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Status anxiety

Let the poor have designer babies on the NHS

It will reverse the rise of the cognitive elite

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

I’ve just written an essay for Quadrant, an Australian periodical, in which I propose a controversial solution to the problem of entrenched inequality: free designer babies for the poor. Yes, yes, I know. It sounds like a 21st-century version of Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ and, at first, I rejected it as being too far-fetched. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make.

So how did I get there? The essay starts by discussing one of the long-term problems with meritocracy, which is that it ends up replacing one hereditary elite with another. This shortcoming was first pointed out by my father, who invented the word ‘meritocracy’ in the 1950s to describe the sort of society he thought Britain was becoming. He intended it to be a term of opprobrium rather than approval and it was a source of great irritation to him that it was taken up by politicians like Tony Blair to denote something desirable. As a lifelong socialist, he was opposed to equality of opportunity on the grounds that it granted an air of legitimacy to the social and economic inequalities thrown up by capitalism.

Now, as a classical liberal, I rather like meritocracy for precisely that reason. I’m deeply sceptical of egalitarianism as a political creed because it’s nigh-on impossible to create end-state equality without a massive escalation in state power. If the history of the 20th century teaches us anything, it is that the dream of creating a socialist utopia can easily lead to the suppression of free speech, the imprisonment of large sections of the population and, in extreme cases, state-organised mass murder (see Russia, China, Cambodia, North Korea etc). If meritocracy serves as a bulwark against this poisonous ideology, so much the better.

However, there’s an issue about its long-term sustainability. As society becomes more meritocratic, IQ becomes an increasingly influential determinant of status, and a person’s IQ is largely dictated by their genes. That wouldn’t be a problem, were it not for the fact that people with high IQs are quite likely to pass on those genes to their children — and likewise people with low IQs. Not in every case, of course, and the problem is offset by reversion to the mean, but it happens often enough to create a degree of ossification. The situation isn’t helped by the rise in ‘assortative mating’, whereby people of above-average intelligence are more likely to have children with each other. That has become more of an issue since the participation of women in higher education, with highly intelligent people of the opposite sex now thrown together in early adulthood.

The upshot is that the cognitive elite is well on its way to becoming a hereditary elite — a risk flagged up by my father in 1957 — and that could end up fomenting a socialist revolution rather than preventing it.

Much of my essay is taken up with fleshing out this hypothesis and I draw heavily on the work of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, authors of The Bell Curve, as well as Peter Saunders, a heretical British sociologist. But the evidence that meritocracy is leading to more class stratification rather than less is pretty overwhelming. For instance, 87 per cent of college-bound American high school students who scored above 700 in their SATs in 2010 had at least one parent with a college degree, with 56 per cent of them having a parent with a graduate degree.

The problem could easily get worse once geneticists have identified the 10,000 or so genetic variants that affect IQ. According to professor Stephen Hsu, one of the leading scientists in this field, that will happen in the next five to ten years. At that point, it will be possible for parents to screen embryos in vitro and select the most intelligent one to take to term.

Which is how I arrived at my modest proposal. Once this technology has come on stream, let’s make it available free on the NHS to couples on low incomes and, at the same time, prohibit rich people from taking advantage of it (as far as we can). What I’m suggesting should appeal to the left because it’s a form of redistribution, except the commodity being redistributed is above-average intelligence rather than wealth. And unlike everything else we’ve tried to alleviate the problem of entrenched inequality — and the associated ills of poverty, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, criminality and drug abuse — it might actually work.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator

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