The Myths of Meritocracy

Why would we want to live in a world split between smug winners and humiliated losers?

When the British sociologist Michael Young coined the word “meritocracy” in 1958, he meant it as criticism. His satirical dystopia The Rise of the Meritocracy foresaw a society in which class was dead and your personal merit determined where you landed up. Young intuited that this would create a society divided between smug winners and humiliated losers. His narrator, supposedly writing in 2033, predicts a losers’ revolt in 2034. “That revolt arrived 18 years ahead of schedule,” writes Michael Sandel, the superstar Harvard political philosopher, in The Tyranny of Merit.

A country in which two of the last three prime ministers passed through Eton and Oxford’s Bullingdon Club together patently isn’t meritocratic. This summer’s A-levels fiasco was only the latest reminder of the failure of British meritocracy on its own terms. Even so, the meritocratic ideal retains a natural appeal to today’s politicians, because most of them rose through the cognitive fast stream. In 1979, when many Labour MPs came from the trade-union movement, 41 per cent didn’t have a degree. By 2017, only 16 per cent did not. On the right, even ­David Cameron, son of the chairman of the establishment club White’s, has a First from Oxford. Our rulers think of themselves as meritocrats.

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