Meritocracy doesn’t work. It’s in the Left’s interest to recognise this

30 January 2014

At the end of Coming Apart Charles Murray mentions, rather enigmatically, that our assumptions about society will soon be blown out of the water by new discoveries about human nature. I imagine he’s talking about genetic discoveries, in particular about the human brain.

One of our current assumptions is meritocracy, and the idea that we can produce a fair society in which the most talented and energetic rise to the top. This is sometimes what people mean when they talk of the ‘American Dream’, a term that seems to be used more now that social mobility in that great country is fading and inequality rising.

That is why The Son Also Rises, a study of social mobility by Gregory Clark, will surprise and also alarm some people. He notes, by using surname patterns, that mobility is minimal in all societies where the data is available. Even, for example, in the Nordic paradise of Sweden.

He says: ‘In all societies, what seems to matter is just who your parents are. At the extreme, we see in modern Sweden an extensive system of public education and social support. Yet underlying mobility rates are no higher in modern Sweden than in pre-industrial Sweden or medieval England.’

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He also notes that even in revolutionary societies, such as in Communist China, people with aristocratic surnames also turn up at the top, showing that once again Darwin trumps Marx.

The same is probably true in this country; apart from those with recent immigrant ancestry, I imagine that many of the most influential and powerful people on the British Left descend from people who were also influential and powerful. In fact even among those of immigrant stock, a large number seem to descend from the rulers back in the old country. Many radical leaders in history proclaimed humble roots but actually came from fairly distinguished backgrounds; back in 1196 an uprising in London was led by one ‘William the Beard’, who demanded the rich pay more tax, grew his hair in tribute to his humble Saxon ancestry and called himself the ‘advocate of the people’, although his actual name, William Fitz-Osbert, suggests an altogether different ancestry.

What could explain Clark’s findings? One of the most obvious reasons that springs to mind is that intelligence is just another privilege you inherit from your parents, and that lots of those qualities needed to reach the top are also hereditary (and even if your son doesn’t inherit them, you can marry him off to someone who does and so loading the dice for the next generation).

But the Left is terrified of the science around the human brain and human evolution, and goes out of its way not only to deny what is clearly true, but also to call out, harass and stigmatise anyone who argues it. Witness the recent ho-ha when an advisor to Michael Gove made the point that a large part of the education gap was due to genes, something that is so obvious as to be a truism, and is helpful information in trying to improve the life outcomes of the poor.

The tragedy is that Clark’s conclusions are precisely an argument for more social democracy. As he points out, the difference between America and Sweden is not in the difference of equality of opportunity, but in the life outcomes for those who don’t succeed.

In contrast the libertarian Right’s whole justification is that, since we can all succeed with hard work and diligence, life is one big competition and the winner rightly deserves his winnings. That just isn’t true, but until the Left comes to terms with human nature it will be impossible to counter it.

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Show comments
  • JayMan

    Meritocracy does work. It’s just that it produces unequal outcomes, thanks to the unequal natures of people. In fact, legacy effects are just what you’d expect in a working meritocracy:

    Assortative Mating, Class, and Caste | West Hunter

  • DrabOne

    “The tragedy is that Clark’s conclusions are precisely an argument for more social democracy. As he points out, the difference between America and Sweden is not in the difference of equality of opportunity, but in the life outcomes for those who don’t succeed.”

    But, Ed, I’m pretty sure you yourself have argued that “social democracy” doesn’t work in ethnically diverse countries.

    Despite significant immigration in recent decades, Sweden is still a relatively homogeneous society compared to the United States. The social democratic welfare state works in countries like Sweden largely because people tend to be more generous to those more closely related to themselves genealogically. That altruism disappears in more ethnically and racially heterogeneous societies.

    As Australian political scientist Frank Salter has pointed out:

    “The liberal left supports generous welfare but also policies that add to ethnic heterogeneity, such as high levels of immigration. It does not seem to have occurred to them that they must choose between maximizing the two.”

  • Che

    And WHAT has this to do with “left” and “right”…… unless you are differentiating between “right” representing the ruling class… and “left” the working class? If that were true not ALL the leadership of both would be going to Eton….. would they? Sounds like people who are against this idea in principle… Know full well they have their position and qualifications and jobs through corruption and family and not talent….

  • Che

    when have we EVER had a meritocracy in this country? We NEED it badly…. we have an education system designed to placate parents with figures that are manipulated. Teachers are put under huge pressure and the “upper classes” have a artificially maintained “advantage” over others…. If we had a true meritocracy we would have a far richer and more dynamic country and a fitting democracy to go with it…. “we” as a nation will not survive without major and lasting change that identifies and supports the talents of the many and not just the few.

  • Nkaplan

    Ed, you clearly have not read your Nozick!

    It is precisely not the Libertarian case that the intelligent/ capable should get their wealth because they deserve it. Rather libertarians eschew the very idea that the relevant grounds for possession of wealth are the deservingness of those with it. If anything this I a socialist idea I.e that wealth ought to be allocated according to some centrally directed process or principle. Instead Libertarians argue that the relevant grounds for just possession of wealth are entitlement – if A ,Akers a contractual promise to pay B £X on valid completion of certain actions, and B goes on to perform those actions, then B is entitled to £X. It is not for C (the government/ some envious sector of the population/ some academic or journalist with a spurious idea of what B deserves) to come along and “correct” the free choices of A and B because C doesn’t like the outcome.

