Is the Meritocratic Ideal still alive?

It was in 600 BC that the Chinese philosopher Confucius invented the notion that “those who govern should do so because of merit, not of inherited status.” Thousands of years later, we live in a society where for many people this idea – that if you are good enough, you can make it – is still a vision, but one that keeps hopes alive.

It is a beautiful idea: once the shackles of wealth, personality, and ancestry are cast away, we are left with the rawest of qualities – hard work, effort and talent. Dreams and ambitions cease to be founded on chance and destiny.

However, meritocracy demands equality of opportunity among its aspirants. Without a level playing field of opportunity, even the best wouldn’t shine. And unfortunately here lies the catch: in our society complete equality of opportunity does not exist. In fact it never will. It would require engineering on a draconian scale – a one hundred per cent inheritance tax, for starters. We must strive, therefore, for an incremental crusade for making class, birth and heritage less relevant and improving access to opportunity. The impassionate Gordon Brown called this ‘social mobility’ and even went so far as to describe this principle as his ’abiding reason’ for being in politics.

Post-war society has increasingly taken to social mobility and, even though there are certain things that you categorically may never be able to achieve, it is today more realistic than ever that a child born into a poor family can die rich.

The seeds of this society lie in education. It is true that as a child you have no control over your earliest education, and the upbringing you receive from your parents. By the age of thirteen you are applying to secondary school with a modicum of control of your personal efforts – you can work hard if you want to.

But universality across British schools may remain as elusive as a complete meritocracy. There are vast disparities in the quality of education in the UK – from public schools that cost each parent hundreds of thousands of pounds, to the most modest of state schools.

Ironically, it is the former of these two that may be the answer to the apparent severe social immobility. Scholarships and bursaries to private schools are quickly becoming a cornerstone of the meritocrat’s argument. As Christopher Middleton declared in The Telegraph: “Having for years presented themselves as the academic world’s version of luxury cruise liners, many private schools are now being forced to re-launch themselves as more workaday educational ferryboats.”

Let me explain. In order to maintain their charitable status, many of the top schools are quickly signing-up to large-scale scholarship schemes and opening their doors to any pupil who is good enough. At Eton College, 20% of the boys are financially aided. At Harrow, it’s 25%. Pupils can win places at the best school for their talents in academia, music, sport, drama – I know of a boy who won a place at a top independent school because he was outstanding at chess.

And these educations are certainly worth the money. The incentives of the private sector mean that they can attract the best teachers and invest in outstanding facilities – one Old Harrovian arriving at university was quick to remark that the facilities were far better at his former school.

The story gets better. Oxbridge – the pearly projector to success – is committed to attracting the best regardless of background. They adjust grade expectations according to the applicant’s background, and it is raw intelligence and passion that gets you in, not the price tag of your education. Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the US are completely needs-blind to foreign students, meaning you pay for what you can. Financial restraints are no longer a barrier to the best of educations.

There are very few levers that the Government can pull to improve educational standards. With scarce funds to offer to the state sector in a time of cuts in spending, it is up to the private sector to improve its standards and make sure they are attainable to all. It goes without saying that all of the above should in theory enable people to pursue their best possible career paths, regardless of their social standing at birth. It’s a kind of inter-generational mobility.

Indeed there are those that say a merit-based society would only lead to the kind of elitism that we are trying to abandon. Elitism there may be, but why not? People have come to believe that elitism is something intrinsically bad. Of course when elitism is unattainable because of factors out of your control – wealth, for example – then yes, this is something undesirable. But an elitist society that rewards effort and ability is only one that offers far more opportunities, and is more productive.

The recent wave of banker bashing is an interesting episode. Assuming bankers rose to their high-earning positions based on merit, it suggests that we don’t believe the people at the top deserve it. Perhaps the financial crises and scandals warrant some criticism, but let’s not forget our basic economics. High demand and low supply drive up the wages of labour in this profession. Free market economics – in most cases – allows the most “talented” to prosper. So I would argue that as meritocratic foundations take root, the fruits of labour – earnings and wealth creation – will become increasingly and justifiably aligned with positions in the professional pyramid.

This idea of complete meritocracy is, perhaps, farfetched and impossible – a bit like the perfect competition model used in economics. But there is no denying that conditions are becoming more “meritocratic”, if not ever becoming a complete meritocracy. It is a Conservative ideal (remember Thatcher’s story?) that Cameron would do well to promote during a time of little hope and confidence.


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