What struck me as particularly compelling in Chapter 8 of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021) was how Enlightenment liberalism dovetails so beautifully with Meritocracy. French Revolution philosophers framed the debate about human nature (which continues to rage on) and articulated the logical contradictions of an absolutist State. Wooldridge references the vicious nature vs. nurture feud 3 times in the chapter. Even today, some writers still believe that nurture is the only thing that matters (tabula rasa), despite logic and copious scientific evidence to the contrary.
The distinction between artificial aristocracy (feudalism) and natural aristocracy (some people are smarter than others – sorry if that offends you) is critical because sweeping away artificial inequality quickly allows natural inequality to assert itself. Wooldridge explains that Enlightenment thinkers talked mostly about virtue and talent at first, not merit, because virtue/talent is less controversial. Talent was thought of as a “gift of nature, natural disposition or aptitude for certain things or ability”. But eventually inequality discussions must get to merit – hard work and intelligence. It’s an undeniable natural quality that varies wildly among humans – it matters.
Society will always be hierarchical because we’re all different. Leftist levelers hate this fact and want to derogate mind and property. The chapter concludes by noting that German philosophy was heavily influenced by the French Revolution. Nietzsche was the consummate meritocratic thinker with his notion of the Übermensch. Kant argued that intellectual merit is a form of property. Government has a duty to protect people’s use of their talents in the same way it has a duty to protect their ownership of physical property. The ability to own and exercise your talents is one of things that distinguishes a citizen with political rights from a mere subject.
Next week, we look closely at two countries in which Meritocracy achieved its greatest success – the U.S. and the U.K.