Meritocracy Ancient and Modern

Old-school historians like me tend to be shy about using modern terminology to describe pre-modern things. The dangers of anachronistic misunderstandings are just too great. If, for example, you describe Machiavelli as a democrat, as some like to do today, you will have to spend a good deal of time clearing away the prepossessions of modern readers, who will inevitably associate the term “democracy” with popular sovereignty, representative government, dignitarian concepts of liberty and equality, and other ideas well beyond the horizon of Machiavelli’s political thinking. In Machiavelli’s time, moreover, the word “democracy” ordinarily was used in its Aristotelian meaning of mob rule, the exploitative rule of the poor over the prosperous. In that sense too, Machiavelli was no democrat. As a matter of historical method, it is less misleading simply to describe Machiavelli as a man of strong popular sympathies and allow the term “popular” to be defined by how that term appeared in Renaissance sources. The possible applications to contemporary democratic theory of Machiavelli’s advocacy of popular power can then be properly assessed without distortions.

But sometimes, as in the case of the word “meritocracy,” the modernity of the term conceals the antiquity of the thing. As is well known, the word “meritocracy” was invented by the British sociologist and Labour politician Michael Young in his 1958 novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young identified meritocracy as a trend in post-war British society that threatened to siphon off the working class’s natural leaders into an artificial elite. One day that elite would institute a new system of oppression even worse than that of the traditional British class system he hated.

Almost all of the rapidly proliferating literature on meritocracy today has started from Young’s premise that meritocracy is a modern phenomenon. Both defenders and critics believe that it goes back, at the earliest, to the later 19th century, when there was a democratizing movement in Great Britain and America to abolish nepotism and the spoils system and recruit civil servants on the basis of their performance in examinations. Contemporary debates about meritocracy often seem to reduce to the question of who gets into elite colleges, or who gets promoted within organizations.

It is the great merit of Adrian Wooldridge’s important new book that he is not misled by the modernity of the term “meritocracy,” but sees (as is already evident from his title) that meritocracy is just the modern name for a very old political ideal: aristocracy, rule of the best. In modern English, however, the term “aristocracy” can be misleading. First, most people in the modern world take “aristocracy” to mean hereditary nobility, the titled lords and ladies included in Debrett’s Peerage or the Almanach de Gotha. Thus when Thomas Jefferson wanted to use the word “aristocracy” to mean an elite of virtue and ability, not the corrupt, artificial, hereditary aristocracy of old Europe, he was obliged to specify that his ideal was “natural aristocracy.” Second, readers familiar with Aristotelian constitutional analysis are likely to think of “aristocracy” as a regime type, one of the canonical six constitutions in Book III of the Politics. But in the Western tradition meritocracy is more often a type of excellence to which any form of government may aspire, whether a monarchy, mixed republic, or democracy. In modern times competitive meritocratic principles have spread from government into business, education, the professions, and social institutions of all kinds. So, despite the anachronism, historians are forced to use the term “meritocracy” if they want to be clear that they are talking about improving the moral and intellectual quality of elites.

Meritocratic theory in this sense goes back to the ancient Greeks, but ensuring that elites consist of intelligent, moral, hard-working, well-educated persons has been a recurrent concern of thinkers throughout the Western tradition. Despite the salience of this theme, however, the history of meritocracy has only recently begun to arouse sustained interest among historians of education and political thought. Astonishingly, Wooldridge’s book seems to be the first general history of the meritocratic ideal in Western civilization. That alone should recommend his book to a wide readership, even apart from its striking central claim. For Wooldridge argues that meritocracy was a major driver in the emergence of the modern world, intertwined with and invigorating political liberty, scientific innovation, and free markets. He maintains—and he is surely right—that we cannot understand modernity without understanding the history of meritocracy. And we cannot form sound views about meritocracy today without understanding how modernity—political, scientific, and economic—was enabled by the triumph of meritocratic principles.

