An Oxford University educated editor for the Economist (UK) traces the history of meritocracy forged by officials who introduced the principle of open competition, the psychologists who devised methods for measuring natural mental abilities and the educationalists who built ladders of educational opportunity. He looks outside western cultures and argues that meritocracy has achieved transformative effects everywhere it has been adopted.
Although Mr. Wooldridge...makes a strong case for the practical and moral value of meritocracy (while acknowledging its flaws), he doesn’t fully confront what might be its most disturbing challenge today: doubts about just what 'merit' is or whether it even exists ... Mr. Wooldridge...argues persuasively that the [standardized] tests’ originators saw them as ways of attaining morally and politically progressive goals, such as improving educational opportunities and promoting upward mobility ... Though none of these ideas is particularly new, they are all worth considering.
... The Tyranny of Merit...declares it unfair that so many of the rewards in life have gone to those fortunate enough to have been born with superior intelligence. Wooldridge’s work is a welcome retort to this argument; or at least I agree with his point that intelligence alone (the 'lucky genes', as some have it) is never enough to produce extreme success, especially not in commercial life, where the big money is to be made. Wooldridge rightly stresses the importance of hard work ... The topic moves from contentious to potentially toxic when differences between national or ethnic groups enter the discussion ... Wooldridge, wisely, doesn’t attempt to define how much of this is down to upbringing—nurture—and how much to breeding—nature. I incline strongly to the former explanation. Whatever the reason, Wooldridge is sharp on how much the supposedly meritocratic American establishment sought to treat Jews like horses marked down in handicap races ... This book has some astounding facts to back up its argument[.]
But what is Wooldridge’s recipe for meritocratic reform? He is not easy to pin down. His last chapter is a slalom, veering at moments towards the positively eccentric...and then drifting leftwards ... All sorts of other ingredients are thrown in. Get rid of referendums, take away power from the rank and file of political parties, tax the digital platforms. These may be desirable but they look like hasty add-ons to his main arguments. But is meritocracy really on the ropes? Wooldridge’s desire to ameliorate it is the starting position of nearly all politicians, including many on the left, even if they don’t frame their rhetoric in these terms ... We don’t have a political and media culture that asks politicians about ideas—what do they actually mean by fairness, or equality of opportunity, or meritocracy? And so they can duck the difficulties that Wooldridge learnedly and entertainingly grapples with. More’s the pity.