The Problem With “Meritocracy”

It’s a fraud.

Sure, the idea of meritocracy is sound: that the people most qualified to do the thing should be the ones who get to do the thing. In fact, it sounds like basic common sense. But when we’re dealing with people who are selfish, paranoid, and desperate to hold on to what they have over other people, it frequently becomes something else entirely. People like this are perfectly happy to cheat to get what they want: to buy high IQ scores, to plead their way into university, to rely on their famous relatives’ influence, all under the guise of “merit.”

Hence how Toby Young, a person who would be struck off the register if he was a classroom assistant, who won a place at Oxford as a result of a clerical error and his distinguished father’s intervention, who just happens to be a close friend to people in high places, was (briefly, thank heavens) appointed to a position of enormous influence over the education of millions of people.

Folk all across the political spectrum have thoroughly denounced the UK Cabinet’s appointment & subsequent defense of said appointment, proving this is not just another lefties vs righties bunfight, but a seriously bad judgement by a government practically making an Olympic event out of bad judgements. Many have, quite correctly, excoriated the inexcusable comments Young has made in regards to women, children, and minorities – but in the process, I can’t help but feel that something much darker and more terrible has been allowed to slip by unnoticed.

Back in the day, birthright was what decided your power and influence: born in the right family, tracing your bloodline back generations to some obscure prince or baron or lord, citing holy writs appointing your ancestors’ right to rule. Barring a few evolutions here and there, it was mostly the same for thousands of years, with only new-fangled ideas like “egalitarianism” and “democracy” challenging the idea that perhaps someone’s right to make big decisions was anointed at birth. But like anything humans create, it could be manipulated. Hence paupers became princes, servants became empresses, slaves became emperors, all by exploiting the existing rules which were put in place to prevent such accidents. Yet even though they proved the phoney nature of their entire social system, they bought right back into it – offspring and relatives just became the new royalty, the system remained. Birthright as a choice from parent to child is a family matter, but birthright as a system of power and government was, and is, a fraud – just another way for the haves to make sure they keep what they have from the have-nots.

The UK advances in some ways, and holds itself back in others. It rightly decries the denial of equal wages for equal work, even though it stops just short of rendering it illegal, like some forward-thinking countries. It nominally champions the cause of egalitarianism and equal opportunities, yet strangely persists in funding preposterously expensive private functions for a single family. It speaks of democracy in one breath, and houses of “Commons” and “Lords” in the next. And so the UK correctly abandons the more overt notions that you deserve something purely because your were born with a title, yet people like Toby Young can be appointed to the Board of Students.

It is not unexpected that the majority of furore around Toby Young have centred around his hideously patronising & objectifying comments towards women – there’s no hypocrisy more tantalising to the press than condemning outrageously salacious language while utterly revelling in the lurid details. Likewise, the moral guardians outraged at Young’s comments towards children & minorities work themselves into a frenzy repeating his offensive statements in detail, complete with pictures of the subjects of his words and screenshots of his now-deleted tweets. It is not unexpected, and it is deeply tempting to engage in communal shaming like this for our own selfish reasons, but it must never come at the expense of those we seek to protect. In concentrating purely on comments which – let’s face it – are practically indistinguishable from that of the average privileged oaf, we risk diminishing a much more serious threat to all of us.

This didn’t happen just because Toby Young’s former employer and his brother are both members of the UK Cabinet. This didn’t happen just because Toby Young’s “caustic wit” and “non-vanilla contrarian” attitudes made him a notorious celebrity. This happened because there is something endemic to the UK Establishment’s culture which wilfully excuses – in some cases, actively fosters – the most horrendous of agendas, in the supposed interests of intellectual advancement.

A eugenics conference held annually at University College London by an honorary professor, the London Conference on Intelligence, is dominated by a secretive group of white supremacists with neo-Nazi links, London Student can exclusively reveal.

Content note: This article contains references to racism, anti-Semitism and child abuse.

The conference has taken place at UCL four times since its inception in 2014, and now even boasts its own YouTube channel bearing the UCL logo.

UCL have told London Student that they are investigating the conference. A spokesperson said: “We are an institution that is committed to free speech but also to combatting racism and sexism in all forms.”

UCL professor David Colquhoun expressed disbelief that the university would host such “pseudoscience” and stated that the organiser, Professor James Thompson, “clearly doesn’t understand genetics.”

“The actual genetic difference between humans, with respect to race or sex, is absolutely miniscule compared to what they have in common,” he told London Student.

Among the speakers and attendees over the last four years are a self-taught geneticist who argues in favour of child rape, multiple white supremacists, and ex-board member of the Office for Students Toby Young.

In 2015, Toby Young published an article, The Fall of the Meritocracy, in which he argues for something he calls “Progressive Eugenics,” outlined here:

Progressive eugenics
But that isn’t the solution I want to explore here. I’m more interested in the potential of a technology that hasn’t been invented yet: genetically engineered intelligence.[22] As with so many of the ideas explored in this article, this crops up in my father’s book, where it takes the form of “controlled mutations in the genetic constitution of the unborn … induced by radiation so as to raise the level of intelligence”. This technology is still in its infancy in 2033, with successful experiments only carried out on “the lower animals”, but another version of it may be available sooner in the real world—within the next five or ten years, if the scientists are to be believed.
I’m thinking in particular of the work being done by Stephen Hsu, Vice-President for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University. He is a founder of BGI’s Cognitive Genomics Lab. BGI, China’s top bio-tech institute, is working to discover the genetic basis for IQ. Hsu and his collaborators are studying the genomes of thousands of highly intelligent people in pursuit of some of the perhaps 10,000 genetic variants affecting IQ. Hsu believes that within ten years machine learning applied to large genomic datasets will make it possible for parents to screen embryos in vitro and select the most intelligent one to implant.[23] Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at New York University, describes how the process would work:
Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s going to be the smartest. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.
It’s worth repeating this last point, because it deals with one of the main reservations people will have about this procedure: these couples wouldn’t be creating a super-human in a laboratory, but choosing the smartest child from the range of all the possible children they could have. Nevertheless, this could have a decisive impact. “This might mean the difference between a child who struggles in school, and one who is able to complete a good university degree,” says Hsu.[24]
My proposal is this: once this technology becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs? Provided there is sufficient take-up, it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite. It might make all the difference when it comes to the long-term sustainability of advanced meritocratic societies.
At first glance, this sounds like something Jonathan Swift might suggest and, of course, there are lots of ethical issues connected with “designer babies”. But is it so different from screening embryos in vitro so parents with hereditary diseases can avoid having a child with the same condition? (This is known as a pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.) I don’t mean that a low IQ is comparable to a genetic disorder like Huntington’s, but if you allow parents to choose which embryo to take to term, whatever the reason, you’ve already crossed the Rubicon. And screening out embryos with certain undesirable genes is legal in plenty of countries, including Britain.

The main problem Young sees (he clearly doesn’t see several obvious major issues – here is an excellently concise breakdown of the “scientific” portion of the essay, another covering unintended consequences, and one from Iain Brassington at the Journal of Medical Ethics which argues that Young’s argument fails even on its own merits) is that if this was widely available, then there would be nothing to stop already above-average intelligence individuals seeking to exploit this, therefore only exacerbating existing inequalities:

In a sense, what I’m suggesting is a form of redistribution, except the commodity being redistributed is above-average intelligence rather than wealth. This is a way of significantly reducing end-state inequality that should be acceptable to conservatives (at least, non-religious conservatives) because it doesn’t involve the use of coercive state power. Participation would be entirely voluntary. Let’s call this policy “g-galitarianism”. (For those unfamiliar with the jargon, “g” is commonly used by psychologists and geneticists to stand for “general factor of cognitive ability” and is often used as a synonym for “IQ”. It was first given this designation by Charles Spearman, a British army officer, at the turn of the last century.)
A lot of the resistance to this idea will come from a visceral dislike of anything that smacks of eugenics, for understandable historical reasons. But the main objection to eugenics, at least in the form it usually takes, is that it involves discriminating against disadvantaged groups, whether minorities or people with disabilities. What I’m proposing is a form of eugenics that would discriminate in favour of the disadvantaged. I’m not suggesting we improve the genetic stock of an entire race, just the least well off. This is a kind of eugenics that should appeal to liberals—progressive eugenics.[29]

Unfortunately for Mr Young’s heroic appeal to “liberals” (because only liberals would have problems with this, apparently), we’ve already seen that this “progressive eugenics” would only ever be “progressive” so long as everybody played by scout’s honour, and absolutely nobody decided to cheat the system. Mr Young himself is the ultimate example of that very phenomenon – only getting into a school because of a clerical error, and his Life Peer father persuading the staff to give him a go. I realise it’s something of an ad hominem, but how can we possibly take such a proposal seriously from such a cartoonishly hypocritical source?

Eugenics is just another fraud. Its history is littered with frauds. Is it any surprise that one of the most fraudulent governments in history is supporting its fellow frauds?