Although the book is intended to inform contemporary debates about meritocracy—recently under attack from the woke left and the populist right—the main project of the book is historical: to trace the triumph of meritocracy in the modern West since the 18th century. In particular, it aims to show how and why advocates of meritocracy in modern times organized themselves into a reforming movement. Their goal was to challenge feudal and nepotistic forms of socio-political power. Such forms amounted to the default settings of most premodern societies. Status, wealth, and political power were seen as the heritable prerogatives of particular families and classes of persons. That conception of power is what modern meritocracy opposed. If inherited privilege was the enemy of both the American and French Revolutions, both revolutions saw natural aristocracy, based on talent and energy, as the rightful successor to the Old Regime.

In other words, for Wooldridge, modern meritocracy was a democratizing movement that sought to open up Western social, economic, and political institutions to talented persons whatever their birth, gender, or race. Social mobility was its raison d’être. The only legitimate form of hierarchy in modern democratic societies was, until quite recently, meritocratic. Small-d democrats would only be willing to compromise their radical commitment to equality on the understanding that the whole of society would benefit from being ruled by its most intelligent, public spirited, and hard-working members, whatever their social origins. Only if such men and women ruled could democracies hope to survive the natural entropy consequent upon an unchecked spirit of egalitarianism.

The Ancient View of Merit

That modern meritocracy in the West should see itself as an ally of democratic ideals might be surprising to historians of premodern meritocratic thought. The first theorists of rule by the best appeared in Athens during the fourth century BC, at a time when the three commonest forms of government in the Greek city-states—tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy—had all, in the eyes of many thoughtful observers, discredited themselves. Tyrants were erratic and destructive, the prey of their own passions; oligarchs were self-seeking and unable to command the obedience of the people; democratic government was led by fools and driven by material desires. The leaders of the past like Miltiades or Pericles who had been able to articulate noble goals for the democratic polis had all disappeared. The major political thinkers of the fourth century, including Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and Isocrates, all sought ways to improve political regimes by infusing virtue (or human excellence, including practical wisdom) into the leadership class. The primary tool for this reform was to be a new form of education (or paideia) oriented to virtue, transforming the souls of future leaders. Virtue education could be philosophical (Plato and Aristotle) or broadly humanistic (Isocrates).

The Romans’ contribution to Western meritocracy was more in the realm of practice than of theory. Their governing principles emphasized experience of affairs and the moral standing of leaders (dignitas) rather than Plato’s pursuit of philosophical illumination or Aristotle’s ingenious constitutional tinkering. All Roman citizens were guaranteed equality under the law, but political leadership, holding a magistracy, required entering a competition to serve the state. The Senate, the effective governing body of the republic, consisted primarily of former magistrates appointed for life. Unworthy members were (in principle) expelled by the censors. Magistrates were chosen on the basis of elections, which Romans like Cicero believed (surprisingly to cynical modern eyes) were meritocratic procedures, allowing the people to choose the most worthy candidates. Elections were often corrupt but they were vastly superior in Roman eyes to the practice of sortition used in Greek democracies. When sound, elections were able to produce candidates who combined competence, a good reputation, and the support of the people. Competition among the elite, when combined with the sanction provided by public trials for corrupt magistrates, helped keep the political waters clean.

Meritocratic thinking was revived in the Renaissance by the founder of Christian humanism, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, who tried to combine Greek theory and Roman practice. Petrarch’s historical situation resembled that of the fourth century BC Greek philosophers: he was convinced that the leadership of church and state in his time was profoundly corrupt. The problem was at root a moral one, so the solution had to be a moral one. Petrarch had been led by enthusiastic study of classical antiquity to believe that the ancients were morally and intellectually superior to the moderns. Thus an obvious solution to the moral depravity of his own times presented itself. Ancient soulcraft had to be revived. Petrarch created a long-term plan to reform Christendom by recovering ancient virtue and wisdom. The plan was carried forward by his followers who created the humanities, the studia humanitatis, precisely as a tool to improve the moral quality of elites. The humanities included the study of language and eloquence, history, poetry, and moral philosophy.

