Democracy or Meritocracy: Which is the Government of Reason?

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Discussion by: Zeuglodon

Introduction: Democracy and Meritocracy

One of the breakthroughs of political history was the invention and implementation of democracy in the West.  Its virtue was that it could take absolute power away from despots, tyrants, autocrats, and monarchs and emperors parading under a Divine Right, and hand a lot of that power to the formerly oppressed citizens, thus evening up the odds.

In a world where ideas and information flow freely, where governments have to answer to other governments, and where free speech is a sign of a healthy civilization, democracy becomes especially important and valuable, and suggesting that it is not up to snuff is a tricky business.  Even in cases where corruption perverts a democratic system, it’s usually traced to a deviation from this ideal, not to the ideal itself.

There is some voting within scientific institutions as well; committee chairs are elected, and an idea is considered valid by outsiders if a majority of the experts in the relevant discipline support it.  However, to even get that far, the scientists have to prove their worth.  They study hard at college and at university, write articles for peer review journals, conduct experiments, sometimes win prizes in recognition of their work, and earn respect from their colleagues in doing so.

The same happens in businesses and other institutions like religious ones, where rank is assigned only when one’s worth has been proven by experience or expertise.  Even if they don’t always follow the principle, and even if you dispute any particular kind of “expertise”, they at least pay lip service to the ideal.

Following this, I have been wondering lately about the idea of a meritocracy.  For anyone not familiar with the term, meritocracy is a government in which individuals wield more power when they have achieved something to earn that power.  For instance, those who study politics at university or who serve as a civil servant for ten years could be promoted to an understudy in a specific department, and then work their way up to the head of that particular department in time.  The emphasis is on achievement and recognition, not popular vote or the ability to win allies.

By now, you’ve probably guessed what I’m about here, but I’ll say it anyway; I’m wondering if the next step for governments is to pass from democracy to meritocracy, and whether this would be a good step or a bad one.  I’m also considering a union of the two, but more of that later.

For Meritocracy

Democracy isn’t perfect.  It is, when you get down to it, a popularity contest.  Now, people can get popular for good reasons, such as by working hard, earning their good reputation, and performing a service that shows their commitment and trustworthiness, so I don’t mean to demonize popularity.

But people can also become popular by making empty promises, promoting themselves with showy spectacles, and appealing to our own prejudices.  While I think Obama has the next election in the bag, I am a little uneasy as to how Romney has managed to garner so much support despite the repeated ignorant blunders of his side (Romney himself made a U-turn on climate change policy that reveals his own scientific illiteracy).

Even in the milder UK, too many people give too much ground to “alternative medicine”, woolly spiritual ideas, agnostic “belief in belief”, and other pseudoscientific twaddle.  And if psychology has taught us anything, it’s that we’re not as rational as we’d like to be, making democracy even more vulnerable because it relies on a rational citizenry to work.

The virtue of a meritocracy is that it forces would-be politicians to make good on their promises, and to do so early on in their careers.  There is a glimmering of this in politics already, as potential presidents and prime ministers usually have a long history in government positions prior to reaching the top of the greasy pole.

Those qualities that we look for in a potential leader are precisely the qualities that would be forced out of them in a meritocracy: a willingness to work hard, ability to make decisions under stress, diplomacy, good public relations, lack of corruption, and especially high competence.  After all, we demand similar traits in corporations, in the press, in law, in science, and even in the arts to a degree.  Why not also in the most important institution of all?

For Democracy

Now, I’m not going to be gung-ho in support of meritocracy, and it’s not just because a lot of people value democracy so much.  The biggest problem is that a meritocracy takes power away from the citizenry and gives it back to ruling individuals, leaving an opening for another form of power abuse.

Even allowing that the members of the institution are watching each other, never mind the keen eyes of the public, the critics, and the press, there’s no built-in measure in place to allow people to challenge the institution’s authority. Not without a degree of citizen influence at least, in which case why not just have a democracy?

