Welcome to the Age of the Meritocracy...for the Celebrity Class

Last Updated Dec 28, 2009 1:05 PM EST

Toby Young, the son of the Briton who coined the term "meritocracy," reflects on how close we've come to a class structure based on effort and intelligence, rather than inherited privileges, in a recent edition of the UK's Prospect Magazine.
For the record, meritocracy was originally a pejorative term, since one system of economic and political inequality would be theoretically replacing another. There would still be elites that would get to hoard the lion's share of economic rewards---they'd just be nerds instead of kings.

Oddly though, in Young's view, despite the widespread belief in Britain and the United States that we are entering into a meritocracy, since his father's satire, "The Rise of the Meritocracy" was written fifty years ago, social mobility, even amongst the professional ranks, has effectively decreased while economic inequality has actually increased.

So why do the folks on Main Street put up with a system that's rigged in favor of those who rule from Wall Street?

Young argues it's the rise of the "celebrity class" and its relative meritocracy of Top Chefs and Top Models that keeps the populists in their place. According to this line of reasoning, poorer people oppose taxing the rich and other egalitarian policy measures because they honestly believe they are an American Idol audition away from joining the wealthy. Even if professionals have no ambitions to try out for reality shows like the Apprentice, Donald Trump's billions seem like they've been earned and are therefore justified, by years of hard work and his shameless self-promotion. But you'd be rich too if you inherited your daddy's prime Manhattan real estate like Trump did.

Young's analysis suggests that consenting to the current system is as irrational as buying lottery tickets. Yet there is a reason that all those failed dreams don't make us miserable. For many in America (and I assume Britain too), it is the pursuit of a goal and the shared experience with friends, family and coworkers that brings happiness, rather than the end reward in and of itself.
That's my take. I'd be happy to hear yours in the comments section below.

  • Stefan Deeran

    Stefan Deeran helps environmental nonprofits and green businesses develop and execute their new media campaigns. He also publishes The Exception magazine, a nonpartisan news platform serving his home state of Maine. You can follow him on Twitter @RStefanDeeran or via Facebook.