Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Meritocracy: the alternative to Democracy and Communism

by Bisade Asolo

Imagine yourself in a packed, dark hall, surrounded by thousands of people. In the middle of the hall a 
spotlight illuminates a boxing ring. In the ring are two heavy-weights: ‘Democracy’ and ‘Communism’. Both have areas of strengths and weakness. DING! Both ‘Democracy’ and ‘Communism’ swing at each other, resulting in a double knock-out. Silence permeates the hall. "It's a DRAW!" shouts the striped referee. Instantly, the boos of gamblers chorus through the room. Your phone vibrates; information regarding the next bout. Favourable odds are on a talented but lesser-known boxer. In brilliant, black font you read the name 'Meritocracy'.

A lesser-known social system, meritocracy allows people to reach success proportional to their talents and abilities. There are obvious advantages to this social system; one being that everyone has an equal chance of success because a meritocratic society rewards hard-working intellects as opposed to just the wealthy. This would encourage society to work harder in general which can only ever be a good thing. As we know, hard-workers are the driving force of world. Bill Gates, for example, would not be where he is today without hard work and PC users would not have the benefit of various software packages due to his hard work and that of others. Furthermore, in a meritocratic society, the government would comprise of people based on ability. So only the very best would be in positions of power, unlike in a democratic government, in which we often see people in power because of wealth and popularity and not ability.

The concept of a meritocratic society is not new. In ancient China, during the period in which the various states were at war, the Qin state prevailed against all other states, predominantly due to Shang Yang, an important statesmen during the warring period. He implemented meritocratic based reforms that abolished aristocracy and promoted individuals based on their skill, initiative and intelligence. The reforms gave the Qin state what they needed to beat other states in which an aristocratic society was dominant. These aristocratic societies meant the rich and those born into noble families held positions of power as opposed to those who actually deserved them. This handicap was the ultimate reason these states lost because this form of society creates class conflicts which resulted in a divided state that also affected the military detrimentally.

Presently, only one country on Earth is remotely meritocratic: Singapore. However, it lacks the fundamentals of a meritocratic society. For example, some schools in Singapore are significantly better than others due to better resources. As a result, students who go to far worse schools are at a disadvantage. Thus, rendering it in my eyes, not a meritocratic society because fundamentally, the basis of a meritocracy is one of fairness. Everyone being equipped with the necessary skills to compete to the best of their ability.

The concept of a meritocracy is not without faults. A meritocratic society would psychologically be detrimental to some who fall short of being the best, which could lead to resentment towards other, more successful people. However, if these problems can be tackled then a meritocratic society would definitely be the ideal basis of any society.

The idea of a meritocratic society being incorporated into western society seems very unlikely, but, with so many flaws in democratic and communistic societies it would not be surprising that elements of a meritocratic society will slowly be subsumed into today's current society. Surely if the very best were the leaders of society, with focus, then society would become the very best it could be. Is that not the whole point of a society? Every single person that makes up that society working hard? Being recognised based on their merits? It is easy to see how hard it would be to implement a meritocratic society, as the idea of working hard is more a set of beliefs, but I believe it is achievable, through determination and good old-fashioned hard work.


  1. Enlightening and fair. Democracy is a failed system and failed systems are disposed of eventually. The past century has seen immeasurable change in the way the world is run and it is assumed it's for the better, but I beg to differ. To continue on our path to greatness, civilisation needs to adapt and change to what is relevant at any given time. Democracy, at present, doesn't meet the criteria vital to an evolving and competitive world, but rather than making it stable, makes it stagnant. This acceptance of democracy as the one and only answer to political structure is flawed and has pushed away more viable means of fixing the world, like fascism or expansionist nationalism. We must experience turmoil to find the right choice. democracy is only the best option because all the other current ones are slightly worse. 'In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king'.

    Stay classy- Your friendly neighbour hood Mole-rat catcher.