This isn’t to say I doubt Mr Young is sincere in his beliefs, any more than I doubt Donald Trump truly believes he is a self-made man, or Max Landis really believes his hugely influential film director father didn’t have anything to do with his success in the film industry. The problem is that they ascribe that success not to nurture, but to nature, simultaneously taking the individual influence of their parents out, and substituting it with their own individual ability (and, ironically, undermining their personal achievements in the process by explaining it due to some innate wonderblood):

One of Kraus’s recent findings is that subjects of a higher class rank are more likely to have “essentialist” views about a person’s identity and status: “the kind of person someone is can be largely attributed to their genetic inheritance.” Or even more bluntly: “we have better genes.” The resulting class structure is something that arises out of inherent traits, from the individual out. Lower-class individuals, however, are more likely to believe that class is imposed on them, from society inwards.

“Constructed beliefs mean that society, the government, powerful people, they ascribe class,” Kraus says. “The system lays down the class structure that is forced upon me as an individual. Essentialist beliefs say that your genes force your class on you.”

It’s a comforting thought—that your elevated class rank is the result of your inherent qualities as an individual, and that society is structured to rightly privilege those qualities. It’s comforting not just because it’s nice to be recognized for what you perceive as your best qualities, but also because it’s predictive; it suggests future stability and success.

Hence how someone who objectively failed the entry requirements for a school can simultaneously believe that they are part of some sort of intellectual elite – because they have convinced themselves that it’s in their genes.

Eugenics, as a pure idea, means nothing more than improving the genetic quality of a population. In and of itself, that can’t be controversial, can it. But. Who decides what “improving the genetic quality of a population” means? Does it mean simply eliminating damaging genetic code, screening for abnormalities? What about removing propensity for life-threatening conditions like Sickle-Cell Anemia? What about certain disabilities like Down’s Syndrome, thereby consigning the experience of millions of people worldwide to history? What about neurological conditions like Bipolar, Dyslexia, or Autism? It wasn’t long ago something as minor and harmless as left-handedness was viewed as something to be cured, with deeply traumatic attempts to “rectify” the “problem” regular even in my parents’ generation. It wasn’t the distant past that perfectly healthy individuals were called “insane,” and subjected to incarceration, repression, forced sterilisation, even death.

There’s a reason Toby Young used the word eugenics – and there’s a reason the word is so controversial.

The year 1908 saw the consolidation of the predominant public and scientific views towards people with learning disabilities, then known as ‘mentahad led to the founding of the Earlswood Asylum in 1847, then the first philanthropic asylum for idiot children in Britain, had well and truly faded. It was replaced by a eugenicist preoccupation with fears of national decline, because of what was seen to be a link between mental defectiveness and criminality (see Thomson, 1998; Wright & Digby, 1996). Mental defectives were seen as genetically tainted; they should be both separated from society, and prevented from reproducing.

Increasing concern regarding provision for the feeble-minded had led in 1895 to the creation of the National Association for Promoting the Welfare of the Feeble-Minded, through the efforts of three women. Two of these women, Ellen Pinsent and Mary Dendy, became the most significant lobbyists for government action for the feeble-minded. Along with the awareness of the costs of special educational provision, this led first to the establishment of a Parliamentary Committee on Defective and Epileptic Children in 1898, and then in 1904 to a Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded.

The report of the Royal Commission, published in 1908 as the Radnor Report, was in turn the main influence on the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, which was the first legislation by the British government specifically related to services for people with learning disabilities. Up to that point the same institutions provided care both for those who were feeble-minded and those who were insane.

The Act embodied two key principles: separation from the community (hence the new ‘colonies’ established for their care, rather than asylums); and control (most clearly indicated by the name of the new regulatory body set up under the Act, the Board of Control).

– Professor John Hall, Looking Back: Mental deficiency – changing the outlook

Not too long ago, more than 60,000 people were sterilized in the United States based on eugenic laws. Most of these operations were performed before the 1960s in institutions for the so-called “mentally ill” or “mentally deficient.” In the early 20th century across the country, medical superintendents, legislators, and social reformers affiliated with an emerging eugenics movement joined forces to put sterilization laws on the books. Such legislation was motivated by crude theories of human heredity that posited the wholesale inheritance of traits associated with a panoply of feared conditions such as criminality, feeblemindedness, and sexual deviance. Many sterilization advocates viewed reproductive surgery as a necessary public health intervention that would protect society from deleterious genes and the social and economic costs of managing “degenerate stock.” From today’s vantage point, compulsory sterilization looks patently like reproductive coercion and unethical medical practice.

