The Economist’s Adrian Wooldridge On Creating A Modern Meritocracy
Haley Crawford contributed to this story.
The Economist’s management editor and Bagehot columnist reporting on British politics, Adrian Wooldridge has one of the most perceptive eyes on the current state of politics and economics. His fascination with history has allowed him to develop a deep understanding of the ideological patterns of the past to chart the direction in which the world’s political superpowers are moving today.
The author of eleven books, as well as a ravenous reader, Woodridge has an unparalleled understanding of cross-cultural governmental movements. His book, The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West – and how to Fix it, co-written with John Micklethwait early in the Covid-19 pandemic, is just one example of Wooldridge’s ability to quickly analyze and react to current affairs thanks to the vault of cultural and historical knowledge he possesses.
“The quality of government really matters, and in this global test that Covid has provided us with, the West has not done particularly well,” Wooldridge said. “If you compare the performance of China with that of the United States, it’s a wake-up call, because it indicates that China is much more powerful and much better organized than we thought, and that America is much less organized and more chaotic than we thought.”
Wooldridge points out how critical it is for Western countries to learn not only from history but also from how other successful nations operate currently. He shares that China has seen great success not only in terms of its economy, but also with regard to the quality of its government.
“I’m sufficiently convinced that this is a potential turning point – if the West doesn’t do something very serious about the quality of its state, then China will pull further ahead,” he said. “If you look at the way that Singapore has transformed itself since the 1960s, and if you imagine China as the new Singapore, on the scale of a gigantic country, we are looking at a very different future.”
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Wooldridge is particularly concerned with the importance of encouraging bright students to choose the path of politics as a solution to weak governmental systems. While a much more significant portion of today’s young population is drawn towards jobs in the private sector, he emphasizes how critical it is to create a stronger pull towards the public sector as well.
Furthermore, if government quality declines, fewer strong candidates will be drawn towards it professionally, making degrading governmental systems self-reinforcing cycles. From there, dysfunctional management systems and low levels of innovation can arise, reducing people’s desire to work in public service even further.
“I just read the new biography on JFK, and one of its most striking elements is that public service for the Kennedy family was absolutely what you did,” Wooldridge said. “It’s giving back to your country. It was the greatest calling of all, and it’s been a long time since that’s been the case. We need to have that sense that serving your country through government is a noble calling.”
By strengthening governmental institutions, countries will also see positive returns when it comes to how educational systems are managed. If there is a lack of innovation in government, this same sluggish behaviour can be made manifest in how the nation is educated, making it even more difficult to catch up to countries that are developing at light speed.
“Education policy is a classic example of failures of execution in policy,” Wooldridge highlighted. “We had this idea that in a post-industrial world, it doesn’t matter if industry goes to China, because we can move to higher value-added jobs as long as we have better education. However, we have not seen an improvement in the productivity or effectiveness of basic school education. We’ve seen vocational education stagnating or being ignored, and we’re performing especially poorly when it comes to retraining people whose jobs have disappeared for new jobs. This is a classic case of state failure.”
Wooldridge also comments on how deeply intertwined education and social mobility are. In his latest book, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, released in June 2021, the author and journalist explores the reversion to a more inert class system than that experienced in the West fifty years ago.
“After the Second World War, you had a period in which you had very significant social mobility of a class nature,” Wooldridge said. “People who were born into the working classes rose out of the social hierarchy and got better jobs than their fathers had. What’s happened more recently is that we’ve got social calcification, where you have much lower levels of social mobility. Class has become a much bigger determinant of where you end up in life than it used to be. That’s particularly true in the United States and Britain, where levels of social mobility are very low.”
By properly educating students and re-training professionals by instating forward-thinking policies, countries will be able to jumpstart social mobility once more and enable a greater number of fertile minds to develop the skills needed for careers across the board, including those in the public sector. Furthermore, highlighting education and government as worthy callings, and remunerating professionals who pursue these vocations accordingly, will create stronger, more supportive organizations and positively reinforced institutional cycles. The resulting development of high-calibre educational systems will level the playing field and create a refreshed definition of what it truly means to exist in a modern meritocracy.