovered that those with IQs above 120 typically earn twice as much as those with average IQs.[14] Christopher F. Chabris, a professor of psychology at Union College, estimates that a random person with above-average intelligence has a two-thirds chance of earning an above-average income, while a random person of below average intelligence has only a one third chance.[15]

Many people will recoil from this hypothesis because they’ll read it as a justification of inequality – a form of social Darwinism.[16] After all, if our society is on the way to becoming a fully-fledged meritocracy, doesn’t that mean the resulting distribution of wealth and power is justified? The answer is: not when you factor in the heritability of the traits that are linked with socio-economic status. As Rawls’ points out, no one deserves their natural abilities – and, for that reason, the closer the link between IQ and socio-economic status, the less defensible inequality becomes. I happen to think there are other, pragmatic justifications of inequality – namely, the terrible human cost of trying to bring about end state equality – but that’s not contingent on this particular hypothesis or the more general claim that many of the differences in people’s personalities are linked to genetic differences. Even if all men were tabulae rasae and they all started out on a level playing field, they would still end up in different places, if only because some would be luckier than others. As discussed already, any attempt to correct that would inevitably involve unacceptable levels of state coercion. The truth is, there’s nothing inherently right wing – or anti-egalitarian – about the conclusions of Herrnstein, Murray, Saunders and others. If anything, the claim that there’s now a strong link between IQ and status in the advanced societies of the West, seen against the background of behavioural genetics, is an argument for more redistributive taxation, not less.

Has the meritocratic elite become a hereditary elite?

What about the second part of the hypothesis – that the principles of meritocracy and hereditary are coming together? Even if you accept that the developed world is more meritocratic than it’s generally given credit for, it doesn’t follow that “the top of today are breeding the top of tomorrow”, to use my father’s phrase. Is there any evidence that the children of today’s cognitive elite will become the cognitive elite of tomorrow? Yes, according to Herrnstein and Murray.

Herrnstein first put forward this idea – that the cognitive elite was becoming a hereditary elite – in a 1971 essay for the Atlantic called ‘IQ’, later expanded into a book called IQ in the Meritocracy (1973). His argument can be summed up in a syllogism: If differences in mental abilities are inherited, and if success requires those abilities, and if earnings and prestige depend on success, then social standing will be based to some extent on inherited differences among people. He writes:

Greater wealth, health, freedom, fairness, and educational opportunity are not going to give us the egalitarian society of our philosophical heritage,” he writes. “It will instead give us a society sharply graduated, with ever greater innate separation between the top and the bottom, and ever more uniformity within families as far as inherited abilities are concerned. [My italics.] Naturally, we find this vista appalling, for we have been raised to think of social equality as our goal. The vista reminds us of the world we had hoped to leave behind – aristocracies, privileged classes, unfair advantages and disadvantages of birth… By removing arbitrary barriers between classes, society has encouraged the creation of biological barriers.

Herrnstein and Murray make the same point in The Bell Curve when discussing falling social mobility. “Most people at present are stuck near where their parents were on the income distribution in part because IQ, which has become a major predictor of income, passes on sufficiently from one generation to the next to constrain economic mobility,” they write.

And Murray returns to this theme in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012). “The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools,” he writes, “is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children.” By way of evidence, he points out that 87% of college-bound seniors who scored above 700 in their SATs in 2010 had at least one parent with a college degree, with 56% of them having a parent with a graduate degree. He concludes: “Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.”[17]

Why should this be happening, given that IQ, like many other heritable characteristics such as height, regresses to the mean? Herrnstein and Murray think a large part of the explanation is the increasing tendency of people to select their partners according to similar levels of intelligence thanks to assortative mating or homogamy. This is a well-documented phenomenon whereby humans are more likely to mate with those who have the same characteristics as them, particularly IQ. Up until the 1950s, the impact of assortative mating on the stratification of society was kept in check by the limited opportunities for highly intelligent men and women to meet each other. However, as the best universities have become more and more selective, and as women have begun to be admitted in equal numbers, these opportunities have increased. If male and female members of the cognitive elite don’t pair up in college, they pair up afterwards in the high-paying firms and rarefied social environments that they gravitate towards. The result is that those on the far right-hand side of the IQ distribution curve have become much more likely to mate with each other and produce highly intelligent children. Admittedly, not quite as intelligent as their parents, on average, but intelligent enough to make them more likely to gain admittance to this exclusive club than the children of parents who aren’t members of the cognitive elite. Regression to the mean still takes place, but it happens more slowly because both parents are highly intelligent – slowly enough to create an ossification problem.[18]

Herrnstein and Murray confine their discussion of this occurrence to America, but there’s reason to think the same thing is happening in the UK. David Willetts, the former Conservative universities minister, believes the rise in assortative mating among university graduates helps explain the apparent fall in inter-generational mobility in Britain since the mid-20th Century. As he puts it in The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – and Why They Should Give It Back (2010): “If advantage marries advantage then we must not be surprised if social mobility suffers… increasing equality between the sexes has meant increasing inequality between social classes. Feminism has trumped egalitarianism.”

