Meritocratic Ruists make two basic claims: first, that meritocracy is more historically faithful to Ruist tradition, and second, that it makes for a more effective government. In particular, it can avoid the problems of democracy, among which the ignorance and short-sightedness of voters are prominent. The claim goes that since voters generally understand the issues poorly and are unwilling to sacrifice their immediate interests for future gains, democracies make bad decisions. Without getting into whether these criticisms are accurate for the moment, I’m curious what people think of this line of argument against democracy. If it were true that democracy inevitably has such problems and there were good reason to think meritocracy would do better, would you support meritocracy?
One response is that performance is irrelevant to democracy, and that some other value (equality, respect for persons, or something along those lines most likely) is so important that democracy cannot be given up. I’m dubious about that response myself. If a democratic government (say, the US) was constantly suffering from economic collapses, uncontrolled pandemics, frequent terrorist attacks, environmental catastrophes and so on, and a meritocratic government (say, China, if some Ruists get their way) was doing much better, would people still favor democracy? I tend to doubt it. I suspect a more plausible response is that democracy will do better, or it will be close enough that the tradeoffs for slightly better performance in meritocracy aren’t worth it.
The former position faces some significant challenges due to the concerns about voter ignorance. One interesting point is that if it is true that voters can make reasonably good choices, there’s little value in having everyone vote. In a choice between two alternatives (like a presidential election), even if voters are marginally better than flipping a coin at identifying the best option, you could get a very accurate result by having 50,000 randomly selected people vote while everyone else goes about their day. There’s constant worry about voter turnout, but from a results standpoint it doesn’t matter very much.
Equality is typically considered a foundational value in democratic thought and more democratic-minded Ruists note the doctrine of universal human nature as a potential source for a Ruist notion of equality. However, I’m intrigued by recent work by A.T. Nuyen and Li Chenyang, who argue that what is important in Ruism is closer to Aristotle’s proportional equality rather than the strict equality of democracy. That is, equality is equal treatment when it is merited, but relevant differences demand unequal treatment. I can’t very well protest the inequality that denies me the opportunity to play in the NBA, and a marginal NBA player can’t protest that Kobe Bryant gets paid much more than he does: inequalities in ability lead to unequal rewards. We accept this in most of life. Meritocratic Ruists want to extend that to politics and give more power to those who merit it. What would be wrong with that? It seems pretty clear classical Ruists thought this way, so on the face it Nuyen and Li are on good grounds textually speaking.
So I guess I’m offering three Ruist objections to US-style democracy: 1) voter ignorance and selfishness leads to poor results 2) if 1) happens not to be true, having all citizens vote is a waste of time when people could be caring for parents or children, volunteering, etc. 3) political equality wrongly ignores the manifest inequalities which are relevant to making political choices and proportional equality is a better way of thinking of equality. Any defenders of democracy? What justifies it if not effectiveness or recognizing equality?
OK, I’ll bite… But only with a quick and crude response (these are big questions that require more time and thought)
I will grant the point that something like meritocracy or proportional equality is closer to the historical experience of Ruism in China than “democracy.” But the more interesting question, to my mind, is what can Ruism be, politically, in the world today. And there, I believe, the argument against meritocracy and proportional equality is much clearer.
In the twentieth century, globally, popular sovereignty, bolstered by national identity and nationalism, has pretty much become a universal understanding of political legitimacy. Virtually every regime claims that it is ruling in the interest of all of the “people”. There are a few monarchies left, but they pretty much demonstrate the dominance of popular sovereignty.
If that is true, then, for meritocracy to really become a central feature of political legitimation, “meritocrats” in power have to claim that they will somehow rule better than others and that their rule should be maintained by undemocratic means. But there are serious empirical problems with this claim.
While it may be true in some ways authoritarianism (because that is essentially what the meritocratic argument is: a defense of authoritarianism) can be more “effective” or “efficient” than democracy – the China v. India example in terms of creating infrastructure is a go-to example here – it is also true that authoritarianism more often than not fails. That is, it descends into politically repressive and economically regressive tyranny. Yes, these outcomes are influenced by level of economic development: richer countries of the world tend to be more democratic, less repressive, and more politically stable than countries at the low end of global economic development. There is a lot of research that discusses how a certain level of economic development might be necessary to maintain a stable, liberal democracy. And this suggests that, as countries develop, the rationale for authoritarianism dwindles. PRC leaders are certainly aware of these empirical findings, and they work hard to resist the rather obvious conclusion they face: they are growing their way out of authoritarianism…
The key problem of authoritarianism – and I am treading well-worn ground here – is that it does not provide sufficient institutional checks on concentrated political power. Thus, if today’s enlightened “meritocrat” goes bad and becomes tomorrow’s tyrant, the structural problem of over-centralized power can become horrendous. Like the Great Leap Forward.
For modern Ruists this is a fundamental problem. I would be so bold to assert that in the twentieth century in China, the violent and inhumane effects of unrestrained political power commanded by an undemocratic elite (all of whom believed that they were the “meritocrats”) did more to destroy 仁 in that country than any thing else (i.e. imperialism or democracy or capitalism). For modern Ruists, avoiding the 仁-destroying horrors of the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution should be much more urgent than the much lesser inefficiencies of democracy, because when authoritarianism goes bad, it goes bad in world-historically significant anti-仁 ways.
And we don’t even have to reach for the really big, bad counterexamples. Authoritarianism in the PRC since 1979 has not been better at eschewing immediate interests in favor of benefits for future generations. A quick breath of Beijing air will confirm this.
So, to defend proportional equality in the world today, one would have to provide a sufficient argument as to how those who are given special political power to do the right thing (i.e. the meritocrats) will be institutionally constrained from abusing that special political power. To my mind, it is a structural thing. Mou Zongsan seems to have grasped this….
Fair comment. Do you have a proposal for institutionally constraining meritocrats from abusing political power? Can this be a provision in the constitution?
I wrote this mostly before seeing Sam’s comment, which I pretty much agree with.
I think comparing democracy to meritocracy is like comparing apples to the best available lunch. They might coincide. For the role or office the meritorious are supposed to fill in a meritocracy is usually somewhat different from the role or office the many are supposed to fill in a “democracy.”
Suppose we stipulate that the role/office is to be the same. Then we could compare a system in which the direct choice of laws and policies is to be made by the best people or by majority vote. Or we could compare a system in which the choice of high officials every few years is to be made by the best people or by majority vote (or by lot, a mechanism Aristotle regarded as democratic, and which is a sort of extreme version of giving the suffrage to a statistically representative sample of citizens). But I gather that here by “meritocracy” we are to understand a system in which the direct choice of laws and policies is to be made by the best people, and by “democracy” we are to understand a system in which the choice of high officials every few years is to be made by majority vote.
There are at least three ways to argue that democracy is the most effective meritocracy; I’ll call them the Hamiltonian and Aristotelian arguments. They can be combined.
One argument is that choosing leaders by occasional popular vote is the least bad device for choosing the best people. (Indeed the arguments candidates make to the voters usually come down to “I’m the best for the job.”) Alexander Hamilton makes the argument in Federalist 68, except that since it was hard for people to know about matters far away, he proposed that a popular vote would have the effect of selecting the most qualified people to select a President.
Aristotle lays out a second kind of argument:
Bill, there will always be a minority with a different viewpoint. Perhaps, a solution is to allow society to be comprised of smaller communities each with their own values. Individuals can live in the community of their choice?
A solution to what problem?
The problem of majority rule regardless of minority opinion. An example would be the current mind-set of the American majority supporting US interventionist foreign policy in Syria. I belong to a minority who opposes incurring more debt on addressing human rights issues of other countries.
