The Aristocracy of Talent

How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

This book was one of the nominees for this year's Hayek Book Prize. My small project to read all the nominated books has been a mixed bag so far (see here, here, here, and here) but this is a pretty good contender. The good folks at the Interlibrary Loan department at the University Near Here wangled a copy from Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Connecticut.

The author, Adrian Wooldridge, is a Brit, and worked for The Economist for a long time. He writes very accessibly for the layman, with quite a bit of wit. One downside of that is the language. I'm pretty sure he expects the reader to know what a "swot" is. (American translation, I think, is "nerd".) And (apparently) in Britain there are "grammar schools" which differ from "public schools". (Grammar schools are what we'd consider to be "prep schools", I think.)

It's a very interesting history of how the concept of meritocracy rise and fell over the centuries, in a lot of different countries and cultures. It had its roots in Plato: that whole philosopher-king thing. But for millennia the default assumption was that your social position was determined by the simple fact of being born to your parents: nobles begat nobles, farmers begat farmers, and you were pretty much stuck in that role for life.

As society complexified, the flaws in that scheme began to show. (To everyone: "The Emperor's New Clothes" had centuries-old roots, after all.) Gradually the liberals and left-wingers of the day started pushing the idea that jobs with power should be held by people of better intellectual talents and abilities. (But not completely. You might have noticed whose funeral just happened.)

Meritocracy has had a rough time of it lately. And not without good reasons; the folks at the tippy-top of the pyramid can get out of touch with The Rest Of Us, start working for their own benefit instead of society at large. Nebraska's Senator Roman Hruska said it best: "[The mediocre] are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?" There are critics of even trying to measure intellectual talent, most notably via the IQ test. Wooldridge is dismissive: "This argument is an exercise in anachronistic sermonizing rather than serious historical understanding, which at its best is an exercise in grasping the intricacies of context rather than projecting our own prejudices backwards."

But anyway, in a neat flip-flop, although old leftists were enthusiastic about meritocracy, modern leftists bemoan it.

Nobody wants a mediocre brain surgeon, though.

The book is not without its flaws. A Herbert Spencer quote, "The superior shall have the good of his superiority; and the inferior the evil of his inferiority", is shorn of context to imply he's referring to those inherent qualities and talents. I think (after looking at the original text) that he's referring to superior/inferior conduct, and arguing against "communistic distribution" of wealth.

Near the end of the book, Woolridge cheers Kamala Harris's ascent to the Vice-Presidency, and says it wouldn't have been possible "without the meritocratic idea." Overlooking the facts that (a) Kamala's widely perceived as lacking in intellect, (b) was picked for veep primarily due to her race and sex, and (c) got her start not through merit, but by becoming the mistress of a married politician.

Charles Murray has had a lot of interesting stuff to say about this. Woolridge only mentions The Bell Curve, and (I think) misinterprets the thrust of that 1994 book. Nothing's said about the work Murray's done since then.

But, overall, a very worthwhile and interesting book.

URLs du Jour


  • Ladies and gentlemen: We got your second episode of Crime Squad right here:

    It's a federal crime to not watch Crime Squad, so…

  • Like Web 2.0, it kind of sucks. Kevin D. Williamson's debut column at the Dispatch doesn't seem to be paywalled, so check it out: Grift 2.0.

    Writing in Salon under the headline, “I was a right-wing pundit,” Rich Logis confesses: “I was all-in on Donald Trump’s lies, well after Jan. 6.” And: “I was dead wrong about all of it.”

    Welcome to the party, pal.

    I’m not here to sneer at Salon or its contributors, but I am going to guess you’ve never heard of Rich Logis, who seems to have been a “right-wing pundit” more in aspiration than in reality. You know the type: a couple of Federalist bylines, one on, and, at last count, 64 Twitter followers. The media-activism nexus, left and right, is full of reasonably bright, reasonably articulate people trying to build a career telling people what they want to hear, and Logis seems to be one of those on the right who have moved on to Grift 2.0: “Mea most maxima culpa, baby, now here’s a link to donate to my new organization.” In Logis’ case, that’s a new entity called Listen, Lead, Unite, which consists of a web page with a mission statement, a founder bio, and—the most important bit—a link for donations.

    Speaking as someone with (yup) 21 Twitter followers (as I type)… well, maybe I shouldn't speak.

    But KDW moves on to bigger game, namely Senator Lindsay Graham (2.1 megafollowers).

  • That train has already left the station. Still it's worth pointing out, as Jonathan Rauch does, The Danger of Politicizing Science.

    Nature Human Behaviour, a respected member of the Springer stable, thinks so. “Science has for too long been complicit in perpetuating structural inequalities and discrimination in society,” the editors declare in a recent manifesto. “With this guidance, we take a step towards countering this.”