Can meritocracy survive?

Now, don’t misunderstand me. However meritocratic most liberal-democracies are, they’re far from being fully-fledged meritocracies. The evidence suggests that at present the correlation between IQ and educational outcomes is weaker for children from disadvantaged backgrounds than for their peers, with environmental factors playing a bigger part. Consequently, if schools become more meritocratic, disadvantaged children with above-average IQs will benefit – and there are still plenty of them who are underachieving at present.[19] There’s also no reason to think social mobility will grind to a complete halt if the correlation between IQ and socio-economic status ever approaches 100%, even allowing for assortative mating. In Coming Apart, Charles Murray estimates that there will always be 14% of children in the top five per cent of the IQ distribution curve who are the offspring of parents with below-average IQs. Admittedly, that’s not much when you consider that the remaining 86% will have parents with above-average IQs, but it’s still sufficient to prevent complete ossification – and many more people on the left-hand side of the curve will produce children with IQs that place them on the right-hand side, even if they’re not in the top five per cent. So there would still be some upward social mobility in my father’s meritocratic dystopia, albeit not a great deal of bottom-to-top.

The problem is, it might not be enough. In a post-script to The Rise of the Meritocracy, we learn that the sociologist narrator has been killed in a riot at Peterloo in 2034. In the end, the new social order he describes isn’t sustainable because there’s too little mobility in a mature meritocracy. Those at the bottom of the pyramid don’t simply resent having to eke out a living in menial, low-paying jobs, while the elite live in luxury; they resent being told that they deserve their inferior status. They also dislike the fact that their children have very little chance of rising to the top. The upshot is that they join forces with a dissident element in the ruling class and revolt, overthrowing the meritocratic elite in a bloody coup.

Could this happen in the advanced societies of the West? Is it fanciful to detect traces of this beginning to happen already in the ‘Occupy’ movements, with their rhetoric against “the one per cent”, and the popularity of insurgent, left-wing political parties in Greece and Spain? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it could and it would lead to all the unspeakable horrors that most other egalitarian revolutions have resulted in. What can we do to prevent it? How can this shortcoming of meritocratic societies be corrected without straying too far from the principle of limited government?[20]

One solution is a guaranteed basic income. This was an idea first floated at the beginning of the 16th Century and which is currently gaining some traction in various forms on the left and right of American politics. It has the merit of addressing the problem posed by the falling value of unskilled labour, as well as the disappearance of blue-collar jobs caused by increasing mechanisation, not to mention the replacement of some white-collar workers by intelligent machines, which the soothsayers of Silicon Valley tell us is imminent.[21] True, it would probably involve increasing taxes for higher-rate taxpayers, and that’s unlikely to appeal to conservative-minded voters, but perhaps some of them might become more relaxed about redistributive taxation once they realise how closely a person’s success is linked to the hand they’re dealt at birth and which they’ve done nothing to deserve. It also has the virtue of replacing the patchwork quilt of means-tested government welfare programmes, thereby reducing bureaucracy. A basic income would combine higher taxes with lessgovernment, a compromise that some conservatives might be prepared to make. A modified version of it, guaranteeing a basic income to those unable to support themselves, was endorsed by Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973): “So long as such a uniform minimum income is provided outside the market to all those who, for any reason, are unable to earn in the market an adequate maintenance, this need not lead to a restriction of freedom, or conflict with the Rule of Law.”

Progressive eugenics

But that isn’t the solution I want to explore here. I’m more interested in the potential of a technology that hasn’t been invented yet: genetically engineered intelligence.[22] As with so many of the ideas explored in this article, this crops up in my father’s book where it takes the form of “controlled mutations in the genetic constitution of the unborn… induced by radiation so as to raise the level of intelligence”. This technology is still in its infancy in 2033, with successful experiments only carried out on “the lower animals”, but another version of it may be available sooner in the real world – within the next five or 10 years, if the scientists are to be believed.