The resulting movement, known to historians as the Renaissance of classical antiquity, would dominate European high culture for the next two centuries. In its political form, it established the premise that power was illegitimate unless it was wielded by men and women of good character, well educated in classical literature. The message of the humanist movement was directed to two groups. Non-elite citizens were told that virtue and education opened a path for them to rise in society, while noblemen were warned that their fine titles were worthless unless they possessed “true nobility,” that is, virtue, learning, and a spirit of devotion to the state.

Prosperity’s Call

I’ve rehearsed this history to draw a contrast that Wooldridge makes only implicitly: between meritocracy ancient and modern. Wooldridge is an unashamed champion of modern meritocracy and is convinced of its benign influence in the modern world. He wants to tell its story as the triumph of ability over undeserved privilege—as a shift from traditional prerogatives based in the hereditary ownership of land to more effective leadership founded on intellectual capacity and hard work. Entitlement to rule under the Old Regime was based on birth; in the modern world of wealth, freedom, and scientific innovation it can only be based on IQ tests, competitive examinations, and performance reviews. Hence for Wooldridge, meritocracy as it exists today is “one of the great building blocks of the modern world” or—using the language of the old-fashioned history of science—a “breakthrough.” Though he is a good historian, capable of real insight and even sympathy with the workings of the premodern world, in general Wooldridge follows the 19th-century liberal reformers in presenting the world dominated by the old nobility as outmoded, unproductive, and desperately corrupt.

His loyalty to modern meritocracy means that Wooldridge does not find all that much that is useful for today in its premodern forms. He does recommend reading Plato’s Republic, a rather bizarre suggestion given that the meritocratic thought-experiment of that work ends in failure, as Socrates is forced to acknowledge at the end of Book IX: the perfect republic led by philosopher kings can only really exist in the heavens and in the souls of the philosopher. Wooldridge devotes a chapter to Chinese meritocracy based on Confucian principles. This was perhaps the most successful form of government in the premodern world—Wooldridge gives it “two cheers”—but he dismisses it in the end as backward-looking and therefore lacking in the dynamism of its modern counterpart.

The younger generations have been clamoring for the imposition of woke principles because those are the principles they have been taught in their schools and universities. Also, one suspects, the most coddled generation in history, a generation that has never been challenged in its fundamental beliefs, may shrink from any competition for excellence and achievement. One can only conclude that it is going to take a deep reform of education before meritocracy can appeal once more to the young.

Thus when in the Conclusion we finally arrive at Wooldridge’s response to the recent criticisms of modern meritocracy from left and right, his solutions do not give serious consideration to its premodern forms. They do not count as possible alternatives that might inspire a reinvigoration of meritocracy. Does modern meritocracy still grant too much preference to privileged groups, as is claimed by the hierophants of Diversity and Inclusion? Then let’s have more and better testing, let’s get rid of legacies in college admissions, let’s make corporate promotion more competitive. Is the new meritocratic elite too smug and full of itself, too globalized, too lacking connections with and concern for the inferiors it has left behind? This has been for some time the charge against meritocracy from the populist right. Wooldridge’s answers to this charge are fine as far as they go, but they do not go very far. We should “re-moralize the elite.” We should upgrade vocational training and try to accord greater respect to non-elite work.

We defenders of meritocracy, says Wooldridge—and now we hear his voice as an editor of The Economist—should remind its enemies that, on a statistical basis, meritocratic countries are more prosperous than countries still governed by traditional elites. Social mobility promotes economic growth. And the “meritocracy dividend” is growing every year with the spread of IT. The many millions of people worldwide—15% of all adults according to Gallup—who want to migrate to other countries all want to migrate to meritocratic countries, not anti-meritocratic countries. Wooldridge seems here, strangely, to overlook China, possibly the most meritocratic country in the world today. China is not experiencing major migratory inflows—quite the opposite—and has to pay trained professionals outsized salaries, through its various Thousand Talents programs, to work in the country. The omission is the more surprising as elsewhere Wooldridge tries to convince us that Western countries have to renew their commitment to merit in order to meet the challenge of Asia, where the principle of meritocracy is unquestioned.