Actually you’re in the vast majority on that question. I think your general proposal can’t seem workable.
On Syria, yes; but I am against not just Syria but any human rights intervention abroad. If my general proposal cannot work, then democracy cannot work also unless we are into mobocracy – mob rule. In this case, all things being equal, China’s model is better than America’s because their mob in-charge does not mess around and get things done.
Hi Bill, long time, no see
I really liked your response above. In February, I worked on a translation on pro-democracy movements by a Japanese scholar. Not surprisingly, the crux of her argument was that Democracy requires a strong and stable middle class—since that is the voter block most likely to vote not purely out of self-interest. The scholar did not back the claim up. Though I think if you look around even online you can find statistics regarding when democracy ceases function as a relation to percentage in middle class. Japan and Germany might be good examples of the best places for a democracy, while I think most people would agree that democracy is not functioning in the US by any stretch of the imagination (campaign finance, big money, corporatization of the government and justice department, etc.) Elstein didn’t suggest this but in the responses you see problematic comparisons between CCP and the US and yet neither is a pure or real meritocracy or democracy.. so the discussion is flawed when we bring in the current situations of China or the US to try and illuminate the pros and cons of democracy versus meritocracy, no?
Aristotle’s democracy is an ideal where there is a limited number of voting males who are educated and probably own land…? In the paper I worked on—and this is echoed in many thinkers’ works, like Khanna etc—different styles might be appropriate for different actual state-national conditions. Certainly the CCP built some great roads and pulled quite a lot of people out of poverty, while the same cannot be said of things here in the US during the same period of time… In any case, I think the crucial issue comes down to asking why so many social scientists posit the argument that a vibrant and functioning democracy requires a stable and large middle class.
Hi Peony —
Aristotle’s democracy—democracy wasn’t his favorite, so he didn’t pick an ideal or pure version. By that word he meant something more extremely democratic than what we mean by the word, in the sense that the people would have much more direct power; but something less extreme in the sense that lots of adults might still not have qualified as part of “the people.” For practical purposes he preferred mixing things up: having a system with democratic and aristocratic or oligarchic elements. He would probably regard the current American system as mixed.
Aristotle gave a bunch of arguments argued for the importance of the middle class for a healthy (not necessarily democratic) city-state, especially in the Politics, in what this page calls Chapter IX of Book 4. One of the arguments is that a middle position better suits people to be public-spirited and to have a sympathetic understanding of others (the extremes are more different form each other than the middle is from either); another is that a big middle helps prevent the state from dividing into two opposed factions that can’t work together.
Hey Bill, always thought provoking and fun to talk to you. What I meant by ideal was not that Aristotle believed that to be “the ideal” but rather that it is not logical necessarily to talk about current China or current America as evidence for either type of government in the ideal or even in the practical because I would suggest that they are not representative or even truly functioning as as democracy or meritocracy respectively..? Unfortunately, I am unable to locate it now, but when I was working on the paper translation, I stumbled across a statistic where some scholar came up with an actual number (percentage) of middle class necessary for democracy to make real sense (otherwise it will not address needs of majority–think of Philippines maybe or India maybe or contemporary America maybe?)And that Aristotle said the above about the opposed factions being divided and undermining Democracy’s ability to function is of interest, for surely 🙂
Peony, what is your definition of a functioning democracy? Are you implying that Japan and Germany fit the bill?
Like Sam, I’m tempted by this question, although the topic is huge and complicated. I agree with the point that the question is not well framed when democracy and meritocracy are considered as oppositional categories. But I will limit myself to two points that might otherwise be missed.
 It’s true we need to think of institutional devices for controlling the imperalistic tendencies of individuals with esoteric knowledge when they gain power, to borrow a phrase from Ian Shapiro’s book Democracy’s Place. But a separate problem about experts in power is that they are as liable to error, and often of the same sort, as ordinary people. To take one example, Cass Sunstein in Laws of Fear lays out very nicely the “heuristics” and biases that lead people to error in risk assessment. Other research shows that experts are also subject to biases and defective reasoning in risk assessment, stemming (for example) from affiliations, reputational pressures, group polarization, and so on. For a general argument giving reasons why expert judgment may be worse than ordinary citizens’, see Robert Dahl’s essay “The Problem of Civic Competence.”
 Even if it were true that experts made better judges, it doesn’t follow that we want them to substitute their judgment for that of others. The proper role of an expert could be to enlighten, inform, advise the rest of us, not substitute their views. In general, the role of a professional (of any sort) is to engage interactively with clients, and what we want to pay attention to are the ways we sustain the mechanisms by which interaction can occur–honestly, sympathetically, and so on.
Finally, we should be most wary of moral philosophers. In the words of Sir Matthew Hale, we should not expect good practical judgment from moral philosophers “because they are transported from the ordinary measures of right and wrong by their over-fine speculations, theories, and distinctions above the common staple of human conversations.”
Ken, you are basing your view on the assumption that the ordinary people are sane and that the experts are defective. Ruism presumes that experts (self-cultivated meritocrats) are necessarily more sane than the common lot.
Yes, but not in any sense of “merit” that I’ve gleaned from Ruism. Now, the full Ruist philosophical history is a weak area for me, so if there are interesting parallels in anything else that I say, maybe that makes for good comparisons.
The short answer is that I fall somewhere just shy of anarcho-capitalism on the whole matter of government, and their stock arguments against democracy are those that you’ve already cited (and I think Stirner’s phrases it best).
The second problem I have is that what matters most in effective governance is finding a peaceful, but effective way of immediately removing incompetent leaders and keeping competent ones. I believe that people do not pay enough attention to the former matter, and that meritocracy can only arise by filtering out losers, not propping up potential winners.
Free markets, by contrast, cover this former aspect better. Businesses that can’t get consumers to support them fail. The assets from those failed businesses often go to new businesses or to those that have already succeeded and are seeking to expand or to improve their products or services. The issue here is that “merit” is more closely associated with the ability to provide desired products and services more cheaply and widely, yet without enslaving, indenturing, or violently coercing a population of people.
States could work the same way, the “best” being those that retain a voluntary citizenry, and that this is the closest that we can come to determining what “merits” matter in getting the services that governments presently provide. This is why I support a sort of subscription-based government, where members can leave whenever they please to join competitors, just as people can renounce citizenship now to become citizens of other countries.
Joshua, you make a valid point. While CEO’s are removed comparatively quickly based on company performance, US Presidents’ tenure are locked in for the duration of their terms until impeached. Is there a way to amend the constitution to fire politicians in office based on approval ratings of constituents?
There also need to be a penalty for politicians who fail to perform as promised. A firing squad would deter crooks from running for office.
There are always ways to amend constitutions, but the problem is that approval ratings are not reliable means of determining the value that one brings to a position or enterprise.
Let’s imagine Smith, a stock broker at a firm who has a very impressive and profitable record, but who also has a criminal record, which is irrelevant to stock trading, but which has become public information. Someone could use that criminal record to smear his reputation, thus lowering his approval rating. If approval ratings were a basis for dismissal, then he could be dismissed. However, that would be very different from removing him because he wasn’t competent at his job (trading stocks). The reasons for dismissal are important, and they cannot be left to public opinion.
Nowadays, though, statutes for the removal of political officers on the basis of incompetence are often vague, and in some cases don’t exist at all. No new “firing squad” has to threaten standing officers, only clearer grounds for dismissal do…
By approval rating, I mean objective performance evaluation based on preset criteria. For a stock broker, his performance appraisal is measured solely by the profit he rakes in lawfully. In the case of US President, his job performance is based on his campaign promises and measurable goal achievement standards to determine success and failure within specified time frames. Qualifications for the job should also be met by those running for office. US Presidents run the largest corporation in the world as well as lead the most powerful military on the planet. There must be barriers to prevent a goat from wandering into the Oval Office even if that animal is born in the United States.