Moreover, an individual’s grievances may well be better understood by an expert, but it’s still up to the citizen to decide how they’re going to look after themselves, and the democratic principle of voting for what you want addresses this better than the principle of giving in to the experts.

Even in medicine, a science-lead institution, we don’t force people to undergo treatment on the grounds that the doctor knows better than them; we have to seek out their permission to operate on their bodies, so personal expertise is only relevant once they’ve agreed to the expert’s procedure.  A meritocracy would have to address this, and even then it also falls prey to the prejudices of the education system; imagine the injustices of such a system if the only people who could pay for the required political degrees were also the richest.

What democracy has going for it is a huge amount of public support precisely because it empowers the public.  It’s also a tried and tested means of running a society, and if the electorate are well-educated and rational, it’s harder for the system to make mistakes.  It also coexists peacefully with the right to free speech and autonomy, almost like symbiotic creatures that benefit from working together.  Despite the scares about the scientific illiteracy and ignorance of many voters, they’re still outnumbered by the more literate and rational side, and the social trends are in the rational side’s favour.

The Best of Both?


Having considered the two, I’m not entirely convinced that they have to be in opposition.  A third way could be our best chance of creating a better government, one I’ll tentatively call the Government of Reason.  
I see a certain parallel between scientific methodology and these two government systems.  I’ll be brief, so I apologize in advance if the comparison is a little crude.

The first step of science is the hypothetical stage: creating the ideas that scientists can grapple with.  This part requires no impediments, as cutting off a source of ideas can often mean cutting off a valuable area of exploration.  This parallels the flow of information and the inclusion even of unpopular ideas, roughly like democracy’s ability to empower minorities, encourage more discussion and debate, and allow previously excluded people to contribute to the endeavour.

The next step is the more rigorous testing stage: not just vindicating the hypotheses, but subjecting them to strict criticism, controlled testing, and examination, thus weeding out the unfruitful ones.  This stage is the reverse of the former, as it cannot afford to be lax and must pick out the one fruitful area in a wasteland of lost causes.  This parallels the demands of experience and expertise required to advance in an institution, and thus parallels meritocracy’s ability to force only the best candidates to accept responsibility for the state and its citizenry.

These processes are not opposed by any means, but form two sides of the same coin.  Without the first stage, science becomes anaemic; without the second stage, it becomes obese.  My thesis, which any political expert is free to tear to pieces, is that our current institutions do well in the first category, but could use a little improvement in the second, thus creating a Government of Reason.

I suppose this science angle is the main reason why I’m wondering about meritocracies in the first place.  Democracy and its accompanying principle of free speech allows unrestricted flows of information, but at the price of allowing bad information to seep through.  What may be required is some means of isolating the best information available and using it to govern effectively, rather than giving ground to ignorance when it comes to some of the most important decisions in our lives.

I’m not suggesting some utopian ideal or encouraging totalitarianism, nor am I endorsing the censorship or silencing of those who beg to differ; on the contrary, I’d prefer to keep what virtues an open society has, and maybe a meritocracy can even do that better than a democracy.  This might be better achieved by working towards a meritocracy, which could incorporate a lot of democratic ideals without having to throw its inclusive principles out the window.  Even amateurs, rebels, critics, dissidents, and opponents are valuable in science; they just become better at their jobs.

Question Time

So, I put it to you: is it better to maintain democracy, or to take science’s example and build a meritocracy instead?  More interestingly, is there a third way to reconcile the two and get the best of both systems?  Should we keep promoting science within a democracy, or could meritocracy be a better way to prevent ignorance and anti-science movements from distorting the political sphere?

19 COMMENTS

  1. Any sort of test to limit the vote will be abused. Democracy is flawed, but it the best system we have from a pool of terrible choices.

    Even with universal suffrage politicians try to limit the vote with gerrymandering, age and residency requirements, id requirements, etc… The last thing we want is an easily abused notion like “merit” for politicians to play with.Merit is a good way to fill positions in the bureaucracy and the justice system, but not for electing representatives.

