Book Review — The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge

'Tosin Adeoti
6 min readMay 12, 2024

Yesterday, I finished reading “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World” by Adrian Wooldridge. Wooldridge, an Englishman, is a columnist at Bloomberg Opinion, having previously spent more than 20 years at The Economist. The book, a 500-page tome, was published in 2021.

Imagine we are all in a university class taking the same courses and graded by the same standards. It is inevitable that at the end of our years of studies, there will be top performers, those in the middle of the pack, and those at the bottom. In fact, there will be individuals we can identify as being in the top 10% of the class, and there is likely to be someone we would consider the best student. This method lies at the heart of what is called the meritocratic idea — the notion that humans should be judged based on their talent and hard work, and rewarded accordingly.

However, while most agree that meritocracy is an excellent idea and would not mind embracing it in our society, we are increasingly observing that it comes with its own set of criticisms. Some argue that because students in the class come from different backgrounds, it is unfair to judge them by the same standards. Others contend that singling out winners inadvertently fosters jealousy and discourages cooperation. Regardless of performance, there is a growing number of people advocating for everyone to receive the same marks and for discrimination based on output to be eliminated.

In “The Aristocracy of Talent,” Adrian Wooldridge thoroughly examines the merits and demerits of meritocracy. The opening sections outline how meritocracy was originally a revolutionary idea that replaced pre-modern systems of nepotism and patronage. It reminds us how, in the past, social mobility was determined by where, how, and to whom you were born. Kings, priests, and prophets dominated the scene and determined the social hierarchy. The sons of the Alaafin of Oyo were guaranteed a good life, and whoever received favor from the Emperor was instantly elevated.

The pre-modern world conceived of itself as a hierarchy of social groups ordained by God. In 1079, Pope Gregory VII declared that ‘the dispensation of divine providence ordered there should be distinct grades and orders.’ ‘The powers that be are ordained of God,’ says St Paul in Romans 13:1. ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,’ says Jesus in Matthew 22:21. People were constantly showing deference to their superiors, and those who refused were often punished. Slavery was widespread, and women were subjugated. Females couldn’t vote, let alone sit in political houses. In Westminster, women who wanted to watch parliamentary debates not only had to sit in a special ladies’ gallery but also behind a metal grille ‘so that MPs couldn’t see their distracting female forms.’ The book contains extraordinary accounts of the challenges women faced, including the notion that should not be treated equally with men because they are ‘slaves to their body’s menstrual rhythms, which can render them moody and distracted.’

It was in the midst of this that the idea of meritocracy emerged. You will learn about Plato and his idea of philosopher kings who would be devoted to judging wisely. You will learn about China and its Examination State, which promoted the most brilliant students to govern aspects of the state. And most profoundly, you will be awed by the chapter called ‘The Chosen People,’ which discusses the rise of the Jews. They see themselves as a special people with a unique relationship with God, which has given them the self-confidence to keep themselves separate, produce a powerful collective identity, and succeed in their various callings.

These three groups played prominent roles in developing the meritocratic idea in different ways — Plato in theory, the Chinese in practice, and the Jews by example, emphasizing intellectual success as a means of ensuring the survival of the group.

“[The Jews] heaped honor on people who could perform demanding intellectual feats, from rabbis to scholars. They embraced objective measures of intellectual success — particularly examinations — as ways of establishing their credentials and combating anti-Jewish prejudice. Jews played a prominent role in both developing IQ tests and opposing affirmative action.”

This is how the meritocratic idea came to shape the modern world, sweeping aside race and sex-based barriers to competition, building ladders of opportunity from the bottom of society to the top, and infusing sluggish institutions with intelligence and energy. Discrimination on the basis of race and sex is now illegal across the advanced world. Women occupy more than half of the places in most Western (and in many emerging-country) universities. Kamala Harris, a woman of Jamaican and Indian heritage, is vice-president of the United States, and Barack Obama, a black man, rose to be the most powerful man in the world. None of that would have been possible without the meritocratic idea.

Meritocracy succeeds because it does a better job than the alternatives. It screens job applicants for competence. Vaccines save lives because highly trained scientists develop them, and other highly trained scientists test and regulate them. The best places to live in the world are driven by merit. Singapore, perhaps the world’s poster child of meritocracy, has transformed itself from an underdeveloped swamp into one of the world’s most prosperous countries, with a higher standard of living and a longer life expectancy than its old colonial master. The Scandinavian countries retain their positions at the top of international league tables of prosperity and productivity in large part because they are committed to education, good government, and, beneath their communitarian veneer, competition. By contrast, countries like Greece and Italy that have resisted meritocracy have either stagnated or hit their growth limits. The author avoids mentioning African countries for whatever reason. He, however, discusses anti-meritocratic cultures like petro-states such as Saudi Arabia, which have high standards of living. The author unequivocally states that they will revert to poverty in the post-oil age unless they change their habits.

Unfortunately, as stated in his discussion of Singapore, meritocracy has many valid criticisms — assortative mating, legacy admissions, rural/urban inequality, etc. Just as I stated at the start of this review, promoting meritocracy and making an open show of it can quickly become an object of hatred. The meritocratic idea is coming under fire from a formidable range of critics, both from the Right and the Left, who denounce it as ‘an illusion’, a ‘trap’, a ‘tyranny’, and an instrument of white oppression. Ideologues like Trump are cullprits, as well as movements like Black Lives Matter, whose leaders believe that ‘Western society — particularly American society — is structurally racist’ and that ‘blacks cannot be racists,’ assert that the legacy of slavery and colonialism is present in everything we do, and that color-blindness is not just impossible. While criticisms of the meritocratic idea have yet to reverse our current gains, Adrian Wooldridge reminds us that the idea is gaining ground.

As he concludes the book, he outlines how he believes the current meritocracy can be improved — by weakening its weaknesses and strengthening its strengths. Ideas such as supplementing democratic institutions with meritocratic institutions, supporting a free press, practicing positive discrimination, upgrading vocational education, and, more importantly, remoralizing meritocracy. The idea that our success is exclusively in terms of just rewards for superior abilities and effort is misguided. We have a duty to our society. We must give back to society. We must understand that the nation comes before self and that effort must come before ease.

Wooldridge makes a compelling argument that the recent stagnation of social mobility is the result of a failure to complete the meritocratic revolution, so rather than abandoning meritocracy, he says, we should call for its renewal. It is a timely and urgent material to counteract the dangerous and unsafe movement against merit and talent.

This book, which won The Times (UK) Book of the Year 2021, took longer than I expected, as it became boring at some points, especially during the discussion of the Victorian era, but it came to life during the discussion of Confucianism. While reading it, I made up my mind that my kids would attend a program at one of the Confucian institutes. An essential read, full of insights and ideas, for anyone interested in the current debate on meritocracy.

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