Hello all, great comments. I’m preparing to head back to the US tomorrow so I won’t be as available as I would like to respond to everyone.
First, let me clarify what contemporary Ruist meritocrats advocate. Although they base their arguments on classical Ruism they are certainly not advocating a complete return to monarchy, nor do any of them think the current PRC government is a Ruist meritocracy in any sense. This makes some of the empirical claims difficult, because such a regime has never existed to compare with others.
Everyone basically agrees the people need some voice. The usual model is to have one house elected by popular vote and one house chosen by meritocratic means, typically involving an examination. Jiang Qing’s model is a little more complex, but the general idea is close. How the houses are balanced depends on the particular theory. But there are some democratic checks on the meritocrats to ensure they are responsive to the people.
One question is whether that undercuts the whole rationale, which is that people are very bad at figuring out what’s in their best interests (Bryan Caplan 2007). If the point of meritocracy is to do what’s best for the people when they don’t know what that is (and future generations and the environment), a democratic check is not very helpful. But it’s probably necessary for the reasons several people have mentioned, and meritocratic Ruists realize that.
So my title was misleading, and what we’re really talking about is a kind of hybrid democracy/meritocracy.
Now, what defines “merit”? Excellent question. The more reasonable views (I’m thinking of Bai Tongdong and Daniel Bell) define it as expertise in various fields related to governing. These might include (but not be limited to): economics, public health, environmental science, international relations, etc.
Bill, you bring up Aristotle’s point about the wisdom of the multitude. But this seems like an argument for allowing the public to join in deliberation, not necessarily to make decisions. Why not have a group of people with better knowledge and judgment make the decisions after allowing free deliberation?
Much more to respond to, particularly Ken’s comment on expert judgment, but this will have to do for now.
Short answers from random internets person:
1) voter ignorance -> poor results
Voters are people, politicians are people, meritocrats are people, consumers and banksters are people, and people are herd animals. Why would a small elite make for better results than a large herd? How come market economy catches the mouse so much more successfully than the Great Leader’s misled hunches?
2) having all citizens vote is a waste of time
The Sunday spent supporting democracy by going to vote must be re-allocated for more productive use, never mind we lose all the wealth and freedom democratic institutions have given us… u mad?
3) relevant to making political choices
You must have confused political decisions with economic ones. Political decisions are about regulating the ultimate power, violence. Political decisions are made so we don’t all kill each other. Or starve.
Economic decisions are made to squeeze the last 1% of efficiency from the economy.
Put merited economists to lead a nation and you get oil wars, genocide, Guantanamo, general breakdown of society. Put politicians to lead production you get nepotism and waste.
Those who call themselves most merited to make “political choices” are in fact the very people you shouldn’t let there to make them, not without checks and balances. How do your Ruists solve THAT problem?
Sig, you raised a significant question: What is the role of government?
In the US, one familiar response to the idea that it’s hardly worthwhile to vote is that voting has an important ritual function. People often find the ritual very attractive. It reminds us that we are citizens, and that we have the more general responsibilities of citizens. It shows us that the others bother, which is comforting. It helps us feel community. And it is an expression of the society’s respect for us.
In Sagehood (which I still haven’t read, alas), Steve Angle quotes Paul Woodruff:
The point has been discussed from various angles in connection with twentieth-century China , Singapore , the American women’s suffrage movement , etc.
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David, you ask: “Aristotle’s point about the wisdom of the multitude … seems like an argument for allowing the public to join in deliberation, not necessarily to make decisions. Why not have a group of people with better knowledge and judgment make the decisions after allowing free deliberation?”
My answer above was too brief: “When the many have some power, that is incentive for everyone to educate everybody else (e.g. by campaigning, funding schools and cables, defending freedom of expression). Educating the many improves the quality of public discussion.”
Part of the idea here is that if the people rule, that gives everyone an incentive to make the people wise.
But part of the idea is that when the many have power, to get something done you have to persuade them that it’s a good idea. Everyone who wants to change or preserve something has an incentive to persuade the public: teach them, fool them, explode the opposing case. That’s a powerful engine for more discussion and hence wisdom. It even makes expertise pay more. If all power belonged to a few (which is not an idea you’ve laid on the table), people might prefer to make their cases quietly to the few.
Recent American experience shows the limits of the idea. Side A wants to impede Side B’s ability to vote; Side B wants to limit Side A’s ability to run commercials. Side A watches Fox, Side B watches MSNBC, while ABC and CNN talk about murders. Aristotle and the Federalist Papers (10, 51) called this the problem of “faction” (stasis), and it’s a deep worry in China.
I suspect that maintaining the people’s trust (xin 信 would be more difficult for a legislature with an overtly nondemocratic house.
I’m surprised at association of merit with “competence” and “expertise.” Aristotle and the Ruists, I think, had in mind something like general moral virtue. Competence is an ability; it’s about what you can do, in the service of any aims; virtue is a disposition; it’s about what you will do, what your aims are. I’ve heard the word “virtuosity” kicked around by some scholars of Confucianism, and I suspect it’s meant to challenge the distinction; but I don’t know. Aristotle held that virtue involves various kinds of special understanding; but they’re not the same thing. The argument in the Declaration of Independence was about the aims of the king’s government.
We associate the word “meritocracy” with competence, ultimately I think because what can be successfully deliberately tested is certain kinds of competence. Aristotle called rule by the virtuous “aristocracy”—rule by the best. The English term tends to suggest hereditary nobility. Hu Shi argues (in something in a Chinese reader) that the social class of leisured people with family experience in government ensured a certain amount of merit among governing officials, and that this mechanism was undermined to disastrous effect by the examination system.
David, i am about to leave US; I look forward to continuing later. Bill, I include moral competence among the competences needed for governing effectively and well. And that category has many components. More later. —Ken
I’m leaving tomorrow, so this will probably be my last chance to respond for a couple of days, and I’ll have to be brief at that.
Bill, while it’s a nice thought that distributing power broadly is an incentive to improve the wisdom of all, it doesn’t seem to work out in practice, as you point out. It seems easier and more effective to play up certain fears and appeal to people’s emotions than actually educate them. And again, meritocratic Ruists do generally agree that people should be represented, just not that all important offices should be filled by popular vote. You wonder whether such a system will maintain the people’s trust, but East Asian societies generally tend to accept meritocracy. Doh Chull Shin’s recent book is very good on this and related questions.
I think you’re right that merit gets defined as competence because it’s easier to test, though I should add this is not universal. Jiang Qing wants a moral as well as intellectual elite, but I don’t think he takes seriously the problem of hypocrisy. Li Chenyang suggests candidates should provide character references, which I doubt will be much more effective in identifying the morally worthy.
Josh, that is a very interesting idea and it’s completely new to me. The practical problems seem insurmountable to me, though. States would have to be non-territorial for there to be really open competition, but it’s virtually impossible to provide defense and police protection to some people living in a given area but not others. Seems like there would be significant advantages to being a citizen of nowhere and just being a free rider. Not to mention the burden on a business owner who has to deal with different tax laws for every one of his 50 employees.
A final note on the voting as ritual question. It might well be a valuable ritual, but is it valuable enough? Voting itself is not very time-consuming, but being an informed voter is. What other rituals must I neglect in order to be an informed voter? Suppose 6 months ahead of time the 50,000 voters are randomly chosen, and they know they will decide the election: that seems like a pretty strong incentive to become well informed. Meanwhile everyone else can participate in public deliberation if they want, but can also use the time for other ritual duties and build relationships in their community. Mathematically you can get basically the same result (I can find the article that discusses this if anyone is curious). A net gain, possibly?