  2. I think Zeuglodon has pointed out the potential flaws in a meritocratic system already.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  It’s important to wave that red flag as early and often as possible when discussing the idea.  But Zeuglodon waved that flag first.

    Also, he’s done an excellent job of asking the questions that might lead us past ideological positions.   

    We always have to deal with human nature.  There is no way to discuss effective political systems without taking human nature into consideration. 

    The trouble with that is that is human nature to not objectively assess ourselves or our species when developing political systems.  This is why ideologies lead us to terrible places.

    Zeuglodon, it’s a wonderful discussion piece.  I wish I could add to it, but I can’t.   I’ll be thinking about what you’ve written over the next few days.  Who doesn’t believe in a meritocratic democracy (or at least a democratic meritocracy)? 

    It’s a discussion we need to have.   At the very worst, we’ll have no answers. 

    But at least, you’ve asked some very important questions.  

  3. I think one of the key failings of modern democracy is  the media, which is often in the pocket of an elite (as indeed it is in dictatorships) of corporate advertisers and sponsors.

    In any specialist subject area, there will be vastly more people ignorant of the verified information than informed about it, so manipulation by the media, along with laziness, apathy, and corruption, can and does, decide elections.

    (The “last minute big lie”, is a regular tactic just before polls.)

    That is why creationists AGW deniers etc. give star treatment to any supportive muppet with some academic qualifications they can flaunt, to add ” authority” to ridiculous claims or dubious campaigns. 

    While politicians often hide their religious connections from the public at large, within their churches, priests and others  often spread the word  – so & so is a good Catholic/Mormon/ evalgelist etc. in the run-up to elections.
      – and scream “religious discrimination” to further rally the sheeples if challenged.

  4. I’m aware of that, but we can’t have the knee-jerk reaction that leaving democracy is automatically bad.  I can think of no existing meritocracies from which anyone has found any empirical evidence that they are worse than democracies, so for all we know a democracy might be the second-best form of government.  Besides, as susanlatimer points out, I did pre-empt this point in the OP when I mentioned how meritocracies could be abused.

  5. You are right that we can’t just naively assume leaders will be paragons of virtue, but must account for their self-interest and human foibles.  I think democracies work partly because the political parties involved are in competition with each other, meaning that they have to answer to their equals and rivals as well as to the electorate.  If the government were unified into one party, it wouldn’t be long before they exploited the citizenry because there won’t be any substantial threats to their position from any rivals who could replace them at the next election.  Some of this competitiveness and appealing to self-interest could be used to keep governors of a meritocracy in check, as their positions won’t be fixed in any case.

    On the other hand, I do think canadian_right has a point when it comes to “merit”.  I don’t think that it’s as opaque as it’s made out to be, but there are some ambiguous qualifications that a potential abuser could exploit.  Coupled with the fact that people generally exaggerate their competence and benevolence whenever they can get away with it, and this could make a meritocracy rife with corruption.  It doesn’t help that a politician’s job mostly involves judging the validity of bills and motions, which can tip into the subjective very easily.

    One way to resolve this might be to create some means of obtaining objective data on any given issue, requiring politicians to work more closely with scientists, historians, and investigative journalists reporting from other countries.  If a bill is proposed, then those politicians who base their decisions on the best available information or who commission and supervise tests for this purpose could be rewarded more readily than those who neglect it, with punishment being meted out to those found abusing or distorting such information.

  6. Yes, but these are the dangers of a free speech society in any case.  Even scientists are forced to be specialists rather than jack-of-all-trades polymaths, which is why one condition for expert opinion is that the expert has to have the relevant credentials.  That leaves an opening for a fraud to pretend that they have the expertise, which in turn leaves an opening for a contrarian to oppose the mainstream.  The reason it doesn’t happen within a scientific institution (at least, with any degree of success) is that colleagues are forced to give unfakeable signs of competence as part of their job, hence the peer review system.

