At last, someone has asked the right question. In a recent Quadrant article under the headline “The Fall of Meritocracy” Toby Young reviews the debate over meritocracy and IQ in order to push it onto a new and vital terrain. What can be done, he asks, to increase the IQ of children of low-IQ parents so that more of them are bright enough to succeed in our education system and to gain entry to the top positions in our society?
It’s a key question which is rarely asked. Toby is only able to ask it because, unlike so many contributions to the debate over meritocracy, he starts out by acknowledging the overwhelming evidence that there is a clear and strong link between general intelligence (measured by IQ) and the probability of achieving educational and social success. In current debates, this link between IQ and achievement is still too often either overlooked (by politicians) or denied (by academics, who should know better).
For more than twenty years, I have been writing about the importance of intelligence as a key factor driving social mobility. In my 2012 essay Social Mobility Delusions I summarised the point at issue in this way:
Politicians say they want Britain to be a ‘meritocracy’ where your class origins are unimportant and talent rises to the top, but they are reluctant to ask how far social classes are currently recruited on the basis of ability. In a meritocracy, there will always be some association between class origins and destinations because talented people filling the top positions will tend to have above-average ability children who can also compete for these positions. Most recent official reports fail to acknowledge this, assuming that any association between origins and destinations must be the result of unfair social advantages or disadvantages.
Toby Young is one of the few commentators to take this link between inherited IQ and educational/economic success seriously. He accepts the compelling evidence that intelligence is the single strongest influence on achievement (much stronger than the social class you were born into). He accepts that intelligence is largely inherited genetically from your parents. And he accepts that this hereditability is the key explanation for why children of successful parents tend to do much better, on average, than children of less successful ones. It’s not so much that the former are socially advantaged while the latter are socially disadvantaged (although social advantage and disadvantage do play some part); it is more that the former tend to be brighter than the latter, because they have inherited their successful parents’ genes, and this enables them to emulate their parents’ achievements.
Once all this is acknowledged (and as Toby notes, many people, especially those on the Left, are loathe to acknowledge it), we can move the current, rather sterile, debate on how to improve social mobility onto more fertile ground. And this is what Toby does in this essay.
The prevailing, comfortable orthodoxy – that children from lower social classes ‘under-perform’ because they are socially disadvantaged relative to children from higher social classes – has lead politicians and academics to seek ‘solutions’ involving removal of the real and imagined ‘obstacles’ blocking their route upwards. This has meant intervening in the social and economic environment in which they are growing up, and in particular, reforming the education system. In Britain, governments have been tampering with the education system for at least fifty years in an attempt to improve working-class children’s life chances, yet none of these changes appears to have had much impact on social mobility rates. As I noted in Social Mobility Delusions, each failed initiative simply leads the reformers to redouble their efforts, rather than re-examining the problem they think they need to address:
For most of my adult life, governments have been trying to tap into ‘pools of wasted working class talent’ by fiddling with the education system. In the sixties, they created Education Priority Areas for primary schools, and they turned secondary education upside down by replacing nearly all the country’s grammar schools with comprehensives. There then followed the attack on streaming, the raising of the school leaving age to 16, the abolition of the direct grant schools, the introduction of ‘progressive’ teaching methods, the move to an all-graduate teaching profession, the amalgamation of the universities and polytechnics in the eighties, the introduction of the core curriculum, the doubling of schools expenditure by Blair, the commitment to re-build every secondary school in the country, the huge expansion of higher education numbers, the extension of free pre-schooling to the under-fives, the thirty year inflation of GCSE and A-level grades, the introduction of academies, and the replacement of school catchment areas by ballots and other contrivances. Now we are about to embark on an extension of compulsory education or training to the age of 18, and ‘fair access’ rules are to be imposed on our universities. Yet throughout this period, relative social mobility rates have hardly shifted. This should give our reforming politicians pause for thought.
Once we recognise that the problem has more to do with intelligence than social conditions, we can start to think about other kinds of interventions that might actually work. This, to his credit, is what Toby Young invites us now to think about.
