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?!

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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?

  3. 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?

    • 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.

    • “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.

    • 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.

  4. To have watched from afar China lift a billion people out of poverty peacefully while the west aggressively pushed uncounted masses into misery.
    To watch how China gave care to all free when nature attacked unexpectedly and handled it well, while we with months notice and greater treasure did not .
    To listen to our expert class clucking their indignity at being so exposed.
    My momma said there will be days like this, Van Morrison ( priceless)

  5. In all honesty, seeing democratic officials have issues dealing with the virus and questioning democratic values makes more sense than seeing Chinese officials deal with the virus and questioning “meritocratic” values.

    1) very few people hold that China is a meritocratic system, it limits the pool of leaders, sure, but that’s far from being “meritocratic.” Meritocracy runs more on performance legitimacy than anything else, and China fails at preforming (morally) well, economic performance aside.

    2) I would find it hard to believe that America isn’t democratic, electoral college be damned, but it’s leaders continue to bicker, issues regarding individual rights abound (who are you to tell me I have to wear a mask?), and so one. All these values, such as individuals rights, come at the cost of the community.

    I take issue with blaming chinas failure on its system but then thinking it should adopt America’s system instead.

  6. It’s unclear to me whether Abc expects to be recognized as john church or is not john church. Either way we don’t have an explicit answer to my question about john’s point.

    To Abc:

    I believe no poster or commenter here before Abc challenged meritocracy in the abstract. But I think Kai and Bin Song and I were supposing above that the idea that China’s system has the effect of putting merit in power is part of that government’s ideology. Maybe Kai will tell us what scholars he is referring to.

    Bin Song pointed out that democracy is compatible with meritocracy and that democracy is bad if it doesn’t put at least fairly worthy people in power. I don’t think anyone challenged that part of his point. He and I may disagree about whether some system may fairly be called “democracy” even if it’s very bad; I would say yes.

    What is not explicit above, though I expect it’s true, is that everybody here agrees that the U.S. has failed recently on the merit front. For example, people all over the American pundit class have been making that observation about the Senate for years.

    To (2):
    I would say that the two premises (a) The U.S. is a democracy and (b) The U.S. has fault F, do not entail the conclusion that (c) Democracy as such has fault F.

    What’s not clear to me in general is whether there’s a solution to the problem.

    I don’t think individual rights are necessarily at the expense of community. Maybe they’ve been extended too far or misinterpreted in the U.S. in such a way as to encourage too much indiscipline. But I think strong protections for freedom of thought and expression (etc) are necessary for community. Where people don’t respect each other or listen to each other, that’s not community.

  7. @Bill Haines

    I think the argument goes, 1) Democracy is vulnerable to fault F, 2) America insofar as it is democratic has fallen prey to fault F, therefore 3) It is time to look at ways in which fault F can be dealt with.

    Insofar as 2 is concerned, it seems very true. Nothing in the language of democracy or individual rights can challenge those protesters who are out there saying “Get back to work” – they are using their rights and their bodies appropriately. Likewise, nothing in democratic is contrary to Trump’s actions, as he chooses to he listens to, and since people voted him in, it makes sense to blame democratic ideals for their failings. America does not fail at being democratic, it is democracy that fails.

    If the situation revolved around China, that is the same argument, I do not believe same argument holds rather the reverse is true – China fails at being China, it isn’t Chinese ideals that failed. The difference being, China doesn’t need to correct it’s ideals to correct itself, the solution is different than it is for America, even if the problem is the same.

    • Again, please tell Vulgar Confucian if you are Abc or John

      As for: “Nothing in the language of democracy or individual rights can challenge those protesters”, real western democracies don’t give unrestricted individual rights. It’s constitutional (therefore inside the workings of democracy) to declare a quarantine a enforce it; I’m not american (apparently there too https://pacificlegal.org/are-quarantine-orders-constitutional/), but within the framework of republican democracies you can’t protest anytime you want in any way you want.

