When an author caps two hundred pages of rhetorical fire with fifteen pages of platitudes or utopian fantasy, that is called “the last chapter problem.” When every author who takes up a question finds himself equally at a loss, that is something else. In this case, our authors fail as critics of meritocracy because they cannot get their heads outside of it. They are incapable of imagining what it would be like not to believe in it. They assume the validity of the very thing they should be questioning.
But what would it be like not to take meritocracy for granted? The basic idea—that we should rank candidates for power according to some desirable quality, then pick the best of them—seems too obvious to have needed inventing, but invented it was, and (at least in the West) not so long ago. If we go back to the occasion of its first appearance in the English-speaking world, we will find a group of men who opposed it, not just because they did not think it would work in practice, but because they disagreed with it in principle. Meritocracy had a beginning and a middle and may yet have an end, and the beginning is exactly where the man who coined the term said it was on the very first page of his book: the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854