    If there was an equivalent for politicians, then a meritocracy could survive without imploding.  As you point out, democracies are vulnerable because members of the electorate aren’t always rational.  It’s most likely that we’d need to revamp the education systems and popular culture before making any attempt to change the government system.

  7. Zeuglodon
    Yes, but these are the dangers of a free speech society in any case. 

     
    I am not sold as much as some on “free speech”.  I see no reason to give liars and fraudsters a platform from which to con people.  The problem with restrictions is what trust can be put in those regulating the system.

    You have looked abuses in the OP, so as with democracy providing a way to remove a bad or worn-out governments, there needs to be a system to remove (particularly wilfully) false information, liars nuts, and frauds from public information supplies, or at least identify them for what they are.

    My main point was about the media misinforming the public, often for personal gain or as paid stooges. (Google is at present deleting fake likes put on its site to mislead)

    Even scientists are forced to be specialists rather than jack-of-all-trades polymaths, which is why one condition for expert opinion is that the expert has to have the relevant credentials. 

    This applies in honest academic establishments and publications, but the vast majority of the public (and voters) do not read these.  The standards for a wider audience have been set by the likes of “Fox News” and “The News of the World”. 

    That leaves an opening for
    a fraud to pretend that they have the expertise, which in turn leaves an opening for a contrarian to oppose the mainstream. 

    Indeed it does.  There is also the issue of pseudoscience fake academic establishments and quackology colleges presenting plausible fake or pseudo-credentials.

    The reason it doesn’t happen within a scientific institution (at least, with any degree of success) is that colleagues are forced to give unfakeable signs of competence as part of their job, hence the peer review system.

     

    Which is fine in reputable academic circles,  but in many places the media (dependent on advertising and sponsorship) is not interested in truth or accuracy, while benefiting elites and politicians, will oppose any honest system of regulation which will restrict or expose their own manipulative activities.

      As you point out, democracies are vulnerable because members of the electorate aren’t always rational.

    Being rational is good progress, but unless honest sources of information at an appropriate level of understanding , are available and identifiable, it is not enough.  That is why fundies persistently try to gain access to naive children for their plausible rubbish.

  8. > It’s most likely that we’d need to revamp the education systems and popular culture before making any attempt to change the government system.

    That’s why it’s so difficult to come up with solutions we can implement.  It really is a vicious circle. 

    How do we revamp education and popular culture without an emphasis on merit? 

    How do we establish a reliable meritocracy without revamping education and popular culture? 

    If we could revamp education and popular culture, democracy would work nicely.  Meritocracy would be automatically built into it.  As I said in my earlier comment, I have nothing useful to add.  I need a few more days on it. 

    But I hope this discussion takes off.  Unfortunately, it’s already hidden in the back pages based on the system that this site is using (which I know, is being improved right now).  I hope it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. 

    That would be unfortunate.

  9. I am not sold as much as some on “free speech”.  I see no reason to give liars and fraudsters a platform from which to con people.  The problem with restrictions is what trust can be put in those regulating the system.

    But that raises the question of who is a liar/fraudster and who isn’t, and at least with free speech you know you’re allowing good ideas as well as garbage.  A platform to promote one’s views, valid or not, is an invitation for a rival to come in and present an opposing case.  If we were to clamp down on such things, we may well reduce the cost of being deceived or misled, but at the expense of being subject to censorship.  Certainly, I don’t think scientists should lie or overstate their cases to the public (to take a parallel case), but then we set aside specialist publications for this purpose, and I’d rather not scientists fell afoul of the law every time they made a public blunder.

      

    You have looked abuses in the OP, so as with democracy providing a way to remove a bad or worn-out governments, there needs to be a system to remove (particularly wilfully) false information, liars nuts, and frauds from public information supplies, or at least identify them for what they are.

