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169. The gentle (III)

Updated: Apr 2

The term “meritocracy”, rather like “Tory” or “deplorable”, is one of those words that was coined with negative connotations but has, over time, been adopted as a positive. It is common today for politicians and pundits to react to accusations of white supremacy or discrimination with the response that they are for “equality of opportunity” and “meritocracy”. “We want to get back to the old grammar school system, a meritocracy, where bright working-class kids can rise up the ladder through equality of opportunity.” This is the sort of statement that Conservative MPs have made throughout my lifetime, and I think similar versions are given in most Western countries.

“Meritocracy” originates with Michael Young’s eponymous book, published in 1958. Young describes a Britain of around 2030 that has long adopted ubiquitous intelligence tests that have swept away the supposedly stupid aristocratic and bourgeois sons who inherited their paternal estates or factories—the high-IQ working-class lads have been promoted. It is an account of IQ-meritocracy as related by a senior administrator, a smug technocrat who swears by the Darwinian student of genius, Francis Galton.

The meritocracy has defeated the Tories, sweeping away the myth of the self-made man; at the same time, Labour socialists and Marxists have been defeated: under meritocracy everyone is exactly where they should be—according to their permanent IQ record—and so there are few grounds to complain about the distribution of goods. Britain is a true technocracy, unlike today’s fake technocracy, it has found a real “third way”. However, by the end of the book the narrator has been killed in an uprising.

Resistance to the meritocracy comes from two sources: Conservatives who realise that once society is sorted by IQ and it is established that IQ is heritable, there is no need for the strict test regime; in short, they call for a formalised caste system. On the other hand, romantic socialists, led by high-IQ women, revolt against the meritocracy because they see the technocracy as destructive to the widest human development aside from technical achievement. The commonality is that both wings want to preserve the family, whereas the meritocracy wants to break it up. In the end, the family wins; the meritocracy is liquidated.

Young was a utopian socialist who made his name studying working-class families in the East End of London and Essex. His socialist views are reflected in his acidulous comments about the aristocracy and middle class: Young, like his notable son Toby, was not right wing, except implicitly—to defend the family is to be on the right. Contrary to Young’s hopes, IQ is heritable: the organic composition of society is basically just. It is true that the odd genius is born to the lower classes and the odd duffer in the upper classes, but by and large the organic society is a self-created meritocracy—just without the perverse atomisation of IQ tests. Young did not believe this himself, since he was a socialist and had to hold that the distribution of goods in property-holding societies was fundamentally unjust; but the wealthiest families in China today are mostly the same as those before the revolution: blood will out.

Meritocracy is a left-wing idea, and its popularity demonstrates that most so-called conservatives in the West are leftists of a certain kind. IQ is too reductionist a measure to run a society: you can dump high-IQ Japanese, Chinese, and Croatians in a room, but you lose the holistic genius of personality. Family business is impossible under meritocracy—if the son is 108 and there is a 110 applicant for the job, then the manager-father must hire the 110. This destroys the ineffable ties and secrets that make traditions and family business possible. From Plato to Pol Pot, the left always seeks to destroy the family—so too does the meritocrat. Human decision making is too complicated to be reduced to an IQ test; the best criterion for hiring someone remains a three-minute chat and the feeling you like the guy.

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