There are many explanations for the discontents in western societies that have led to the current political instability — from inequality and the delayed impact of the financial crash to politicians deemed incompetent and aloof. But there is one overarching explanation that encompasses most of the others: cognitive ability has become the gold standard of human esteem, and cognitive elites have come to shape society too much in their own interests. To put it more bluntly: smart people have become too powerful.
Sixty years ago when we lived in a less complex society the people running government and business were generally brighter and more ambitious than the average — as they still are today — but qualities other than analytical intelligence were held in higher esteem. Today the “brightest and the best” trump the “decent and hardworking”. Those other qualities like character, integrity, experience and willingness to toil hard, are not irrelevant but they command less respect.
A good society is one with a proper balance between the aptitudes of head, hand and heart. The modern knowledge economy, however, has produced higher and higher returns to the highly qualified and reduced the relative pay and status of many manual and caring jobs. An economic system that once had a place for those of middling and even lower cognitive abilities — in the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs of the industrial era, on the land, in the military — now favors the cognitive elites and the educationally blessed.
A good society is one with a proper balance between the aptitudes of “head”, “hand” and “heart”.
Other institutions that have stressed aptitudes other than cognitive ability have been in sharp decline across most of the west and especially in Europe: religion, family life, the military and traditional industrial employment. Just as the move from an agrarian to an industrial society produced various social traumas and pathologies, so the move from an industrial to a post-industrial one is producing traumas of its own — less challenging materially but maybe more so psychologically.
For industrial society did not, at least initially, destroy traditional religious belief and it created new collective class identities and forms of recognition associated with labour. Indeed, it may be that industrial society was better at distributing status than post-industrial society with its diminishment of many traditional roles and sources of unconditional recognition (family, religion, nation), its stress on meritocracy and the lack of status protection for the less able, and the greater social transparency of the media society. Moreover, cognitive ability used to be more randomly scattered around. In recent decades a huge sorting process has hoovered up the young exam-passers and sent as many as possible into higher education — in Britain more than 40% of school leavers now head to university, reinforcing a precipitous decline in the prestige of so much non-graduate employment.
This does not mean that we live in a true meritocracy. Family income in childhood is still highly correlated with educational success. This has been underlined by something described by the ugly phrase “assortative mating” meaning that people in high status jobs requiring high cognitive ability are far more likely to pair up with similar people. The children of these couples are far more likely to be brought up by two parents who are both well connected and understand what is required for children of even middling ability to enter good universities and higher professional jobs. They increasingly form a kind of hereditary meritocracy.
Why does this matter? Surely modern, technological societies simply need more clever people and so long as some of the biases just described can be ironed out, and people from all backgrounds get a fair rack at joining the cognitive elite, then all is well. From the point of view of the efficiency of society, cognitive ability plus effort is a better selection criterion for high status jobs than inheritance of land or capital. But it is not necessarily any fairer or more humane. As Michael Young pointed out 60 years ago (in The Rise of the Meritocracy) those who rule based on cognitive merit often feel less obligation to those of below average intelligence than the rich have traditionally felt to the poor.
Economic inequality vs. political equality
It is one of the most difficult balancing acts of open, modern societies, though one that is seldom articulated: how to constrain meritocracy and prevent a disproportionate degree of status and prestige (and financial reward) flowing to high cognitive ability jobs — and away from the hand and heart jobs that are still so vital — without at the same time disincentivising the most able and ambitious people in our society. A successful society must manage the tension between the inequality of esteem that arises from relatively open competition for highly skilled jobs and the ethos of equality of esteem that flows from democratic citizenship.
There is no reason why people who complete certain mental tasks more efficiently than others should be more admirable people.
To put it another way: an achievement society that wants to avoid widespread disaffection in the democratic age must sufficiently respect and reward achievement in the lower cognitive ability hand and heart jobs and provide meaning and value for people who cannot or do not want to achieve. In the current age of disruption it seems clear that we have not been getting the balance right. Many people on the left see this as mainly about income and wealth inequality. Inequality has not, in fact, been rising sharply in many of the countries, including Britain, where there has been the biggest push-back against the status quo. It is true that slow or non-existent wage growth is harder to bear when a small minority, most notably bankers, seem insulated from austerity. But this misses an even bigger story about esteem and how valued you feel in the social order.
Modern virtues in the knowledge economy
For we have often almost unwittingly come to confuse cognitive ability with human value and human contribution more generally. There is no reason why people who complete certain mental tasks more efficiently than others should be more admirable people. Yet there is a clear trend in modern liberal politics to tell us that this is indeed the case. High cognitive/analytical ability and success in the knowledge economy is highly correlated with support for the modern virtues of openness, mobility and hostility to tradition. And those who do not embrace these virtues are often regarded, especially in liberal circles, as social and intellectual dunces.
Anywheres vs. Somewheres
In my recent book The Road to Somewhere I talk about a value polarization in British society, revealed starkly by the Brexit vote, that has been exacerbated by this narrow focus on cognitive ability. On the one hand is the group I call the Anywheres, making up about 20–25% of the population, who are well educated and usually live far from their parents and tend to favor openness, autonomy, social fluidity. On the other hand is a larger group of people, about half of the population, I call the Somewheres, who are less well educated, more rooted and value security/familiarity and place a much greater emphasis on group attachments (local and national) than the Anywheres.
Anywhere priorities of openness, mobility, individual autonomy, have come to completely dominate modern society.
Everyone is in favor of social mobility and bright people from whatever background travelling as far as their talents will take them but today’s British Dream has become too narrowly defined as going to university and into a professional job. Not surprising when more than 90% of MPs are graduates. Meanwhile, hand and heart aptitudes have become chronically undervalued in modern Britain unbalancing our society and alienating millions of people.
There has been some attempt in recent years to offer other options to school leavers with improved apprenticeships and technical qualifications. But they cannot compete with the prestige of the university route, leaving our economy starved of essential workers—last year fewer than 10,000 young people started proper construction apprenticeships while 40% of the building workers in London are from abroad. Meanwhile heart jobs in social care, parts of the NHS, early years education and childcare continue to be undervalued (and paid) because they are roles that used to be performed in the private realm of the family, mainly by women. Hence, in part, the crisis in social care and in nurse recruitment.
We are encouraged to live increasingly “head” lives reinforced by most advances in technology that reduce opportunities for craft, and the need for human contact. (Even the need to develop good handwriting). And joining the cognitive achievers, in Britain at least, usually means leaving your roots behind — thanks in part to mainly residential higher education and the tradition of leaving home to become a student.
Many Somewheres cannot or do not want to leave their roots and join the Anywheres, and, in any case, half of the population will always, by definition, be in the bottom half of the cognitive ability spectrum. Yet all of us need to feel we have a valued place in society even if we are not mobile, high achievers. The Anywhere political class has ruled too much in its own interests ignoring some of the basic political intuitions of the Somewheres: the importance of stable neighborhoods and secure borders, the priority of national citizen rights before universal rights, the need for narrative and recognition for those who do not easily thrive in more education-driven economies. And this lack of empathy for the Somewhere worldview has now left us with the Brexit backlash and a country more divided than at any time since the 1970s. Is that not ample evidence of the limits of cognitive ability?