#2 What lies beyond the meritocracy? By Philip Collins

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This is the second in our series of blogs exploring what lies beyond the meritocracy? 

Philip Collins, columnist, The Times:

The site of the most dramatic action of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy is a clue to something that lies beyond the idea. The narrative concludes in a civil war when the downtrodden, who have been told they deserve their lowly status, rise up against the meritocratic elite. The site of the epic battle is St. Peter’s Field, Manchester.

This is the place where, in 1819, the working people of mill towns that surround Manchester marched to protest about their low living standards and their demand for representation in Parliament. The government panicked and sent in the amateur yeomanry, to grotesque effect. The moment became known as Peterloo, an echo of the battle of Waterloo. Twenty-seven years later, St. Peter’s Field became the site of the Free Trade Hall, the auditorium bought by Richard Cobden to house the Anti-Corn Law League, the movement to lift the tariffs on corn. The impulses behind Peterloo and the Anti-Corn Law League were that working people were not being given their due and they should.

Most ideas of justice retain some link between what people merit and what they receive. Young’s book is an alarming reminder of what happens when a whole society is based on a single idea but it would be just as odd to dismiss the idea of merit altogether. The British left has a tendency to do just that. The Labour party’s conception of social justice tends to be egalitarian. It places a great stress on the inequality between incomes at any given point in time. This is an important measure but it is not quite what most people think of as a just outcome. The debate on the referendum on the European Union did not yield many insights about anything but you could hear an echo of the good argument for a meritocracy. That good argument is this: there should be a link between what you put in and what you take out. There should, for example, be a link between contribution and welfare entitlements.

So much of our lives is not deserved in any meaningful sense. We do not, for example, deserve our talents. However, the idea of merit cannot be thrown out entirely. This was not Young’s intention. He was showing us what happens when a privileged elite is permitted to enshrine its own rule. But the idea of deserving really matters. What lies beyond the meritocracy is a narrower but still vital idea of merit.

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