+ E = M. The formula tells us that intelligence plus effort equals merit, and, early in the twenty-first century, it is the guiding principle of British society. Or at least that was the conceit of Michael Young back in the 1950s, when he was writing this utopian (or is it dystopian? Young himself seems unsure) fantasy about a future world in which people are systematically sorted into the jobs best suited for them, and IQ tests are the principal sorting mechanism. Does that perchance sound familiar?
The book, recently re-released by Transaction, was initially published in 1957, sold hundreds of thousands of copies in a Penguin edition, then slowly became forgotten except for a cult following on the better British campuses, whose denizens for obvious reasons savored the whole idea of ``meritocracy,'' a term invented by Young. (In 1978 he was named a life peer and became Baron Young of Dartington -- a neat meritocratic touch. ) This new edition comes along at the same time as The Bell Curve, a coincidence Lord Young might plausibly regard as good news and bad news. The good news is that his vision of the future has been resoundingly confirmed by the recent data. His IQ-driven meritocracy is Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's ``cognitive elite,'' and while numerous details set the two books apart (in the real world, we are not carrying around government-issued cards with our IQs on them), it is impossible to down the thought that Young was eerily prescient back in the 1950s. But that is also the bad ne ws. For American readers, at least, what would earlier have read as a wickedly provocative speculation about the future now looks a lot like mere reality.
To be sure, some parts of Michael Young's vision have yet to be tested. His readers confront a manuscript said to have been written in 2034 at a time of social upheaval. The manuscript's author, as we gradually get to know him, seems a somewhat pedantic scholar describing how the meritocracy came into being and, especially toward the end of his account, also describing the new kinds of tensions generated in a world where privilege is ``earned, '' not inherited.
Writing not long after World War II, Young could see the crumbling of the old order, with unremitting assaults by the Labour Party increasingly delegitimizing the idea of advancement based on hereditary entitlements. Looking ahead into the next couple of decades, Young shrewdly anticipated that the two political parties would switch sides on the meritocracy. The Tories would find that beneficiaries of the new merit system were among their strongest supporters. Labour would find that the system did little to promote equality and indeed seemed to create new class divisions. A thought I kept looking for but not finding in the book was that IQ-based advancement would disproportionately benefit the rich, who on average are smarter than the poor: both social class and family income correlate strongly and positively with test scores. Which means that even when you eliminate the injustices preventing poor children from rising to the top and allowing upper-class twits to rise far beyond their capabilities, you still find that the uppers do better than the lowers in making their way in the world. But even without getting into all this, Mr. Young correctly sensed that Labour's egalitarian impulses would leave it uncomfortable in a meritocratic world.
Peering further out into the future, he senses the possibility of widespread dissatisfaction with -- and, ultimately, some kind of violent revolt against the society he has imagined. For many low-IQ workers, it is easy enough to specify the basis of the unhappiness. Young asks: ``Are they not bound to recognize that they have an inferior status -- not, as in the past, because they were denied opportunity; but because they are inferior? For the first time in human history, the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.'' Tough to take, eh?
But Young posits that the IQ losers will not be the only group unhappy with life in the meritocracy. He suggests that the whole idea of rank-ordering every individual by intelligence would come to seem offensive, and he describes a popular manifesto that calls for a new kind of classless society in which ``every human being would . . . have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for leading a rich life.''
Is that hollow rhetoric or a statement Lord Young wants his readers to embrace? He never really commits himself either way, but he plainly means for you to believe that people talking this way are going to make a lot of waves in the years ahead. Here again, he seems to agree with Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, who conclude The Bell Curve with a chapter called ``A Place for Everyone,'' in which they put forward some modest proposals for helping the not-very-smart to find ``valued places'' in life. Both books leave you utterly persuaded that finding them is important, and won't be easy.