Home/Alan Jacobs/Dialogue on Democracy, Part 4

Dialogue on Democracy, Part 4

Civil service exam candidates gather around the wall where results had been posted; by Qiu Ying (仇英 c.1540). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

(Previous installments here, here, and here.) 

B. Ah, the famous Imperial Examination! Ideal of meritocrats everywhere! But it’s not as though everyone in China had an equal shot at passing it — or even taking it. The rich who could afford tutors and bribes had a massive advantage over poor families whose sons had to rely on their wits and hard work. There was always some social group who were excluded from taking the exams — and of course women were never allowed to take it — and there was massive cheating —

A. Of course, of course. There is no possible system of politics or anything else that can’t be gamed, and in which the rich do not have advantages that the poor lack. To raise that as an objection to any scheme for social improvement is to allow the perfect — the impossible, the unrealizable perfect — to be the enemy of the good.

There will certainly be inequality at the beginning, but since money and discipline can only partially compensate for a lack of brains, and poverty can only partially impede the extravagantly intelligent, there would in such a system, over time, arise greater and greater equality both of opportunity and achievement. If you care about that kind of thing. I do, sort of, but not as much as I care about creating a political system in which the very best actually rule.

B. And it’s your view that China in the Imperial era actually achieved this genuine meritocracy?

A. Glad you asked. The answer is a firm No, in part because of the cheating and gaming we talked about a moment ago, but also because in the Imperial system the best were allowed to advise — but not to rule. The cult of the Emperor and the imperial family remained in place. China had created an enormously powerful system for funding and training the most gifted young men — and yes, it’s a shame that it was men only — ever devised, but restricted the ability of those men to set the course of Empire. So what I am arguing for is the next and obvious step: putting the aristoi — the genuine aristoi, not those of the dominant social class — in charge.

B. I wonder if you’d get “the genuine aristoi.” I recall that one Chinese philosopher, Ye Shi, commented that “A healthy society cannot come about when people study not for the purpose of gaining wisdom and knowledge but for the purpose of becoming government officials.”

A. I think Ye Shi may have been a little too concerned about people’s motives. If we can create examinations that accurately test for the skills that our rulers really need to have, and we select as our leaders the people who have those skills, who cares if their motives aren’t pure?

B. Hm. If you tell me that you can produce the best medical researchers, or particle physicists, by means of an examination, I might — might — take the notion seriously. But political rule? I don’t think so. Political leadership requires a whole host of skills and virtues — people skills, as we like to say, prudence, discernment, judgment of character — all traits that can’t possibly be tested for, but only developed through practice, experience. And some of those traits are virtues — so the character of the person in leadership actually matters. Politics isn’t a matter of A/B testing, of choosing the best option from a group of four!

A. Isn’t it? I’m not so sure. But I’ll grant that under democracy what you say may well be true — let’s say it is true. But democracy is what I’m trying to get rid of here, and one of the chief reasons I want to get rid of it is its tendency to generate just this kind of leader: someone who doesn’t know anything about anything but can somehow generate trust ex nihilo. I want — society needs — to ground our leadership choices in more objective terms of excellence, and relieving ourselves of the burden of democracy will give us a chance to do that. If instead of choosing leaders who can please hoi polloi we choose leaders with demonstrable expertise in the issues we face — poverty, poor health, inefficient energy usage, upheavals due to foreign conflicts, uncertainty because of irrational foreign governments —

B. Some of which are democracies. And even the ones that aren’t often have governments that stand because of their ability to “please hoi polloi.” Do you think you exam-crushing experts are going to have what it takes to deal with such retrograde social orders?

A. I think they’ll have a much better chance than the pols we send around the world today, many of whom have amateurish knowledge of the cultures within which they’re placed – and those are the good ones. I’d rather choose people with some of those social virtues you were lauding from within a pool of the demonstrably knowledgable than from within a pool produced by our current patronage system.

B. You know America has a foreign service exam, right?

A. Sure. And many of the people who aced it are working and suffering under inept direction from higher-ups who have no business making decisions. We’re like imperial China in that respect.

B. So you want to put the people who ace the exam in charge? And then extended a similar model into the rest of the governmental system?

A. Right — though of course people will need to gain experience over time — I wouldn’t suggest putting a 22-year-old in immediate charge of an embassy because she had the highest test scores.

B. Based on what you’ve said so far, I’m not sure why not. But let’s drop that — I have a different question for you. You’re creating a system in which almost everyone will be deprived of self-government. Do you think people in general will accept such a deprivation?

A. It’ll be a hard sell at first, because most people like to think of themselves as not just worthy of self-determination but positively inclined towards it. But they’re not — not either: not worthy and not so inclined. As I argued from the outset, the demos has made an absolute mess of things, implementing (through their chosen leaders) a vastly long series of selfish and stupid decisions, which they have also tried with considerable desperation to avoid facing the consequences of. But I also think on some level they know this — they understand that they are not suited for self-governance. And when someone comes forward with the ability to explain this to them in non-threatening terms, and to show them that democracy is not inevitable and that there really may be a better way, then I think they’ll be glad to be relieved of the burden of self-rule.

B. So if people are going to be persuaded to relinquish a system in which they choose leaders solely on the basis of trust-inducing capacity, they’re going to need one or more people they trust to do that persuading.

A. Yes. Ironic, isn’t it. But the history of politics is full of ironies. Only Nixon could go to China, etc.

B. You remind me of Loki.

A. Hmm?

B. Loki. In The Avengers. Telling people that they were made to be ruled.

(To be continued…)

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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