This book was one of the nominees for this year's Hayek Book Prize. My small project to read all the nominated books has been a mixed bag so far (see here, here, here, and here) but this is a pretty good contender. The good folks at the Interlibrary Loan department at the University Near Here wangled a copy from Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Connecticut.
The author, Adrian Wooldridge, is a Brit, and worked for The Economist for a long time. He writes very accessibly for the layman, with quite a bit of wit. One downside of that is the language. I'm pretty sure he expects the reader to know what a "swot" is. (American translation, I think, is "nerd".) And (apparently) in Britain there are "grammar schools" which differ from "public schools". (Grammar schools are what we'd consider to be "prep schools", I think.)
It's a very interesting history of how the concept of meritocracy rise and fell over the centuries, in a lot of different countries and cultures. It had its roots in Plato: that whole philosopher-king thing. But for millennia the default assumption was that your social position was determined by the simple fact of being born to your parents: nobles begat nobles, farmers begat farmers, and you were pretty much stuck in that role for life.
As society complexified, the flaws in that scheme began to show. (To everyone: "The Emperor's New Clothes" had centuries-old roots, after all.) Gradually the liberals and left-wingers of the day started pushing the idea that jobs with power should be held by people of better intellectual talents and abilities. (But not completely. You might have noticed whose funeral just happened.)
Meritocracy has had a rough time of it lately. And not without good reasons; the folks at the tippy-top of the pyramid can get out of touch with The Rest Of Us, start working for their own benefit instead of society at large. Nebraska's Senator Roman Hruska said it best: "[The mediocre] are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?" There are critics of even trying to measure intellectual talent, most notably via the IQ test. Wooldridge is dismissive: "This argument is an exercise in anachronistic sermonizing rather than serious historical understanding, which at its best is an exercise in grasping the intricacies of context rather than projecting our own prejudices backwards."
But anyway, in a neat flip-flop, although old leftists were enthusiastic about meritocracy, modern leftists bemoan it.
Nobody wants a mediocre brain surgeon, though.
The book is not without its flaws. A Herbert Spencer quote, "The superior shall have the good of his superiority; and the inferior the evil of his inferiority", is shorn of context to imply he's referring to those inherent qualities and talents. I think (after looking at the original text) that he's referring to superior/inferior conduct, and arguing against "communistic distribution" of wealth.
Near the end of the book, Woolridge cheers Kamala Harris's ascent to the Vice-Presidency, and says it wouldn't have been possible "without the meritocratic idea." Overlooking the facts that (a) Kamala's widely perceived as lacking in intellect, (b) was picked for veep primarily due to her race and sex, and (c) got her start not through merit, but by becoming the mistress of a married politician.
Charles Murray has had a lot of interesting stuff to say about this. Woolridge only mentions The Bell Curve, and (I think) misinterprets the thrust of that 1994 book. Nothing's said about the work Murray's done since then.
But, overall, a very worthwhile and interesting book.