I carelessly ventured into the issue of meritocracy versus static class hierarchies, but the volume of relevant comment and even current events since has been more than I can cope with.
I learned, for instance (from Felix Salmon), that the term “meritocracy” itself is only 50 years old, and was coined by a critic, the Labour politician Michael Young (Baron Young of Dartington). Judging by an old Guardian article I found, his criticisms are not identical to mine, but there is considerable overlap.
chris dillow pointed out that even an ideal free market is only a rough approximation to meritocracy, quoting Hayek: “the return to people’s efforts do not correspond to recognizable merit.”
Separately, a post at conservativetimes made the point that historical aristocracies did not see themselves in opposition to merit, rather, the aristocrats believed that they were the best people.
By “merit” in this context, we generally understand skill, knowledge, hard work. In those terms, the theory that hereditary aristocrats are the most meritorious is not very convincing. Advantages in education and upbringing can give them an edge in ability, but not necessarily a large one. The meritocratic claim, that you will get more of whatever qualities you are looking for by opening access for the widest possible population, is much more reasonable.
Since the term “meritocracy” post-dates aristocracies, they clearly didn't think of themselves exactly that way in any case. The term they used for their exclusive quality was “nobility”. Does that get us any closer to understanding them? What does it mean to be noble? This needs looking into.
However, defining nobility to embrace a broader element of virtue, the case is still weak. Even if aristocrats are on average more virtuous, itself a highly dubious proposition, there are surely many lesser-born among the most virtuous. I still think it makes sense to assume that the distinguishing quality of an aristocrat is loyalty to the existing order.
Spandrell commented that there is very much solidarity among the ruling elite, at least in Mediterranean societies. It may be that I underestimated this even for Britain, perhaps because my context at the time was the hyper-competitive environment of electoral politics. Capitalists and civil servants perhaps exhibit more cohesiveness. This needs looking into.
On a related note, Bryan Caplan wrote a very good blog post, addressing the obvious and important question, “Why is democracy tolerable?”. He cites research that finds, that where the opinions of the rich and the rest differ, policy overwhelmingly tends to follow the opinions of the rich. That could be a point in favour of Spandrell’s “upper class solidarity” argument, though the rich having more power than the poor is not in contradiction with either meritocracy or aristocracy/oligarchy.
Helen Rittlemeyer’s post addresses the mechanisms of the changes in the Western ruling classes. The point is that, while the ruling class always admitted some new blood, the result was that the incomers learned and adopted the culture and values of the existing rulers. In recent decades, the flow of “meritocratic” new blood has been sufficient to swamp the old culture. There is an obvious parallel there to the conventional wisdom around mass immigration; that there is a maximum rate that allows for integration of newcomers into a society.
Of course, all this brings us to the major news story of last week: the incident of the Government Chief Whip being rude to a policeman. While it’s impossible not to at least raise an eyebrow at the media weight the affair has received, I must admit that it is more interesting to me than goings-on in Syria and Libya or the latest bickerings over the Spanish bailout.
Philip Blond’s argument chimes with Rittlemeyer’s, that Mitchell represents the “new” ruling class who have the power of the old one without the culture. Of course, Mitchell’s position has some relevance: if the popular view of the Chief Whip’s role is accurate, then getting people to do what he tells them by bullying them, swearing at them, belittling them and threatening them is not Mitchell’s hobby, it is his job. The incident is more akin to a Formula One driver speeding on the motorway out of habit than to a footballer partying with underage girls out of an exaggerated sense of entitlement and self-importance, though it has qualities of both.
For Rittlemeyer’s take to be applicable, it does not matter whether Mitchell himself is “old blood” or a meritocratic climber. The claim is not that that the ruling class contains incomers who do not have the old mores, it is that the old mores have been destroyed by the culture (or lack of culture) of the incomers, and now not even the old blood still retain them. (Blond contrasts Mitchell with Boris Johnson as an example of the old-style elite, but Johnson is self-consciously eccentric, and not necessarily a good example of any wider body).