One possible line of reform that he mentions is the introduction of a guaranteed basic income. People at the lower end of the IQ distribution used to be able to find worthwhile, paid work, because there was strong demand for low-skilled labour in the economy, but as traditional, blue-collar employment has declined, and the value of unskilled labour has fallen, this has become increasingly difficult. One possible solution, says Toby, is a guaranteed basic income for everyone. It would mean a huge hike in taxation, but he points out (following Rawls) that bright people have done nothing to deserve their talent – they were simply born with the right genes – so perhaps it is right that they should help those who drew the short straw in the genetic lottery of intelligence.
Toby doesn’t dwell long on this idea of a basic income, but it is an important line of inquiry for those of us who are interested in finding solutions to the problems posed by the rise of meritocracy and the collapse of low-skilled employment. Personally, I would prefer to think about low-skill job creation as a potential solution, so that people of low cognitive ability can perform tasks that provide them with an active role in the economy, rather than simply handing them money. This is an issue which I began to explore back in 2007-08 when I was still working at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney (see my Issue Analysis papers, What are low ability workers to do when unskilled jobs disappear? – Part I, 2007, and Part II, 2008).
Toby, however, goes on to outline a very different and much more dramatic kind of solution involving genetically engineered intelligence. This is where his paper becomes startlingly original and stimulating.
He cites work by Stephen Hsu, at Michigan State University, which suggests that within ten years it should be possible for parents to create several embryos in vitro, using the mother’s eggs and the father’s sperm, and then to screen them in the laboratory to select the most intelligent one to be implanted back into the mother’s womb.
As Toby is at pains to point out, the genes themselves would not be changed by this intervention. It would simply enable couples to select from a range of their own embryos which they wish to bring to fruition. And as he also notes, we have already ‘crossed the Rubicon’ when it comes to embryonic selection, for parents with hereditary diseases can currently screen embryos to select ones which are not carrying the genes for the disease.
His specific proposal is that genetic screening of embryos for intelligence should be offered to low-IQ parents (on a voluntary basis), but should be withheld from higher-IQ couples. This would then allow low-IQ parents to maximise their potential for producing bright children, and over time, this would increase social mobility rates as proportionately more bright children were born in lower class households.
It’s an intriguing proposal. In The Bell Curve (a book Toby cites extensively), Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray talk about possible dietary policies that might marginally raise the IQ level of lower class children by improving nutrition of the foetus in the womb, but as Toby says, they end up accepting that, in a meritocratic system where intelligence is increasingly well rewarded, there is probably little more that can be done to increase social fluidity.
But it now seems this conclusion was unduly pessimistic. If Toby is right in thinking that it will soon be possible to offer low-intelligence, lower-class parents the possibility of giving birth to the brightest child they are capable of producing, then this could significantly shake up the pattern of social mobility in the future.
Or could it? Leaving aside any ethical squeamishness about the screening of embryos or in vitro fertilisation in general, I can think of five possible problems with this proposal.
Toby Young’s essay also has inspired some thoughts from Ross Parker.
First, if screening were offered to low-IQ parents on a voluntary basis, I suspect few would take up the offer. You need to be bright to fully appreciate the importance and advantages of being bright. Low-intelligence, lower class parents very often today fail to take advantage of existing opportunities which could improve their children’s prospects, so why would they put themselves through the much greater discomfort, embarrassment and inconvenience of in vitro fertilisation?
Moreover, I suspect that many ‘dull’ parents would view with horror the prospect of inviting a bright cuckoo into their nest. Nobody wants to feel ‘inferior’ to their children, and there is an understandable reluctance to see one’s children growing away from you as they succeed and leave you behind. The 1960s sociological classic, Education and the Working Class, by Jackson and Marsden was very good on describing this. Or as my working class grandfather told my father when he was offered a white collar job on leaving school: “Don’t get above yourself – what was good enough for me should be good enough for you.”
Secondly, I cannot see how screening could realistically be withheld from more intelligent, higher class couples. Toby is understandably and rightly worried that if screening were made available to everybody, the middle classes would be the first in line. This would then reproduce or even exacerbate the existing patterns of social recruitment as even more intelligent, middle class children washed through the education system and into the top jobs.
