Book Review: The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

by Adrian Wooldridge

Olympics fans aside, meritocracy doesn’t have many friends these days. Social-justice advocates view the meritocracy as a swindle, giving white people an excuse to hoard their privilege and leaving minorities only crumbs. On the right, populists look at a recession, forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a globalized economy that has taken away their jobs and destroyed their towns and regard the designated experts with disgust. Crème-de-la-crème meritocrats such as Harvard professor Michael Sandel and Yale law professor Daniel Markovits decry the smugness, entitlement, and soul-draining rat race promoted by our machinery of higher education, the very system that gives them their own prestige.

The great virtue of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, by longtime Economist editor and writer Adrian Wooldridge, is that while acknowledging the harsh truths of these critiques, it forces us to ponder the next question only tepidly addressed by others on this beat: If not meritocracy, then what? How should societies allocate status and the power to make the big decisions?

Scour Wooldridge’s expansive history of the conundrum, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find satisfying alternatives. In fact, from his telling, you might conclude that raw evolutionary psychology rather than studied political science or ethics best explains how most societies have operated. Families and clans, not individuals, were “the basic unit of society,” he writes. Sons inherited land and titles, daughters were bartered for more, and both passed their unearned privileges onto their own children regardless of their progeny’s character, intelligence, or interest in doing certain jobs. Likewise, serfs grew their superiors’ food, and servants dressed their masters in silk breeches for no reason other than that they were born to do so. If a peasant was blessed with Einstein’s brains or Lincoln’s political wisdom, it would make no difference in his or her life path; “tillers tilled and thatchers thatched,” as Wooldridge writes. No doubt the hoi polloi grumbled about their masters, but the arrangement was widely accepted as natural and just. It was individual ambition that represented a danger to what was thought to be a God-given social order.

Of course, the powers-that-were had every reason to advance the idea that inherited privilege was divinely ordained—but the truth is, for many centuries favoring kin was about the only game around. Plato was the first to imagine a system that would give power to those more worthy. The guardians of his Republic would be “men of gold”: those with natural talents, pedigree be damned. Notably, he believed the family was the biggest threat to the just polity; kin would always embrace kin. To short-circuit this stubborn fact, he proposed taking future guardians of each generation away from their parents in order to prepare them for leadership through intensive physical, intellectual, and philosophical training. (Plato doesn’t specify how he would locate the prodigies.)

The only other proto-meritocratic social order came from Asia. As early as the tenth century, the Chinese developed their famous exam system that, with many modifications, continues to sort the wheat from the chaff today. A grueling, multiyear preparation, it allowed farmer’s sons the chance to escape the dead-end bleakness of village life and become “mandarins” in the Forbidden City. Still, the emperor inherited his position.

In other parts of the world, a few exceptional low-born strivers could bypass the ancient barriers of entrenched hierarchy. England had an unofficial system of “sponsored social mobility,” in which a lord or church worthy would take notice of a clever plebian and mentor him to prominence. Cardinal Wolsey, the son of a wool seller, groomed Thomas Cromwell, who later became Henry VIII’s consigliere and fixer—a stunning rise for the son of a blacksmith. Noblemen lent support to talented artists and thinkers from undistinguished backgrounds. The Duke of Buccleuch was patron to the philosopher Adam Smith; ironically, his protégé was part of the Scottish Enlightenment, which would weaken the logic of inherited nobility that had given the Duke his riches. Wooldridge speculates that the emergence of larger and more complex states also challenged the ancien regime as states found themselves in need of more capable bureaucrats than a pampered, inbred aristocracy could produce. After all, kings and dukes needed shrewd minions to administer and collect taxes to support their palaces and wars.

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