But the real weakness of Wooldridge’s arguments, I think, is that his preaching will only appeal to the choir of the converted or (at the margin) the convertible. Unfortunately, the people who are now in charge of our universities, governments, media, and global corporations are committed to the worship of other gods. (One is tempted to call them DEI-ists.) They profess not to care about productivity and would be inclined to dismiss such concerns as “neo-liberal.” They have sworn fealty to a system that is explicitly anti-meritocratic. Their newfangled standards of “equity” and “intersectionality” represent the opposite of meritocracy. No one has a claim on success or leadership because of individual merit; claims can only be made on behalf of groups, ranked in order of victimhood. Any superior excellence shown by white men, for example, does not deserve to be rewarded because their success is simply an effect of privilege and systemic racism.

Anyone who has followed the spread of this neo-racist ideology will be aware that the leaders of the elite institutions that have embraced it—the New York Times for example, or Princeton Theological Seminary—have done so because their subordinates, mostly belonging to younger generations, have demanded it. The younger generations have been clamoring for the imposition of woke principles because those are the principles they have been taught in their schools and universities. Also, one suspects, the most coddled generation in history, a generation that has never been challenged in its fundamental beliefs, may shrink from any competition for excellence and achievement. One can only conclude that it is going to take a deep reform of education before meritocracy can appeal once more to the young. My guess is that the idealistic young are not going to respond to the argument that a meritocratic ordering of society will increase the rate of return on their portfolios. That kind of argument leaves them cold, especially the vast majority who do not benefit from the modern meritocrat’s obsession with the extreme right-hand tail of the bell curve. They know that not all desirable qualities can be measured on standardized tests. Most people understand that being a good doctor requires more than a degree from the Harvard Medical School.

What the young may respond to—and increasingly are responding to—what might alter their forma mentis for the better, is classical education, a movement that seeks to revive the principles of ancient meritocracy. An education that defines merit as good character, solid learning in our common traditions, and commitment to the common good; that sees selfish ambition and the insatiable thirst for riches as dangers to society—that kind of transformative paideia could produce a better meritocracy, the sort we need to hold our fractured society together. And there is no evidence that traditional classical education stands in the way of productivity, as some 20th-century liberal educators alleged. Modern Taiwan, for example, is ranked fifth of 196 countries in the world for human capital development, yet Taiwanese high school students spend between 45% and 65% of their time in language classes studying traditional Chinese classics.

Dependence and Equality

The truth is that all societies must have hierarchies. All civilizations have had hierarchies of some kind since the first cities came into existence six thousand years ago in the Ancient Near East. The only question is what sort of hierarchies we will have, and how they will be justified. Wooldridge wants social hierarchies to be completely open. He wants a frictionless ascent into the highest posts of the highest IQs, the best test-takers, and the managers most successful at hitting production targets. He sees what has been called the iron law of meritocracy as an obstacle to meritocracy’s success. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that, under meritocracy, those who rise into the highest positions in society will use their power to protect their own status and to share that status with their friends and especially their children, heedless of any merit among their inferiors. The more unequal a society is, the more power those at the top have, and the more the powerful will be able to regulate social mobility to their own advantage.

Wooldridge thinks this is a bug of meritocracy, but maybe we should think of it, at least potentially, as a feature. Elites may be naturally inclined to selfish self-protection, especially new elites, but when they are localized and well established, they tend to take better care of those beneath them and are better rooted in their national and civilizational traditions. At the present moment, we could use elites who will defend those traditions and try to embody their best ideals, rather than trying to destroy them as do our current woke masters. Members of an aristocracy who are loyal to the country’s traditions and visibly care for those subordinate to them are better at knitting together societies based, inevitably, on inequality.

