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'Meritocracy' Is Just Another Way to Put You Down

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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David Halberstam’s 1972 book, “The Best and the Brightest,” is an account of how brilliant U.S. officials with impressive credentials made such a mess of the war in Vietnam.

We had a copy on the shelf at home when I was growing up, so I knew the gist long before I got around to reading it. I was therefore somewhat taken aback the first time I heard some of my ambitious peers unironically referring to themselves as “the best and the brightest.”  I eventually got used to that. As Halberstam put it in a foreword to the 20th-anniversary edition of the book, the phrase “went into the language, although it is often misused, failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.”

Variants of the description “best and the brightest,” intended sincerely, were already in circulation long before Halberstam wrote them. “Best and brightest, come away!” begins a poem by the early-19th-century Romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley. “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning, dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid,” begins an Anglican hymn from around the same time. “Best” and “brightest” are just inherently positive words -- it’s understandable that people like to think of themselves that way.

The enduring popularity of the related term “meritocracy” is a bit harder to figure. British sociologist and Labour politician Michael Young coined it in 1958 in his dystopian satire, “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” the whole point of which was that a true meritocracy would be a nightmare.  Yet the word has gone into everyday use in the U.K. and U.S. stripped almost entirely of that irony and menace.

Given all the seeming resentment in both countries lately of elites and experts -- meritocrats, basically -- it seemed like a good time to finally read Young’s book. So last night and this morning, I did (the edition I read was only 144 pages, not counting endnotes and such). I recommend it!

“The Rise of the Meritocracy” is told from the perspective of a pro-meritocracy sociologist, writing in 2033 in an attempt to explain the social unrest that had recently broken out. Hard scientists and engineers are at the apex of the U.K. meritocracy of the 2030s, but sociologists and psychologists seem to have done pretty well for themselves too. The psychologists design the ever-more-accurate intelligence tests used to separate the elite from the rest; the sociologists help design the strange society that results.

In the first half of the book the narrator describes the rise of the new elite as various institutions enabling status and wealth to be handed down from parent to child are dismantled and replaced by meritocratic selection. This was a process already well underway in the U.K. and U.S. when Young wrote the book.

The SAT college admissions test in the U.S., for example, rose to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s as a way for top colleges to select the smartest high schoolers from around the country instead of drawing so heavily from elite East Coast prep schools. Who could be against that? A lot of the subsequent changes that Young’s narrator describes -- big increases in teacher salaries, the eclipse of elite private schools  such as Eton, the declining importance of seniority in the workplace -- sound like they might be progress too.

It’s when Young gets into “Part Two: Decline of the Lower Classes,” that the trouble with meritocracy becomes more apparent. Those who don’t do well on the aptitude tests are treated increasingly as second-class citizens, unworthy of respect or political voice (his narrator charmingly refers to them as “morons”). And those at the top become increasingly smug about it. Writes Young's narrator:

Today the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts and for their own undeniable achievement. They deserve to belong to a superior class.

As a result, the class system under meritocracy ends up becoming more rigid and harsh on the lower classes than what went before. Eventually, the social peace breaks down. Resentful “morons” begin to cause trouble, as do smart parents of not-so-smart children and smart women frustrated with being put on the mommy track. The book ends with the uprising still in progress.

What are we to make of all this? Writing for the Guardian in 2001, the year before he died, Young argued that:

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.

In his career, Young did what he could to empower and educate regular folks, helping found Which?, the British equivalent of Consumer Reports, and the Open University, a major provider of distance learning and adult education.

That’s one response to the perils of meritocracy. I’m sure there are many others, but for now let me suggest just one: how about we all stop talking about “meritocracy” like it’s necessarily good thing? And maybe we can reattach a few negative connotations to “the best and the brightest” while we’re at it.

  1. My best guess is that this was at California Boys State in 1981, but it could have been a few years later, in college.

  2. Which the British of course call “public schools” just to be difficult.

  3. He was also the father of journalist Toby Young, author of the hilarious memoir “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” (Simon Pegg played him in the movie version) and a generally less-hilarious weekly column for the Spectator. This pro-Brexit column from May seems to echo some of the senior Young’s arguments.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net