Is the United States really meritocratic? My long-read Q&A with Adrian Wooldridge

By James Pethokoukis and Adrian Wooldridge

Meritocracy says people should be judged by their individual talents rather than their birth or connections. But this concept has become the object of criticism from both the left and the right. In this interview, Adrian Wooldridge discusses whether meritocracy is rigged against the rest by the already wealthy and privileged, as well as how America’s “aristocracy of talent” can be improved.

Adrian is the political editor and Bagehot columnist at The Economist. His latest book is The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. You can download the episode here, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. Tell your friends, leave a review.

Pethokoukis: I think almost every word on the cover of your book will be triggering to some people: the word aristocracy, the word talent — of course, the word meritocracy — even the nice endorsement from Francis Fukuyama. But before we get into why people might find it triggering, I’ll just give you a couple minutes to walk us through your thesis about how meritocracy made the modern world. 

Wooldridge: Yeah, absolutely. Meritocracy essentially means judging people on the basis of their innate abilities rather than on the basis of their polish or their social connections or their social status or their birth. And I think it also implies some sort of broader commitment to equality of opportunity, or at least very significant educational opportunity provided by the state, because it would be impossible for people reasonably to compete in a modern economy unless they get access to these things. Now you might think, “Well, who could object to that? It’s sort of motherhood and apple pie.” But many, many people do object to that, and many people throughout history have objected to that. Most countries have not been meritocratic. Most societies throughout time have been based on principles of being born into your social status or the principle of dynasty or the principle of patronage, or indeed the principle buying and selling offices, which before modern times was absolutely widespread.

So I think that meritocracy is fundamental to the creation of the modern world. The modern world was basically created by a succession of meritocratic revolutions against aristocratic societies and societies of patronage. Obviously the American Revolution was very much a revolution made by people in favor of a natural aristocracy as against an artificial aristocracy. If you look at Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, they’re constantly talking about natural aristocrats and contrasting them with artificial aristocrats, by which they meant landed gentlemen. Or if you look at the French Revolution: that’s a revolution made on the basis of careers open to talent, replacing an inherited landed elite with people who deserved their position. And also the British liberal revolution in the 19th century: open competition, examinations for civil service positions. All of those are about meritocracy. And I think that was the principle that laid the foundations of the modern world. And it was the broadening of meritocracy — bringing in women, ethnic minorities, working class people into that framework of promotion on the basis of talent examinations, open competition — that really created the modern world as we now see it.

And you write that the surest sign a country will be economically successful is not the health of its democracy or its debt-to-GDP ratio or something, but it’s really its commitment to meritocracy. I want you to flesh out that link a little bit more.

Absolutely. I mean, there’s been a significant range of thinkers, particularly in the 1990s who said that what really made society successful, dynamic, and economically prosperous was democracy, and that in order to become one of these dynamic societies, you had to introduce democracy. And that in some ways inspired the Bush Doctrine, inspired a lot of liberal interventionism. And I think that’s a false positive: It’s not that democracy is a bad thing, but I think that democracy is not the key to prosperity. The key to prosperity is, in fact, meritocracy. Modern societies can be prosperous without being democratic. Look at Singapore, which is only very vaguely meritocratic. Or look at China, which is an autocracy. They have succeeded, and they continue to succeed, by way of introducing meritocracy, open competition, examinations, performance-related promotions, and things like that. So that is the single differentia specifica of successful societies.

And I think companies that are public, that are openly traded, are much more successful than family companies. If you look more broadly at societies, societies that make a big attempt to be meritocratic, like Sweden, are much more successful than societies which are not meritocratic like Greece or Italy, which are still based on clientelism and nepotism. So I really think it’s meritocracy which is the essence of making societies successful economically. And the question is: Do we tie meritocracy to democratic societies, or do we tie meritocracy to authoritarian societies, as China is trying to do today? So democracy is great — but it needs an extra add-on, and that add-on is meritocracy, to make it economically prosperous.

I want to talk a bit more about China later, but as I said in my introduction, this notion is triggering, even offensive, to some people. So what is that argument exactly? Is it that a meritocracy is good, but that’s not what we have in the United States and some other rich countries? Or is it that the whole notion is wrong? So even if you create a meritocracy, it would be a bad idea. Is it our failure to achieve it? Or is the whole notion wrongheaded?

