2034: An Orwellian Look at a Future Society Based on a Truly Dangerous Idea--Equal Opportunity

by Nicholas Lemann


by Michael Young. Transaction Publishers, 180 pages, $18.98.
THE category to which The Rise of the Meritocracy belongs might be called soc-sci-fi: dystopian fantasies about future forms of human organization, For some reason the examples of the genre that spring to mind are all products of mid-twentieth-century Britain.Brave New World came out in 1932, 1984 in 1949, and The Rise of the Meritocracy. pretty much the last in the line, in 1958. The lirst of these is set live centuries hence; the second is something of a period piece now, because of the fall of communism; but The Rise of the Meritocracy has the thrill of immediate relevance, which must be why an American academic publisher is reissuing it.
In 1958 Michael Young was a leading British sociologist and a theoretician for the Labour Party. The Rise of the Meritocracy takes the form of a report written in the year 2034 by “Michael Young,”a leading British sociologist—a confusing setup, because “Michael Young" is pompous and arrogant and disagrees with most of what seem to be Michael Young’s views. The story that “Michael Young” tells begins with the reform of the civil service in the 1870s and picks up its momentum in 1944, when Britain, the major power that clung longest to the vestiges of feudalism, finally enacted into law the principle that the government should provide all children with a secondary education. But financial constraints and the British elite’s conviction that most people were ineducable past the point of basic literacy led to the creation of a system with a brutal cutoff point.
Under the then enormous influence of Cyril Burt, one of the pioneers in the held of mental measurement, Britain created the “11-plus” exam, which had an IQ section and was given to all students upon completion of elementary school. The highest-scoring 20 percent went on to state-run “grammar schools" that pointed them toward a university education; the mass went to “technical schools,” or “secondary modems,” where they got a vocational education that ended when they were fifteen. It has to be kept in mind that the founders of this system thought of it as a great liberalizing step. Previously the boarding-school-educated children of the upper class got most of the slots in higher education, which gave them a lock on the top positions in government, finance, and the professions. Now, theoretically, anybody who was bright could get to the top.
Michael Young took the 1944-1958 trend line and extended it outward, at the same slope, by three quarters of a century. Where it led is to a “meritocracy”— the Oxford English Dictionary has Young as the first user of the word— based on IQ. All inheritance of money and position have been abolished. So have seniority systems. The class structure has been reshuffled, because the smart have been gathered up from all groups and deposited at the top, and the dumb left at, or sent to. the bottom. Everyone makes the same salary (called the Equal), but members of the higher orders are given enough perquisites that their standard of living is far superior. Although everyone’s IQ is routinely tested every five years, people sharply dissatisfied with their lot can petition the government bureaucracy (run out of a headquarters called Eugenics House) for additional retests, which, they hope, will lead to class reassignment.
But on the whole, at least as “Michael Young” sees it. the system doesn’t make many mistakes and most people accept it. Now that there are no longer any talented members of the working class, the Labour Party has withered. It limps along under the name Technicians Party (because workers are now called technicians), and what feeble protests there are against the meritocracy are mounted by the wildeyed Populists. The House of Commons has also become unimportant, because once the House of Lords was reorganized on meritocratic principles, with membership by appointment rather than inheritance, it came to dominate British political life completely. (As if to confirm at least part of that prediction, the author of The Rise of the Meritocracy is today Lord Young of Dartington. a life peer and a Labour member of the upper chamber.)
The Rise of the Meritocracy is a little light on enlivening details, and it has no real characters except “Michael Young,” who ends the book confidently predicting that there can be no effective rebellion against the meritocracy and then, we are informed in a footnote, is killed in one. But its thinking is consistently rich and fascinating—Young is on to a big theme, involving fundamental questions about social organization and individual dignity. What drives the book is Young’s having identified one of the fundamental paradoxes of what we would call liberalism and the British would call socialism: the liberal dream of equal opportunity, if realized, could produce a society that would be a liberal’s nightmare, in which inequality substantially increased. Not only that: members of the upper class would begin to think of themselves as, so to speak, the deserving rich, and so would be even more insufferably self-righteous than their merely lucky predecessors had been, because their superiority had been scientifically demonstrated. The left would have no rhetoric, no set of principles, with which to combat the material and psychological depredations of inequality.
