Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Meritocracy and Democracy

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?


August 5, 2013 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, History, Sinology | , ,

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