A great question, because both are the case. There are many people who say, “Meritocracy is great in theory, but we don’t have it at the moment. We have something that’s a mockery of meritocracy. And because people claim that it’s meritocracy, they’re sort of doubly lying. They’re claiming that their position is based on merit when it’s in fact based on inherited wealth or things like that.” So that’s one critique: that we don’t have it. The other critique would be, “Even if we could create a meritocracy and turn America into a true meritocracy rather than the sham that it now is, it’s a very bad thing, because meritocracy enshrines all sorts of things — such as competition, such as constant sorting of people on the basis of ability — and those things are wrong.”

The person who actually invented the term meritocracy was a man called Michael Young in 1958 in his brilliant book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. And that wasn’t meant to be a celebration of the meritocracy as many people have taken it to be. It was a condemnation of the meritocracy. He thought meritocracy is a terrible thing because it smuggled the idea of competition into what should be a socialist vision of the future. And because it made everybody who succeeded intolerably smug and everybody who failed absolutely wretched, because they couldn’t blame anybody but themselves for their failure. So there are two very different critiques of meritocracy which actually get muddled up in lots of people’s minds.

Let’s focus on that first critique: that it would be great to have one, but what we have now is a mockery, a sham meritocracy. I think some people will see things like the college entrance scam in the United States, where you had a bunch of rich people, Hollywood people, basically buying their way into good schools. And that’s a pretty key way to get into the elite, by going to a good school. And they’ll point to that as just one example of how the US just isn’t a meritocracy — if it ever was, but certainly not anymore.

William “Rick” Singer leaves the federal courthouse after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Yeah. I think that’s the most serious criticism that we have of the meritocratic idea. And it’s indeed a criticism that to a very, very significant degree I share. I think we are — America is, Britain is — a meritocracy in the broadest possible sense. The meritocratic revolution, which says everybody should be judged on the basis of their individual abilities, is very broadly accepted by people. Discrimination is outlawed. Most employers and education institutions make some sort of attempt to look for people’s promise and abilities and select them on that basis. They make an attempt — it may not be a very honest one. But what has happened in the last few years is a marriage between merit and money, between meritocracy and plutocracy, which is very, very corrupting. It means that people who are born into privilege can buy for themselves better education, and because they can buy for themselves better education, they have a higher chance of getting into the best universities and the best jobs.

Now, clearly something like the college entrance scam — where people were literally buying places — that’s illegal, and legal action has been taken. But what people who are saying that meritocracy is a sham are really saying, is that it’s the legal version of it that’s a sham, because people who are born into privilege just spend so much more money on getting ahead, getting their children educated, that they just have much bigger chances in life. And because they’re sort of congealing at the top of society — because knowledgeable, educated people are transmitting their privilege to their children — you are getting lower and lower levels of social mobility. Social mobility is low in America, and it has been low in Britain, and also low compared with much of mainland Europe.

And I think that critique is true, but the question is: How do you deal with that problem of the sort of calcification of society? Do you deal with it by reducing meritocracy, by having much less meritocracy? Or do you deal with it by putting your foot on the accelerator and having more meritocracy? And the argument of my book is that you need to have more meritocracy.

To have a meritocracy you also need to sort of focus on downward mobility. Right?

Absolutely.

I mean, the easy part is saying, “Oh, we want to have more kids in college. Or maybe we’ll give them vouchers so they can take SAT prep classes.” But the other half is: Wealthy people are still going to devote considerable resources to their children. Do we prevent them from doing that? Ensuring more downward mobility seems like a much harder question.

Sure. Absolutely. I think the first thing that we need to do is to complete the meritocratic revolution in the formal sense. So if you look at Harvard University now, only somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of places are given away on the basis of pure academic performance. A huge number of places are reserved — or not reserved, are hooked to various things such as whether your parents went to Harvard, whether your parents teach at Harvard or are a member of the staff at the University, athletic scholarships, privileges for donors — all sorts of things will get you in. And plus, obviously, affirmative action and things like that. Because of the law cases brought by Asian students, we’ve seen lots of ways in which that university — and I think that it’s also true of many, many other universities — deliberately tips the scales in favor of already-privileged people.