The idea of meritocracy, if not the precise word, has always entranced the liberal mind: Jefferson wanted this country to be run by a “natural aristocracy,” and Shaw dreamed of a “democratic aristocracy" in Britain. The view expressed in The Rise of the Meritocracy is that before the Second World War the idea could not be put into effect—it was technologically impracticable—and therefore it did much more good than harm. Liberals could use the notion of equal opportunity to promote causes like civil rights and universal education without having to suffer the 2034era consequences. But after the war, with accurate, mass-administrable mental tests available and a strong consensus in favor of expanding education, it became theoretically possible for the first time in history to create a society in which everyone reached the level of his or her ability. The result is the society described by “Michael Young": another example of how dangerous it can be for a dream to come true.
WE’RE now about halfway between the date when The Rise of the Meritocracy was written and the date of the situation it focuses on. How accurate is Young’s vision turning out to be?
There was one big, obvious development that Young failed to predict— that the British educational system he was writing about would crumble within a decade of the publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young posited a political opposition that in the short run would fail owing to the cooptation of its potential leaders into the meritocracy—hence the armed rebellion of 2034. In fact the political opposition, when it did arise, almost exactly on Young’s schedule, was successful. During the Labour ascendancy of the 1960s and 1970s. the 11-plus exam was abolished almost everywhere in Britain, and the grammar schools and secondary moderns were replaced by “comprehensive schools” for everyone. Today bringing back the 11-plus and the grammar school is a minor conservative cause. (Young correctly saw that meritocracy, prospectively a liberal cause, would become a conservative one as soon as it was in operation.) A revolution against the British meritocracy—the meritocracy in its harsh 1950s form, anyway—is unimaginable, because it’s unnecessary.
Young was right, though, about the overall social transformation that was taking place. Because of the increasing importance of knowledge in advanced societies, education took on the function of personnel sorter, or social stratifier, in the second half of the twentieth century. As Young predicted, businesses and other employers, rather than ignoring educational credentials, embraced them in their own systems for classifying and routing people. All this was a signal change that remade the composition of elites and (since the tournament was now theoretically open to all entrants) the aspirations and attitudes of everyone else.
Young’s picture of a meritocratic upper class that attains a level of self-righteousness higher than that of its predecessor upper classes, and a completely dispirited working class, seems only debatably accurate today; the meritocratic upper class probably has a greater stated (if paperthin) commitment to egalitarian principles than did the industrial upper class, for example. Some of Young’s tossed-off observations were more prophetic. He saw. five years before the publication of The Feminine Mystique, that as college became less a finishing school and more a socioeconomic launching station, women graduates would begin to find housewifery insulting and to pursue careers, while hiring the less educated to do their families’ babysitting and housework. He also had a left-wing group issuing a manifesto in 2009 that calls on schools to promote “diversity": Young realized that the more education matters, the more ferociously will be debated the questions of who gets into which school and what the standards of judgment are.
If you were looking for a present-day society that has traveled further down the road to the triumph of the meritocracy than Britain, you might consider the United States. By the lights of the book, this would be a shocking development. “Michael Young” treats America with a typically British combination of ignorance and condescension. Because the United States is a multi-ethnic society, he says, it has to use its schools “to wrest nationhood from polyglot chaos.”Therefore they are “institutions not for education but for social leveling.” America will always have public schools that admit everyone, so it can’t produce a meritocratic elite.
Actually, the United States wound up achieving the goals of meritocracy hawks like “Michael Young" through much less naked means than were used in Britain, and so its achievements were much less vulnerable to being dismantled than the 11-plus-grammar school system was. “Michael Young” refers dismissively to a populist educator in America called “Professor Conant,” who “was an American Professor apparently well known at the time.” This is James Bryant Conant, who had been the president of Harvard and the high commissioner to Germany; the Big Daddy of the American meritocracy, he was in reality anything but a social leveler. What the education establishment introduced in this country was mass testing of “scholastic aptitude,”rather than IQ explicitly, and tracking within comprehensive schools, rather than separate publie school systems for the highand lowscoring. American elite higher education adopted artfully blurred selection procedures that have served to let in most of the meritocrats thus produced while granting special favors to people like aristocrats and minorities, and thereby defusing at least some of their natural enmity toward the system. Although American conservatives consider our meritocracy to be constantly under attack, the principles for which “Michael Young” stands are on firmer footing on this side of the Atlantic than the other.