I find Jiang Qing highly problematic as an exemplar of meritocratic Ruism.
First, I believe that his thinking is deeply influenced by nationalism. We can debate this, but his book, A Confucian Constitutional Order, seems aimed more at creating a distinctive “Chinese” national presence in the world than at elaborating a plausible modern expression of political Ruism. The problem here is that when the emphasis tilts more toward “saving China,” the political analysis narrows in unproductive ways. Ironically, the conference that gave rise to the book had to be held in Hong Kong, for fear that PRC authorities might repress it, but Jiang continues to argue that “liberalism” is the main enemy of Chinese political life. In a sense, he has to argue that, because that is what political conditions in the PRC allow; but we should also assume that he wants to argue that, which embeds him in a limiting nationalist discourse which contends that an “authentic” Chinese national identity must eschew liberalism. All of which constrains the possibilities of what a modern political Ruism might be. Why not a liberal or “progressive” Confucianism?
Second, aspects of his tricameral legislature are rather bizarre. On what textual basis can we conclude that descendants of Confucius himself, merely by their family status alone, have some sort of special claim to be included, or assume a leadership position, in the House of Exemplary Persons? My sense is that 仁 is performative, not existential; it has to be lived up to every day. Thus, having the name “Kong” is no sort of qualification whatsoever. For example, see: Kong Qingdong.
Third, following from the performative essence of 仁, it is not at all clear how an examination of some sort helps select a morally meritocratic elite. An examination tests a certain competence at a certain time. We all know (from the debilitating experience of standardized testing) how such systems can be gamed for a particular outcome. But the larger problem is – if you will forgive my insertion of a New York-ism here – the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately problem. An exam does not provide any sort of continuing oversight to assess how well a power holder is living up to moral criteria. A person could pass an exam, even one that “tested” moral principles, one day but his behavior going forward could stray from those test results. How can be we confident that “meritocrats” will actually behave meritoriously? Who monitors the meritocrats? Or are we supposed to trust them to monitor themselves? Madison, in Federalist 51, comes to mind:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
He understood the limits of “democracy,” but “a dependence on the people” should be the “primary control on the government”…
Joshua, on markets for government:
Early in the Mengzi, Mengzi sometimes refers to a dynamic reminiscent of the one you propose. Good government is rewarded by (a) massive immigration, which increases military strength, and by (b) a greater willingness on the part of neighboring peoples to be conquered. (Bad govt vice versa.) But the attractiveness of these rewards depends on a background of the constant danger of war.
Does a large population always mean more pay for the officials, for any given tax rate? Large populations need more officials.
I wonder whether under some not unrealistic circumstances a government or a citizenry might prefer to reduce rather than increase the population. For example, they may be nature lovers, or may value self-sufficiency in some natural resources.
David, on public discussion:
You write, “Bill, while it’s a nice thought that distributing power broadly is an incentive to improve the wisdom of all, it doesn’t seem to work out in practice, as you point out.”
But I don’t; I have no such view. I say there are limits, problems. There are limits to our legs; but that doesn’t mean legs seem not to work in practice.
I’m not sure what sorts of causes to point to for the recent problems in the US: how far it’s income inequality from bad policy choices, how far it’s technological change, how far it’s that the US Constitution isn’t parliamentary. Are parliamentary democracies having similar problems?
David, on the 50,000:
One way to get a sense of what kinds of difference the 50,000 idea might make, is to make it a little more extreme—say, 1,000—and to compare the implications of having the lottery immediately before the election, six months before, ten years before (still only for purposes of that particular election), or to have each person’s membership decided approximately at birth (say, at the end of each year all the memberships that came available that year are allocated among that year’s babies, with adjustments to maintain parity among years).
If the lottery is immediately before the election, there might be a “hoop dreams” effect, leading everyone to pay more attention all the time? Or at least the people who don’t rely on calculation.
If the lottery for any given election is six months before, then everyone may have some inclination to think: “There’s almost no chance I’ll get to vote in any upcoming election. If I do get to vote, I’ll have six months’ notice, which is time enough to learn about the issues. So I won’t do that now.”
If the lottery is more than a week before the election, it marks the Voters as special people; it gives everyone an incentive to bend their ears, suck up, etc.—especially if the same set of Voters votes for all the races being decided on a given election day in their district.
(Are the same people to be Voters for all the races being decided on a given day in their district? How many voters would there then be for mayors of small towns, or for senators from Wyoming?)
David, on the upper house:
What sort of exam do the Ruists have in mind, to identify political merit?
(a) is definitely a draw for anarcho-capitalists, captured with phrases like, “People vote with their feet,” to capture how countries with horrible living standards often flee to better countries in the hopes of improving their living standards. In Taiwan, this is definitely the case with many foreign migrants that come from Indonesia and Thailand to do manual labor jobs, which pay better than the same jobs in their home countries do, even though I think the living standards here are low when compared to, say, central Europe or North American countries.
(b), however, is not, since they’re an extreme strand of libertarians, and so hold pretty closely to the non-aggression principle. For anarcho-capitalists, conquest comes when workers volunteer to work, so an increasing presence of migrant workers would signal actual dominance, because it’s the cheapest way to secure a workforce The alternatives are economically inadequate. Slavery, it turns out, is expensive when one factors the costs needed to keep slaves, and also horrid in terms of opportunity costs. Conversely, artificial enforcement of employment barriers to secure jobs for citizens admits that, nationally, a country cannot provide maximally efficient service.
The appeal to (b), though, is in a claim, not proven, that universal depressions of wages will coincide with a universal decrease in the prices of goods.
For anarcho-capitalists, this couldn’t be an appeal because there can’t be forced conscripts under any system that we would propose, unless conscription is an explicit condition in the contract that one signs to receive the governing body’s services.
In anarcho-capitalism, I think it doesn’t under near-perfect competition, because there could be a much higher supply of positions than there would be a demand for posts under a “governing insurer,” let’s call it (instead of government), and unless the work is highly specialized, the labor pool will simply be too big to justify high salaries for officials. Also, since these “governing insurers” have to consider the prices of their services in the retention of citizens, that will also drive officials’ wages down.
The problem with that, though, is that it tends to lead to lead to corruption among the lower-level officials.
Does any said model offer a straightforward means of firing officials who lack sufficient “merits,” however they’re defined?
In economics, the main incentive is money. Are you thinking that in anarcho-capitalist government, the main incentive for good policies is increased population? My underlying question above is, why would that be an incentive?
Well, the main incentive in economics is continued thriving in a marketplace, which we can correlate with the amount of money that firms earn. But money is just a means to that end, or a signal that one could continue for so long given his (or it’s) costs.
Anarcho-capitalists see the population as the consumer base, which a governing insurer hopes to expand in order to remain prosperous. The threat that any given firm would face is its own nonexistence (via bankruptcy, destruction in war, etc.) prompts differing bodies to different kinds of tactics to keep customers. Therefore, a larger population of subscribers correlates to more consumers, correlates to continued thriving of a firm.
A larger consumer base does not equate with more prosperity. Case in point: India. China had to impose a one-child policy to stem population growth rate.
The following is based more on general impressions than on textual or historical knowledge about the Confucian or Ru tradition (of which I have little); I’d really appreciate people’s correcting and further informing me.
It seems to me offhand that the Confucian attraction to meritocracy reflects a kind of radical individualism that pervades and shapes the Ru tradition but is rare in the liberal tradition and alien to liberal culture and political thought.
