The Bear’s Lair: The Coming Fall of the Meritocracy

The last five years have been marked in most Western societies by a populist revolt against the values of a leftist university-educated elite. That elite had appeared invulnerable, and increasingly separated from the rest of us, as Charles Murray described in his 2012 study “Coming Apart.” There are thus two questions to be answered: how did the elite become so cut-off and misguided, and will its rule survive the populist revolt?

The problems of a society dominated, not by inherited status or money, but by an academically-selected intellectual elite were first explored in the British sociologist Michael Young’s 1958 classic “The Rise of the Meritocracy.” Young’s satire accurately forecast many features of today’s intellectual elite-dominated society. He foresaw that children from disadvantaged backgrounds would generally fail the academic tests in their schooldays, and therefore be barred from the meritocratic elite, which would become largely closed and hereditary, though remaining convinced it had achieved its position through superior merit and hard work, not by accident of birth. Murray’s “Coming Apart” confirms the inbred, self-satisfied and self-perpetuating nature of the elite, as Young had predicted.

Young’s book was intended as a biting attack on the society-closing tendencies which he already saw emerging in the Britain of 1958, which he believed quite contrary to the open egalitarianism for which he had fought when writing the election manifesto for Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 Labour government. In later life, Young, by then Lord Young of Dartington, expressed shock that Tony Blair’s Labour government of 1997-2007, which he supported, appeared to welcome the meritocratic society that had arisen, rather than condemning its socially closed and intellectually rigid nature.

Young’s satire took the form of an imaginary PhD thesis written in 2033; we have not yet reached that date, but the last five years are indicating that the reaction to Young’s Meritocracy has already begun. There are several intellectual tenets that the Meritocracy devoutly believes, but which tend to its perpetuation and the enrichment of its members, rather than to the good of society as a whole. These fallacies are increasingly being questioned by electorates, and their overthrow may well result in the demise of the Meritocracy itself.

One devoutly believed fallacy central to the Meritocracy is the importance of university education. This is an essential prop to the Meritocracy’s survival: if university education, and in particular elite university education, ceased to be overwhelmingly important, barriers to entry into the Meritocracy would collapse and their earnings, wealth and social position would be devastated. The Meritocracy’s belief in university education has resulted in a relentless increase in the percentage of young people who attempt four-year college degrees, a relentless increase in the costs of those college degrees (because their perceived importance is increasing, allowing their providers to gold-plate facilities and bloat staffing) and a relentless increase in the pressure on university students to conform to Meritocracy beliefs and values.

The rising cost of college and the increasing diversity of the workforce may be changing this, however. Recent data suggests that there is no longer any wealth premium for college graduation for people born in the 1980s, though earlier cohorts still enjoy such a premium. That is largely a result of the increasing cost of college; the 1980s cohort incurred hugely more college debt than earlier cohorts, and so its progress to financial stability has been correspondingly hampered. As college becomes a less economically rational decision, young people are looking more closely at alternatives, such as vocational training for jobs that often pay considerably better than standard college-graduate jobs, while employers are looking more closely at applicants who acquired their skills outside the college arena.

Technology affects this further. For a diligent, self-motivated student, it is now possible to obtain the knowledge that previously required a college degree through online courses, at far lower cost than a college degree, and without the obnoxious political indoctrination. Conversely, the political indoctrination and “dumbing down” of college courses has now gone so far that a college graduate in many humanities subjects is far less educated and far less ready to contribute usefully to the world than was his grandparent graduating from the same college. The revolt against college education is only just beginning; it has much further to go and there is an enormous shakeout of the college sector to come, devastating existing institutions and further devaluing their economically worthless degrees. The Meritocracy does not know it yet, but college education, the central bastion of its power, is due for serious erosion.

A second core Meritocracy belief is in the superiority of Meritocracy-oriented careers. This results in legislation being passed to ensure that such activities remain highly paid, and that the vulgarities of the free market do not apply to them. For example, whereas any foreign graduate in computer science (not generally a Meritocracy-favored profession) can get a programming job in the United States via an H1B visa, foreign lawyers are much more strictly regulated; they must graduate from a U.S. law school and pass a local bar examination, and there are no H1B visas held open for them. Hence the starting salary of a U.S. graduate lawyer is about three times that of the equivalent computer science graduate.