– Professor Alexandra Minna Stern, That Time The United States Sterilized 60,000 Of Its Citizens

I have taken part, in discussions in this House on the unemployable; I have taken Members in authority on both sides and shown them 300 or 400 men not one of whom would be privately employed by any person for anything at all, not even for their keep. These were formerly mentally defective children who had been allowed to drift about the world, and to become absolutely useless. There is only one fitting description; they are almost like human vermin. They crawl about, doing absolutely nothing, except polluting and corrupting everything they touch. We talk about the liberty of the subject. What nonsense! What waste of words! We ask that you should take these people and have proper control over them, because they have no control over themselves. They are verminous, dirty, with no idea of washing or cleansing themselves.
– Will Crooks MP, Feeble-Minded Persons (Control) Bill debate, 17th May 1912

I beg to move, “That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable mental defectives to undergo sterilizing operations or sterilizing treatment upon their own application, or that of their spouses or parents or guardians; and for purposes connected therewith.” I realise, and those associated with me realise, that in making this request we are asking the House to do something which may be regarded as in advance of public opinion. That in itself is a difficulty. We realise that we have to convert a large section of the people of this country to a full appreciation of what we propose to do with those who are in every way a burden to their parents, a misery to themselves and in my opinion a menace to the social life of the community. I should be failing m my duty to the House if I did not state that in my opinion, although perhaps not in the opinion of those associated with me, this Bill is merely a first step in order that the community as a whole should be able to make an experiment on a small scale so that later on we may have the benefit of the results and experience gained in order to come to conclusions before bringing in a Bill for the compulsory sterilisation of the unfit.
– Archibald Church MP, Sterilization debate, 21st July 1931

Your Lordships may be interested to know that the Eugenics Society, itself obviously most concerned with this matter, has quite recently set up an Artificial Insemination investigation Council on which there are a number of distinguished scientists, lawyers and sociologists. It will be a fact-finding body to look into this matter from its genetic, medical, legal and social aspects. Of course, we have already the most useful and, I think, very fairly argued Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission, which has been referred to more than once this afternoon. But it is a pity that one should have to rely on these outside organisations for the fact-finding into, and the discussion of, this problem, which is obviously one of considerable concern to the State and ought to be looked at by some Committee or Commission appointed by the State.
– Robert Chorley, Artificial Insemination of Married Women debate, 26th February 1958

Like I said, this is not a Left vs Right issue: some of the most prominent supporters of early 20th-Century eugenics were very much on the Left side of the economic spectrum, to the point where one could easily argue that all eugenics are inherently “progressive” from Toby Young’s perspective. Nor is this exclusive to England: prominent Scots like Alexander Graham Bell, Marie Stopes, and Arthur Balfour were enthusiastic supporters of eugenics. This is more than an economic, political, or social issue: it’s an existential one – and nearly every time humanity has faced this challenge, it has found itself tragically inadequate.

Much like I wouldn’t quibble that Al Capone was brought down by tax evasion, I won’t argue if Toby Young’s departure was more a result of his crass social media bletherings than of his support of a phoney science, which has been used to perpetuate the eternal fraud that Few deserve more than the Many. But I will wonder how many more of his peers, with a bit more guile and sense, remain in positions of influence and power. They are still there, and still spreading this false science, this fraud science, as the excuses for their privilege shrivel day by day.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem With “Meritocracy”

  1. Marconatrix says:

    Food for thought indeed. Such a complex issue with so many ramifications. I’ll need to follow up several of your links and think a good deal before being able to give a sensible reply.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald. says:

    I think you do Michael Young a disservice and are somewhat blaming the sins of the son on the father.
    His father wrote the book ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’, precisely to point out the nonsense of the ideas surrounding it, including things like eugenics and the entitlement of aristocracy. However, he chose to write it ironically and I think that many have misunderstood what he was saying either sincerely or wilfully. I suspect Mr Toby Young is in the latter in one of the quotes you attribute to him above.
    Michael Young was influential in the development of the Welfare State and his work has to be recognised. He was like many of his contemporary socialists/communists/social democrats from a fairly privileged background and the education that accompanies that and the social contacts one makes.
    He lived to a very old age and married several times, fathering children, one of whom was Toby, when in his 70s.
    While I agree, substantially, with the tenor of your article, I think we have to be careful about making sweeping judgements about someone who was influential in a socially progressive way in his day. All of us are creatures of our time and circumstances and in the course of a life, we do many things which were wrong and which we often regret.
    The appointment of Toby Young was an appalling decision by the hubristic Johnson minor. Rather than simply putting him ‘on a warning’ in her interview with Andrew Marr, Mrs May should simply have reversed the appointment.

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