Book of the week: The Premonition by Michael Lewis

Lewis once again turns a complex subject into ‘a fluid intellectual thriller’

A technician demonstrating how to inject a nucleic acid sample onto a disk for analysis, in a lab
(Image credit: GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

“Meritocracy has come in for some hard knocks of late,” said Darrin M. McMahon in the Literary Review. Radicals on the left and populists on the right both deride it as a mechanism for perpetuating elite privilege – so coming to its defence seems either brave or foolhardy.

But Adrian Wooldridge’s book is a timely reminder that, for all its flaws, meritocracy may be better than the alternatives. For most of human history, nepotism and patronage were the norm: not until the Enlightenment were the privileges of birth and blood called into question. Even then, the argument was for a new aristocracy of talent – something that Wooldridge supports, while insisting that it needs to be cultivated more fairly and efficiently. It’s a case he makes “with a wealth of erudition, in brisk and readable prose”.

This “rich stew” of a book includes a “priceless” array of quotes, said Mark Damazer in the New Statesman – “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”. The Aristocracy of Talent covers all the arguments – do people with high IQs deserve success? Isn’t talent a morally neutral matter? – even if it doesn’t entirely succeed in reconciling them.

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Wooldridge, who is the political editor of The Economist, marshals some “astounding” facts, said Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times: he shows how for generations the liberal US establishment happily marked down Jews and Asians to keep down their numbers in the higher reaches of the educational establishment.

The inescapable truth is that all groups try to promote their own interests, even while preaching a doctrine of “disinterested fairness”. The prime example of this was Napoleon – the apostle of meritocracy who handed out royal titles to his own family.

Allen Lane 496pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

The Aristocracy of Talent cover

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