    The editors assure us that “advancing knowledge and understanding is a fundamental public good.” Okay. They say that research should avoid harming the individuals it studies; not a controversial proposition. But then, in a move that deserves to be very controversial, they broaden their definition of unacceptable harm to include negative social consequences for studied groups.

    Researchers should “minimize as much as possible…risks of harm to the studied groups in the public sphere,” they say (my italics). “Research may—inadvertently—stigmatize individuals or human groups,” they add (again, my italics). “It may be discriminatory, racist, sexist, ableist or homophobic. It may provide justification for undermining the human rights of specific groups, simply because of their social characteristics.”

    The phrases I italicized do a lot of work. A researcher might not have a discriminatory bone in her body, and she might take exquisite care to avoid biasing her research. Her evidence may be solid, her methods sound, and her conclusions actually true. Nonetheless, the editors may reject her article, require revisions, or even retract and repudiate it if they believe it “undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; assumes that a human group is superior or inferior over [sic] another simply because of a social characteristic; includes hate speech or denigrating images; or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives.”

    When Rauch is not dealing directly with politics, he's pretty good. But when he does, he can be pretty bad. Caveat lector.

  • The Senator's New Clothes? Charles C. W. Cooke is the truth-telling kid in the crowd: Elizabeth Warren Is Trump in Professor’s Clothing. (NRPlus, sorry. Subscribe!)

    Elizabeth Warren believes that she is treated differently than are many other American politicians because she is a woman. For once, Warren is correct: Were she a man, people would be far more likely to see her for who she actually is — which, once one gets past her pseudo-academic affect and poll-studied indignation, is Donald Trump in a Harvard professor’s pantsuit.

    Warren is a little more refined than Trump — and, as a result, she is more transparent in her artifice. But the ingredients are the same. She is a bully who seeks office for its imprimatur. She is an egomaniac who responds well to praise. (In 2019, a simple endorsement was sufficient to get her to propose that “black trans and cis women, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary people are the backbone of our democracy,” which is a sentence that nobody else has ever constructed, or will ever again construct, in English.) And, because she is a narcissist, she is incapable of admitting her mistakes — even when not doing so means adopting intellectual positions that would have made Prospero blush. At root, Warren is a shell, an opportunist, an actor. She was white, then she was Native American, then she was white again. She was a Republican, then she was a Democrat. She was against money in politics, until that money began to follow her, rather than her opponents, and, suddenly, she favored it. Her life story is malleable and Gatsbyesque, with the only consistent narrative being that she, Elizabeth Warren, is the hero of the age.

    Obligatory Babylon Bee story: Harvard To Pay Elizabeth Warren $400,000 To Teach Class On Why College Is So Expensive.

  • Most Americans encounter immigrants regularly, so… Veronique de Rugy notes yet another disconnect: Most Americans Value Immigration. Most Politicians Don't.

    At a time when the American economy could use more people, restrictions on immigration continue to trap a lot of unused talent in low-productivity countries. To unleash it, the United States could simply let these immigrants in and let them work. They'd become a productive part of the system that makes this country so wealthy. But politicians are getting in the way.

    Forget for a moment about the usual fear-based talking points. Ignore the recent use of immigrants as political props. As George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan said on PBS, "if you don't know anything about economics, just learn this: the secret to mass consumption is mass production. Countries that produce a lot of stuff have a high living standard. Countries that produce a small amount of stuff have a low living standard. That is why people want to live in rich countries, because production per person is high in rich countries."

    Unfortunately, the extravagant redistribution of wealth during the COVID-19 years created incentives to stay home instead of work. Today, many U.S. industries are having a hard time finding workers, leaving production lower than it should be. That means fewer goods and services to raise our living standards. It's so bad that unfilled jobs in the manufacturing sector could cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion annually.

    Data point: Vero's from France. Their loss, our gain.

  • But they're so progressive! So it's sad, but unsurprising, to see reports of Antisemitism at University of Vermont. Bobby Miller at the NR Corner:

    The University of Vermont (UVM) is currently experiencing a spate of antisemitic incidents. The students committing these blatant acts of bigotry may have been initially motivated by their sanctimonious opposition to the “occupation” of the Palestinian territories. Irrespective of what is motivating them, this sentiment has clearly entered the realm of outright xenophobia.

    For example, UVM students were recently seen throwing rocks at the Jewish student-life center on campus. When asked to cease their vile behavior, one of the perpetrators asked the person beseeching their goodwill, “Are you Jewish?”

    There’s no way that this can be construed as anything other than explicit antisemitism. Yet the school refuses to acknowledge what’s happening.

    Vermont is also home to "hey, we're not anti-semites" Ben & Jerry's, which last year ended sales of its ice cream in what it called "Occupied Palestinian Territory". Which (currently) is causing a rift with "hey, we're not anti-semites either" parent company Unilever.