The liberal tradition thinks of the main intellectual project of society as generating wisdom cooperatively: (by discussion, debate, distinct research projects, mutual checks) and holding it collectively (in vast growing libraries and internets, in institutions of certified experts, in the sophisticated legal system that has evolved by numberless changes according to certain kinds of rules). Society embodies incomparably more wisdom than any individual ever could.
By contrast, the Confucian tradition thinks comprehensive wisdom characterizes primarily individuals. The main moral and intellectual project of society is to remember and propagate the one right individual character, the exemplary person, and thereby the right patterns of relations. The wisdom of tradition is mainly that it preserves the pattern of the sage.
What do y’all think?
Excellent observation, Bill. The Confucian perspective equates the individual with society. In other words, the self is the world. Western worldview is different and consider society as the sum of its parts: the individual. As such, it behooves the person to work with other people towards running a viable society for everyone. Unfortunately, the liberal view is fundamentally wrong and that’s why democracy doesn’t work. One could argue that Confucius was wrong too since no Ru society has taken shape.
I think the question meritocratic vs. democratic hides more than it illuminates for the following reasons.
1) Most of the time, the use of power is assumed to be instrumental. Power should be wielded by whoever to create the society we want – but we haven’t got any agreement over the kind of society that we want. So we end up just arguing at one remove about social values, and not getting anywhere.
2) In those cases where power is accepted as an objective in its own right, the answer is obvious. Either you believe the exercise of power is an important part of everyone’s participation in society, in which case, democracy, duh! Or you think that power without ability is pointless at best, harmful at worst, in which case, meritocracy, duh!
3) In reality, all systems are mixes, but how on earth are we supposed to measure them? Does the elected upper house in the US make it more democratic than the UK? Can that be measured? Or could other factors (access to justice, political party organisations, nature of the media) confound these calculations? Without any reasonable way to determine which system is more meritocratic, the question is really not going to go anywhere.
If the conversation were going on between people who have shared social values, then it could be argued on the technical level: which set of social institutions best fulfills these social values? That’s the only situation I can envisage in which “meritocracy or democracy?” could be a valuable debate (example below). Otherwise, I just think it’s throwing more big words into an already enervated discourse.
So, an example that I thought was meaningful: a few years ago there was a debate among some legal scholars (I remember He Weifang(?) was one) about whether the legal system needed more public engagement (e.g. juries) or more professionalism (He was arguing for more professionalism). Goals (better, faster justice) were largely shared, and the debate was on practical issues of legal process and dissemination of legal concepts in the profession and at large.
Having said all that, I think that in general this debate will split in some fairly predictable ways. If you believe in *any* set of absolute values, that come from a book or from science or from wherever, then you’re more likely to support some form of meritocracy. If you don’t, if you think that really the only values reside in people, then you’re likely to say democracy. So the question is really just a proxy for strong belief in stuff.
Hi Phil, my gut-feel tells me that it’s better to believe in values that reside in people rather than absolute values from a book. After all, it’s people that matter in the end even if they are a bunch of savage cannibals who want to eat each other. The problem of governing such a society does not come from the majority of cannibals but from the minority with a different value set.
Let me take a stab at addressing some of the questions and objections.
Several people have justly questioned what meritocracy means and what counts as a meritocratic government and I plead guilty to simplifying things for convenience. I think it is uncontroversial that some jobs in government should be chosen based on knowledge, ability, and experience (judges, military commanders, etc.). What is really at question is the source of political power. Are the people the ultimate holders of political power (zhengquan 政權, to use Mou Zongsan’s terms) and they delegate governing power (zhiquan 治權) as they see fit? Or is merit (however defined) itself an independent source of political power that should not need to be responsive to the public in general? One way to think of it is that Ruist meritocracy is defined by whether there is some group or groups of decision-makers who are not directly or through layers of intermediaries accountable to the public in the form of election, possibility of recall, etc. So in Bai’s system, for example, the public has no control over members of the meritocratic house. They can disagree with their decisions, protest, and so on, but can’t remove members either directly or by pressuring higher officials to do so. I’m not sure this is an entirely satisfactory definition. Academia is often thought of as a meritocracy (though not a political one), but according to this definition state universities are not meritocracies (because they are accountable to elected officials) but private universities would be.
Several people have addressed the question of checks and balances on the meritocrats. Like I said, all proposals I have seen are hybrids. Let’s stick with Bai Tongdong’s for the moment. He wants one meritocratic house and one democratic house in legislatures. Bills have to pass both houses to become laws. There’s a significant check right there: the meritocrats can’t do anything on their own. But neither can the democratically elected house pass popular but unwise laws (or so the theory goes). In addition he advocates freedom of information and expression, so people can have access to what the meritocrats are doing and protest it if they want to. What they can’t do is throw the bums out.
Sam, I agree that hereditary monarchy is not meritocratic (and is one of the more bizarre parts of Jiang’s theory). I was thinking specifically of the House of Ruist Tradition (Tongru Yuan 通儒院) as the meritocratic element in his thought. They are supposed to have moral and intellectual expertise. I agree with many people who have questioned using exams to identify moral expertise in particular. Jiang also believes candidates should serve in lower levels of governing first to observe their behavior before they join the House of Ruist Tradition (perhaps inspired by Analects 2.10).
Bill, forgive me for putting words in your mouth. I guess whether the current system works depends on what one considers sufficient for informed participation. Many studies have shown the embarrassing ignorance of the voting public on all sorts of basic questions about government (never mind particular policies). The debate instead turns on whether voter ignorance matters: can they make reasonably decent decisions even when they don’t understand much? So I would say the incentives to educate voters don’t seem to work very well. Most of these studies focus on the US, but ones I’ve seen for other countries aren’t much different.
On the number of voters question, I would have to refer back to the article in question for the mathematics, but the general idea is this. Let’s suppose that across the entire electorate Candidate A is supported by 51% and Candidate B by 49%. So the democratic outcome that we want is Candidate A to win, since he represents the majority choice. It doesn’t take many voters (a few thousand I think, but I’d have to go back and look) to have better than 95% confidence that Candidate A will win. Adding more voters after that has very marginal effects on the outcome. I was thinking of presidential elections specifically, and you raise valid points for other elections. Of course there may be other values to voting as well; but just from the perspective of determining the will of the majority, there is no need to have everyone vote. In fact, a random sample is probably better than what we have because people who choose to vote are disproportionately educated, wealthier, and older than those who don’t, and may not represent the true majority will.
Phil, I appreciate the questions about how to measure democracy and meritocracy, and my explanation above was intended to clarify that. A system in which there are decision-makers who are not in some way accountable to the public is meritocratic, and the more such decision-makers there are and the more power they have, the more meritocratic the system. Precise measurements may be difficult (I don’t know; political science is not my area), but as a heuristic I think it’s reasonable. So yes, the UK would be less democratic than the US, but as the House of Lords becomes less powerful it is becoming more democratic.
I also see where you’re going with 2), but I don’t entirely agree. I think it’s actually not the case that power is an objective in its own right, which is what my thought experiment about a very poorly functioning democracy was intended to bring out. I doubt democracy would be very popular if it systematically made terrible choices. If we could somehow determine that juries consistently free the guilty and convict the innocent, would we say, “No big deal, at least the system is fair”? I doubt it. David Estlund talks about this a lot and makes the case that the value of democracy is partially epistemic, and I think he’s right.
About 1), I agree to some extent. Some questions are about values and determining expertise is very difficult. But many are just means-ends reasoning: everyone wants a strong economy, security, timely garbage pickup, clean air, etc. Some questions are about about tradeoffs between competing goals, but many are just questions about how best to realize these, and surely it’s plausible that some people know better than others.