      Second, as Bill Haines said on feb. 11 to another comment, you too confuse a kind of government and rights with a set of ideals. Your phrases “it isn’t Chinese ideals that failed” and “the language of democracy or individual rights” proves that. So let’s not mix apples and oranges; is the current kind of chinese government free from fault F? Well we have to check for every F in case. For example, the downplay of the pandemics its an F that democracy failed, especially in Milan, US, Brazil, etc., were leaders denied the seriousness of the situation and “since people voted him in, it makes sense to blame democratic ideals for their failings”. The chinese kind of government is not free from that, accusing Li Wenliang for spreading “false rumors” when, if they have admitted what he said, they could slow down the contagions; and since those who accuse him are the legitimate chinese leaders, it makes sense to blame how accusers get to those legitimate post, ergo to blame the kind of goverment.

      Western democracies also have many *ideals* beyond regulated individual rights, including science, the pursuit of happiness in ways different from what tradition states are allowed forms to life, and many others. It wasn’t those ideals that failed, and the west doesn’t have to correct those ideals. It has to discuss how to improve democracies, and that is a continuous discussion that we have all the time in the west.

      The point is, you admit that China failed at being China, how would China correct their way to reach their ideals? Because Milan, US, and Brazil will have elections and can (or maybe not) change course in a lot of things. In fact, it’s almost certain that we now have a radical change in pandemic prevention in the whole world. But I don’t see (maybe you can explain us) what is the path that China will take to make the necessary changes within their kind of government so the next time they also make the scientific (we both share that ideal, at least in medicine) instead of the repressive (accuse a doctor with the knowldge neccesary to slow down contagions) actions?

    • I havent refreshed the page since my first comment, so haven’t read what Bill Haines put, that in some points overlaps (but is more precise of course) with mine.

  8. *

    In the new (a)(b)(c) argument, the conclusion is that fault F is a big urgent one. Nothing in the premises supports that point. Maybe the thought it means to suggest is something in the neighborhood of this:

    1. Prima facie fatal flaw Bad Leaders – BL – is intrinsic to high degrees of democracy. (premise)
    2. An excess of democracy – ED – is itself a prima facie fatal flaw. (from 1)

    3. The U.S. is an example of BL from ED. (premise)
    4. The U.S. needs some sort of reform that amounts to a lessening of its democracy. (from 2 and 3)

    Argument 1-2 has always been in the mainstream of Western political thought. From what I’ve read, the argument takes mainly this form:

    The popular election of leaders (and the referendum) gives victory potentially to whoever can excite and convince the poor, who are (a) relatively uneducated and in that respect gravely handicapped in their ability to judge the quality of proposals by which leaders campaign, and (b) reasonably or at least naturally tempted to want to kick everything over. What happens is that the demagogue elected by the poor both enacts bad policies and ends the democracy.

    Here’s another idea.

    QM: Insofar as a state is democratic, it is prone to have BL.

    This idea, quantitative matching, is suggested but not stated in my premise 1 and in Vulgar Confucian’s premise (2). If we understand that premise (2) as involving QM, then premises (1)(2) would look like supporting a new conclusion (3b): “It is time to look at ways in which U.S. democracy should be decreased.”

    I don’t accept QM myself, because I think a low degree of democracy does not imply an avoidance of BL. Lots of systems can systematically generate bad leaders, or (what is often more to the point) make their leaders bad. Concentration of power can shield the holder of the power from access to facts and ideas, and make her both arrogant and paranoid. My impression is that something like this was a systematic problem for Chinese imperial government, and that Confucianism exacerbated the problem.

    Hence Churchill’s famous quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.

    * *

    In the background of the whole discussion, of course, is the question what counts as “democracy.”

    Some aspects of this question:


    If we just mean the direct popular election of top formal leadership, then the U.S. is near the extreme.

    (If the U.S. had been a little closer to the extreme in 2012, we would have Hillary instead of Donald. Does the electoral college as it currently operates have a systematic tendency to exacerbate the BL problem? I don’t know. If so, the fact would be a point against QM. It’s a fine point, and we’re not on fine points here.)

    In the U.S. the shift during the 20th century toward determining a party’s nominees by popular vote in primaries may have exacerbated BL.