I’m thinking in particular of the work being done by Stephen Hsu, Vice-President for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University. He is a founder of BGI’s Cognitive Genomics Lab. BGI, China’s top bio-tech institute, is working to discover the genetic basis for IQ. Hsu and his collaborators are studying the genomes of thousands of highly intelligent people in pursuit of some of the perhaps 10,000 genetic variants affecting IQ. Hsu believes that within 10 years machine learning applied to large genomic datasets will make it possible for parents to screen embryos in vitro and select the most intelligent one to implant. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at New York University, describes how the process would work:

Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s going to be the smartest. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.[23]

It’s worth repeating this last point, because it deals with one of the main reservations people will have about this procedure: these couples wouldn’t be creating a super-human in a laboratory, but choosing the smartest child from the range of all the possible children they could have. Nevertheless, this could have a decisive impact. “This might mean the difference between a child who struggles in school, and one who is able to complete a good university degree,” says Hsu.[24]

My proposal is this: once this technology becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs? Provided there is sufficient take up, it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite. It might make all the difference when it comes to the long-term sustainability of advanced meritocratic societies.

At first glance, this sounds like something Jonathan Swift might suggest and, of course, there are lots of ethical issues connected with “designer babies”. But is it so different from screening embryos in vitro so parents with hereditary diseases can avoid having a child with the same condition? (This is known as a pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.) I don’t mean that a low IQ is comparable to a genetic disorder like Huntington’s, but if you allow parents to choose which embryo to take to term, whatever the reason, you’ve already crossed the Rubicon. And screening out embryos with certain undesirable genes is legal in plenty of countries, including Britain.

In an article for Nautilus, Stephen Hsu argues that making this new technology widely available will be essential to prevent it being exploited by the privileged few, thereby exacerbating inequality:

Almost certainly, some countries will allow genetic engineering, thereby opening the door for global elites who can afford to travel for access to reproductive technology. As with most technologies, the rich and powerful will be the first beneficiaries. Eventually, though, I believe many countries will not only legalize human genetic engineering, but even make it a (voluntary) part of their national healthcare systems. The alternative would be inequality of a kind never before experienced in human history.[25]

Hsu isn’t being paranoid. Some rich people, like the movie star Jodie Foster, have already used artificial insemination to try and maximise their children’s IQs, utilising the sperm of Nobel Prize-winners. If high-achieving couples in London, Paris and New York are prepared to make their children listen to Mozart in the hope of boosting their intelligence, even though there’s no evidence it has any effect, they wouldn’t hesitate to make use of a technology that actually worked.[26]

Hsu’s solution is to make it freely available to everyone, but that would only help to prevent it making existing inequalities even worse. After all, if people from all classes used it in exactly the same proportions, all you’d succeed in doing would be to increase the average IQ of each class, thereby preserving the gap between them. Wouldn’t it be better to limit its use to disadvantaged parents with low IQs? That way, it could be used as a tool to reduce inequality.[27]

This technology might actually be more effective than anything else we’ve tried when it comes to tackling the issue of entrenched poverty, with the same old problems – teenage pregnancy, criminality, drug abuse, ill health, etc – being passed down from one generation to the next like so many poisonous heirlooms. In due course, why not conduct a trial in a city like Detroit and see if it works? It has become a cliché to point out that the disadvantages of being brought up in a low-income family are apparent when a child is as young as 18 months so it shouldn’t take long to see if increasing the IQs of children from deprived backgrounds makes an impact.[28] It would be inexpensive, too, so wouldn’t involve a massive hike in taxation. “The cost of these procedures would be less than tuition at many private kindergartens,” says Hsu.

In a sense, what I’m suggesting is a form of redistribution, except the commodity being redistributed is above-average intelligence rather than wealth. This is a way of significantly reducing end state inequality that should be acceptable to conservatives (at least, non-religious conservatives) because it doesn’t involve the use of coercive state power. Participation in the programme would be entirely voluntary. Let’s call this policy “g-galitarianism”. (For those unfamiliar with the jargon, is commonly used by psychologists and geneticists to stand for “general factor of cognitive ability” and is often used as a synonym for “IQ”. It was first given this designation by Charles Spearman, a British Army officer and pioneering psychologist, at the turn of the last century.)