I think the epistemic questions are actually more significant. The case for meritocracy depends on the experts knowing better. The case for democracy (I think) has to rest at least in part on the idea that the public can make good decisions, not significantly worse than the experts.
Hi, David. I’m afraid I have to respond very negatively to what you’ve written there. You say political science is not your field, and it really shows.
I do completely agree that the most important justification for democracy is that a democratic system can produce better outcomes than other systems. However, your reduction of democracy to “the public can make good decisions” over-simplifies the concept out of existence.
Just look at existing democracies: when are the public ever called on to make policy decisions directly? Almost never happens. I gave the example of juries deliberately to try to steer the conversation towards some actual forms of democracy as opposed to some naive and non-existent conception of “the public do it”.
Democracies usually function as representative democracies, which involve meritocratic elements from the get go. But there are many other factors which play a massive role: most obviously, the courts and the media are the primary constraints acting on politicians. These cannot be ignored. Having elections does not make a democracy (cf. Zimbabwe and any number of other examples).
And the way the institutions interact has a massive impact on the way a society works. A good example is the Supreme Court in the US, which has made big policy changes in many cases. Other countries don’t have that. The way a society works is not a simplistic question of “who makes the decisions”; it is a much more elaborated question of how decisions are first defined, then refined, then decided, then reviewed.
So I think it’s very premature to talk about democratic vs. meritocratic societies. It’s possible that a sensible conversation could be had about democratic vs. meritocratic elements within societies (e.g. juries or not; elected or appointed houses; press regulation or not).
Democracy is an ideology and so is meritocracy. Such concepts are aspirational at best and the chances of their realization are as good as the attainment of spiritual enlightenment. Is it premature to live as Christians even though we sin? Is it premature to live as Americans even though it’s a goddam mess?
I think everybody here is very impressive and worth reasoning with, on these matters and others. I for one greatly admire bold ideas and questioning of received wisdom; and boldness always brings some weirdness. That’s why it’s worthwhile. Defending received wisdom is always harder than one expects.
a. Anyway I hope most people would agree that people can be mistaken in what they want, wanting bad things. So “what we want” isn’t the ultimate standard, no matter who “we” are.
b. I think it could be misleading to say the purpose is “to create the society we want.” Lots, maybe most, of what’s important about what the government decides is in its effects not on “us,” not on the society we live in. There are effects on other animals, foreigners, and later generations.
c. I don’t understand what you mean by saying that argument about social values is “at one remove,” or why you think it doesn’t get anywhere. I think argument about social values makes progress.
There’s a plausible middle ground. Aristotle, for example, held that happiness is the exercise of virtue, and that the exercise needs a certain amount of power, including property. Power, at least formal power, might be important to human dignity, somewhat independently of what it’s used for. It’s a way of marking, expressing, that the society sees each person as having comparable intrinsic value.
There’s a specific proposal on the table: a legislature with an upper house chosen not democratically but by some other method that is on its face an evaluation of merit. Exams have been mentioned. I’ve asked what kind. Sam? David?
On the one hand, there’s the extreme view that there is a set of clear rules that have adequate justification in science or an authoritative book. On the other hand there is the extreme view that there are no objective values, no truths about what is good or bad. (Is that what you meant by the second view?) I think both extremes are implausible. And I think most people don’t accept either of the two views really; at least, most educated people.
Here are two things I pretty much believe (partly because of pride in having formulated them). I believe that anything is good just insofar as it represents net pleasure for the universe—that’s what goodness is. (Explanation in my hedonism paper.) And I believe that to be moral is to appreciate that you are one person among others, look at things also from others’ points of view, care about people, resect people, and hold yourself to those standards you hope others will hold themselves to—that’s what morality is. There’s room for argument about which particulars are good and which are moral.
On the one hand, that’s nothing like relativism or nihilism. On the other hand, it’s nothing like a set of rules from science or scripture.
I think you mean what’s really at issue is whether the people are the ultimate source of legitimate power (or whether they should be the ultimate source of power, or whether they are the ultimate source of political authority …).
I don’t know whether you mean “What’s really at issue [in the proposal of an exam-based upper house] is the source…” or “What’s really at issue [in the broad question of democracy v. meritocracy] is the source …”.
Someone might think you can’t mean the latter, on the grounds that what you then lay out as the real issue is on its face exactly the broad question of democracy v. meritocracy, so it couldn’t be a prior or underlying question.
But I think that that person would be misreading your presentation of the underlying issue. Rather I think your presentation supposes that the justification of political systems always or properly takes the form of a view about what sort of party has ultimate authority (which they can then delegate). And I think defenders and opponents of democracy and meritocracy need not have any such view, as I do not. I don’t think anybody has ultimate authority; I don’t think there’s such a thing, though it can be a helpful introductory picture. So I think the broad question of meritocracy v. democracy is distinguishable from what you propose as the underlying issue, and doesn’t actually depend on that issue.
Also, since I’m inclined to think that probably some kind of democracy is the most accurate workable meritocracy—at least that’s not a crazy view—, I think one could defend democracy on meritocratic premises, and vice versa.
I think the right big-strokes question is rather: what would be the qualifications for these offices? How would these decision-makers be chosen? (If by exam, then what would the exams aim to test, and how?) That’s what would give us the first beginning of an idea of what’s on the table; or at least, it’s what would make it possible to think that there’s a serious idea on the table.
Is there something about Ruism that makes it impossible to regard as “Ruist meritocracy” any scheme that allows for selecting the meritorious democratically? I think it’s a fairly core Ruist view that the masses in one way or another notice the characters of public figures (and respond to them by imitation and reciprocity). So maybe a Ruist should think that the masses are qualified to identify the best, or at least pretty good, people among public figures.
I spoke of incentives to educate people. But the ultimate causal point at issue was whether giving everyone a (meaningful) vote makes public discussion much wiser than when the less meritorious don’t have the vote, other things equal—not that it makes any individual adequately informed. This point was a defense of the argument Aristotle laid out, that decisionmaking by the many can be wise even when none of the individuals is especially wise. So I don’t think it comes down to any standard of individual well-informedness.
Of course, even if you granted the point that public discussion is made better, there would still be the question whether it gets made better enough to compensate for the bad votes.
There’s also the question whether the problems in public discussion in America are from too much or too little democracy.
And there’s the question whether there is any more such a thing as public discussion, or enough of it that the Aristotelian argument (that as a ruler, public discussion is wiser than any individual) has any relevance to democracy v. meritocracy tomorrow. Public discussion may be disintegrating.
So you’re saying that in the random sample program a higher proportion of people permitted to vote will choose to vote? That might be so, because they feel special. There might be a countervailing effect, as people feel alienated from a system insofar as it feels arbitrary.
Voting can be compulsory even when the suffrage is universal—that’s what they’ve been doing in Australia for nearly a century.
I haven’t understood how the random sample idea is supposed to connect to the question of meritocracy. By the argument you make here, universal suffrage would seem more meritocratic than the random sample program. I think you must have in mind some other connection.
Not unless they’re chosen in a way that effectively selects for merit (or at least for what lots of people think is merit).
5. I meant that as far as I know there is no serious question whether some offices should be filled by merit. Democracy need not, and again as far as I know never, means holding elections for every single position in government. It is rather a conception about the source of political authority. I’m not sure what you mean by saying no one has ultimate authority. To me a theory about what makes a government legitimate is an account of who or what has ultimate authority.
6. Valid question about the exams, but I don’t have the books in front of me to answer. I don’t know that there’s a core Ruist idea that militates against selecting the meritorious democratically, but there is the view that decisions should be made by the qualified and most people are not qualified. Most historical Ruists seem pretty convinced that most people will never be sages or junzi even if they theoretically could be.