Demonstrators hold a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court after a Harvard lawsuit asserted that Asian Americans have been particularly hurt by affirmative action programs in university admissions. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

So I would be in favor of getting rid of that and giving 100 percent of the places on the basis of pure academic merit. I think that’s one thing that we could do. And that in itself would be a revolution, but I think we need to go much further than that because we need to start helping people much earlier on in their educational journey, because by the time you’re 18, a lot of the damage of poor background and poor opportunities has been done. So I would be in favor of academically selective schools, such as the ones that flourish in New York and have flourished for over a century in New York, and of allocating places in those schools on the basis of objective tests — SATs, IQ tests, tests that try and read through your achievement and polish and look at your raw intellectual ability. And I think America is moving in exactly the wrong direction here.

The IQ test is already controversial, and there are schools trying to move away from the SAT because they feel like it is enshrining privilege because poor kids can’t take SAT prep classes.

Absolutely. But the question is: What is the alternative? And I think there’s a wealth of scientific literature which shows that however much you can game SATs or IQ tests, they’re less class-biased than other forms of selection, of which the most absurd of course is the sort of “what I did on my holidays,” “what I did in my gap year,” or teachers’ assessments, or personal statements and that sort of thing. But the earlier we take these tests and the earlier we have selection, the better. But what you’re doing in America at the moment — and I think this is profoundly misguided — is to get rid of things like Boston Latin School, get rid of things like the Lowell School in San Francisco. Instead of selecting, they’re replacing selection on the basis of academic attainment and examination performance with a lottery.

Now, I think that is taking schools which have a long tradition of providing opportunities for immigrant groups in particular — less wealthy people in general — and essentially destroying them as academic institutions. Now in Britain, I’m glad to say — and here I think we are much wiser than you are — we’re doing exactly the opposite. We have a bunch of schools in Britain called academies, which are able — at the sixth form level at least — to select people on the basis of academic ability, and their ability in particular subjects, and teach them very, very hard and very, very rigorously. So one of these schools, which is in the east end of London, now gets more children into Oxford and Cambridge every year than Eton does, despite having many pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds and many pupils who have free school meals, which is a measure of poverty. It’s called the Brampton Academy, the most successful of these, but there are several of these schools.

So there are many paradoxes here, but actually the more that you try to implement egalitarian policies at schools, the more you get rid of examinations, the more you actually do down poorer people and privilege already privileged people. So the classic example of this in Britain was comprehensive schools. We used to have a system of selection of education, grammar schools tested 11-plus [exams] to see whether you got into these grammar schools. These were abolished in the name of comprehensivization, and the result of that was levels of social mobility via education went down because instead of selecting people on the basis of academic performance or performance in the 11-plus examination, you just let middle class people go to middle class comprehensives, working class people go to working class comprehensives. You delayed selection later and later and later into life. And once you delay selection, it becomes an endurance race, and the people who win the endurance race are those who’ve got parents who are capable of supporting them and nurturing them for longer and longer in their careers.

What seems more likely to you? That Harvard reduces legacies and becomes more merit based? That’s scenario one. Scenario two: Harvard just gets a lot bigger where they start allowing more kids in, and therefore you can keep the legacies, but now you’ll have just a lot more students going to Harvard. (Some people said that school should be a lot bigger and other schools like it.) Or they don’t do anything and nothing changes?

C by far is the most likely outcome. These institutions are incredibly conservative. Part of their value to their pupils is rarity, scarcity. So they don’t want to increase the number of pupils. And you have to understand that this legacy system is utterly, utterly corrupt. I mean, it’s absolutely appalling. What you’re doing is systematically discriminating in favor of the most privileged people on the planet. But you have a system whereby the academics who are in charge of making these decisions are in on the game. They’re in on the corruption because they get their children into these institutions on the basis of favoritism, so they love perpetuating it. So you’ve got a whole bunch of people who say, for example, “Oh we must have diversity, we must have more people from minorities,” whilst at the same time making sure that their own children are given an easier ride and don’t suffer from the relative decline in the number of places.

