Is meritocracy possible in politics?

Daniel A Bell | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on May 31, 2015


Daniel A Bell

In October 2013, a slick cartoon video of mysterious provenance went viral, with more than ten million viewings in two weeks. The video, released at the time of the US federal government shutdown, contrasts the selection of leaders in different countries. It depicts the meteoric rise of President Barack Obama, aided by hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign financing, with victory coming in the form of a countrywide national election on the basis of one person, one vote.

This process is labelled “democracy.” It also depicts President Xi Jinping’s decades-long ascent to the pinnacle of Chinese power: his promotions from leadership in a primary-level office to the township level, the county division, department levels, the province-ministry level, the Central Committee, the Politburo, and then the leading spot in the Standing Committee of the Politburo, with rigorous and ultra-competitive evaluations at each stage meant to test his political leadership abilities. This process is labelled “meritocracy.” The clear implication of the video is that Chinese-style political meritocracy is a morally legitimate way of selecting top political leaders, perhaps even better than democratic elections.

The video was likely produced and distributed by a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organ, but if political meritocracy is so good, why can’t the CCP take responsibility for the video? More generally, why can’t the CCP officially embrace political meritocracy and openly take pride in its meritocratic system? The main reason is that Chinese-style political meritocracy is imperfect in practice. But this leads to the question of what should be the moral standards for evaluating political progress (and regress) in a regime that aspires to be a political meritocracy?...

A question of quality

Political meritocracy is perhaps the most studied and the least studied topic in political theory. The idea that a political system should aim to select and promote leaders with superior ability and virtue is central to both Chinese and Western political theory and practice. The reason seems obvious: we demand trained and qualified persons in leadership positions in science, law and corporations; why not also in the most important institution of all? As the distinguished American sociologist Daniel Bell (1919–2011) put it, “one wants men in political office who can govern well. The quality of life in any society is determined, in considerable measure, by the quality of leadership. A society that does not have its best men at the head of its leading institutions is a sociological and moral absurdity.”

Hence, political thinkers — from Confucius, Plato, and Zhu Xi to John Stuart Mill, Sun Yat-sen, and Walter Lippmann — struggled to identify the ways of selecting the best possible leaders capable of making intelligent, morally informed political judgments on a wide range of issues. But such debates largely stopped in the post-World War II era. In China, they stopped because Maoism valued the political contributions of warriors, workers and farmers over those of intellectuals and educators.

Whatever the top-down political reality, revolutionary leaders claimed they were building a new form of participatory socialist democracy from the ground up, and defenders of political elitism were nowhere to be seen (or publicly heard from) in mainland China. In the West, they stopped largely because of the intellectual hegemony of electoral democracy. A democracy demands only that the people select their leaders; it is up to the voters to judge the merits of the candidates. If voters are rational and do a good job choosing leaders, there is no need to agonise too much over what ought to be the qualities of good leaders and which mechanisms can best select such leaders...

The universal ideal

The debates over political meritocracy were revived in the tiny city-state of Singapore. Starting from the 1960s, the country’s leaders advocated the institutionalisation of mechanisms aimed at selecting leaders who were best qualified to lead, even if doing so meant imposing constraints on the democratic process.

They argued that political leaders should take a long-term view rather than cater to electoral cycles, and the political system can and should be structured to prevent the exercise of power by short-term- minded “populist” political leaders.

But Singapore’s discourse on political meritocracy failed to gain much traction abroad, largely because it was not presented as a universal ideal. Rather, Singapore’s leaders emphasised that the need to select and promote the most capable and upright people is particularly pressing in a tiny city-state with a small population, limited resource base, and potentially hostile neighbours.

Hence, why debate the exportability of an ideal that is meant to fit only a highly unusual city-state? But two recent developments put debates about political meritocracy back on the global map. For one thing, the crisis of governance in Western democracies has undermined blind faith in electoral democracy and opened the normative space for political alternatives.

Promoting talent

The problem is not just that democratic theorists came to realise the difficulties of implementing democratic practices outside the Western world; the deeper problem is that actually existing democracy in the Western world no longer sets a clear-cut positive model for other countries.

In difficult economic times, for example, voters often select populist leaders who advocate policies inimical to the long-term good of the country, not to mention the rest of the world. Hence, innovative political thinkers argue that governance in Western democracies can be improved by incorporating more meritocratic institutions and practices. Equally important, the theory of political meritocracy has been reinvigorated by the rise of China.

Since the early 1990s, China’s political system has evolved a sophisticated and comprehensive system for selecting and promoting political talent that seems to have underpinned China’s stunning economic success.

Like earlier practices in imperial China, the political system aims to select and promote public servants by means of examinations and assessments of performance at lower levels of government. Chinese-style meritocracy is plagued with imperfections, but few would deny that the system has performed relatively well compared to democratic regimes of comparable size and level of economic development, not to mention family-run dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere.

And the world is watching China’s experiment with meritocracy. China, unlike Singapore, can “shake the world.” In the early 1990s, nobody predicted that China’s economy would rise so fast to become the world’s second largest economy. In twenty years’ time, perhaps we will be debating Chinese-style political meritocracy as an alternative model — and a challenge — to Western-style democracy.

With permission from Princeton University Press

Published on May 31, 2015
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