A good point against the “meritocracy myth” (and lots of anger)

Here is a sharp analysis of the recent crisis in China which, I guess, will interest many of you. The author writes: “If anything, Wuhan bankrupted the meritocracy myth for many people who once believed that the country was largely run by no-nonsense, result-oriented technocrats.” One starts wondering when exactly those scholars who have been praising China’s so called “meritocracy” as superior to (Western) liberal democracies will start taking (social and political) reality into account. Does it make sense to say that this still is merely a bad reality contradicting a normative ideal?!

11 replies on “A good point against the “meritocracy myth” (and lots of anger)”

  1. Bill Haines says:

    Thanks for this, Kai.

  2. Bin Song says:

    The silenced doctor, Li Wenliang (34 years old), has lots of merits: he spoke truth according to his professional insights; he helped to cure affected patients when being affected himself; he critiqued the government on speech freedom when being interviewed. However, he also died because all of these.

    I think theories have no role whatsoever in the current tragical epidemic. What happens is just pure truism said by 国语 thousands years ago: if people are not allowed to speak, neither meritocracy, nor democracy, nor autocracy, nor any -cracy works.

  3. Bill Haines says:

    I completely agree, and I’d add two things which which I expect you agree:

    By “the meritocracy myth” I think Kai meant not the theory that the best should rule, but rather the myth that the people currently in charge are effective disinterested technocrats.

    It’s not enough that people be allowed to speak in fact. People have to feel secure in trying. That is, there has to be a recognized and enforced right.

    • Song says:

      Agree with you, Bill. Because of the purge at the beginning of this regime, the number of disinterested and able technocrats decrease rapidly. But everything is within expectation. I genuinely feel the theoretical contrast between democracy and meritocracy is more misleading than illuminating. Democracy without merits will be mob’s Tantrum, while meritocracy without people’s scrutiny will be just 1984 in disguise. So why do we need to separate them in theory?

  4. Bill Haines says:

    Well … I’m completely ignorant of the literature that uses “meritocracy” as the name for a kind of government. But here’s an attempt to give a positive answer to your question.

    The terms might be used to distinguish different procedures for choosing officials, or for choosing top officials. By “meritocracy” someone might mean rule by a self-selecting community of the qualified. Different kinds of procedure are worth distinguishing in theory.

    The terms might be used to express different visions of the justification of government, associated with different forms of government (choosing officials or choosing laws). “Democracy” might suggest a basic role for rights to self-determination of some sort, while “meritocracy” might suggest either consequentialism (knowing how to get the best results) or justice in the distribution of authority (Aristotle). Different visions of justification might be worth distinguishing in theory.

    If democracy is bad unless it involves meritocracy and vice versa, then there would seem to be some conceptual distinction between the two. Theory has to be aware of its concepts. If pizza is no good without anchovies and vice versa, that doesn’t mean that pizza and anchovies are the same thing, nor even that they are always together. Theory should be able to talk about pizza in general, if only to address possible errors. Calling only the best pizza “pizza” makes it impossible to articulate standards for evaluating pizza. In truth you have to be worse than a mediocre King to lose the right to that title.

    But once again I think you already agree with all of this!

    I wonder whether what you are thinking of is not so much theory as ideology?

  5. Song says:

    Thanks for the response, Bill. Let me think over this for a while.

  6. Henry Allen says:

    One might start to take social and political realities into account now.

    • Bill Haies says:

      Hi Henry,

      If you would like to elaborate I would like to try to reply, for my part. I kind of want to say – this comment is so abstract that I’m not sure it’s taking account of the social reality that is the narrowness of the questions on the table above.

    • Henry Allen says:

      “One starts wondering when exactly those scholars who have been praising China’s so called “meritocracy” as superior to (Western) liberal democracies will start taking (social and political) reality into account.” Current public health realities seem to lend support to China’s system of governance against certain Western liberal democracies.

    • Bill Haines says:

      Oh! Thank you. I had completely mistaken the direction of your comment. It’s really directed toward the original post rather than to the conversation under it.

      I agree that undemocratic government can sometimes get the trains to run on time, and that direct popular election of high officials is dangerous. It seems to me that what’s most important is the permanent protection of the free expression of ideas and institutions of common thinking, since all that is what allows any form of government to be reliably responsive to real needs; it’s what allows any system to recognize and promote the worthy and keep them worthy. Direct popular election of high officials is a threat to those most important things.

      But I speak partly from ignorance, as I don’t know what systematic mechanisms are operative today to keep China’s leadership wise. It’s not something I’ve studied.

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