A lot of the resistance to this idea will come from a visceral dislike of anything that smacks of eugenics, for understandable historical reasons. But the main objection to eugenics, at least in the form it usually takes, is that it involves discriminating against disadvantaged groups, whether minorities or people with disabilities. What I’m proposing is a form of eugenics that would discriminate in favour of the disadvantaged. I’m not suggesting we improve the genetic stock of an entire race, just the least well off. This is a kind of eugenics that should appeal to liberals – progressive eugenics.[29]

There’s one more thing that should make this idea attractive to the left. As I’ve said already, the reason liberals are so hostile to the concept of IQ – and particularly the claim that it helps to determine socio-economic status, rather than vice versa – is because they have an almost religious attachment to the idea that man is a piece of clay that can be moulded into any shape by society. After all, it’s only if human beings are infinitely malleable and not bound by their inner nature that the various utopias they dream of can become a reality, from William Morris’s Earthly Paradise to the New Jerusalem of my father’s Labour Party. This catechism was drilled into Soviet schoolchildren, who were taught to memorise the slogan: “Darwinism is the science of biological evolution; Marxism of social evolution.” And the left is constantly finding “scientific proof” of this magical thinking, such as the work of the anthropologist Margaret Mead. “We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions,” she writes.

This is why so many on the left feel a moral obligation to rubbish the work of hereditarians like Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen, Peter Saunders, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. From their quasi-religious viewpoint, any suggestion that important aspects of people’s personalities have a genetic basis is heresy.

But the new technologies thrown up by genetic research will mean they no longer have to deny this obvious truth. If it becomes possible to select human embryos according to their possession of genes associated with certain character traits, such as intelligence, the left’s utopian political projects can be resurrected. Margaret Mead was right after all: human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, you just have to start a lot further back. It is not through changing the culture that we will be able to solve the chronic social problems besetting the advanced societies of the West, but through changing people’s genes.

Towards the end of The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray conclude that nothing much can be done about the cognitive stratification they claim to have identified and which they predict will get progressively worse: “Taken together, the story of attempts to raise intelligence is one of high hopes, flamboyant claims, and disappointing results. For the foreseeable future, the problems of low cognitive ability are not going to be solved by outside interventions to make children smarter.”

But they didn’t foresee a future in which it will be possible to screen embryos for intelligence. A workable solution to the problem they identify, and one my father believed would bring about the end of meritocracy, could soon be at hand.

[1] My father wrote about this in 2001, a year before his death: “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair. The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen…” ‘Down with meritocracy’, The Guardian, June 29, 2001.

[2] See ‘Comprehensive schools and social mobility’, Vikki Boliver and Adam Swift, Renewal, Vol 19, No.2.

[3] For a summary of this debate in the UK, see David Goodhart, ‘More mobile than we think’, Prospect, December 20, 2008; and in the US, James Surowiecki, ‘The Mobility Myth’, The New Yorker, March 3, 2014.

[4] In his testimony to the House of Commons Education Selection Committee in 2013, the behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin pointed out that creating a more meritocratic education system in England wouldn’t lead to less variation in GCSE results, as some politicians believe. Rather, variations would just be more closely linked to genetic differences.

[5] This means that between 40% and 80% of the variation in these characteristics in any given population can be accounted for by genetic differences in that population.

[6] See E Krapohl and R Plomin, ‘Genetic link between family socio-economic status and children’s educational achievement estimated from genome-wide SNPs’, Molecular Psychiatry, March 10, 2015: “It is now possible to use DNA-based methods to estimate genetic influence on variance in large samples of unrelated individuals.”

[7] This point is reiterated by Gordon Marshall and Adam Swift in a paper called ‘Merit and Mobility: A reply to Peter Saunders’, Sociology, vol. 30, 1996: “It is particularly apt to ask whether an inherited characteristic – genetically-determined intelligence – is an appropriate basis for reward at all. A crucial issue here would seem to be the distinction between those attributes for which the individual can claim responsibility and those which are his or hers merely by chance. If someone possesses particular talents or skills merely as a result of the natural lottery then it is not clear how justice is served by rewarding such possession.”

[8] Rawls’s whole argument in A Theory of Justice takes it for granted that, in the absence of people deserving their wealth, then it properly belongs to everyone, collectively, and it’s for them, i.e. the state, to decide how to distribute it. But an individual’s claim to his own property shouldn’t be trumped by that of the state, and it’s hard to imagine anyone freely consenting to live in a society in which it is, even from behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance. In the absence of anyone, individually or collectively, having a claim on something based on desert, the default position should be that it belongs to the person who owns it, provided it has been acquired without violating anyone else’s rights.