In other words, we would be better off if our social and political elites looked more like the British aristocracy as imagined by Edmund Burke—an important meritocratic thinker who does not come into Wooldridge’s narrative. Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France recognized that the greatest challenge of any aristocracy is getting the common people to accept its authority. As Burke saw, the failure of the French nobility to retain the support of commoners was the chief reason for the Old Regime’s collapse in 1789. The same failure is at the root of the current populist revolt against the woke oligarchy in America.

We must have an elite—there is no such thing as a society without hierarchies.

Burke’s argument in Reflections explained how the British, unlike the French, had succeeded in engrafting a market society onto a feudal system of rank and privilege. He explained why the resentment, jealousy, and fear of oppression that had powered the democratic spirit in the French Revolution had (or so he hoped) failed in Britain. Burke makes no claims about the superior virtue of British aristocrats, but rather dwells on the emotions and an almost aesthetic appreciation for the social order that led the British to accept distinctions even when the holders of rank were less than admirable men and women. All complex societies will have forms of dependence, but successful societies moderate their forms of dependence by recognizing the moral equality of all persons. In place of illiberal forms of subjection like slavery they substitute a civilized relationship of deference and care that recognizes the mutual dependence of high and low.

Hence for Burke the solution to oppression is not personal autonomy or an egalitarian dissolution of the social order, but rather forming certain moral attitudes on the part of superior and inferior. Attitudes such as deference to rank and recognition of what was due to the male and female sexes were “generous.” They were the product of “liberal manners” and “enlarged views” that accepted the unequal distribution of property and status as necessary for the common good and social harmony. A “noble equality” could be preserved through all the distinctions of social rank by recognizing the value of all participants to the social whole. Authority was made gentle and submission freely given when haughtiness and servility were tempered by civilized manners, restraint, and due deference.

Obviously we cannot rebuild the hierarchical England of Burke’s imagination, but it should be equally obvious that, in our current situation, we cannot go back even to the liberal meritocracy that Wooldridge idealizes. Nor is it obvious that we should want that sort of fluid, open, rapidly changing meritocratic elite, even if it were possible to restore it. Burke’s vision of a social order balancing commercial dynamism with a more stable system of mutual dependence and loyalty between social ranks, suitably adjusted for modern conditions, might offer a more durable compromise between the principles of democracy and merit.

What might be possible, in other words, is to foster a new elite in the next generation with better values than the current one. It would be an elite that looks more like the old American aristocracy, the one that wrote our Constitution, laid out our cities, founded our museums and symphony orchestras, established our charitable institutions, patronized literature and the arts, and built beautiful buildings and parklands—all long before that genuine spirit of progress was poisoned by Marxism, statism, and radical modernism. It was an elite inspired by classical and Renaissance ideals of virtue and beauty, that knew its legitimacy depended on displaying the spirit of noblesse oblige inherited from Burke’s chivalric past. It was a more stable and localized elite with high standards of personal probity. It nevertheless sponsored new entrants to its ranks, persons of lower social status who had shown devotion to its ideals and an ability to contribute to its goals of a peaceful, ordered, and prosperous society. It also policed its own ranks, excluding those who disgraced themselves by a failure to live up to its standards.

This is a heretical thought, and Ross Douthat was roundly criticized a few years ago for suggesting that the old WASP aristocracy had virtues that modern meritocrats lacked. But the rapid decline of our elites in recent years, coincident with populist revolt, shows that in its radical modern form meritocracy can be every bit as destructive as radical egalitarianism. We must have an elite—there is no such thing as a society without hierarchies. But to create the best kind of elite we will have to look back in history, not just to the liberal meritocratic thinkers of the nineteenth century, but to the philosophers of Greece, the statesmen of Rome, the mandarins of China, and the humanist educators of the Renaissance.