    Yes, this is what I envisioned.  If people were required to justify their information in public or in some designated public zones (I’d let them alone in private), then a meritocracy could solve this problem.  If, for instance, a proposal or motion could not be drafted without available peer-reviewed evidence or a commission to obtain the same, then public policy could be focused on practical solutions and not on rhetoric.  The trouble is that this doesn’t entail a meritocracy, but simply a more rational democracy, which raises the questions susanlatimer posed.

    Which is fine in reputable academic circles,  but in many places the media (dependent on advertising and sponsorship) is not interested in truth or accuracy, while benefiting elites and politicians, will oppose any honest system of regulation which will restrict or expose their own manipulative activities.

    This is a very real problem, and I regret to say I don’t have a convincing answer to it.  It is possible, though, that at the same time such anti-scientific or anti-rational pandering does create an opening for a self-interested political rival to discredit him on such grounds in order to appeal to a vocal section of the public.  Even if raising awareness via pro-scientific and pro-rational demonstrations doesn’t directly move the government to change anything, it can encourage public support (as it is doing) to petition for new motions.  The downside is that it could take years, decades, even centuries before it happens.

    Being rational is good progress, but unless honest sources of information at an appropriate level of understanding , are available and identifiable, it is not enough.  That is why fundies persistently try to gain access to naive children for their plausible rubbish.

    The problem is that any attempt to bring the marginal specialist journals and publications to bear on governmental decisions gets dismissed as “scientism” and a “scary move”, as does any attempt to include the required scholars on any decision.  Just look at Nutt’s case in the UK parliament, when he was thrown out for disagreeing with their drugs policy.  The fact is that popular culture among the media is not just largely non-scientific or even Luddite, but severely out of touch with it because people default to generic stereotypes that are already prevalent (just think of the mad scientist and white-coated boff stereotype).  A reversal of attitudes would take years, and would consist largely of playing Whack-a-Mole with the familiar arguments until the mainstream regard it as second nature.Implementing a meritocracy in such a climate cannot be an immediate thing because the mainstream zeitgeist would be hostile to it.  What does interest me is if it could emerge alongside or instead of a democratic system in the long run.

  10. That’s why it’s so difficult to come up with solutions we can implement.  It really is a vicious circle.

    Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but I don’t deny that we’ll be stuck in a rut for a while.

    How do we revamp education and popular culture without an emphasis on merit?  How do we establish a reliable meritocracy without revamping education and popular culture?

    I’m not entirely sure what you mean here.  An emphasis on merit seems to me to be necessary for such a movement.  It would be harder to promote or implement a meritocracy or a democratic equivalent without outlining the requirements, and working with a democracy, this would be better implemented by promoting such merit in campaigns and lobbies.  The atheist movement is already gaining ground among societies in the West, and in its wake will likely be an increased appreciation of reason and science, even — dare I say it — a second enlightenment.  That would take a long time, though.

    I may have misunderstood your point, however, in which case I apologize for the digression.

    If we could revamp education and popular culture, democracy would work nicely.  Meritocracy would be automatically built into it.  As I said in my earlier comment, I have nothing useful to add.  I need a few more days on it.

    Not quite: a democracy in which the citizens forced its elected leaders to be professional or experienced would be different from a meritocracy in which said leaders worked independently of the public’s opinion.  There’d be considerable overlap, and it could be possible that the latter had public relations as a form of “merit” or job requirement, but it may be easier to achieve the former than the latter.  I simply don’t know, though I’d agree that we’re in a better position to implement the first one.  The second would require a top-down approach and may well be implemented after the first one comes to be in the future.

    But I hope this discussion takes off.  Unfortunately, it’s already hidden in the back pages based on the system that this site is using (which I know, is being improved right now).  I hope it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. That would be unfortunate.

    Well, I can’t claim impartiality (it is my thread, after all!), but I too hope it does take off.  There are probably things other can bring to the table I haven’t considered at all.

  11. Sometimes I wonder if people ought to be made to work a tiny but harder for their vote.

    For instance, how many people’s vote in the last UK election was swayed by what they thought of one party or another’s economic policies?