[9] Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School, has written a book called The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (2015) that has been widely interpreted as a critique of meritocracy. However, Guinier makes no objection to meritocracy per se, but claims that SATs and other psychometric tests only detect one type of cognitive ability when, in her view, admissions to Ivy League universities and the higher professions should be based on other, more “democratic” cognitive virtues, such as an aptitude for problem solving, independent thinking and creative leadership. In fact, there’s a strong correlation between the sort of cognitive ability identified by these tests and the “virtues” Gruinier claims aren’t tested for. See Nathan R. Kuncel and Sarah A. Hezlett, ‘Fact and Fiction in Cognitive Ability Testing for Admissions and Hiring Decisions’, Current Directions in Psychological Science (2010), 19: 339: “Cognitive ability test scores also predict outcomes in all jobs including overall job performance, objective leadership effectiveness, and assessments of creativity.”

[10] My father believed that the first part of this hypothesis was true in 1965. In that year, he wrote a paper with John Gibson, a Cambridge geneticist, entitled ‘Social Mobility and Fertility’. One of the claims made in this paper is that “the higher the occupational status, the higher the measured intelligence (IQ for short)”.

[11] Tarmo Strenze, ‘Intelligence and socioeconomic success: A meta-analytical review of longitudinal research’, Intelligence 35 (2007) 401-426. http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-content/uploads/Intelligence-and-socioeconomic-success-A-meta-analytic-review-of-longitudinal-research.pdf

[12] In his book A Question of Intelligence (1992), the journalist Daniel Seligman claims the correlation between income and IQ in America is ~0.5.

[13] For a discussion of the controversy generated by The Bell Curve, see Christopher F. Chabris, ‘IQ Since The Bell Curve’, Commentary, August 1, 1998. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/iq-since-the-bell-curve/

[14] Tino Sanandaji, ‘David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell wrong about IQ, income and wealth’, Super-Economy, April 1, 2011. http://super-economy.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/iq-income-and-wealth.html

[15] Christopher F. Chabris,‘The Mind Readers: In search of success, do we overvalue intelligence and undervalue emotion, intuition and social cues?’, The Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2011. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704005404576176923998708008

[16] That is how Stephen Jay Gould’s interpreted The Bell Curvein his New Yorker review: “[It] rehashes the tenets of social Darwinism as it was originally constituted. ‘Social Darwinism’ has often been used as a general term for any evolutionary argument about the biological basis of human differences, but the initial 19th Century meaning referred to a specific theory of class stratification within industrial societies, and particularly to the idea that there was a permanently poor underclass consisting of genetically inferior people who had precipitated down into their inevitable fate. The theory arose from a paradox of egalitarianism: as long as people remain on top of the social heap by accident of a noble name or parental wealth, and as long as members of despised castes cannot rise no matter what their talents, social stratification will not reflect intellectual merit, and brilliance will be distributed across all classes; but when true equality of opportunity is attained smart people rise and the lower classes become rigid, retaining only the intellectually incompetent.” ‘Curveball’, The New Yorker, November 28, 1994. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~chance/course/topics/curveball.html

[17] Murray’s thesis is disputed by Andrew Hacker, a teacher of political science and maths at Queen’s College, in his review of Coming Apart in TheNew York Review of Books: “We know that well-off and otherwise accomplished parents can give their children a good start, or at least try. So the next question is how these presumably favored offspring fare as adults. Such studies as we have suggest that early advantages don’t always last. Tom Hertz, an economist at American University, found that of children raised in families in the top income quintile, only 38% were still there as adults. Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution, also following top-quintile youngsters, was surprised to find that only a little over half (53%) obtained college degrees.” ‘The White Plight’, The New York Review of Books, May 10, 2012.

[18] According to The Economist, the percentage of American men with university degrees who married women with university degrees increased from 25% to 48% between 1960 and 2005. ‘An hereditary meritocracy’, The Economist, Jan 24, 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21640316-children-rich-and-powerful-are-increasingly-well-suited-earning-wealth-and-power

[19] According to a 2015 Sutton Trust report, 36% of bright English boys and 24% of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds underachieve in their GCSEs, compared with 16% of bright boys and 9% of girls from better off homes. http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Missing-Talent-final-june.pdf

[20] In The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray think that increasing cognitive stratification may eventually lead to a “custodial state” in which a majority of the poor are forced by the state to live in “a high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation”.

