Both Auguste Comte, who coined the word “sociology”, and the sociologist Michael Young, who coined the word “meritocracy”, were excoriated by language purists of their time (1843 and 1958, respectively). Each combined a Latin word with a Greek word, thus committing several sins simultaneously. Not only did they violate traditions of word formation, one in French, the other in English, but each man imagined through his neologism a way of seeing and thinking that otherwise had no imaginative room in which to grow. Sociology was to be a new science—the queen of the sciences, as Comte saw it. Like his mentor Saint-Simon (1760–1825), who coined such terms as industriele and industrielisme, Comte justified his new word precisely because it broke with the past as much as it foreshadowed the future. In Young’s case, the neologism was meant to name the future in a way that split the difference between progress and warning.
As the term “meritocracy” has evolved in common understanding, the notion has turned out to be wildly attractive to those who have heralded the rise of individualism and the responsibilities of individuals. Comte’s “sociology”, with its grand pretensions of sociologist-priests running the world based on their carefully gathered and tested scientific knowledge, corresponds today with government and expert claims to know what is best for individual citizens. It is within that context that the now tendentious equation of injustice with inequality is expressed, owing as it does much to the belief that social progress is a top-down opportunity rather than a bottom-up struggle. As the President of the United States discovered in his remark intended to temper enthusiasm about individual achievement and personal gain, “You didn’t build that”, he exposed a great fault-line in modern society by pointing indirectly to the persistence of class divisions and the centrality of social context. Others pointed back, some wagging their fingers rather vigorously, to the roles and responsibilities of individuals—and, mostly without realizing it, to Michael Young.
Young (1915–2002) believed in and cherished the potential of individuals as agents of progress as well as the promise of government by experts, and everything in between. He envisioned the possibility of an open, freer world, less encumbered than ever by aristocratic privilege and the political power of money. He was first and foremost a social entrepreneur, an adviser to politicians and government leaders, and an innovator across a broad spectrum of social concerns. He was a social thinker whose reckonings were intended for the widest possible audience, corresponding to his aspirations for their empowerment. Unlike most sociologists, too, he engaged the world not as a theoretical construct...