Ed West

Meritocracy doesn’t work. It’s in the Left’s interest to recognise this

Meritocracy doesn't work. It's in the Left's interest to recognise this
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At the end of Coming Apart Charles Murray mentions, rather enigmatically, that our assumptions about society will soon be blown out of the water by new discoveries about human nature. I imagine he’s talking about genetic discoveries, in particular about the human brain.

One of our current assumptions is meritocracy, and the idea that we can produce a fair society in which the most talented and energetic rise to the top. This is sometimes what people mean when they talk of the ‘American Dream’, a term that seems to be used more now that social mobility in that great country is fading and inequality rising.

That is why The Son Also Rises, a study of social mobility by Gregory Clark, will surprise and also alarm some people. He notes, by using surname patterns, that mobility is minimal in all societies where the data is available. Even, for example, in the Nordic paradise of Sweden.

He says: ‘In all societies, what seems to matter is just who your parents are. At the extreme, we see in modern Sweden an extensive system of public education and social support. Yet underlying mobility rates are no higher in modern Sweden than in pre-industrial Sweden or medieval England.’

He also notes that even in revolutionary societies, such as in Communist China, people with aristocratic surnames also turn up at the top, showing that once again Darwin trumps Marx.

The same is probably true in this country; apart from those with recent immigrant ancestry, I imagine that many of the most influential and powerful people on the British Left descend from people who were also influential and powerful. In fact even among those of immigrant stock, a large number seem to descend from the rulers back in the old country. Many radical leaders in history proclaimed humble roots but actually came from fairly distinguished backgrounds; back in 1196 an uprising in London was led by one ‘William the Beard’, who demanded the rich pay more tax, grew his hair in tribute to his humble Saxon ancestry and called himself the ‘advocate of the people’, although his actual name, William Fitz-Osbert, suggests an altogether different ancestry.

What could explain Clark’s findings? One of the most obvious reasons that springs to mind is that intelligence is just another privilege you inherit from your parents, and that lots of those qualities needed to reach the top are also hereditary (and even if your son doesn’t inherit them, you can marry him off to someone who does and so loading the dice for the next generation).

But the Left is terrified of the science around the human brain and human evolution, and goes out of its way not only to deny what is clearly true, but also to call out, harass and stigmatise anyone who argues it. Witness the recent ho-ha when an advisor to Michael Gove made the point that a large part of the education gap was due to genes, something that is so obvious as to be a truism, and is helpful information in trying to improve the life outcomes of the poor.

The tragedy is that Clark’s conclusions are precisely an argument for more social democracy. As he points out, the difference between America and Sweden is not in the difference of equality of opportunity, but in the life outcomes for those who don’t succeed.

In contrast the libertarian Right’s whole justification is that, since we can all succeed with hard work and diligence, life is one big competition and the winner rightly deserves his winnings. That just isn’t true, but until the Left comes to terms with human nature it will be impossible to counter it.