Daniel Bell, a Canadian political philosopher who has taught at Tsinghua University in Beijing for many years, is deeply influenced by this Chinese tradition. In his new book, he has set himself the ambitious task of making the case that Chinese-style meritocracy is, in important respects, a better system of governance than western liberal democracy.
I’ve been seeing a lot of emotional reactions to this book, here are a few points:
1. The United States probably should have less democracy along some margins, if only fewer referenda in California and no state and local elections of judges, dog catchers, and the like. If a writer cites “democracy” as obviously and always good for all choices, that writer isn’t thinking clearly.
2. More generally, the Western nations are relying on democracy less, as evidenced by the growing roles for central banks and also the European Union. That may or may not be desirable, but it’s worth considering our own trends before putting the high hat on.
2. The key to long-term living standards is stability of growth, just look at Denmark. There was never a heralded “Danish economic miracle,” but the country still has finished close to the top in terms of human welfare. Whether ostensibly meritocratic non-democratic systems can deliver such outcomes remains very much up for grabs, and Bell’s book hasn’t convinced me any that they can.
3. Arguably a country’s best chance of achieving meritocracy is to have many smart individuals who are culturally central. No system of government is going to overcome the lack of that.
4. Most humans in history seem to have favored meritocratic rule over democracy, and before the 19th century democracy was rare, even in the limited form of male-dominated or property owner-dominated republics. It is possible that the current advantage of democracy is rooted in technology, or some other time-specific factor, which ultimately may prove temporary. That said, I still observe plenty of democracies producing relatively well-run countries, so I don’t see significant evidence that a turning point against democracy has been reached.
5. To consider comparisons which hold a greater number of factors constant, I haven’t seen many (any?) serious people argue that Taiwan or South Korea would have done better to resist their processes of democratization.
Here you can buy The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy.