George Leef of the Martin Center devotes his latest column to meritocracy’s role in American higher education.

We take it for granted that people are free to use their abilities as they choose, and as a result, society as a whole benefits from their work and innovations. Progress depends on this. Today our lives are vastly better than those of our distant ancestors because individuals were free to try new ideas.

For most of human history, however, there was little or no freedom for people to advance through work and innovation. Our societies were arranged in strict hierarchies where individual accomplishment wasn’t encouraged. Everyone had a place and was expected to do just as his forebears had done. The family was what mattered, not the individual. A few families ruled by right—the aristocracy—and other families fit into slots in the social order.

There was no mobility and no change. Over tens of thousands of years, human life improved hardly at all due to rule by aristocracy. Merit was irrelevant.

That began to change about 600 years ago, as aristocracy was supplanted by meritocracy. British author Adrian Wooldridge explores this tremendous development in his book The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World. While the book is not primarily about higher education, those institutions played an important role in the rise of meritocracy and, sadly, are now playing a role in its decline.

Wooldridge gets much right in the book, but also gets some things quite wrong. Let’s begin with the central term: meritocracy.

The literal meaning of the word would be “rule by people with the most merit,” but that’s not really accurate. In a free, liberal (in the true meaning of that word) society, people with great merit will prosper the most, but that isn’t the same as ruling over others. A liberal society permits individuals to succeed on their merits, but that success depends on the choices of people to deal with them.