Commentary Magazine

The Rise of the Meritocracy, by Michael Young

Survival for What?
The Rise of the Meritocracy.
by Michael Young.
Random House. 160 pp. $3.50.


H. G. Wells’s warning that we are engaged in “a race between education and catastrophe” has taken on new meaning. We are now told that, if the increasing complexity of our technological civilization doesn’t get us, the Russians will. Apparently our hope lies in creating equality of educational opportunity, “talent-searching” to cut the waste of innate ability among underprivileged youngsters, and a much more efficient social organization to identify, educate, and utilize our “human resources.”

Michael Young, who headed the British Labor party’s research department for six years, has applied all these demands with a vengeance in this anti-Utopia. Wells’s race has ended in a dead heat called Meritocracy, a society in which the classes are reconstituted on the basis of the simple formula: IQ plus Effort equals Merit. Though Dr. Young does not evoke the nightmares of 1984 or Brave New World, in a sense he is more insidious, for, unlike Orwell or Huxley, he shows precisely how contemporary society could evolve, logical-step-necessary-for-survival by logical-step-necessary-for-survival, into this repugnant model of productive efficiency.

The book is cast in the form of a doctoral thesis of the 21st century. By the mid-20th century, the imaginary chronicler recollects, it had become apparent that no country could compete in the production race if it allowed well-born mediocrities to inherit superior educational opportunities and clog up positions of power. The government finally decided that the only true remedy was to tighten the educational sieve—first by identifying brainy youngsters in the earliest grades and then by making sure, through scholarships, that they were adequately trained in special schools. This part of the discussion largely reflects recent debate in England over the reform of the school system, but it also has a bearing on recent proposals for training “future leaders” that have been made in the United States by Admiral Hyman Rickover and others.

Young’s book, however, goes beyond school reform. For, as he tells it, even after creating a perfectly efficient mechanism for selecting and educating the “best” raw material, the state still had to bring industry’s practices into line with the school pattern. “History’s most enduring ruling class,” the eternal Gerontocracy, had continued to reign outside the classroom. Professions were governed by an inefficient system of advancement based largely on seniority. The young accepted this only because they knew that they themselves would in turn enjoy its fruits. Once again, however, the harsh realities of international competition forced the adoption of more efficient methods. Soon merit rating, perfected in scope and certainty to include mental work and effort, overruled seniority. Instead of attaining effortless security in later years, the elderly stood to be demoted if their capacity to produce fell off; “judges have become taxi-drivers, bishops curates, and publishers writers—the old shine in jobs where reliability is important.”

In the new state, the few chosen for the Meritocracy—“the five per cent of the nation who know what five per cent means”—have their necessary counterpart in the great mass of incompetents. Now that success is scientifically apportioned, the eminent know that they richly deserve their superior status; on the other hand, the lower classes, being homogeneously inferior, can no longer deceive themselves that their lowliness is undeserved. The high-ability child born into the lower classes, Who might grow up to articulate their cause, is spirited off by the educational system and himself enrolled in the Meritocracy. No real communication is possible between the two classes; both the Labor party and the House of Commons tend to wither away as the philosophers rule. In short, the ultimate consequences of this kind of equality of opportunity are very different from the equality of status envisioned by the old Utopians.

No summary of this kind can convey the sustained play of irony with which Dr. Young depicts his new society. As a “sympathetic” theoretical description of the Meritocracy, the chronicle presents powerful arguments in favor of reorganizing our institutions so that the best can most surely get to the top. Often the reader cannot distinguish the sweet reasonableness of putting the best-qualified man in the most important job from the absurdity of judging a person’s worth solely by how much he can increase production.



Many of the British reviewers, although they warned that the book might be misunderstood, tended to busy themselves with the question of whether Meritocracy could really come to pass. Most agreed that we are headed in that direction, but found various reasons why Britain would never go the whole way: the composition of the electorate contains too large a percentage of older people who are concerned mainly with security; the power of the family unit cannot be destroyed; the common man has fought since the Industrial Revolution to withdraw from the market economy and reestablish a social system (in which the ungifted majority can survive and flourish. But all this misses the point: it is like countering Swift’s “Modest Proposal” by documenting the culinary difficulties of preparing Irish children for human consumption. The force of Dr. Young’s satire lies not so much in its prophecies for the future, as in its logical extrapolations of the very rationalizations we are already using to justify our current public policies. Whereas we find both the assumptions and the ends of Swift’s proposal horrible, the assumptions behind the Meritocracy are being seriously proposed and respectfully considered as possible reforms for our public schools.

The dilemma with which the book confronts us, then, is a genuine one: the real opposition between the claims of that maximum economic progress necessary to insure the “superiority of our system,” and a society theoretically based on a personal, equalitarian, democratic attitude toward people as ends in themselves. On the one hand, rationalization and efficiency; on the other, acceptance of the innate dignity of the individual. Such efficiency entails, to a necessarily accelerating degree, an instrumental view of human beings as more or less efficient means to economic or political ends, and engenders the characteristic viewpoint reflected in such phrases as “human resources.” The fundamental premise of such a social system is that competitive survival is the final, indisputable justification for any policy, and it is this assumption which Dr. Young is reducing to absurdity.

We have heard much about the danger of imitating the means which the Soviet Union employs, but the perversion of values at the heart of the Meritocracy—a system apparently evolving everywhere without regard to political regimes—is based on a wrong choice not so much of means as of ends. More democratic procedures may prevent us from committing abhorrent crimes against the human person, but if our sole ends are military survival and economic predominance, the best means cannot protect us from irremedial sacrilege against the values we have hitherto claimed most to revere. Survival itself, to be meaningful, must be a means.

To be sure, we live in a world situation characterized by considerable and quite legitimate pressures for maximizing our productive efficiency. Indeed, Dr. Young bases his rhetorical strategy on our readiness to concede that we must exalt some values, not because they are the best, or even good, but because they are socially useful. Nevertheless, by his imaginative exploitation of our successive concessions to practicality, he demonstrates that the only attitude more absurd than ignoring these pressures is one which elevates them to the point where they usurp our sense of dedication to other social values. If we are to avoid being swept up in the rhetoric of whichever social purpose is currently being touted, the conflicting demands of national life must be consciously placed in a hierarchy of priorities—and this requires a continuing and vigorous debate over social ends.

No doubt, such a debate becomes increasingly difficult to conduct as the realities of world power limit our choices to a very narrow range. Often, it seems that toleration of multiple ends and their inevitable conflict may even weaken us in the face of external danger. But the times appear to require something more than the will to prevail. They demand equally a recognition of the ambiguities of our complex situation, and a resistance to that failure of basic conviction which might lead to our surviving our enemies by destroying ourselves.



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