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The Brainy or the Rich: who should inherit the Earth?

Does it matter if Britain is ruled by toffs?

Nineteen British Prime Ministers attended one extremely expensive boarding school for boys on the far western outskirts of London, an astonishing statistic. David Cameron is the latest Old Etonian Prime Minister.

Tomorrow the nominations close for the Labour Party leadership and commentators (many of them Oxbridge-educated) have decried the fact that the main candidates ‘look the same’: white, forty-something, and, most damning of all, graduates of Oxbridge. Cameron, like almost his PM predecessors, studied at Oxbridge (Oxford, in his case). Two thirds of his Cabinet are products of Oxbridge. And you are much more likely to get into Oxbridge if you are from a wealthy background.

A recent report (from the Office for Fair Access), highlighted the way in which class is still a woefully accurate predictor of which university students will go on to attend – if they attend university at all. The wealthiest 20% of youngsters are seven times more likely that the most disadvantaged 40% to be go on to England’s top universities.

The report was met with energetic hand-wringing. And the dominance of British life by those who attended private school was last week described by the columnist and activist George Monbiot as ‘grotesque’. Many readers no doubt shared his sentiments.

Monbiot is normally worth reading, but ‘grotesque’ is the wrong adjective and strikes the wrong note. It suggests there’s a fundamental injustice at work.

Britain would indeed be a better place if it were more meritocratic: if success were more correlated with talent than money. But it would not be better because it would thereby be fairer. It is no more fair that Person A receives a pay-off merely because he/she was born intelligent, than that Person B does well from life because he/she was born wealthy. Both lotteries pay out for luck.

Nonetheless, we should do what we can to break down a system ossified by privilege. We should want the most intellectually challenging tasks to be executed by the most intellectually gifted citizens. We should want the most talented, not the most financially privileged, to run government, the media, business, academia, the civil service and the judiciary. Why? Because a meritocratic society is a more successful, a better functioning society – a society more likely to achieve the outcomes most of us care about (a well-functioning economy, efficient infrastructure, high quality health care, more widgets). It is also a more cohesive society – because those in power will have a broader range of experiences and be seen as more representative of the nation as a whole, and youngsters growing up in poverty will not automatically assume that so many options are shut off from them.

That, not fairness, is the reason we shouldn’t welcome a nineteenth Old Etonian PM.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. “It is no more fair that Person A receives a pay-off merely because he/she was born intelligent, than that Person B does well from life because he/she was born wealthy. Both lotteries pay out for luck.”

    Doesn’t this assume that a person’s “intelligence” isn’t shaped at all by the kinds of upbringing and educational opportunities that go along with class and money? Sounds like a pretty insane assumption to me.

  2. Agreed: intelligence isn’t fixed – although there are limits to how far aptitudes can be developed (I could have been tutored in chess from the age of 3, and never reached the standard of the elite grandmasters).

    Application, determination and countless other qualities will also affect educational attainment and prospects of career success (and these qualities will in turn be moulded by upbringing).

    My point was that describing the current distribution of influence/wealth as ‘grotesque’ seems to imply that there’s a major injustice going on – whereas I believe this misses the point. We want society to be more meritocratic because this would be better for society as a whole, not because in this alternative world the individuals who occupy positions of wealth and power would somehow be more deserving.

  3. Point taken – we do want the most intelligent people to run academia, business, and so on. But governing a country is not rocket science. It is not for their cleverness that we vote for our favourite candidate. Instead, it is because we believe they represent our interests, share our values and vision for the future, and have the drive and personality to serve as our voice. What would worry me (if I were a Brit) about the make-up of your government is that the vast majority of people don’t have someone in government who represents their interests, share their values, hopes and dreams.

  4. Thanks Liezl

    There’s a further debate about what constitutes ‘talent’ and what constitutes ‘merit’. A distinction should be drawn here between government and other realms, such as business, sport and academia, because uniquely the function of government is to represent the interests of the nation.

    It’s a logical possibility that a House of Commons made up entirely of Old Etonians could successfully comprehend, articulate and execute the ‘values, hopes and dreams’ of the rest of the country.

    However, this is a rather implausible world. Indeed, in such a world one could easily see how merely being from a state school background, or being female, non-university educated or whatever, might itself be a valuable qualification (in a basket of many other qualifications) for office. It might be valuable because a more mixed assembly would transmit a useful message…

  5. Anthony Drinkwater

    I fear that your argument goes too far : if “inheriting the earth” is in both the circumstances you describe (plutocracy and meritocrary) simply a lottery, in what circumstances would you describe an inheritance as unfair ?

    You may choose to exclude the use of the concept of fairness – of course, this is your right, but I think it is a weird exclusion from political discourse.

  6. Anthony. I’m not entirely excluding it from the political discourse. One might have a Rawlsian concept of ‘fairness’ for example…re-distribution of goodies of various kinds should ensure that they benefit the least advantaged.

  7. Anthony Drinkwater

    You’re right, and I was too elliptical in my post. I meant to state that you excluded fariness from the discourse on political inheritance and success, not all political discourse. Apologies.

    But let’s take other possible forms of inheritance / worldly success, say aristocracy or nepotism. Both of these are equally subject to your criticism, which for the sake of brevity I’ll call the efficacity argument. But would you also say that they were immune from criticism from fairness arguments ?

    If yes, then you are consistent, but I disagree. If no, why not use the fairness argument against the current situation ?

  8. Anthony

    I’m not unhappy about embracing the consistency. That is, there’s not much difference between power/wealth distributed by nepotism and power/wealth distributed by schooling.

    There is this distinction though: buying good schooling is the purchasing of, among other things, valuable skills (like reasoning). It may be that, by the time they reach adulthood, those who’ve been tutored in expensive educational establishments have become the ‘best’ candidates – those most likely to achieve a desired outcome(s) in a particular area.

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