Via Twenty20

So it is an utterly corrupt, and I think appalling, system. I would just get rid of all of these legacies, all of these preferences for the staff and the faculty, all of the athletic things. And of course get rid of the system whereby people can pay for buildings and get their children on some special list. Instead, do it purely on the basis of academic merit — by which I mean achievement, but I also mean people’s promise in the longer term. Have a purely meritocratic system. And I’m saying this, not just because I think it’s immoral to have a system that isn’t meritocratic, but also because America for the first time in its history faces a competitor which could be more powerful than it is. And I think it needs to strain every sinew in order to compete with China.

One way of looking at this is that we need to get the most possible out of our most talented people. And so far, we have pretty much discussed this in terms of universities and colleges. Are there other areas in society that could be more meritocratic than what they are?

Yeah. I mean, the reason we’ve fixated — or I’ve fixated, at least — on the colleges and, to some extent, the schools, is that academic qualifications are much more dispositive than they ever have been before. It used to be the case that if you were a talented business person, you could start at the bottom and rise to the top. Or of course you could found your own company. Carnegie didn’t go to university, or Rockefeller and the rest of them. Nowadays, your success in a company is pretty much determined by your educational qualifications — not all companies, not small companies, but certainly the big corporations. You can’t, as easily as you could in the past, move up from the shop floor to the boardroom. McDonald’s does that, but very, very few companies do.

So I think that educational institutions are now more powerful than they ever have been before, but also they’re much more narrowly based in terms of class than they have been for some decades. I would say there are lots of other things we need to do as well, and I think we’re in danger of having a system which is basically a system of selection by elimination: If you don’t succeed very well academically, there’s not very much else left for you. And I much prefer a system of selection by differentiation, whereby we have lots and lots of different sorts of educational institutions which can take care of you and which can bring out your abilities, because cognitive abilities are one of many sorts of abilities. Other abilities such as caring ability, technical ability, your ability to work with your hands, are all things that need to be recognized more than they are. Now, America used to do this. It used to have a very broad and catholic sense of what abilities were in the 19th century. It’s becoming more and more fixated on academic success as the English have always been. We’ve always had crappy vocational training and a poor system of apprenticeships. You’re just reaching our level of degeneracy.

So a lot of the debate is about cognitive skill. And I’ve had some people say to me, maybe in hushed tones, “Look, we’re not missing a bunch of Einsteins and Edisons that are being somehow excluded from our universities. The people who are wealthy in this society are people who do very well in an economy which is more about cognitive ability, it’s more knowledge based. And people are simply giving those abilities genetically to their children who then do very well in these schools. We have a cognitive, genetic aristocracy and all the SAT prep classes and gifted student classes aren’t going to matter and it is what it is.”

Absolutely. That is a very powerful argument presented by some people essentially that the United States — or indeed Britain or any advanced Western country — is already a meritocracy. It’s sifting its population fairly relentlessly for talent.

Via Twenty20

People just don’t like how it looks.

Yeah. And people don’t like how it looks. I think that’s profoundly wrong for two reasons: One is that we just haven’t reached any maximum of sifting the population. So there are huge numbers of, as it were, “Einsteins” being left behind, and the sheer numbers of people in the population in general, versus the number of people in the cognitive elite, in the 1 percent of people who go to the top universities. There are just too many people for the very top of societies to have captured. But secondly, and I think more importantly, it’s wrong in terms of the genetics. You have a system of regression to the mean. You have, as Mendel noted, a very arbitrary re-sorting of the population in each generation. The interesting thing is that for various reasons, Mendelian and statistical, children do not resemble their parents absolutely.

Children are quite often very different from their parents. They have different abilities, less abilities or more abilities, and this sort of genetic lottery means that you have to keep selecting in each generation. You have to keep moving people up or down in each generation in order to match ability with position. So I think it’s a misreading of genetics. And I think it’s quite interesting actually that environmentalists tend to be anti-meritocracy and hereditarists tend to be pro-meritocracy. But if you’re an environmentalist, you would tend to think that your children should be exactly like your parents. They should reflect the privilege of your parents. It’s the Mendelian genetics, which explains why there are all these huge differences between the abilities of fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and the rest of it. So genetics means, by its very essence, a perpetually mobile society.

I spent the last few minutes just talking about the folks who just don’t like the entire idea, who I’m sure view the book as a defense of the status quo (maybe a defense of white privilege), who think the whole concept of meritocracy needs to be shattered. So what is the problem people have with that? And who are these people?