    Of course in a certain broad sense the U.S. is not very democratic, because so much of what is decided is decided by powerful groups without the understanding or participation of the many who are affected. Arguably every large complex society must be substantially undemocratic in that broad sense, but different modes of organizing discussion and power can affect the degree. For example, there is room for argument about whether the shift toward popular primaries has decreased the people’s intelligent control over policy, and thus counts as a move away from democracy in this broad sense.


    Often, mainly outside of academic or theoretical contexts, people use “democracy” or “democratic” as a label for a bundle of two things: (i) popular elections and (ii) an array of guaranteed rights such as free speech and fair courts. I think it’s really important (and basic) to keep these two things distinct in theory. The combination can have its own name, such as “liberal democracy” (as in the subtitle of Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.

    * * *

    On China v. America as a matter of theory v. practice

    It’s true that there is nothing in Trump’s protest gambit that goes directly against democracy or rights, as formal aspects of liberal democracy. A different question would be whether it goes against the values on the basis of which liberal democracy might be justified or are putatively justified (when they are putatively justified). Certainly liberal democracy does nothing to block people from raising objections to the gambit. Does it interfere with the reasonable public consideration of the merits of those objections? Trump’s actions against the institutions of free public discussion go directly against liberal democracy broadly conceived.

    As for the formal aspects of China’s system, or the values on which that might be justified – I’m under the impression that that’s all pretty fluid.

  9. When I wrote the original piece, I was thinking of Daniel A. Bell’s and others’ numerous writings on a “Chinese” model of meritocracy. I think, one basic problem with our discussion is that some of the participants start from a very misleading framework, identifying China with an authoritarian (or worse) system and the US with a liberal democracy. Many contemporary Chinese scholars commit the same mistake by opting for an either sinocentric or US-centric perspective. These two countries are indeed BIG; yet, size is not an argument in itself (many technological and cultural advances over the last 200 years have been achieved in rather small countries!). In the field of comparative political theory one often finds this dichotomy, but viewed form a broader perspective it is extremely misleading. If you turn away from these two big countries, you will see many more mid-size countries which have achieved quite a lot in the current crisis (think of New Zealand, Germany, Norway, Taiwan, or even France). And, indeed, often these happen to be liberal democracies, though with very different institutional frameworks. Or this would be my suggestion.

  10. Thanks, F. Mina, for addressing the ideals question better than I did.

    Thanks Kai! Kai:

    Some democracies have handled the pandemic well – good point! Here’s a table of the cases per 100,000 in the countries you mention (compared to China at 6 and the US at 239), according to today’s NYTimes:

    New Zealand: 30
    Germany: 173
    Norway: 135
    Taiwan: 2
    France: 171

    When you say we above have been assuming that China is authoritarian – I’m not sure what you mean. Kirkpatrick (Pinochet, Lee Kwan Yew)? I think very little has been assumed about China above. I suppose we’ve been assuming that China is not a democracy – maybe your point is that it sort of is?

    I think I’m the only party here who has mentioned size of countries. I didn’t mean to suggest that being bigger makes dealing with the pandemic harder, “as an argument in itself” or otherwise. My claim was that “arguably” in “every large complex society” “much of what is decided is decided by powerful groups without the understanding or participation of the many who are affected.” I was thinking of the contrast with the Greek polis, and to a lesser extent e.g. Norway; but I didn’t specify. I was thinking only in general terms there and had no thought of insinuating anything about China in particular, or about responses to the pandemic.

    I am not sure of the relevance of the point that “many technological and cultural advances over the last 200 years have been achieved in rather small countries.”

    When you say “this dichotomy is extremely misleading,” I’m not sure whether you mean the dichotomy you had mentioned (democratic/authoritarian, or US/China) or an overemphasis on size as explanatory.