TO the extent that The Rise of the Meritocracy is out-of-date, it’s because of flaws not in what mental testers would call its predictive validity but in its underlying assumptions. These are, first, that IQ tests measure an important human quality that could never before be accurately gauged. Second, this quality, “intelligence,”is the crucial variable in society: The Rise of the Meritocracy defines it, with jarring simplicity, as “the ability to raise production.” Third, advanced nations, realizing that leadership by the intelligent is a prerequisite of successful competition in the international economy, will see no choice but to submit to ruthless IQ sorting of their citizenries. And fourth, doing this will have an immense economic payoff: as “Michael Young” proudly reports from 2034, “Thanks mainly to the scientific management of talent, in productivity little Britain began to leave the giants behind.”
Let’s take these one by one.
There was always a logical glitch in the IQ testers’ position: if IQ is a measurement of general mental ability, then wouldn’t people with high IQs have tended to rise to the top of societies even before IQ was identified and the tests for it developed? (Otherwise IQ is merely selfvalidating: if people with high IQs are the most successful, it’s only because they were put on a track to success when they got high IQ scores.) So wouldn’t all societies have been at least partly meritocratic, rather than meritocracy’s having become possible only after the Second World War? The postwar testers, in other words. tended to take the exaggerated position that no ability sorting whatsoever could have taken place before they arrived on the scene, and so overstated the magnitude of their accomplishment. “The world beholds for the first time the spectacle of a brilliant class,” “Michael Young” states triumphantly in The Rise of the Meritocracy. What about the classes that ran Athens in 440 B.C., Florence in 1500, and the United States in 1790?
If before there was IQ testing merit was rewarded, at least to some extent and under certain circumstances (for example, in newer and more open societies), then the social order that mass IQ testing ushered in would be described more accurately as IQ-ocracy, or education-ocracy, than as meritocracy. Other than psychometricians, who keep quiet about it, few people still believe totally in IQ as “the general factor,” as British mental testers used to call it. Instead IQ looks more like a narrow mental dexterity, a kind of cleverness, that correlates with good grades in school but can’t be confidently and provably called “the ability to raise production.” It’s very hard to imagine any country now embracing an 11plus-like system, and to the extent that some countries are IQ-sorted anyway, the high-IQ elite seems less unquestionably superhuman than The Rise of the Meritocracy predicted it would be.
Knowing, though, that test results and educational credentials are important in determining the course of life, people put much more effort into trying to beat the system than The Rise of the Meritocracy supposed. Young mentioned in passing “I.Q.-crammers” as a rogue group who were quickly disposed of; the real-life American equivalent, the test-prep industry. is big, established, and growing. The idea of actively trying to obtain the most favorable possible outcomes from tests and admissions offices, rather than passively accepting their judgments, is part of the fabric of upper-middle-class life. So is the idea of investing heavily in tuition. It’s the better-off and more sophisticated people who can make these efforts on behalf of their children, which means that status in a meritocracy can be transmitted between generations to a greater extent than Young foresaw. Theorists of meritocracy, including Young, have long perceived that the system could develop aristocratic tendencies, but they have thought the mechanism would be “assortive mating”—high-IQ men and women meeting on elite campuses, marrying, and producing high-IQ children purely through genetics. No doubt this does go on, but the prosperous also have at hand social means of improving the odds for their offspring.