    Thus whether or not science shows the rich don’t deserve their wealth (and I don’t believe it is even capable of showing any such thing, but that’s a different discussion), that is strictly irrelevant to the libertarian case and certainly doesn’t conclude the argument in favour of Social Democracy, as you suggest!

  • tjamesjones

    There will always be votes in telling people they’re not stupid it’s the system dammit

  • sidneycoadwilliams


    • Sarkastracus

      You need a new keyboard,

      • deddy

        he’s shouting at us

  • Druth

    Typical of the snob. In announcing himself superior to some reveals his sense of inferiority to others. Quotes Darwin but can’t stomach a fair fight. Can’t accept that privilege has opened every door and needs to twist science out of shape in order to delude himself that some innate virtue which is acquired by association only justifies his position.

  • Marcus

    Good piece.
    Chinese people ae on average are cleverer than Caucasians.
    Polynesians are on average physically stronger than Caucasians.
    Fine by me. I’ve no problem with either statement. They both my be true and it is irrelevant to how they should treat me or I them.

  • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

    One requirement is to clarify who falls into the set selected for, deserving of or earning reward based on their intrinsic merit.
    As far as I can see three major ‘types’ exist.

    (1)Those good at pure academic activity.( in general arts in the widest sense)
    (2)Those good at high level vocational activity (in general science/technology)
    Those excellent at SFA .
    Into this groups falls the overwhelming majority.of any population.

    Also to be considered is the distribution of innate intelligence , which should lead to entry into the meritocracy and which in my opinion is NOT class/meritocratic based but is distributed evenly across the social hierarchy..

    The problems arise once a nation develops a large bureaucracy.

    Once the said bureaucracy has arisen and captured the commanding heights of the nation it will usually do everything in its power to hold on to the privilege for its own kind. In the UK at least group (1) above.

    This ‘privilege grab’ can clearly be seen in those who defend the 11+ as worthwhile when even any old half a brain like me can see that it is grossly unfair and subject to input not all enter with equivalent social advantages thus leading to skewed results.

    What does all the above waffle lead to ?
    Perhaps someone can tell me hahahahaha
    I do believe what i have said is true tho’.
    It certainly explains the reported lack of social mobility.

    Why does the UK maintain an educational system producing social apartheid ?
    answer; the UK doesn’t…the dominant bureaucracy does.
    The human brain will never be understood of that I am as certain as I can be.
    It’s capability confounds natural selection but that’s a tale for tomorrow night.

    • Christian

      “Also to be considered is the distribution of innate intelligence . . . which in my opinion is NOT class/meritocratic based but is distributed evenly across the social hierarchy.”

      You might want to explore the evidence for this opinion – the whole tenor of this article, which contradicts your opinion, is really solidly supported by the research on heritability. Go have a look, the implications are fascinating :)

      • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

        I am not trying to deny that intelligence is determined by inheritance.
        I am not an egalitarian.

        My point was that the selective bias ( an aspect of environment) of the dominant group plays a major part in deciding who climbs the greasy pole of the social hierarchy.

  • Curnonsky

    “In contrast the libertarian Right’s whole justification is that, since we can all succeed with hard work and diligence, life is one big competition and the winner rightly deserves his winnings. That just isn’t true”

    Oh? Why not? That’s certainly the line peddled by journalists and academics envious of their peers’ financial success, but why shouldn’t success = rewards?

    • mrsjosephinehydehartley

      It all depends on luck, I think.

    • Kes Phelps

      It’s not true because it’s not a fair competition. Some people are born with an advantage and some like to keep all the success for themselves and refuse to acknowledge that less privileged are just as capable and sometimes more so. They just didn’t get the breaks.

  • Cornelius Bonkers

    Yes, not really very surprising is it? In the old grammar schools those who were dopey and/or lazy and/or lacking ANY kind of help or culture at home (me for example) were shown to be clearly out of their depth pretty sharpishly. Some of my fellow pupils were obviously clever at everything. But most of the rest of us dopelings were usually good at SOME subjects. The problem was that it was possible to be SO humiliated in, say, maths and physics that it destroyed your self-confidence in history and English which you would otherwise do quite well at. The answer is that scientifically-speaking there is no answer. With human beings things can always be otherwise than genetics and culture donate. If they’re so smart why don’t all these education policy w…k..s do something useful for a living like becoming teachers; they’d soon see that the world is an unequal place and individual inequality a cross to be born by some more than others…

    • mrsjosephinehydehartley

      Yes. if they’re ( human beings?) so smart, why can’t they make us all equally lucky? Er..isn’t that what meritocracy really means? Or perhaps it means creditocracy..

  • sfin

    Yeah, yeah, yeah! But you haven’t thought clearly about the mindset of the left, at least in this country.

    Let’s say the science comes out into the open and is recognised across the political spectrum. Let us also say that a genetic advantage, or disadvantage, can be reliably quantified. You can be pretty sure that the left would find some way of preventing like breeding with like – in the interest of “fairness”

    Let’s see…how would they do it? Well, they like to ban things – so how about banning an intelligent person from marrying, or having children with another intelligent person? Or, more probably, exempting them from child benefit?

    That’s the mindset of the British left.

  • William Haworth

    It amazes me that people can breed dogs for intelligence, but think that the same cannot apply to humans.

    But I don’t like it when you challenge my libertarian ideas Ed, please stop immediately.

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