8. That’s because there really is no connection between meritocracy and voting by lot. I just mentioned it because of the frequent laments about low voter turnout, and I find it interesting that from a results standpoint it doesn’t matter very much.
9. Of course, this is an important clarification which I should not have neglected. Thanks.
And now I’m too jet lagged to think straight.
(I’m confused: what did you mean that by?)
”Legitimacy” of governments is sort of a technical term in political thought. Exactly what it means is a little unclear to me, and I suspect it’s a little unclear to political thinkers who use the term. I’d analyze what they mean this way: to say that a government or regime is “legitimate” is to say that most people think that that government has at least a minimal right to continue to govern for a while; which is very roughly to say that most people think actual rebellion isn’t called for. That’s quite different from saying that the government has involved any democratic mechanisms, any voting.
When you raise the topic of meritocracy, I think you’re not talking about what governments are legitimate; you’re talking about what form of government is best, or at least which forms are better than which other forms.
What’s the best procedure for building a bicycle? Suppose I said that comes down to the question who has the ultimate authority to decide how to build a bicycle. You’d probably say I was wrong, partly because nobody has “ultimate authority” about that. (Good reasons have authority, and arguably ultimate authority—when you say “who or what has ultimate authority” are you casting your conceptual net so widely?)
Why isn’t it the same for the best form of government? The best sort of government might depend mainly on what sorts of good and bad effects a government can have, and what are the most effective mechanisms for getting good effects without to much risk of really bad effects.
What’s the best sort of by-laws for an activist organization? One that requires a unanimous vote by all members for every decision, and grants membership to all who declare that they are members? Suppose I said that comes down to the question who has ultimate authority over the organization. You might say I was wrong; the answer is that such by-laws are a bad idea no matter who has “ultimate authority,” and anyway nobody has “ultimate authority.”
What is “ultimate authority” in a polity? It’s different from “authority” in the polity, right? “Ultimate” means the terminus of a series of things of the same kind. I have one “ultimate end” or aim Z if whatever I do is for the sake of something that is for the sake of something that is for the sake of … Z, which is not for the sake of anything further. So when a cop comes to arrest me, her authority was given her by her superiors and by the laws and rules of the city and the PD, The superiors got their authority from appointment by, say, the mayor and the laws and rules of the city and PD, who in turn got their authority from … and the last authority (if any) in the chain is the ultimate authority. We can also distinguish between the ultimate instituting authority and the ultimate maintaining authority (for those who have the authority to grant authority to an official may not be those who have the authority to remove that authority from that official).
The U.S. Constitution was adopted by votes of certain long-dead white males, and given application to each of the vast majority of current states by the authority of a Congress that did not include representatives from the state in question. And there was the Civil War. No current citizens of the US had any part in instituting the Constitution. Is there a party with ultimate authority? In a series characterized by what sort of link?
Your argument here seems simply to confuse the decision that is choosing the leaders and the decisions that are the special task of the leaders.
And if the aim was to define “meritocracy,” I think the part about not being accountable to democratic election or recall should have been left out. In principle one kind of meritocracy can be when the judgment of merit for leading officials is made by popular vote, so a good definition of meritocracy shouldn’t define away that possibility.
1) Arguing about social values is valuable. But democracy/meritocracy is a narrow debate about power. Conceptions of social value are much wider, and in fact they often exclude power. For example, me: I’m a progressive liberal, and my view of government is a kind of managerialism. I never think of society in terms of power relations. Perhaps I should, but I don’t. It’s not a part of my social values. So, for me, these questions need to be carefully separated.
2) That doesn’t seem like a middle ground to me. If all people need to exercise power, that’s a good argument for democracy. And that’s my point. If your social values (unlike mine) actually do include some account of power, then this question becomes very easy.
3) I’m denying that having an elected or appointed upper house does make a measurable difference to a society’s balance of democracy/meritocracy. There are too many confounding factors. It would be reasonable to say that the method of selecting the upper house makes a difference to the m/d balance of the legislature. And it would be reasonable to talk about the way that would affect the operations of the legislature. But the way the legislature interacts with broader society is too variable for us to even begin to think about how this would play out for “society.”
4) “On the one hand, there’s the extreme view that there is a set of clear rules that have adequate justification in science or an authoritative book. On the other hand there is the extreme view that there are no objective values, no truths about what is good or bad. (Is that what you meant by the second view?) I think both extremes are implausible. And I think most people don’t accept either of the two views really; at least, most educated people.”
I disagree that these “extreme” views are not common. A lot of religious people take their values from books, and regard them as fixed. (And as such, they would probably prefer more meritocratic systems, where adepts in the proper values had more power.)
And there’s a lot of relativism around as well. Just look at the fast change in public acceptance of homosexuality over the past 20 years. It’s not just people dying. A lot of peoples’ minds have changed. Why? Because their values are fluid. And anyone who accepts that about themselves will most likely lean towards more democracy.
But those leanings or values or tendencies aren’t *good* arguments for meritocracy or democracy. They’re just common associations that cloud our thinking on this issue.
1. Oh! Thanks.
2. Power is an important good for everyone, but not the only good, and there are different kinds of power. Maybe the kind of government that is most directly fulfilling in terms of the power it gives, also tends to make bad decisions. So I don’t see the question becoming especially easy.
(And even if there are premises such that if they are true the question is easy, that doesn’t make the question easy unless the premises are obviously true, or easily demonstrated.)
3. In trying to think about what form of govt is best, one can never hold out for measurable predictable results. As for the rest, I think it depends on the details.
4. I didn’t say they weren’t common! Also I think lots of religious people don’t take their values from books as much as they think they do. Also I don’t think open-mindedness is the same as relativism. I’m open-minded about lots of questions where I think there are real true answers, such as: whether it’s going to rain tomorrow.
Anywyay the popularity of the views is a side issue, or anyway so I thought. It seemed to me that your argument depended on the premise that those were the only plausible views. (You said the democracy/meritocracy question is “just a proxy” for strong belief in stuff.) I think they’re not among the plausible views!
Returning from abroad (Canada), I see that the conversation has continued. No doubt it is foolhardy to intervene at this point in such a wide-ranging discussion, but I thought I would develop a bit more the thread I had begun to weave on expertise and competence.
One point of fascination, for me, in the Confucian tradition is the ethical training of individuals to become advisors to rulers. (I like to think that’s my role at HKS.)Scholar-officials are meant to be experts on how to govern, and are expected to remonstrate with the emperor accordingly. The relationship, of course, is not without its oddities. Several passages in the Analects suggest that “how to govern” is construed narrowly. Kongzi knows nothing of agriculture or military affairs, and so on. He knows about personal virtue. Is that enough to know how to govern?
Then there’s the emperor, who attains the position by inheritance or by usurpation. In other words, not by meriting it. But the emperor is supposed to listen attentively to the admonitions of the scholar-officials. One classic resolution of this mismatch is to construe the job of the emperor as doing nothing (wu wei). Thus 15:4–Shun sat on the throne facing south (the ritual position), and nothing more. But then the real work of governing is done by the scholar-officials themselves. What competence do they have, and how did they get it? (At HKS, we teach a lot more than ethics.)
The idea of rule by experts is not entirely foreign to western countries. Think of Comte and Saint-Simon in the 19th century, and the intellectual tradition carried on by Veblen and Croly in the US, Tawney and Webb in England, Durkheim in France. A key question is: Are experts better than ordinary people at making crucial decisions? If you say yes, do you have in mind only technical competence? Or, do you mean to suggest they’re also better in the human skills, i.e., the moral and the political. The reason I pointed to the literature on risk perception is to observe that, while it’s true that ordinary people make mistakes, it turns out that experts make mistakes, too. Which mistakes, or whose mistakes, should we favor?
