Critique of “The Aristocracy of Talent”: Getting Ahead, Falling Behind


In 1958, British sociologist Michael Young published ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’, a fictional tale that envisioned a world where business and government leaders would be chosen on the basis of talent and effort rather than social status, wealth or power. But the book, which introduced the word “meritocracy” into the English language, was not written to celebrate such a world. Rather, it was a warning that those who had fallen behind in the competition to gain the advantage risk resenting the new elite and eventually rebelling.

As Adrian Wooldridge notes in “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World,” Young predicted that the rebellion would occur in 2034. But in the United States and Britain, it seems to have already started. And while Young expected it to be driven by left-wing concerns about inequality and injustice, opposition to meritocracy now also includes forces on the political right who accuse the new elite of defending rights. measures which benefit its own interests to the detriment of the general public. . The British vote to withdraw from the European Union and the election of Donald Trump in the United States are, according to Wooldridge, signs that many voters are no longer willing to rely on the judgments of so-called experts.

“The Aristocracy of Talent” is an effort to respond to this backlash. Although Mr Wooldridge, editor and columnist at The Economist, strongly advocates the practical and moral value of meritocracy (while acknowledging its flaws), he does not fully address what may be his most troubling challenge today. ‘hui: doubts about what “merit” is or whether it even exists.

The idea of ​​meritocracy is not new, of course. Mr. Wooldridge traces it back to ancient Greece and Plato’s utopian vision of a ruling class of “carefully educated philosophers-kings.” Imperial China has developed a vast “state of scrutiny,” he writes, to identify the most talented citizens across the country and bring them to the emperor’s court as “mandarins.” The liberal reflection on the rights of individuals and the oppressive nature of the Ancien Régime helped fuel the spread of meritocracy in Europe after the Enlightenment. Quickly in France and more gradually in Britain and elsewhere, trust in the traditional and business elites of landowners and nobles collapsed. This shift in perspective, as Mr. Wooldridge shows, has led to reforms in education, government, business and the military.

It was in the United States, says Wooldridge, that meritocracy had the greatest appeal. In an 1813 letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson distinguished two types of aristocracies: an artificial “founded on wealth and birth” and a natural one founded on “virtue and talent”. He argued that the Constitution allowed Americans to separate the two and enjoy the benefits of the second, the natural aristocracy, which was well suited to “the education, trusts, and government of society.” With the important exception of race, the United States has developed, in Mr. Wooldridge’s expression, as “a republic of merit.”


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