The old radical cry that aristocracies were unfair had everything to commend it. After all, if you were simply born to wealth and power, where was the merit in you having them, and what legitimacy did that confer on you? There grew up, in opposition to it, the idea of meritocracy. Indeed, one might say it is the modern mantra – here in the UK and across the West, the idea of meritocracy is firmly embedded as an ideal. But do recent political events suggest that its shortcomings are now showing?
The nineteenth century British aristocracy was very aware of its fragile foundations, and for every spendthrift aristocrat, there were many who saw their position conferring on them the duty of public office – a job done for free under a sense of obligation. Most of those who governed were well aware it was a matter of chance that they were there. But what happens with a Meritocracy? If you have risen to a responsible position because you are the best for it, because of your own talents, there is a great temptation to arrogance – and to look down on those whose talents are so clearly less than your own. We have, I think, recently seen this very plainly. Brexit and the triumph of Trump are a reaction of ‘ordinary people’ to the tyranny of the Meritocrats – and the supercilious reaction of the ruling elites shows that they still have not got it.
The whole concept of ‘merit’ is a difficult one. In a world where so much depends on education, the fact is that the accident of brith still has a lot of influence on whether your talents will be nurtured and have an outlet. Then there is the little matter of the accident of birth itself – not everyone is born with an equal talent set – genetics is nature’s way of endowing us unequally, and it is no more systematic than the old way where men and women were born into a privileged background.
In a world more influenced by Christian anthropology, meritocracy was tempered. There was a sense that one’s talent was a gift from God and to be deployed for the wider good, not for selfish ends; there was also the humility which comes from knowing that you, yourself, would one day be subject to judgment for how those talents would be used. The great Gladstone even kept a diary which, in effect, noted how he had used every day. It caused some puzzlement when historians were first allowed access to it as it is very unlike a modern diary; but it was his own account book for his reckoning with the Almighty – this, he would be able to say, is how I deployed what you gave me Lord, I did not bury it, I used it thusly.
But in an atheistic or agnostic culture, where does this sort of humility come from? If you grow up thinking that you have achieved what you have achieved by your own talents, that is no school for humility. It is, however, an attitude which leads to impatience (to put it mildly) with those who have not achieved what you, and others like you have. You are an expert, you know better, and most of those with whom you associate feel the same. Unfortunately (for you and your fellows) there is a great electorate out there which is not only convinced by your expertise, but which, surveying its own situation, is even less convinced that your expertise is bringing it the answers it needs. Perhaps that will be the school of humility in which our rulers will turn and find some wisdom?