Finally (for the moment), on the question of collective wisdom, I would suggest that, rather than interpreting a few lines of Aristotle, one might dip into the empirical literature presented by James Surowiecki in his The Wisdom of Crowds. It’s quite amazing to learn how the dumb majority often does much better than the brilliant few.
Replying to your question about the exams, the “meritocratic” examinations of imperial China required memorizing the Confucian classics and other Chinese texts. This includes the Four Books (The Analects, The Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Mencius) and the Five Classics (Book of Odes, Book of Historical Records, I Ching, Book of Rites, Spring and Autumn Annals). During the Song Dynasty, jobs in the government were awarded based on a scholar’s exam scores. Higher scores guaranteed a bureaucratic position, while candidates with lower scores had to wait for vacancies. A number of problems were associated with the examination system:
a) The subjects of the exams (Confucianism, poetry, etc) had little to do with the actual task of running a bureaucracy.
b) Occupational success was dependent on test scores, creating an incentive for cheating. This is a problem that still afflicts the modern system of standardized testing.
c) The system unintentionally favored wealthy families. Only the privileged could afford the tutors and other resources necessary to prepare for the exams. Again, this also applies to modern standardized testing.
Still, the system was more equitable than any of the alternatives. From the Song dynasty to the Qing dynasty, the examinations were the least corrupt of the myriad government institutions. Cheating was, at least nominally, punished severely. Despite all the imperfections, there was at least the illusion of a meritocracy.
Actually my question wasn’t about the past exams, the exams that actually took place. Rather I was asking about the current proposals.
The main proposal on the table is that a good form of government might be one where one house of the legislature is constituted by ____. To understand the proposal I wanted to know what is supposed to fill in the blank.
OK, let me respond to a few points as best I can.
1. What will the exams cover? That’s a bit vague. Here’s a quote from a recent article by Bai Tongdong (anyone who wants the full article can contact me): “In the cultivation and selection of the learned, we can take advantage of educational resources of various levels and require the potential candidates to study humanities (including both Chinese and Western classics) and sciences. Each member of the learned may have a specialty, or we can select the learned from different fields that are needed for policy-making and legislation. Moreover, in order to prevent them from being merely book-smart, they also have to go through a series of practical trainings and obtain working experiences, in addition to passing exams.”
Daniel Bell mentions basic economics and environmental sciences specifically, though I doubt he intends the exams to be limited to those. Unfortunately I am unable to access more detailed information at the moment.
2. I’m not talking about a more meritocratic society (I’m not sure what that means) or even an entirely meritocratic government, and I plead guilty to a misleading title. The proposals are really to add an additional structurally meritocratic body and thereby limit the effects of popular voting. Of course this doesn’t touch on many different aspects of government, but this is a blog post, not a book. Meritocratic Ruism mostly addresses legislative power, so I’ve been focusing on that.
3. I’m not sure myself whether there are standard definitions of legitimacy and authority in political philosophy. I think of legitimacy as the property to creating some moral obligation to obey. A legitimate government is one that, ceteris paribus, should be obeyed (even if one disagrees with its decisions). What that takes is a much bigger question that I don’t think is necessary to get into right now. Authority, according to David Estlund, is the condition in which the issuing of a command creates some obligation to obey. These aren’t always going to overlap; as a teacher I like to think I have some authority but it doesn’t seem to make much sense to say I have legitimacy. But in politics, these definitions certainly have a relationship: a legitimate government has political authority. By “ultimate” I meant “final” rather than “perfect” in the following sense: ultimate authority is not derived by delegation or bestowal of authority from some other source. I take it that the laws of democratic government have authority because they are passed by representatives given that power by the people. The authority of the people is basic: it is not given to them by someone else. As I said, I won’t say these are universal definitions, but I’m spelling them out for purposes of clarity. So in your example, I’d say yes, the people who put the mayor in office who hired the police (or could fire them), and so on, have the ultimate authority, though even this is limited in various ways. I would include not just making decisions but having the ability to contest them. If enough people in the US wanted to revise the Constitution substantially, they could do it. So far most people seem reasonably content.
4. Bill, on choosing meritocrats democratically, I believe the objections of meritocratic Ruists will be these: 1) it doesn’t actually work 2) democratic elections are not structurally meritocratic: people don’t have to vote for the expert candidates. They can vote for whom they think best represents their interests, who promises to lower their taxes the most, or whom they find attractive. The Ruists want a body where the procedure for filling it is meritocratic.
5. On confusing electing representatives and choosing policies–yes, I was not distinguishing these carefully. But there are referenda for some issues, and when people choose candidates, I suspect much of the time they are choosing collections of policies they associate with the candidate: lowering taxes, restricting abortion, creating jobs, ending the war, etc. I think the question is still relevant: can people choose good policies? If they can’t, candidates will know the best way to get elected and stay in office is to give people what they think they want, even if it is not wise in the long run. The social science research I’ve seen suggests democracy works pretty well in that elected representatives do what the people want them to do, and the influence of special interests is not as great as people often believe. So if what the people want is not good policy, we get bad results.
6. I myself think the Achilles’ heel of meritocracy is what Ken mentioned: there doesn’t seem to be good reason to believe that the experts perform better in ways that are relevant for making political decisions, which are diagnosing the causes of problems and forecasting the effects of policies designed to rectify them. Experts are very good at creating post hoc explanations of what has already happened, but not so great at predicting what will happen. I’m working on something related to this and the case for Ruist meritocracy right now, which is why I brought up the topic.
David, thanks for your latest. You know the literature much better than I do. I am curious whether there is anyone, writing in Chinese or English, who (1) proposes a new governing structure for only educated people but also (2) discusses the kinds of error and dysfunction to which educated elites are liable? If not, it is hard to see what the argument is for moving “beyond democracy.” And, if not, it strikes me that here is a great opening for someone who would like to contribute to the ongoing debate.
Not that I know of. Bai comes closest, maybe. I don’t think he takes the possibility of bias in experts as seriously as he should and this is something I’ve pushed him on (he thinks it’s correctable). I actually started looking into the research on expert judgment in the course of writing something responding to his views. Too bad he hasn’t weighed in here.
Thanks David, that helps.
Ken, your point above about rulers and counselors is very interesting.
In teaching the Analects, one might draw the students’ attention to the apparent difference between these two questions: “What qualities make a good ruler?” and “What qualities make a good adviser?” Do they have the same answer? Which question is being addressed when?
One might think the virtues for the two roles differ—for example, one might think that a good Confucian ruler should be seen as an exemplar of virtue and someone to whom the people should be grateful, while a good Confucian counselor should stay out of view so that the ruler gets the credit for good policies.
Bill, yes, the roles are different and require different virtues or competences. I would add that the point applies in democracies as well, where officials are elected or appointed, again with an uncertain relation to merit.
Meanwhile, I have been reading some essays by Simon Leys. At one point, he expresses admiration for Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig wrote: “You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect, and then just paint naturally.”
This made me wonder whether there is a Confucian equivalent. “You want to know how to govern a state? It’s not so easy, but make yourself perfect, and then just govern naturally.”
–Thanks, sorry, I meant to be talking about whether according to the Analects those two roles differ, and if so how much. I think it’s an interesting question to look at toward thinking about how far it is true that early Confucianism sees ethics as fundamentally role-dependent (as e.g. Roger Ames has held). So the twist on Pirsig is to the point. I like Leys but I never liked Pirsig, and that looks like terrible advice for a painter!
Yes, and bad advice for a ruler who wants to govern effectively and well.