The Tyranny of Meritocracy

Lani Guinier:

The term “meritocracy” was coined by the British sociologist Michael Dunlop Young as a spoof. In his 1958 satire, The Rise of Meritocracy, 1870-2033, Young gave an imaginary account of a smug elite: Instead of ancestry, ability had determined their social position. Rule by this select few appeared both benign and bountiful because of a talent-based formula for assigning status. Test scores (or other suitable substitutes for innate talent or aptitude) mattered the most. Because those who had risen in the status hierarchy had attained their positions through talent and effort, they were better able to justify their continued rule—they had earned it.

To Young, such a testocracy was not a shining vision but a nightmare. And more than 40 years after the publication of his book, he was “sadly disappointed” at how the word he coined has “gone into general circulation, especially in the United States.” He intended to warn society about what might happen if, in assigning social status, it continued to place formal educational qualifications over all other considerations. In Young’s fictional world, anyone unable to jump through educational hoops would be barred from a new, exclusive social class as discriminatory as older ones based on inheritance.