Bookmark and Share

Rejecting meritocracy clashes with nation’s basic premises

'Even young Mozart had to practise.' – Adrian Wooldridge WASHINGTON – This cultural moment is defined by the peculiar idea that America has such a surplus of excellence, it can dispense with something that should be rejected as inequitable - rigorous competition to identify merit. Progressives are recoiling from the idea that propelled humanity’s ascent to modernity: the principle that people are individuals first and primarily, so individual rights should supplant rights attached to group membership.

Progressives’ unease with society measuring merit when allocating opportunity and rewards is discordant with the nation’s premises. And rejecting meritocracy at a time when China – the United States’ strongest geopolitical rival ever – is intensifying its embrace of it is 'an act of civilisational suicide,' Adrian Wooldridge warns.

In his book 'The Aristocracy of Talent,' the Economist’s political editor and Bagehot columnist argues that in pre-modern societies 'the most important economic resource was not the brain inside your head but the land under your feet.' Today, some anti-modern progressives are wary of intelligence because it is an engine of inequality.

So they attack selective public schools that base admissions on standardized tests. All uses of such tests, and Advanced Placement high school classes, and other sorting procedures are stigmatized because they produce disparate outcomes, which supposedly reveal 'systemic racism.' That dangerous dogma collides with this fact: Substantial cognitive stratification is inevitable in modern, information-intensive societies. As Wooldridge says, there cannot be sustained economic growth without meritocracy.

Pascal said, 'We do not choose as captain of a ship the most highly born of those aboard.' Thomas Paine said hereditary legislators would be as absurd as a 'hereditary mathematician.' And Wooldridge says, 'Most of us would hesitate before flying with a pilot who had been chosen by lottery.'

He says Martin Luther’s greatest contribution to modernity was not Protestantism but competition: Schism meant that faith factions had 'to improve their performance or lose their market share.' Meritocracy, feudalism’s antithesis, was wielded by the French Revolution as a hammer to smash feudalism’s remnants: The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen declared all citizens 'equally admissible' to all public 'offices and employments ... with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.' As Wooldridge says, Enlightenment thinkers, aiming to match 'talent to opportunity and knowledge to power,' stressed the difference between natural aristocracies of talents and artificial aristocracies of breeding and inheritance.

Some progressives, who are more interested in minimizing inequality than maximizing opportunity, insist that not even industriousness makes an individual deserving is because it is an inherited trait. However, less loopy progressives rightly warn that there can be inherited hierarchies in meritocratic societies. America does fall short of Thomas Jefferson’s hope for 'culling' talent 'from every condition of our people.' SAT prep classes are not models of social diversity; parents are conscientious (this is not a vice) about transmitting family advantages to their children.

The answer, however, is to improve the culling, not to jettison the aspiration on the ground that all metrics of merit must be unfair. A first step would be to rescue children from uneducated educators of the sort who natter about 'racist' arithmetic and the 'myth' that some students are more arithmetically gifted than others.

Wooldridge reminds us that the ancient Greeks contrasted government by the best (aristocracy) with government by the richest and best-connected (oligarchy). Although the idea of aristocracy grates on democratic sensibilities, in the modern age a true aristocracy, meaning the ascendency of the talented, should be an aspiration. It need not mean an entrenched class insulated from the churning of competition. Indeed, it cannot mean that: In a society of careers truly open to talents, a real aristocracy will be constantly weeded and refreshed by upward – and downward - mobility driven by competition.

America, as Wooldridge writes, was 'born meritocratic.' Meritocracy is as American as immigration, which predisposes Americans to believe in 'self-made men' (a phrase used by Henry Clay in 1832). Meritocracy is as American as the frontier, where life 'on the edge of the civilized world encouraged self-reliance.'

It is a virtue of meritocracy that it produces inequality. 'You need,' Wooldridge writes, 'above-average rewards to induce people to engage in … self-sacrifice and risk-taking. Reduce the rewards that accrue to outstanding talent and you reduce the amount of talent available to society as a whole.'

Meritocracy, Wooldridge says, 'is the closest thing we have today to a universal ideology.' It, like many other good things, must, however, be saved from today’s profoundly retrogressive progressivism.

Contact George Will at

Bookmark and Share