Of the great twentieth-century dystopian novels, Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2023 has certainly proved the most prescient. Probably the best measure that a dystopia has come to pass is that readers start having trouble understanding why the author disapproved of his imagined society; we’re not far enough gone for readers to stop finding the future in Brave New World unattractive, but “meritocracy” has come to be regarded by most as something to which we should aspire. After all, isn’t having the most able people in the top positions a good thing? Michael Young was a socialist who, like Hillaire Belloc, had the insight that egalitarian programs might have extremely inegalitarian results. Before uniform mass education, end of hereditary privilege, equality of opportunity, and the like, smart and enterprising people could be found in all social classes. In the “fair” meritocratic system, high IQ people will all migrate to the upper classes and intermarry. Since intelligence is largely heritable, this new merit-based upper class will soon form a closed caste in a society more stratified than the old feudal one. The new aristocracy will feel confident that they have “merited” their privileged place. The more objective the exams, the more inequality will be legitimized. Nor could one hope that the lower orders might effectively organize in their own collective interests like the labour movement of old; anyone with the cleverness and organizational skill to lead such a movement will have been whisked into the upper class while still a child.
Recently, Michael Young’s son, Toby Young, has produced a remarkable essay on the meritocratic ideal. (My thanks to Isegoria for linking it.) The son openly rejects his father’s socialism and therefore embraces the meritocratic ideal for the same reasons that his father rejected it. Because inequality is inevitable, it should be both legitimated and made as effective as possible. Having accepted meritocracy in such an admirably clear-headed way, Toby Young goes on to make a few interesting points. First, low social mobility is not a sign that we’re still far from the meritocratic ideal–little mobility is expected in an established meritocratic state, because IQ is somewhat heritable. We may actually be somewhat close already. Second, feminism has worked against egalitarianism (something his father failed to grasp) by pairing high IQ men and women, which promotes cognitive stratification. Third, one can accept meritocracy and the genetic basis of IQ while remaining committed to redistribution of resources to the lower classes. One may easily agree with John Rawls that one’s mental qualities like intelligence and conscientiousness are gifts, not things one has done anything to deserve, and that their fruits rightly belong in part to the community.
Then the essay takes a dark turn. Young considers the possibility of eugenically raising the IQ of one’s offspring through in vitro fertilization. The idea is to fertilize a hundred of the mother’s eggs with the father’s sperm, ascertain which has the highest genotype IQ (something Young thinks will soon become possible), implant that one, and murder the rest. Young tells us that a Chinese biotechnical institute is already working to make this ghastly procedure possible, and surprisingly his only concern is whether its expense will limit its availability to the current cognitive elite. If this happens, the cognitive gap between classes could widen dramatically. The solution, Young suggests, is basically to subsidize its use by low IQ/low class families. Such “genetic egalitarianism” would supposedly solve the main problem of meritocracy, its tendency to ossify into closed castes, because high IQ children would be genetically engineered to regularly appear from low IQ parents.
Except that I don’t think that’s the main problem with meritocracy identified by Toby’s father Michael. It’s been years since I read Rise of the Meritocracy, but here’s what I recall. Shortly before being murdered in a revolutionary uprising, the smug sociologist narrator describes a dissident movement growing around him. The narrator sneeringly dismisses their complaints about the need to dignify other, nonintellectual gifts and not tie social status to a single measure of intellectual merit, no matter how objectively and fairly assessed. I always assumed that this was Michael Young revealing to us his deepest reservations about the coming meritocracy. They are similar to those of that other independent-minded socialist, Christopher Lasch, who always emphasized that social mobility for the cleverest is no substitute for dignified labor for the majority. One might call it the fundamental truth of socialism that if your system involves one man with mastery and ninety-nine in degradation, choosing that one man very wisely does very little to make that system a good system. Especially, I would add, if your system involves murdering the ninety nine at the embryonic stage.
But then, being low IQ, I would think that, wouldn’t I? Setting aside my moral scruples, will genetic egalitarianism work as advertised to create a dynamic but stable meritocracy? I doubt it. Suppose we succeeded in producing a generation where all the people who would have had IQ < 100 have IQ around 120, while the high-IQ segment gains nothing. The bell curve is squeezed, but will society itself be more egalitarian? What are all these high IQ people going to do? Will they all become professors and engineers? Won’t somebody still have to sweep the floors? If the Chinese do this, won’t they soon have a population with hundreds of millions of under-employed, frustrated, high IQ discontents? “Stable” may not be the best word for such a situation.
To conclude, the meritocracy is indeed coming into being, and society becomes more and more IQ obsessed. (Few are as IQ obsessed as those who deny the reality of IQ. This allows them to avoid admitting that the society they favor is rigged to reward one particular innate quality. It lets the high IQ off the hook to imagine that they somehow earned their good fortune. And it admits that their version of human equality doesn’t include the low intelligent, so that they must deny such people exists to continue claiming to believe in human equality at all.) Michael Young was right–this is not an unmixed blessing.