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  • Published: 9 May 2023
  • ISBN: 9780141990378
  • Imprint: Penguin Press
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 496
  • RRP: $26.99

The Aristocracy of Talent

How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

A fascinating and important history of meritocracy, and a Times book of the year

Meritocracy: the idea that people should be advanced according to their talents rather than their status at birth. For much of history this was a revolutionary thought, but by the end of the twentieth century it had become the world's ruling ideology. How did this happen, and why is meritocracy now under attack from both right and left?

Adrian Wooldridge traces the history of meritocracy forged by the politicians and officials who introduced the revolutionary principle of open competition, the psychologists who devised methods for measuring natural mental abilities and the educationalists who built ladders of educational opportunity. He looks outside western cultures and shows what transformative effects it has had everywhere it has been adopted, especially once women were brought into the meritocractic system.

Wooldridge also shows how meritocracy has now become corrupted and argues that the recent stalling of social mobility is the result of failure to complete the meritocratic revolution. Rather than abandoning meritocracy, he says, we should call for its renewal.

  • Published: 9 May 2023
  • ISBN: 9780141990378
  • Imprint: Penguin Press
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 496
  • RRP: $26.99

Also by Adrian Wooldridge

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Praise for The Aristocracy of Talent

superb ... Wooldridge, the political editor of The Economist, quite brilliantly evokes the values and manners of the pluto-meritocrats at the top of society ... They would do well to read Wooldridge's erudite, thoughtful and magnificently entertaining book. They will find many uncomfortable truths in it.

James Marriott, The Times

The Aristocracy of Talent is finely constructed: fluent insights include the importance of Plato's distrust of democracy, on the grounds that it tended to lead to tyranny, and his insistence on the need for a leadership of experts.

John Lloyd, Financial Times

hugely stimulating ... a spirited defence ... of meritocracy itself, made with cogent arguments ... a valuable, thought-provoking book

Noel Malcolm, Daily Telegraph

This masterly book offers a robust defence of meritocracy.

Lord Willetts, Economist

a timely book that is a reminder that meritocracy, for all its flaws, may well be, like the democracy it has sometimes served, better than the alternatives ... told with a wealth of erudition in brisk and readable prose

Darrin M McMahon, Literary Review

The Aristocracy of Talent is both an exhaustively researched history of an idea and a many-sided examination of the impacts of its imperfect execution.

Mike Jakeman, Strategy + Business

There are few terms whose origins are more misunderstood than "meritocracy". So Adrian Wooldridge has performed a public service with his latest book, The Aristocracy of Talent.

Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times

kudos to Adrian Wooldridge... for producing a full-throated defence of the principle

Toby Young, Spectator

an omniscient and impassioned polemic ... Some of us have been waiting a long time for someone to do what Wooldridge has done: nail the lie that there is something shameful about success honestly earned

Daniel Johnson, The Critic

Adrian Wooldridge relabels the system "pluto-meritocracy" to expose its sham ideology

Philip Aldrick, The Times

Every page, there's an intriguing nugget of information.

Robbie Millen

readable and wide-ranging...Wooldridge maintains that meritocracy is revolutionary and egalitarian

Peter Mandler, BBC History Magazine

with its remorseless erudition ... in his new book, Adrian Wooldridge tries to salvage meritocracy from the ossified over-class that Aldous Huxley foresaw.

Janan Ganesh, Financial Times

Adrian Wooldridge sees meritocracy as a revolutionary idea worth improving, not abandoning. He ranges across two and a half thousand years of history, surveying many societies and cultures, to remind us that until relatively recently the talented were almost always a matter of no interest to the rulers - not only unrewarded but undiscovered ... [a] rich stew of a book. Alongside the philosophers are innumerable politicians, theologians, scientists, academics, authors and campaigners. He has dug up a priceless array of quotes from all perspectives on how to define the best people, how to seek them out, how to educate them, how to test them, how to give them power, even how they should behave.

Mark Damazer, New Statesman

Adrian Wooldridge's extraordinary and irresistible history of meritocracy, The Aristocracy of Talent, describes the repeated efforts over the centuries to persuade peoples all over the world to accept the principle and compel society to organize itself on lines where merit alone, not bloodlines or bank balances, decides who rules and gets top dollar. ... Throughout, Wooldridge never loses faith in the principle of meritocracy as the key driver of modernity ... The Aristocracy of Talent is a serious treat from first to last. Not the least of its pleasures are the possibilities of disagreement that it provokes.

Ferdinand Mount, Times Literary Supplement

A worthy successor to the 1958 classic The Rise of the Meritocracy, this sparkling study shows how much less meritocratic our society has become since then

Vernon Bogdanor, Daily Telegraph Books of the Year

In The Aristocracy of Talent, the Economist writer Adrian Wooldridge defends the meritocratic ideal. The book offers a sweeping account of the history of meritocracy, from the elaborate exams required to join the Chinese civil service to the problems with our dysfunctional present version of meritocracy, which Wooldridge says might be better called "pluto-meritocracy". Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand one of the important problems facing rich nations.

James Marriott, The Times Book of the Year

In this elegant historical and philosophical defence of the notion that people should advance according to talent rather than birth, Wooldridge argues that the idea that ruled the world by the late 20th century has become corrupted. This "golden ticket to prosperity" needs restoring in order to revive social mobility.

Andrew Hill, Financial Times

This is a blistering and provocative defence of meritocracy - the single word almost all democratic politicians swear by, but never debate. Wooldridge, the Economist's political editor, provides an erudite survey of many cultures over several centuries to remind us how meritocracy's core idea - that your place in society should be a reflect of talent and effort, not determined by birth - is both revolutionary and recent. He sees meritocracy as an organising ideal rather than something that has been satisfactorily achieved, and rails against the ability of the privileged to purchase educational advantage for their children. He deplores too, outbursts of arrogance from meritocracy's winners.

Books of the Year, New Statesman

An elegant defence of talent.

The Week

Wooldridge has written one of the great books of the decade. Here, meticulously researched and in arresting prose, are definitive accounts of Plato's authoritarian philosophy and the way later generations interpreted it, of China's mandarinate, of the rise of IQ tests and much else.

Lord Hannan, Conservative Home