Well, we’re living in a strange moment now, because we have critiques of meritocracy coming from every possible direction. You have critiques coming from the right: people who think that meritocracy is a sort of celebration of this awful cognitive elite which sneers at ordinary people. You have critiques coming from people like Markovits and Sandel, probably in the center, who have philosophical problems with it. But also, you have this huge critique coming from the left who think it’s sort of propaganda for plutocrats, almost — and particularly from Black Lives Matter, who regard it as a way of justifying the privileges of the elite, and particularly the white elite. And to that I would say, if you look at the history of the meritocratic idea, it’s been, by its essence, a revolutionary idea and a constantly self-correcting idea.

So if you look back at the American Revolution, the idea of merit was definitely something used by educated white men to criticize the rule of British aristocrats, essentially. But then you have the idea of merit constantly broadened. So you have women coming along and saying, “Wait a minute, if we believe in open competition examinations and all of these things, women should be allowed to sit these exams and to be judged by the same standards as men.” And, lo and behold, they were. Or if you look at ethnic minorities, a lot of members of ethnic minorities said exactly the same thing: “You need to judge us by the same standards that you are being judged by.” And so you have somebody like W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote a magnificent essay, a statement of his meritocratic beliefs, called “The Talented Tenth,” and became the first black African-American professor at Harvard. And he’s saying, “Judge us by the same standards, and we will prove that we can do just as well as you.” So I think, far from being a celebration of the status quo, meritocracy has always been a radical, discombobulating idea which shakes up every possible status quo.

So if meritocracy was critical to creating the modern world, what does it look like if we sort of give up on this and do something else? What does that society look like?

Well, I think that is in many ways not “what if?” but “when?”, because America is engaged at the moment in a huge revolt against meritocracy. You have SATs being got rid of for admission to lots of universities. You have, as I said, Lowell School and Boston Latin School getting rid of examinations and replacing them with lotteries of all things — essentially blind admission. There are lots of attempts to get rid of gifted education programs. So you have all of that going on. And I think what happens if you do that is you get a society in which positions are given either arbitrarily or on the basis of political power. So you have groups of people banding together on the basis of various identities and saying, “We as a group should be given these things because we are a powerful group, and we’ll make a lot of noise if we don’t get them.”

So instead of a system based on results in which people win prizes on the basis of effort and ability, you have a system of spoils in which people get public positions or educational positions on the basis of organizing as pressure groups. And I think that all of that’s bad, because it creates a constant system of agitation and competition — not in the good sense of people all striving to learn things, but in the bad sense of people all agitating for spoils. But the other thing is that America is not the only country in the world. America, as I say, is confronted for the first time ever by another superpower, i.e. China: a country that’s growing very fast (much faster than we ever thought it was), a country that is determined to use this idea of merit to advance its own interests. And China has lots and lots of stake in this.

China was, of course, the first country to create a mass examination system. It was a society which introduced exams far before the rest of the world had them: for century upon century. At the height of the Chinese Mandarin system about 10 percent of the population was sitting these exams, so they have a long experience with this. Those exams sort of degenerated because they failed to keep up with the times. They were all tests of Confucian thought. They ignored modern science. They ignored engineering, technology and the rest of it, and then they collapsed at the beginning of the 20th century. But now they’re back. And this time, the Chinese are not testing just for your knowledge of Confucius, but they’re testing for your knowledge of science and engineering, computers — all the things that make the modern world.

Students take part in an outdoor examination to thwart cheating.
Via REUTERS

So you have this “examination state” back in a major way — with a huge education system, massive investment in universities, massive investment in a very competitive mass educational system — but also using meritocratic methods to select and promote civil servants, a big growth in state capacity. Now, if we have a world in which China is harnessing the meritocratic idea to reinforce the power of the Communist Party, the communist state, and America at the same time is dismantling meritocracy or softening meritocracy — as I say, this thing that can be demonstrated to be a key to prosperity — if you have these two things going on at the same time, America loses. China becomes a massive version of Singapore. America becomes, I don’t know, a version of Brazil or something like that, and you lose. They win.

My guest today has been Adrian Wooldridge, author of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World. Adrian, thanks so much for coming on the podcast.

Thank you very much, indeed.

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