    And of those people, how many understood exponential growth, and how it applies to borrowing and debt? Or, come to think of it, population?

    How many people’s “Guesstimates” of how fast debt grows are naive? For instance, the question “at 7% APR interest, how long does it take for debt to double?

    (answer: 11.9 years – a question which is more that academic for the Spanish right now!)

    I wonder if we all ought to be made to take a few tests that confirm that we do have at least some understanding of what we’re voting for? Otherwise, isn’t it just like tossing a dice?

  12. There used to be test: the voter had to be an adult male of good character. i.e. baptised, born in wedlock, property owner, not openly homosexual or mad, and preferably with some kind of track record in killing people.

    Same thing used to happen with trial by jury, where the jury of peers was effectively well-regarded people who were acquainted with the accused and other disputants and therefore could best judge their character. Now we have a jury system where contending barristers compete to select a panel of the most gullible, ignorant, and least well-informed of the available candidates. Possession of relevant expertise or knowledge of the circumstances is grounds for disqualification as being in contempt of court, as for anyone with any kind of productive or responsible job. These people are routinely exempted or excluded from jury service, not that they’d ever stand a chance of being empanelled anyway.

    We now have a self-perpetuating political system that competes for the support of increasingly stupid voters. All elections increasingly depend on the marginal / swinging voter. i.e. the ones who will make up their mind in the actual polling booth on the day. This even extends to the point of attempting use migration policy to increase the population density of prospective stupid voters. As with the barristers, politicians all arrogantly think they possess a superior talent for manipulating and deceiving the gullible. To improve their prospects then they all naturally tend to seek to maximise the number of gullible people subject to their influence. It actually doesn’t matter what the majority of people who are capable of thinking prefer. They won’t generally be registered in marginal electorates. The resulting policies will inevitably tend to promote stupidity and deter intelligent analysis and responsibility.

    If you want to have some political influence then voting isn’t the first place to start. First you have to convert your safe seat electorate into a marginal electorate. Generally that will involve reducing local property valuations and increasing the crime rate. So the next steps should be obvious if you are to play an effective role in national politics.

  13.  My first post here.  I’m wondering if your idea is not very similar to Jefferson’s Natural Aristocracy? 

    http://www.greatbooks.org/reso

    Or even Plato’s Republic?  I do not mean to be a dullard and I certainly am not implying that your ideas and Plato’s are the same, but only similar in that those best able to perform any particular job have the job in question.

    Please forgive my writing style.  I don’t mean to ask a load of questions as if I’m incredulous. I’m not, but questions is what I have.

    My first question would have to be what is the procedure for delineating each job description? What needs to be done?  Are we only talking about legislators only?  Or does this include everyone employed by the government down to postmasters and park rangers?

    Second, who decides who is the best match for any particular job?  Or to anticipate, who decides what the procedure is for deciding who is the best match for any particular job?  And how are we to decide who that is before having a procedure in place? 

    How do we overcome the Peter Principle?  In the US we already have a meritocracy of sorts in the working of governmental agencies, one of which employes yours truly.  In a merit based system individuals tend to rise to their level of incompetence.  Do good at your job and you will be promoted.  Do good at your new job and you will be promoted again.  Fail miserably and you will be left at that level till retired as an incompetent boob.  There must be an axe.  And it will be one of two axes.  An axe that can cut the head of state as easily as any other head; who wields this axe?  Or the axe will be wielded by or on bequest of the head of state and the natural aristocracy will quickly devolve into an artificial aristocracy based on privilege.

    The first order of business of any state, is to maintain power.  Elected officials pander, tyrants brutalize.  I believe it’s a given that any state which does not secure power will be stripped of it.  Muscle, gun powder, rhetoric, fear, charisma, have all been used.  Can we convince the populace that they are just to stupid to have a say?  Of course that would not be ‘the message.’ But would it be taken any other way?  Would free people be willing to blindly (as far as they are concerned) put their “faith” in any noble prize winner and obey unquestioningly?  Do what they are told, no arguments?

