Books by Young, Michael

Young, Michael. The Rise of the Meritocracy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, [1958] 1994. ISBN 1-56000-704-4.
The word “meritocracy” has become so commonplace in discussions of modern competitive organisations and societies that you may be surprised to learn the word did not exist before 1958—a year after Sputnik—when the publication of this most curious book introduced the word and concept into the English language. This is one of the oddest works of serious social commentary ever written—so odd, in fact, its author despaired of its ever seeing print after the manuscript was rejected by eleven publishers before finally appearing, whereupon it was quickly republished by Penguin and has been in print ever since, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and being translated into seven different languages.

Even though the author was a quintessential “policy wonk”: he wrote the first postwar manifesto for the British Labour Party, founded the Open University and the Consumer Association, and sat in the House of Lords as Lord Young of Dartington, this is a work of…what shall we call it…utopia? dystopia? future history? alternative history? satire? ironic social commentary? science fiction?…beats me. It has also perplexed many others, including one of the publishers who rejected it on the grounds that “they never published Ph.D. theses” without having observed that the book is cast as a thesis written in the year 2034! Young's dry irony and understated humour has gone right past many readers, especially those unacquainted with English satire, moving them to outrage, as if George Orwell were thought to be advocating Big Brother. (I am well attuned to this phenomenon, having experienced it myself with the Unicard and Digital Imprimatur papers; no matter how obvious you make the irony, somebody, usually in what passes for universities these days, will take it seriously and explode in rage and vituperation.)

The meritocracy of this book is nothing like what politicians and business leaders mean when they parrot the word today (one hopes, anyway)! In the future envisioned here, psychology and the social sciences advance to the point that it becomes possible to determine the IQ of individuals at a young age, and that this IQ, combined with motivation and effort of the person, is an almost perfect predictor of their potential achievement in intellectual work. Given this, Britain is seen evolving from a class system based on heredity and inherited wealth to a caste system sorted by intelligence, with the high-intelligence élite “streamed” through special state schools with their peers, while the lesser endowed are directed toward manual labour, and the sorry side of the bell curve find employment as personal servants to the élite, sparing their precious time for the life of the mind and the leisure and recreation it requires.

And yet the meritocracy is a thoroughly socialist society: the crème de la crème become the wise civil servants who direct the deployment of scarce human and financial capital to the needs of the nation in a highly-competitive global environment. Inheritance of wealth has been completely abolished, existing accumulations of wealth confiscated by “capital levies”, and all salaries made equal (although the élite, naturally, benefit from a wide variety of employer-provided perquisites—so is it always, even in merito-egalitopias). The benevolent state provides special schools for the intelligent progeny of working class parents, to rescue them from the intellectual damage their dull families might do, and prepare them for their shining destiny, while at the same time it provides sports, recreation, and entertainment to amuse the mentally modest masses when they finish their daily (yet satisfying, to dullards such as they) toil.

Young's meritocracy is a society where equality of opportunity has completely triumphed: test scores trump breeding, money, connections, seniority, ethnicity, accent, religion, and all of the other ways in which earlier societies sorted people into classes. The result, inevitably, is drastic inequality of results—but, hey, everybody gets paid the same, so it's cool, right? Well, for a while anyway…. As anybody who isn't afraid to look at the data knows perfectly well, there is a strong hereditary component to intelligence. Sorting people into social classes by intelligence will, over the generations, cause the mean intelligence of the largely non-interbreeding classes to drift apart (although there will be regression to the mean among outliers on each side, mobility among the classes due to individual variation will preserve or widen the gap). After a few generations this will result, despite perfect social mobility in theory, in a segregated caste system almost as rigid as that of England at the apogee of aristocracy. Just because “the masses” actually are benighted in this society doesn't mean they can't cause a lot of trouble, especially if incited by rabble-rousing bored women from the élite class. (I warned you this book will enrage those who don't see the irony.) Toward the end of the book, this conflict is building toward a crisis. Anybody who can guess the ending ought to be writing satirical future history themselves.

Actually, I wonder how many of those who missed the satire didn't actually finish the book or simply judged it by the title. It is difficult to read a passage like this one on p. 134 and mistake it for anything else.

Contrast the present — think how different was a meeting in the 2020s of the National Joint Council, which has been retained for form's sake. On the one side sit the I.Q.s of 140, on the other the I.Q.s of 99. On the one side the intellectual magnates of our day, on the other honest, horny-handed workmen more at home with dusters than documents. On the one side the solid confidence born of hard-won achievement; on the other the consciousness of a just inferiority.
Seriously, anybody who doesn't see the satire in this must be none too Swift. Although the book is cast as a retrospective from 2038, and there passing references to atomic stations, home entertainment centres, school trips to the Moon and the like, technologically the world seems very much like that of 1950s. There is one truly frightening innovation, however. On p. 110, discussing the shrinking job market for shop attendants, we're told, “The large shop with its more economical use of staff had supplanted many smaller ones, the speedy spread of self-service in something like its modern form had reduced the number of assistants needed, and piped distribution of milk, tea, and beer was extending rapidly.” To anybody with personal experience with British plumbing and English beer, the mere thought of the latter being delivered through the former is enough to induce dystopic shivers of 1984 magnitude.

Looking backward from almost fifty years on, this book can be read as an alternative history of the last half-century. In the eyes of many with a libertarian or conservative inclination, just when the centuries-long battle against privilege and prejudice was finally being won: in the 1950s and early 60s when Young's book appeared, the dream of equal opportunity so eloquently embodied in Dr. Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech began to evaporate in favour of equality of results (by forced levelling and dumbing down if that's what it took), group identity and entitlements, and the creation of a permanently dependent underclass from which escape was virtually impossible. The best works of alternative history are those which change just one thing in the past and then let the ripples spread outward over the years. You can read this story as a possible future in which equal opportunity really did completely triumph over egalitarianism in the sixties. For those who assume that would have been an unqualifiedly good thing, here is a cautionary tale well worth some serious reflexion.

January 2006 Permalink