[21] See Frederico Pistino, Robots Will Steal Your Job, but That’s OK: How to Survive the Economic Collapse and be Happy (2012).

[22] This is discussed at length in Frank Salter’s article on eugenicsin the May issue of Quadrant. ‘Eugenics, Ready or Not’, Quadrant, May 11, 2015. https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2015/05/eugenics-ready/#_edn42

[23] See ‘China is Engineering Genius Babies’, Vice, March 15, 2013. http://www.vice.com/read/chinas-taking-over-the-world-with-a-massive-genetic-engineering-program

[24] See John Bohannon, ‘Why are some people so smart? The answer could spawn a generation of superbabies’, Wired, July 16, 2014. http://www.wired.com/2013/07/genetics-of-iq/

[25] Stephen Hsu, ‘Super-Intelligent Humans are Coming’, Nautilus, October 16, 1924. http://nautil.us/issue/18/genius/super_intelligent-humans-are-coming

[26] Frank Salter draws attention to this danger: “Positive eugenics would give the kiss of immortality to wealthy lineages because it would allow parents to choose offspring whose talents are greater than chance would allow.” ‘Eugenics, Ready or Not’, Quadrant, May 11, 2015. https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2015/05/eugenics-ready/#_edn42. It’s also raised by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind(2014).

[27] Stephen Hsu has an answer to this. He suggests making the technology freely available to everyone, but offering more expensive IVF to the less able so they could choose from, say, 100 embryos instead of 20.

[28] Liberals who deny that there’s any genetic basis to intelligence shouldn’t have a problem with this trial since, according to their logic, the in vitro procedure I’m proposing won’t have any effect on IQ. That doesn’t mean they won’t object, of course. Herrnstein points out this inconsistency in the Appendix to IQ in the Meritocracy: “Thus, the very same people one day abhor the idea of tampering with people’s genes may, the next day, vigorously deny the conclusion that human society involves genetic factors.”

[29] Peter Singer, the professor of bioethics at Princeton, may be receptive. He wrote a short book called A Darwinian Left (1999), arguing that the left should embrace Darwinism. However, it may not appeal to all liberals. Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century: The Coming Age of Genetic Commerce (1998), cites a version of the proposal I’m making as an example of how the science of genetics may be perverted: “In the next 10 or 20 years we could have eugenics with a smiling face. We will no longer require the lower classes to have fewer babies; we will just have them have better babies as we learn to do gene therapy.”

Lulled by the Celebritariat

Essay arguing that the meritocratic nature of the celebrity class helps to secure people’s consent to inequality. Published in Prospect On 20th December 2008.


Fifty years ago, the sociologist Michael Young—my father—published a book that, in his own words, gave him a minor claim to immortality. A dystopian satire in the same vein as 1984, it was an attempt to sound a warning bell about various social and political trends by describing a future in which they had come to fruition. It wasn’t as successful as Orwell’s book, but it did enjoy some afterlife thanks to a word my father coined to describe the new ruling class that would hold sway in this nightmarish future. It was called The Rise of the Meritocracy.

People are often surprised when I tell them that my father invented the word “meritocracy”—they assume it must have been around for ever—and even more astonished to learn that he wasn’t a fan. How could anyone be against meritocracy? It seems incomprehensible today. The commitment to making Britain more meritocratic has become an ideological shibboleth that almost no one dissents from.

Michael disapproved of meritocracy because he saw it as a way of legitimising inequality. After all, if everyone starts out on a level playing field, then the resulting allocation of rewards—however unequal—seems fair. Those at the very pinnacle of our society might not inherit their privileged position, as their forebears had done, but its pyramid-like shape would be preserved. Indeed, once this hierarchical structure became legitimised, as it would in a meritocratic society, it was likely that power and wealth would become concentrated in even fewer hands.

Just how prescient was The Rise of the Meritocracy? Equality of opportunity has become every bit as entrenched as my father thought it would, but that hasn’t had a corresponding impact on the composition of Britain’s elites. Much of today’s ruling class is still drawn from a narrow band of schools and universities and while those institutions accept only the “brightest” applicants they have not had to compete with the rest of the population on a level playing field. They have not earned their place at the top on merit alone which, for the purposes of his book, my father defined as IQ + effort.