    I absolutely agree that if the best qualified for any particular job had the job in every case, this would be a great planet to live on.  I could also ask as many problematic questions regarding democracy.

    I believe that the current system in the US needs significant changes.  The dismantling of the corporate aristocracy, with respect to it’s influence in politics, the disenfranchisement of religious groups, with respect to their influence in politics, and the acceptance of the government’s responsibility in educating the brightest of the bright and guaranteeing a certified accurate source of news and facts would be at the top of my list.  The current system does not give us these things, but it allows us to protest.

    ~Regards

  14. A meritocracy isn’t a fix all. A certain small south east asian developed country is based on that and the people don’t have a real say in Government regardless of the electoral outcome (I have relatives in that country and don’t want to risk their positions which is why I haven’t named it directly as the Government does monitor these kinds of forums). The Government is just self interested and does not serve the people because there are no checks or balances. Once down that route it depends on who’s perception on what is ‘good’ for the people and the abuse of power that goes with it. Say good by to free press, say good by to trial by jury and the notion of true justice. It leads to a situation that you can have democracy but only if you vote the way the government wants you to vote to keep the vested interests in power.

  15. Democracy (in reality, a republic) is by no means perfect, but I think measuring merit and operating that system would be an absolute nightmare. How does one measure merit? The opportunities for corruption, elitism, and rule-bending are troubling. I think it would cause more problems than good… I think it would be better to spend that time and money on efforts to engage and inform the entire eligible population, making these republics more truly representative.

  16. I have felt for a long time that the way we are governed should be changed. Apathy is increasing and I imagine the sight of jeering idiots in the house of commons has played its part. I would be in favour of a elected panel of experts who make decisions based on evidence. This would not be an elected panel but rotating system where by you serve at the top for a period of time before you move back into a supporting role. If you position becomes questionable you are investigated by a jury of your peers. On this panel would be representitives from each of the sciences, including social and health. Each panel member would have a team supporting professional, each experts in thier own right.

  17. In the final analysis all governments are oligarchies; a small group of people who control a country.

    The challenge is to design a constitution that ensures no small group attains a position that is preeminent or, in other words, is in a position to turn temporary oligarchy into ‘permanent’ tyranny. There are many reasons for this but the first is, in and of itself, sufficient: peaceful transition from oligarchy to oligarchy.

    The US constitution writers had a term for these constitutional safeguards: Checks and balances.

    Most successful democracies have evolved to embrace checks and balances. The US constitution was clearly an attempt to break with the previous traditions of constitutions – one of the reasons it is a written constitution – but it was not written in a vacuum. The British constitution, the French Enlightenment and the history of the successful Roman constitutions, clearly had great influence.

    Implicit in these constitutions is the need for a measure of meritocracy, to ensure that the Governments is more likely to be about brains than brawn.

    Most countries manage this through a meritocratic civil service, creative friction between the Government and Civil Society, a split of powers between arms of government and – probably the most important – an independent judiciary run on professional lines.

    Some of these institutional arrangements are being undermined by a lack of understanding, by the over-weening ambitions of politicians, and the rise of previously unregarded political groups. The most obvious being the rise and rise of corporate media.

    Another problem is a time-poor civil society. In a bid to control labour costs businesses pressed governments to stop their market protectionism. One of the (unforeseen?) consequences of this has been that most working people in democratic countries that have previously been leaders in civil engagement in their polities have seen dramatic drops in the contribution made by civil society.

    Competition for employment is disenfranchising many voters. This, in turn, is putting a greater emphasis on media. However, the Net is beginning to show great signs of addressing this issue. The unfortunate downside is that the first civil society fight must now be with the entrenched interests that media have in oligarchies – and politics in general.

    If scientific understanding is failing to drive governments, then that will be because governments can be formed using oligarchies that do not need to reference the meritocracies, or include them in their plans. As above, there are two main reasons for this; the undermining of traditional meritocracies (the most common being the undermining of civil servants) and the rise of conglomerates in media.