Finally, the dramatic productivity increases that The Rise of the Meritocracy predicted so confidently haven’t materialized: in this country, just at the time when the meritocratic apparatus was becoming mature, about twenty years ago, productivity growth stalled. Occasionally a journal article by a psychometrician will appear claiming that the reason for this is that we underuse IQ tests. There are other possible explanations. One is that IQ is not especially well correlated with the ability to generate economic activity. and another is that the meritocracy doesn’t do a good job of deploying its human resources. The people who planned the British and American meritocracies believed that the high-IQ youths they were finding in every nook and cranny of the social structure and bringing to the best universities would mostly become scientists, or scientist-managers, or scientist-statesmen—which is what Michael Young and James Bryant Conant themselves were. “It is scientists who have inherited the earth,” reports The Rise of the Meritocracy:; who else could master “the full and ever-growing complexity of our technical civilization”?
What actually happened was that Oxford and Harvard, which under the premeritocratic regime provided privileged youths with what “Michael Young” dismissively calls “expensive training for Bar, counting-house, or surgery.”under the new regime have provided somewhat smarter and less privileged youths with exactly the same thing. Graduates of elite American universities overwhelmingly enter the professions—so overwhelmingly that the immediate past president of Harvard, Derek Bok, has just written a book complaining about it. The reason is that law. investment banking, and medicine have such favorable risk-to-reward ratios: the greater the tendency for elite university students to come from families that are not rich, the more important it will he to them to find high-paying careers. So the polite old custom that universities were for gentlemen who ought not to get involved with business or technology has actually been strengthened by the opening of universities to nongentlemen (because at the same time that they were being admitted, pay in the professions was zooming upward). Even if we accept the premise that meritocrats have it in them to raise the whole society’s productivity, they aren’t best situated to do so if they’re doctors and lawyers.
ALTHOUGH The Rise of the Meritocracy’s message about the perils of equal opportunity has both moral weight and intellectual elegance, it is not unassailable, in light of the way the system has turned out. Imagine proceeding from this set of assumptions, instead of Young’s: There is no unitary measurable human quality that can be described as genera! ability. Therefore, even if all the people who score high on IQ tests are grouped together and given the best possible training, they won’t represent all the talent in a society and aren’t assured of doing well by virtue of their innate superiority. So providing opportunity to every individual will not necessarily lead to a society in which the more and the less able are hyper-segregated. The true result of equal opportunity would be that people would naturally rise and fall throughout their careers depending on the evershifting mutch between their abilities and level of motivation and the circumstances in which they found themselves. Sure, some would always be on top and some always on the bottom, but not nearly so many as is envisioned in The Rise of the Meritocracy. You have to believe in IQ as all-powerful—to believe, that is, that “merit” is a static and largely inborn quality—to worry that opportunity must inevitably lead to profound inequality. Otherwise opportunity looks much less threatening.
However, enough of the formal structure of meritocracy is in place by now that the educational system is the de facto provider of individual opportunity in America. To some extent it fulfills the role, foreseen by Young, of harsh but just identifier and nurturer of talent. In addition, education is a valuable credential that can be bought even by the nonmeritorious and that is not available to everyone. Education has become the main transmission device for status in society, in the way that land ownership once was.
So if we aren’t quite so sure anymore that education equals merit, we know quite well that education equals opportunity. Among thirty-year-old males, for example, the “earnings gap” between college graduates and high school graduates was 25 to 30 percent in the 1960s. In the 1970s, as the tremendous expansion of higher education began to create a glut of graduates, the gap dropped to 15 percent. But today it is around 50 percent—and people who don’t have a high school diploma can just forget about it, as far as social mobility is concerned.
As Young saw, the great advantage of opportunity as a cause is that it is politically popular—much more so than equality as a cause, and much more so here than in Britain. Can there be any doubt that opportunity rhetoric (“investing in people”; “we do not have a single person to waste”) took Bill Clinton to the White House? Young’s point that a good society owes each individual honor regardless of his or her quotient of merit is well taken. Doesn’t society also owe everyone the removal of structural impediments to the acting out of ambitions (which, these days, would mean undertaking two contradictory-seeming reforms: making a good education universally available, and creating more avenues for people who don’t have educational credentials)? Isn’t the danger that doing so will result in the formation of a distinct, despised, low-onmerit class much less than Young believed? Admiring The Rise of the Meritocracy ought not necessarily to entail accepting its notion that opportunity is the tar baby of liberalism.