All Men Are Equal, But Some

All Men Are Equal, But Some

THE RISE OF THE MERITOCRACY, by Michael Young. Random House, New York

Neither socialists nor sociologists have done full justice to the ambiguities of the idea of human equality. “Socialists,” writes Michael Young, “did not see that, as it was applied in practice, equality of opportunity means equality of opportunity to be unequal.” In America equality of opportunity has been a deeply-rooted article of faith, and it has usually been recognized that it implies the existence of an unequal order in which effort and ability find their approriate level. Gene Debs’ “I want to rise with the ranks, not from the ranks” differentiates the socialist conception of collective equality from the individual ambition to rise in the world and also, by implication, from the goal of creating an open society permitting maximum “circulation of the elites.” But American sociologists, reflecting the credo of their society, have devoted far more time and attention to social mobility than to the different kinds of hierarchy within which mobility may occur.

Both European socialist and American sociologists have usually assumed that a hierarchy based on differences in ability is more humanly tolerable than one based on birth. The former, it has been supposed, eliminates both the smoldering sense of injustice aroused by unearned privileges and the gulf between top and bottom levels existing in hereditary class societies. Applied to America this view has a certain plausibility, but the examples of the Catholic Church and professional armies, not to speak of contemporary Communist parties and regimes, cast doubt on its general validity. And now Michael Young, a British sociologist and ‘former Labor Party research director, has written a book to demonstrate that the full realization of equality of opportunity in an industrial society would subvert not merely liberty, as has often been claimed before, but also fraternity, perhaps the most cherished and distinctive ideal of classical socialism.

The Rise of the Meritocracy belongs to the genre of negative Utopian literature. But unlike Brave New World or 1984 it is cast in the form of an historical interpretation written in the year 2033 ‘for the purpose of illuminating the causes of recent uprisings and demonstrations against the Meritocracy, the relatively benevolent despotism which has gradually evolved in Britain since the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The imaginary author of the book is a “reasonable” supporter of the regime, anxious to justify it against its new “Populist” critics and to minimize the extent of mass discontent. Unfortunately, an editorial note informs us that he has been killed in the Peterloo Massacres of the twenty-first century before he was able to correct the galley proofs of his book.