The Sutton Trust—which tirelessly compiles evidence to show that Britain is not a meritocracy—has calculated that the proportion of privately educated high court judges has barely changed in the past 18 years: 74 per cent in 1989 compared to 70 per cent in 2007. And according to the trust, “the proportion of independently educated top newspaper editors, columnists and news presenters and editors has actually increased over the past 20 years.”

Analysts of the broader sweep of social mobility are divided on how much it has slowed down (see David Goodhart’s article), but there is some consensus that there has been a falling off since the time my father wrote Meritocracy. What there is no dispute about is the surge in inequality in Britain in recent decades. According to a recent survey by the OECD, income inequality grew steadily from the mid-1970s, dipped briefly in the mid-1990s, then continued to grow until 2000 when it started to dip again. Overall, the long-term trend is towards greater inequality. In 2005, the earnings gap between rich and poor was 20 per cent wider than it was in 1985.

This begs the question of what, if anything, legitimises Britain’s current levels of inequality? In the absence of genuine equality of opportunity, what secures the consent of ordinary people to the unequal distribution of rewards? To put it another way, if the meritocratic bulwark against egalitarianism that my father identified has failed to materialise, why are higher taxes on the rich not more popular?

Writing in the 1960s, the sociologist WG Runciman, author of Relative Deprivation and Social Justice, argued that ordinary people tolerate high levels of inequality because they don’t compare themselves with those at the top, but with people like themselves. By that measure, they are far better off than they were 50 years ago, even if their incomes have grown by a smaller percentage than the top earners.

However, this argument doesn’t seem plausible any longer. Mark Pearson, the head of the OECD’s social policy division, has identified something he calls the “Hello! magazine effect” whereby people now compare themselves with the most successful members of society, thereby increasing their insecurity and sense of deprivation. This appears to be tied up with the decline of deference. A person’s social background may still affect their life chances, but it no longer plays such an important role in determining their attitudes and aspirations, particularly towards those higher up—and lower down—the food chain. That famous sketch on the Frost Report in which Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker and John Cleese explained the workings of the British class system—”I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class”—now belongs to a bygone age.

As Ferdinand Mount notes in Mind the Gap: “The old class markers have become taboo… The manners of classlessness have become de rigueur.” To put it another way: a profound increase in economic inequality has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in social and cultural equality. We can see this most clearly in changing attitudes to popular culture. It is a cliché to point out that the distinction between high and low culture has all but disappeared in the past 25 years or so. In this free-for-all it is high culture that has been the loser, with most educated people under 45 embracing popular culture almost exclusively. As a student in the mid-80s, I was proud to call myself an “Oxbridge Gooner”—one of several dozen students at Oxford and Cambridge who regularly attended Arsenal games—and such groupings are commonplace now. The rich and the poor no longer live in two nations, at least not socially. Economic divisions may be more pronounced than ever, but we support the same football teams, watch the same television programmes, go to the same movies. Mass culture is for everyone, not just the masses.


Yet if Britain is no longer a deferential nation—if its citizens don’t accept that their place in life should be dictated by their class status—why is egalitarianism still the dog that hasn’t barked in British politics since 1979? Could it be that partly because of the power and ubiquity of popular culture, Britain is now perceived to be far more meritocratic than it actually is? This phenomenon has been widely documented in America, where belief in the meritocratic American dream persists with low social mobility.

If this is the case, I believe it is largely due to the emergence of a new class that my father didn’t anticipate and which, for want of a better word, I shall call the “celebritariat.” I am thinking of the people featured in Heat magazine, rather than Hello!—the premier league footballers and their wives, pop stars, movie stars, soap stars and the like. For all its shortcomings, the celebrity class is broadly meritocratic and because it is so visible it may help to persuade people that Britain is a fairer place than it really is.

One of the criticisms levelled at Britain’s professional elites is that they have become closed shops, creating insurmountable barriers to entry. The same could not be said of the celebritariat, a class that is constantly being refreshed, with old members being forced out to make way for the new. Indeed, we now hold national competitions—The X Factor, Pop Idol, Britain’s Got Talent—to discover genuinely deserving candidates to promote into the celebrity class.

If the celebritariat really does play a role in legitimising economic inequality, it is also because ordinary people imagine that they, too, could become members. A YouGov poll of nearly 800 16-19-year-olds conducted on behalf of the Learning and Skills Council in 2006 revealed that 11 per cent said they were “waiting to be discovered.”