    There is another reason, which I believe is too often overlooked: Education.

    It is a fact, often conveniently ignored by – supposedly democratic – politicians, that for democracy to work every citizen should be able to understand the issues presented, the challenges we face, and the importance of truth, fact, honesty, openness, and being fully informed.

    The failure to ensure that every citizen has access to the best possible education is a political failure so vast that I for one believe it cannot be overstated.

    To recap: Most democracies have meritocratic facets. Most democracies have groups that have ambitions to form an oligarchy. Because meritocracies often frustrate political groups, they are systematically attacked, and devalued. In the past meritocracies could rely on an educated and informed electorate to defend them and the value that they provide.

    A loss of alternative voices in media, through the conglomeration of media, has ensured that media have become a part of oligarchies and members of groups seeking oligarchy. This, alongside a time-poor, wage-slave, poorly educated, badly informed, electorate has ensured that civil society has become an irrelevance.

    What price truth?

    The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

    Peace.

  18. If determining merit were a science and if evidence-based decision-making were always possible, then a meritocracy might be better than a democracy. I fear that in much of this discussion there is a lack of understanding about the conditions in which those who govern need to reach decisions. Let me be clear that I share many of the frustrations with democracy that have been expressed here (too many cases of ignorance, populism, irrational voting, opportunism, vested interests, etc). However, it is worth considering first what qualities are required by a politician (in a system of government with a minimum of citizen participation – i.e. what we usually understand by democracy).
    A politician needs to have a) the ability to understand a problem that needs solving (they may spot it themselves or it may be brought to their attention), b) the ability to come up with a solution (either individually or with collaborators), c) the ability to explain the solution (to electorate, media, stakeholders, political party, government colleagues, international partners, etc), d) the ability to compromise (rarely is a single solution agreeable to all those who have a say in the decision), e) the ability to stick to the compromise and see it through (a decision or law is useless if not implemented properly). Mixed into all of that are aspects of leadership, communication, intelligence, people skills, campaigning skills, the ability to build trust, etc.

    Taking that into consideration it is clear that the person who most knows about a given subject is not necessarily the best person to be Minister Of That Portfolio. One might know a lot about a given topic but be useless at reaching compromise, therefore you end up with paralysis. It is better to have someone who knows less about the subject, but is able to bring opposing stakeholders together to reach a deal, so that society can move forward. If the latter happens to know a lot about the subject at the same time, then brilliant. But how many government portfolios (at any level of government) are single-issue ones? For that to happen, you’d have very large governments, which goes against the spirit of efficiency and good use of public money which the electorate rightly demand. So, not only is merit problematic because it is vulnerable to subjective considerations, but also it is virtually impossible to assess someone’s ability to perform well in all of the above criteria. Sometimes people reveal themselves to be excellent under difficult conditions when no-one expected it.

    As for evidence-based decision-making, this is sometimes simply impossible. Take the current financial crisis. The economists themselves cannot agree as to the way forward, so politicians are having to choose one path or the other based on their gut instinct. Or take a local politician who has to decide between allocating funds to a residence for homeless people or a local school. Both of these are important – the evidence may demonstrate that both desperately need the funds, stakeholders are lobbying hard from either side. What do you do? Would someone who has been appointed/elected based on merit make a better decision than one who has been elected? Which of the two is the better decision? Depends who you ask. Whichever the choice, the decision would probably be rational. In the end it comes down to the vision that the politician has of the local society, hence the existence of political parties.

    And I haven’t mentioned at all what happens when the level of information a politician has is imperfect (rapidly changing situation, with public pressure for a quick decision, and several sleepless nights). Would someone who is there based on merit make a better decision? Democracy has its flaws, but it is still the least worst system. That of course shouldn’t stop us from trying to improve it.


    Democracy is something we build (or destroy) through our daily actions – [link to personal website removed by moderator]

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