The middle classes in Britain already move house to get into the catchment areas of the best schools, paying premiums in the tens of thousands of pounds for houses with the right postcode. Or they pay fortunes for their children to be privately educated, in the hope of giving them a competitive edge in the future careers market. Their children’s future prospects are, in short, their number one priority. They could therefore be expected to sign up in large numbers for a screening process that would select their brightest embryo – which is precisely why Toby wants to prohibit them from being able to do so.
But any attempt to restrict access to screening on the basis of social class would surely be challengeable in the courts (and rightly so, in a universalistic system based on the principle of equality under the law). And even if it were upheld, a black market in screening services would swiftly emerge, or parents would travel overseas to secure such treatment.
Thirdly, in common with almost all the politicians who have argued for increasing social mobility rates, Toby fails to recognise that increasing the opportunities for children at the bottom to move up necessarily also means increasing the likelihood that children at the top will move down. This did not used to be the case, for through most of the twentieth century, the number of middle class jobs expanded while the size of the working class contracted. It was therefore possible to enjoy high rates of upward mobility coupled with relatively low rates of downward mobility. But today, this structural shift in the occupational system has more-or-less finished. The middle class is about as a big as it can get and the expansion in the number of middle class positions available to be filled in each generation appears to be coming to an end (indeed, for males, it has already ended).
This means that social mobility is becoming (or perhaps has already become) a zero-sum game – if your child moves up, my child is more likely to have to move down. In this situation, for the government deliberately to offer the opportunity for IQ screening of embryos to one set of parents but not to another seems indefensible, for it simultaneously disadvantages the middle class as it advantages the lower class. It is, in other words, an extreme example of ‘positive discrimination’, and as such, it is an example of state social engineering that should be anathema to any Hayekian classical liberal (which is how Toby presents himself in this article).
Fourthly, reading Toby’s proposal did raise what is perhaps an unworthy thought in my mind. In a future world where low-intelligence parents can choose to produce only high-intelligence children, who will grow up willing to perform the non-cerebral, menial tasks which still need doing, even in a high-tech, increasingly automated economy? Who will empty the dog-poo bins in my local park? Who will turn down the covers and place a chocolate on the pillow at the swish hotel in town? Who will serve my macchiato at the local coffee shop? Bright kids will see tasks like these as beneath them, and parents who have gone to all the trouble of selecting the most intelligent foetuses for implantation in the womb will certainly be reluctant to see their offspring gravitating towards such employment.
This leads to my fifth and final reservation about this proposal. Toby says he wants to encourage higher rates of social mobility because he is worried that low mobility generates social disillusionment and potential conflict. But as I noted in my 2010 report, Social Mobility Myths (p.128), the opposite may actually be the case. In a future world where extensive social mobility is widespread and commonplace, the legitimacy of the system may be even more likely to be called into question because everyone’s aspirations and expectations have been raised so high:
The problem of legitimation turns on the question of effective socialisation. If social position is determined at birth (as in a caste system), it is possible to prepare each generation for its fate. No false hopes are raised, no possibility of improving one’s situation can be entertained. If social position is determined by a long‐running talent contest, however, each generation spends its formative years anticipating the possibility of success, and the problem then arises of how to placate the eventual losers. Given that a meritocracy must be an open system, there is always likely to be a problem in inducing the eventual losers to accept their fate.
If in the future, everyone is born bright, this problem will be posed even more sharply, for everyone will consider themselves entitled to a top position, and nobody will be prepared to settle for less (we are already seeing signs of this disillusionment among the ranks of the thousands of university graduates who nowadays find it impossible to get degree-level employment)
Notwithstanding these various concerns of mine, Toby Young’s paper is to be warmly welcomed, for it offers the chance for us to move on from the sterile concerns that still preoccupy many of those who write and speak about the importance of increasing social mobility and enhancing meritocracy. If you are unwilling to put the question of intelligence differences at the centre of any discussion of social mobility, then you are going to end up with trivial or irrelevant policy solutions to the wrong problem. What is so gratifying about Toby’s article is that he at least gets the key question right. Whether he has the right answer, I am less certain.
Peter Saunders recently retired as an independent social policy researcher whose work has focused on welfare reform, social mobility, income inequality and poverty. He holds the honorary titles of Distinguished Fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies, Professorial Research Fellow at Civitas, and Professor Emeritus of the University of Sussex. His website is here