New Mandarins, Old Meritocracy, It’s All the Same Thing, Really. Commentary from 2013-2048

The Daily Beast in 2013 published a piece about “the New Mandarins” by Megan McArdle.  The New Mandarins are those people who test well, get good jobs, write the tests tor the next generation, and then give birth to the next generation that will do well, and so on.  The problem of course is that as in Ancient China, the Mandarins become more and more remote from the people who they rule, and the connection between the ruled and rulers becomes more tenuous.  Revolt is one potential threat.

McArdle cites the Big Brother society of Orwell’s 1984, but another more sociological/anthropological treatise on the same subject is Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2030.  Young was a British sociologist, who sometimes turned to fiction, or in this case, semi-fiction in his sociological analyses. In The Rise and Fall of the Meritocracy, he describes the rise of the British Mandarinate starting about 1870.  The first part of the book is as a result historical overview of how the British Civil Service emerged between 1870, and about 1958 when the book was published.  It did it by creating a civil service testing regime, in which the technocratically skilled achieved great power within the bureaucratic system.  The system in turn guaranteed comfort and security for this new “meritocratic” elite (Young is the one who coined the term “merittocracy”as a dysphemism).  The British education system reflected a strong segregation based on class in the 1950s when Young wrote, peaking at the “Oxfrd-Cambrdige” nexus where of course, everyone tested well, and therefore earned a right to that nice level of comfort and security.

The problem of course is that everyone who does not test well was not guaranteed similar levels of comfort and security.

The second part of the book is putatively fiction, though, since it describes what would happen between 1950 and 2030 which presumably for Young was the future. Young’s prediction is of course that the ruling elite, secure in the legitimacy provided by their technical superiority as reflected by the “objective” test scores. Unusually, though we have a way to check to see just how prescient Young’s predictions. The American Journal of Sociology, a self-described elite “flagship journal” in 2009 published a review of Young’s book. The review, by Barbara Celarent of Atlantis University, was unusually postmarked in 2048, so has the perspective of hindsight. The hindsight it has is of the revolts that Young predicted for 2030.

In this fashion, it provides and excellent reference point to Megan McCardle’s commentary from The Daily Beast.