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.
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?
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.
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?