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Is meritocracy an effective device for legitimising socioeconomic inequality?

My father Michael Young’s objection to meritocracy was rooted in his belief in equality of outcome. Unlike my father, I am a classical liberal. I believe in the doctrine of inalienable natural rights as set out by John Locke. I think the legitimacy of the state derives from its being the best guarantor of those rights. As soon as the state goes beyond that role, it loses its legitimacy. Which is to say, I believe in equal rights, equal treatment and equal opportunities, but I do not believe in equality of outcome.

I am not fond of outcome inequalities for their own sake. But I rather like meritocracy for the same reason my father was so suspicious of it: because it helps to legitimise the inequalities of outcome that are the inevitable consequence of keeping state power in check. Socioeconomic inequality is a cost, not a benefit of limited government, but it is a lower cost than those associated with the maximalist socialist state. If meritocracy helps to sugar that pill, great. But does it?

Meritocracy could be said to legitimise socioeconomic inequality in two ways — by allocating wealth and prestige according to merit, and by creating opportunities for those born in low income families. The counter-argument is that the first only creates the appearance of fairness (an argument made persuasively by John Rawls in his 1971 A Theory of Justice) and the second is a largely unfulfilled promise.

1. Allocating according to merit

Is it fair to allocate socioeconomic status according to merit? Not according to Rawls. Your “genetic endowment” is, according to Rawls, dependent on a “natural lottery”. Rawls appeals to the fact that people do not deserve their natural gifts (and the consensus among intelligence researchers is that genetics plays a bigger role than the environment in creating differences in IQ) to argue that a meritocratic society would not be any fairer than a hereditary one.

But Rawls’s argument is too deterministic. A considerable amount of hard work is also involved —merit is ‘IQ + effort’.  Also, Rawls mixes up desert with entitlement. A person may not deserve her wealth in a meritocratic society but that does not mean she’s not entitled to it, which depends on how she came by it.

2. Creating opportunities for those born in low income families

What about the second way in which meritocracy legitimises inequality – that in a meritocratic society, people born on the wrong side of the tracks will have more opportunities?

Education figures suggest that this functions to a certain extent. In 1894 just 1 per cent of the population were enrolled in higher education institutions in the US. Today, approximately 40 per cent of all 18–24 year‐olds are enrolled.

However, when it comes to intergenerational social mobility, Britain was rock bottom, with America third from bottom in one recent league table. So are the low levels of social mobility in Britain and America caused by the fact that they have not yet become fully‐fledged meritocracies, or because they have?

Could there be something about meritocratic societies that makes it harder, not easier, for people born into poverty to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? If so, that would invalidate my second reason for supporting meritocracy.

The Bell Curve and the ‘cognitive elite’

In aggregate, parents of above average intelligence will have children of above average intelligence and the opposite is true of parents of below average intelligence. In this way, meritocratic societies have a tendency to degenerate into genetically‐based caste systems.

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray argue in The Bell Curve that until the mid‐twentieth century, this tendency was kept in check, in part because of limited opportunities for gifted people born in the bottom half of society, and in part because highly intelligent men and women, being rare and geographically dispersed, did not often meet.

However, with an explosion in the number of university places from the mid‐1950s onwards, increased selectivity of universities, and more women attending college, the socioeconomic elite turned into a cognitive elite. The upshot is that American men and women with high IQs have become more likely to mate and produce children of above average intelligence. For example, students from families earning over $200,000 per year (roughly the top five percent) score 388 points higher than students from families earning less than $20,000 per year (roughly the bottom 20 percent).

Against the Bell Curve

But is that really happening in contemporary Britain and America? “Are “the top of today breeding the top of tomorrow”, as the narrator of my father’s book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, puts it? Not according to Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher. In their 2017 book The Genome Factor, they conclude that assortative mating based on genetics has not increased in the US over the course of the twentieth century.

They point out that The Bell Curve’s hypothesis relies on treating a certain level of educational attainment as a proxy for the possession of certain genetic characteristics. Since the publication of The Bell Curve, a revolution in molecular genetics has taken place and it is now possible to test its hypothesis using molecular genetic data. In a paper with Benjamin Domingue, Conley looked at genetic data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study of more than 20,000 Americans, and found that married couples from the cohorts born later in the twentieth century were slightly more dissimilar in terms of the genetic markers associated with educational attainment  than couples from the cohort born earlier.

Conley and Domingue’s findings suggest that America’s elites are increasingly able to pass on their superior status to their children by spending time and money on their education (not because their children are more and more likely to be born with high polygenic scores for educational attainment). The solution, then, could be more meritocracy after all.

A genotocratic future?

However, before accepting this conclusion that Britain and America are not becoming genotocracies – genetically‐based caste systems – it is worth pointing out that in the past six years, many more of the genetic markers linked to educational attainment have been discovered. It could be that if we re-run Conley and Domingue’s test looking for all of those genetic markers, we would find that assortative mating has in fact increased.

Robert Plomin is sceptical about Herrnstein and Murray’s hypothesis. He gives two reasons for thinking there is not much risk of a meritocracy degenerating into a genotocracy. First, because the environmental variables that influence socioeconomic status are, according to him, too random to “create stable castes”. Second, because parents and their children are genetically similar but not identical. Therefore, there is still some scope for movement up and down the ladder, “even in a mature meritocracy.”

Even though Conley and Fletcher think my father’s pessimism about meritocracy was overstated, they caution against complacency. While Britain and America have not yet degenerated into genotocracies, they may in time. People do not currently make use of genomic data when it comes to selecting mates, but if that starts happening at scale, the biological caste system Herrnstein and Murray warned of could become a reality.

In conclusion, meritocracy helps a little when it comes to securing people’s consent to the outcome inequalities that are inevitable if you limit the powers of the state. But it does not do enough. The cognitive elite has not yet become a hereditary elite, but that could happen as meritocratic societies mature and when it does people are less likely to consent to socio-economic inequality, not more. At the end of my father’s book, the meritocratic society is overthrown for precisely this reason.

There are also the practical benefits to consider. All things being equal, a country’s economy should grow faster, its public services should be run more efficiently, its politicians should make better decisions, diseases should be eradicated faster, and so on, if the people at the top possess the highest IQs and make the most effort.

This article is based on a longer article in the Political Quarterly journal .

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