Michael Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy is, of course, the book that brought that word into the language, presenting the titular event and its consequences as a piece of future history, composed by a sociologist of the 2030s, as a way of commenting on a current issue.
This future history imagines post-war Britain undergoing a very thoroughgoing scheme of social engineering, intended to make it internationally competitive in an age of intense scientific-technological-industrial competition, by closely connecting social position with merit. Here "merit" is essentially a function of IQ test score (as the nation's psychologists, apparently, have succeeded in eliminating the causes of underachievement), with the high scorers unfailingly streamed through the most lavish schooling available to elite positions, creating a hierarchy of affluence and status neatly in line with the hierarchy of intelligence and ability.
In his much more recent study of the history of standardized testing, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann (who devotes a full chapter to discussing Young's earlier book), rightly points out that Young seems naïve in expecting that
inheritance of wealth and position would be abolished, that government would fund education so abundantly that private schools would wither away, that scientists would rule the society, and that schoolteachers would be highly paid.1Indeed, one could say that the degree of centralization, systematization and rationalization seen in the book (and also, the optimism about what applied social science would soon permit) appear awfully dated.
Nonetheless, like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, this kind of story (and at one point, Young had intended to present it as a novel, on the advice of Leonard Woolf) is typically written with the purpose of taking an idea to its logical conclusion, rather than really plausible extrapolation--with the idea in this case the meritocratic principle. Young's point is, above all, the unavoidable problems to which inegalitarianism leads, even when it is more rationally arranged, and the need to diminish inequality rather than just rearrange it.
Some of the problems the book envisions could only rise in the kind of thoroughgoing meritocracy no real-world society has ever achieved, like the anxiety of parents knowing their children will do less well than they did (and knowing this from earlier and earlier on in their upbringing), not because of a weakening economy or increasing downward social mobility, but because of their lesser abilities on a genuinely level playing field; and the compromises and personal sacrifices entailed in the eugenics program intended to maximize the next generation's share of desired talents. Others, however, are only too familiar to our time, like the frustration of women, particularly educated, high-status women, who find themselves torn between child-rearing and family on the one hand, and career on the other; the narrowly utilitarian basis by which "merit" is judged in his future ("the ability to raise production, directly or indirectly"); the argument that "common" workers do not deserve, and ought not be afforded, a share of the gains in economic productivity; the push by a radical right-wing of the political spectrum for an acceptance of greater inequality on the grounds that earlier concessions to a more egalitarian society were wrong-headed and unnecessary; and the invocation of the imperatives of international competition as an excuse for harsh treatment of the lower orders.
The same goes for the idea of the gap in sympathy and concern between the ruling elite and the mass of the people whose lives they run, which the meritocratic rationale widens. Young's son, Toby Young (who of course does not deny his being a beneficiary of Britain's class system), noted in his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People that the meritocratic idea (which as he notes, is undeniably powerful in the United States, despite its hugely flawed application, as Lemann also succinctly shows in the afterword to his own book) gives elites an excuse to wash their hands of those who fail to thrive, to look down on the "losers" of the world.
Thinking about that, I find myself coming back to Ayn Rand's most famous work, Atlas Shrugged (1957), which appeared at almost the same time, espousing a view toward the subject of meritocracy that is a hundred and eighty degrees away from what the elder Young set forth in his book. Rand's novel is by far the better known book among the general public in the United States today, and ironically, is becoming even more popular in the midst of an economic crisis that in other quarters has led to the widest and deepest questioning of the prevailing version of capitalism seen in some time.
Make of that what you will.
1. Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), p. 118.