Some commentators believe that the preponderance of reality shows and their casts of freaks and wannabes—the lumpen celebritariat—have devalued the whole notion of stardom. Yet the YouGov survey discovered that appearing on a reality television programme was a popular career option among teenagers, and another poll found 26 per cent of 16 to 19 year olds believe it is easy to secure a career in sports, entertainment or the media. If the existence of the celebrity class does play a role in securing people’s consent to our winner-takes-all society, then the fact that the entry requirements are so low helps this process along. If people believe there is a genuine chance they might be catapulted to the top, they’re more likely to endorse a system in which success is so highly rewarded. To paraphrase the advertising slogan for the National Lottery, it could be them. As with the lottery, people may know that the actual chances of winning are low but the selection mechanism itself is fair—a level playing field. After that, their “specialness” will take care of the rest.

The music critic Albert Goldman identified this attitude in his 1978 book on the disco phenomenon: “Everybody sees himself as a star today. This is both a cliché and a profound truth. Thousands of young men and women have the looks, the clothes, the hairstyling, the drugs… the self-confidence, and the history of conquest that proclaim a star… Never in the history of showbiz has the gap between amateur and professional been so small.” (Quoted by James Wolcott in “Now, Voyeur,” Vanity Fair, September 2000.)

The celebritariat—and the illusion of easy access to it—has played the role in postwar Britain that my father expected to be played by the educational meritocracy. The Rise of the Meritocracy ends with a riot at Peterloo in which the disenfranchised masses overthrow their new masters. This is largely because the meritocratic class has become so efficient at identifying the most able children at birth that the ones left behind have no hope of making it. Will the day come when the celebritariat endangers its own existence by becoming a self-perpetuating elite, closed off to new members? There are signs that this is beginning to happen, with the children of famous people inheriting their celebrity status, just as aristocrats inherited their parents estates. It sounds odd to say it, but for those like my father who dream of turning Britain into a socialist paradise, the greatest cause for hope may be the existence of Peaches Geldof.


Genetic analysis of social-class mobility in five longitudinal studies‘, D.W. Belsky, et al, PNAS, 9th July 2018

Harrison Bergeron‘ by Kurt Vonnegut, 1961


A summary genetic measure, called a “polygenic score,” derived from a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of education can modestly predict a person’s educational and economic success. This prediction could signal a biological mechanism: Education-linked genetics could encode characteristics that help people get ahead in life. Alternatively, prediction could reflect social history: People from well-off families might stay well-off for social reasons, and these families might also look alike genetically. A key test to distinguish biological mechanism from social history is if people with higher education polygenic scores tend to climb the social ladder beyond their parents’ position. Upward mobility would indicate education-linked genetics encodes characteristics that foster success. We tested if education-linked polygenic scores predicted social mobility in >20,000 individuals in five longitudinal studies in the United States, Britain, and New Zealand. Participants with higher polygenic scores achieved more education and career success and accumulated more wealth. However, they also tended to come from better-off families. In the key test, participants with higher polygenic scores tended to be upwardly mobile compared with their parents. Moreover, in sibling-difference analysis, the sibling with the higher polygenic score was more upwardly mobile. Thus, education GWAS discoveries are not mere correlates of privilege; they influence social mobility within a life. Additional analyses revealed that a mother’s polygenic score predicted her child’s attainment over and above the child’s own polygenic score, suggesting parents’ genetics can also affect their children’s attainment through environmental pathways. Education GWAS discoveries affect socioeconomic attainment through influence on individuals’ family-of-origin environments and their social mobility.

Intelligence and social inequality: Why the biological link?‘ by Linda Gottfredson, The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Individual Differences, Ed T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. Von Stumm, A Furnham, Blackwell Publishing, 2011

Cognitive development and social policy‘, A.N. Firkowska, et al, Science, 23rd June 1978


The city of Warsaw was razed at the end of World War II and rebuilt under a socialist government whose policy was to allocate dwellings, schools, and health facilities without regard to social class. Of the 14,238 children born in 1963 and living in Warsaw, 96 percent were given the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test and an arithmetic and a vocabulary test in March to June of 1974. Information was collected on the families of the children, and on characteristics of schools and city districts. Parental occupation and education were used to form a family factor, and the district data were collapsed into two factors, one relating to social marginality, and the other to distance from city center. Analysis showed that the initial assumption of even distribution of family, school, and district attributes was reasonable. Mental performance was unrelated either to school or district factors; it was related to parental occupation and education in a strong and regular gradient. It is concluded that an egalitarian social policy executed over a generation failed to override the association of social and family factors with cognitive development that is characteristic of more traditional industrial societies.