  11. Hi Bill, thanks for your reply! I got the impression that your discussion was mostly about the dichotomy China/US, but maybe I was wrong. I just see a lot of these either/or arguments among contemporary scholars. I meant the dichotomy I had mentioned which probably is indeed the result that many US-based scholars and many Chinese scholars spend too much time focusing on this dichotomy (remember the term “Chimerica”?!). Athens actually was quite a small country (compared f.ex. with Persia), as is Switzerland or Norway. Or think of Italien city-states like Venice and Genua during the Renaissance and later. And how can one doubt that they made important contributions to technological and cultural progress? Even states like Qi or Lu in Classical China were rather small countries at their time. In short, the core of my last statement might just be my worry about the widespread tendency to take (geographical, political) size in itself as an argument. It is not, though, unless we identify politics with raw power struggles. Let me know if that makes sense to you…

  12. Hi Kai,

    I want to say — not yet. Yes, big things are done in small countries. But here’s what I’m completely at sea about. You say there’s a tendency to take size itself as an argument. That’s a little bit abbreviated. If you were to fill it out by filling in the following blank: “…to take size itself as an argument for ____” — what would you put in the blank? What is the conclusion of the argument you have in mind? On that I don’t even have a guess. I don’t know what this is all about.

    (Also: I agree that at certain points the conversation was just expressions of satisfaction at America’s come-uppance (the chicken pox coming home to roost, as it were), but I think there was no discussion of that. We clucking elites don’t identify ourselves with the basket of undesirables; we like to think we haven’t laid them.)

  13. The argument would run as follows:

    1. In country X, a certain cultural practice / a theory / a value-system has been developed, resp. has become widely accepted.
    2. Country X is a very large country (at least more than 100 million people).
    3. Therefore, the cultural practice / theory / value-system in question is important.

    As said, I do not think that this is a sound argument, but in my understanding it reflects a very common way of thinking. Does this make sense to you?

  14. And I surely admit that big countries, historically speaking, have realized important cultural, social, and economic achievements. Yet, there is no necessary connection between size and achievement (Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s new book, “The Narrow Corridor”, has many good examples for the intricacies of historical progress).

  15. Oh! I see. Thank you, Kai.

    For some kinds of importance the argument “big country therefore important system” doesn’t seem so bad.

    Example 1: “The size of a country could make its system more important because a big country’s system affects more people (in and out of the country).” That looks to me like a pretty good argument, appealing to maybe the core sense of “important.”

    Example 2: “Insofar as a system succeeds in a big country, that could be taken to show that the system can handle harder problems, can bear a bigger management load. Other things equal, that makes the system more worthy of consideration.” Taken only as a ceteris paribus argument (which isn’t what you’re talking about), that’s not crazy.

    Example 3: “The more people who accept and live by a system, the larger a chunk of a thinker’s potential audience is people who accept and live by the system, so the system is more important for the thinker to address.”

    When I try to think of a version of the “big therefore important” that might have been operating in the discussion thread above, what comes to mind is that possibly someone’s tacit thought above was: “The U.S. is a big democracy. Therefore it is an important example (i.e. a presumptively representative example) of democracy—of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. That is, because the US is big, its brand of democracy is a fair proxy for democracy in general, in theory.”

    And that would indeed be a bad argument.

    But I think probably what got the U.S. brought into the discussion was rather this: that the U.S. has been particularly annoying. I suppose its size is an explanatory factor determining its attitudes and the loudness of its voice. But that’s not about the importance of its system.

    • I see that I didn’t make it clear above that in Example 1 I’m taking “important” to mean having a big impact.

  16. Hi Bill, thanks for your clarifications and further comments! I agree with your last point, the US with its loud voice “has been particularly annoying”. Otherwise, the devil is in the details, as they say, and one would have to do a lot of historical research to get an answer to these kinds of questions. Size can often be an obstacle, just think of the fate of huge and less developed countries like Russia, the Ottoman Empire and even China around the year 1900. Finally, I really want to recommend “The Narrow Corridor” to your attention, it’s a great read!

  17. Thanks for the book recommendation, Kai! The book looks terrific, and looks like just the sort of thing I want to read to orient myself better to the world. But judging from Penguin’s long blurb, I already agree with its theses completely, which is part of why I’m so pessimistic in general. Institutions can’t keep up anymore.

    “Size can often be an obstacle” – That’s the key assumption of the second argument on my list of samples.

    “Great things are done in small countries” isn’t a prima facie objection to any of them, is it? I wonder if maybe the overall argument you were thinking of is not “big therefore important” but rather “big therefore good”.

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