Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Revised Versions of Bell on Meritocracy

Daniel Bell has recently published revised and expanded versions of his recent essay on political meritocracy at the Huffington Post:

In addition, a Chinese version has been published here. Comments welcome!


September 4th, 2012 Posted by | Contemporary Confucianism, Politics | one comment

One Response to Revised Versions of Bell on Meritocracy

  1. One Chinese commentator offers a straw-man attack that I think we could soften to offer a slightly more sophisticated straw-man argument:

    It reads: “西方民主是有缺陷的政治体制 中国的政治体制没缺陷吗 好笑 ”
    (For our non-Chinese readers:) “Western democracy is a political system that has its flaws, but China’s political system lacks those flaws? Ridiculous!”

    Of course, Bell does not say that at all. He says, rather, that Chinese meritocratic practice could mitigate some of the problems of Western liberal democracy.

    I would be willing to grant that, but wonder if that’s really a saving grace for liberal democracy or any recommendation to set some sort of “merit” within the very system that desperately needs meritocratic hiring and firing practices. Specifically, my challenge would be this: Who is to set those standards for merit, and how do we decide whether those are the standards that we want?

    My first concern is that I assumed that the motivation for democratic election was itself meritocratic, that people could en masse temper extremes and set policies that negotiate the wants of many to a significant majority’s sufficient satisfaction, in a sense capturing all of the really good proposals (the stuff to which we attribute merit) and sloughing off the mediocre and bad ones. Its more optimistic side is that popular decision would beget competent leaders who, for a time, would offer themselves as political servants. And yet, that’s not what we get under liberal democracy. Instead, we get career politicians who manipulate human psychology to get people to vote for them, take almost no responsibility for their inefficiency in governing, and pass their messes to others once voters decide to make superficial changes (as if changing the interior seating of a car would improve its steering).

    Perhaps the most stressing problem that I witness is the result of the simple mathematics of considering a simple majority 50.0…1% a significant majority. Given the diversity of policies and available stances, such a method ensures that almost half of everyone (the 49.9…9%) will be dissatisfied with any given decision. If you spread the probability distribution over the number of policies that could potentially dissatisfy them, the number of people who really are content with the role that the government plays in their lives drops significantly. It’s simply a matter of probability that people are going to be miffed at the governmental process, and eventually a majority will grow that is so dissatisfied with the government’s job of ruling (even though their reasons for discontentment will be various and contradictory among them) that I at least marvel that the U.S. hasn’t had nearly as many secessions or internal coups as other countries have endured (thinking in an overthrows:decade ratio).

    It doesn’t look like a simple majority of people has any better chance of determining what really constitutes these meritorious initial criteria from which to filter out potential candidates. I could relate this back to the individual level. I have no idea what makes a good systems analyst, and I’ll probably never know how to hire one competently. And yet, that’s what we’re told to do in analogous fashion when we influence the hiring process for judges, or senators, or economic advisors, etc. I don’t see wisdom coming out of the masses in that regard.

    I don’t see how we could trust the current members of the government to write their own hiring standards. That sounds like asking an employee to be his own HR manager. If he gets to choose the qualifications for his job, what stops him from following the most tempting route of describing himself as the ideal candidate to fulfill the roles of the job?

    God’s not been sending down tablets lately, so who’s left?

    It looks more like we’re amateur experimentalists over what things we really want to value in our society, if we are able to recognize trade-offs that we make in ratifying certain laws. Aspects of liberal democracy are okay in the sense that microcosms of liberal democracy are self-correcting; but what if the whole system needs revision? I don’t see how dissatisfaction among the people will allow them to non-violently re-render the entire political atmosphere in which they live.

    The only workable solution that I’ve heard would require that the government instead be a company that offers a product that we have the option not to buy. That would produce internal incentives for the producers of that product to set standards for hiring officials and for picking standards that maximize consumer satisfaction. At that point, though, the masses are removed from explicitly stating who they think the next president of the company should be. They instead speak through their wallets and they leave it to the company to figure out how to win back the consumers, or else face bankruptcy. (I’m a holdout there, too, but it’s tangential to Bell’s article.)


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