This belief has also manifested itself in the discussion of how Britain should go about negotiating a trade deal with the EU once the initial Brexit has been achieved – a task that must be completed in a mere 11 months. The “quality” media, dominated and consumed by Meritocrats, are unanimous that the key need is to obtain access to the EU market for British banks, while the “old-fashioned” industry of fishing can easily be sacrificed. Yet politically and economically, such an approach would be madness. The best British banks, the merchant banks, were slaughtered by the Financial Services Act of 1986, and none of the remaining “clearing” banks have shown themselves capable of making decent money in EU domestic markets, in over 30 years of trying. Furthermore, banking income merely makes the overstuffed salons of London even more overstuffed, and its property market even more unaffordable, neither of them significant benefits for Britons as a whole.

Conversely, fishing is a very important British activity, naturally so for an island surrounded by an immense quantity of shallow fish-friendly water. A sensible trade deal would therefore hold rock-solid against any encroachment of foreign fishing boats into British territorial waters, thus enabling the British fishing industry to manage this immensely valuable and sustainable resource in an optimal fashion. It is not insignificant that the most important British fishing centers are in Northern cities like Great Grimsby, captured by the Conservatives in 2019 with a magnificent “swing” of 14.7%. The inhabitants of Great Grimsby are natural Conservatives, but for Boris Johnson’s government they must be nurtured so their new-found Conservative voting becomes a habit. London bankers, on the other hand, Meritocrats and EU Remainers to a man, are often foreign and even if not, vote Liberal Democrat or Labour – the fine old crusted Tories of the merchant banks (Lord Bicester, where are you now that we need you!) having been forced into extinction.

A third area of devout Meritocrat belief is in the desirability of high levels of immigration and the joys of a “diverse” society. The Meritocracy gets all the benefits of immigration — it provides cheap baby-sitters, maids and landscapers – while suffering none of the costs, since most Meritocrat jobs are protected from foreign competition. Diversity is also a positive; Meritocrats get to interact with other well-educated Meritocrats from different cultures, and the restaurant choices available have expanded immeasurably since their childhood. For non-Meritocrats, on the other hand, immigration means more competition for low-wage jobs, higher costs for housing, less availability of schools and medical facilities and a more unpleasant, crime-ridden environment, since the homogenous trusting society of a well-defined local culture breaks down when outsiders enter.

Finally, while Meritocrats often believe in theory in a free market, they find its openness to non-Meritocrats highly unpleasant, and therefore seek ways to control it through regulation. An overriding anxiety such as global warming is ideal for this purpose; it allows the Meritocrats to design regulations for the entire economy and ensure that activity is steered into areas where Meritocrats, being expert in their new regulations, have an excellent chance of success. If a Gosplan central planning system worked at all, they would support it, but a heavily regulated economy with agreed “ESG” societal goals on climate change, corporate governance and social engineering is an excellent second-best for them.

The European Union, therefore, was and is a quintessential Meritocrat project; it adds complex Meritocrat-designed regulations, provides innumerable well-paid jobs requiring advanced degrees, involves mixing with numerous different cultures, and quells the free market in an uncountable number of ways.

Technological change is undermining the Meritocracy’s elite university educations. Democracy is undermining the Meritocracy’s belief in promoting Meritocrat economic activities and in flooding their countries with immigrants. The lack of noticeable global warming will eventually undermine their belief in regulation to prevent climate change (though they may well find another environmentalist shibboleth to replace it). The sheer economic dysfunction of the EU will eventually cause its miserable inhabitants to rebel, as many are already doing. For all these reasons, Meritocracy is therefore doomed.

We should rejoice; Young’s 2033 was a very unattractive dystopia, and the collapse of Meritocracy will lead to greater freedom for all of us, even those lucky enough to be good at passing examinations.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)