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Adrian Wooldridge

Meritocracy, Not Democracy, Is the Golden Ticket to Growth

The price of abandoning it will be less wealth and more poverty.

By then, Venice’s good times were over.

By then, Venice’s good times were over.

Photographer: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Meritocracy is under assault from all directions. For progressives, it is a tool of White male privilege; for right-wing populists, an instrument of androgynous cosmopolitan elites; and for ambitious parents, a nightmare of sleepless nights and anxiety-ridden children. Black Lives Matter, one of the most successful protest movements of recent decades, puts meritocracy high on its list of targets. Even some of the more distinguished ornaments of the meritocratic system have given up defending it: Harvard’s Michael Sandel calls it a “tyranny” while Yale’s Daniel Markovits dismisses it as a “trap.”

This is more than empty rhetoric. The war against merit is producing real consequences. San Francisco’s Lowell School is one of the most successful schools in the country and has given thousands of poor immigrant children (among others) a chance of an elite education. The San Francisco Board of Education has now banned it from using admission tests and introduced a lottery system instead, with the school commissioner, Alison Collins, pronouncing that meritocracy is “racist” and “the antithesis of fair.” Elite schools in New York and Boston are also under threat. Programs for the gifted and talented are being dismantled across the country. Universities have been reducing the importance of standardized admissions tests, with some going so far as to make testing optional, and putting more emphasis on “holistic assessment” instead. Companies are introducing formal or informal quotas in the name of “equity” (which is increasingly taking the place of equality of opportunity as a measure of justice).