The Public Interest

On meritocracy and equality

Daniel Bell

Fall 1972

IN 1958, the English sociologist Michael Young wrote a fable, The Rise of the Meritocracy. It purports to be a “manuscript,” written in the year 2033, which breaks off inconclusively for reasons the “narrator” failed to comprehend. The theme is the transformation of English society, by the turn of the 21st century, owing to the victory of the principle of achievement over that of ascription (i.e., the gaining of place by assignment or inheritance). For centuries, the elite positions in the society had been held by the children of the nobility on the hereditary principle of succession. But in the nature of modern society, “the rate of social progress depend[ed] on the degree to which power is matched with intelligence.” Britain could no longer afford a ruling class without the necessary technical skills. Through the successive school-reform acts, the principle of merit slowly became established. Each man had his place in the society on the basis of “I.Q. and Effort.” By 1990 or thereabouts, all adults with an I.Q. over 125 belonged to the meritocracy.

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