    1. So McGuiver, I wonder if you've really looked at the definitions of fascism & expansionist nationalism, and real examples of these from the past. So you would prefer a fascist goverment, one with a dictator,believing society must be mobilized under a one party state, with forcible suppression of opposition, control of industry & commerce. Or an expansionist nationalist goverments that believe they are superior to other countries/territories and have the right to expand beyond their borders (as in the colonial period) because of this. Hitlers goverment was an example of this. Do you seriously feel this would be better than a Representative democracy??

    2. McGuiver, From your reply I don't believe you have really researched what fascist or expansionist nationalist governments (as in Hitler) would be like.
      If you do know what they would be you are in favor of dictatorial goverments that aggressively fight any opposition, control all aspects of the economy, are run by a one party system. So you would really prefer this over Democratic societys as in the USA, Britain etc etc. Did you develop this opinion in school?

  2. Agreed, the ability to adapt and change can be hard for an individual and even harder for a socety.

    Thank you and will do :)

  3. Fantastic article, Bisade - I really like how you've used the image of a boxing ring at the start :)

    Although a meritocratic society sounds great in theory, I don't think it would be able to be sustained in reality - not until humans changed in their nature, anyway. The trouble is that throughout history human nature has remained pretty unchanged. It's unlikely to change drastically in the future...

    Let's imagine that sometime in the future we do manage to establish a meritocratic society. How could we be sure that the people at the top wouldn't become 'corrupted by power', as they say, and give favour to their own sons and daughters to continue after them? The people in charge, although given their positions through their clear ability, would have so much authority and probably wealth, that they could fairly easily manipulate the system to allow their own circles to hold power. That could be through ensuring their own children became the best educated of society; blackmail and buying votes; or passing certain limiting laws, for example.

    And although some people who gain power are genuinely interested in bettering the world through their hard work and commendable dedication, many are not. Hence the British historian Lord Acton's remark: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

  4. Bisade I do like this post and am a fan of the fact that one of these posts holds both facts, known and obscure, and opinions that you back up quite well. Though I must say the imagery to begin with I wouldn't say is in keeping with the purpose. I do like the idea of meritocracy and would like to hear your views on some of the other cons that you didn't mention either to enforce your own point or due to a rushed post. Mcguiver I very much like the response there by the way and would like to hear more of your views on these topics.

    1. I would gladly like to delve into more depth about the disadvantages and advantages of a meritocratic based society. Simply e-mail me and we can discuss it further :)


  5. Viva,

    Agreed, for a meritocratic society to be effective, the morals of the people that make up that society must also change. However, this is achieveable. The majority of Chinese citizens adhere to the teachings of Confucius, who, might I add, was a strong advocate for a meritocratic based society. Maybe the nature of humans has remained stagnant because the democratic society in which they dwell has also remained stagnant. If the social system change then human nature will follow. Slowly, but surely. Furthermore, I think the nature of two humans from different social systems would differ e.g. someone from a meritocratic society would be more competitive than one from a communistic society. In my opinion, society is a huge factor on the how humans act. So, change the society and human nature will also change.

    A meritocratic society would not be very effective with the current form of government. As you can not have a democratic government purporting meritocratic ideals. I believe that in a meritocratic society, the government would work like this: no man/woman would have absolute power, there would not be a prime minister or president. There would be factions. For example, the best economist in the economics field would make economics based decisions, after consultation from his/her team comprising of the 2nd best, 3rd best etc. This would be applicable to environmental factions, defense factions etc. I think this is better than our form of government now, because a person making economics based decisions without some sort of qualification in that field doesn't make much sense. Furthermore, it would eliminate the need for political parties as it is 'just the best' that make up the government. This would also mean there would be no need for expensive political campaigns.

    In regards to your point about corruption, there will always be a chance of corruption in any society. But schemes designed to deter this happening would be implemented. There wouldn't be an opportunity for someone having better resources in a meritocratic society. The resources that would normally advantage some could be made public. So online classes you can access at any time. There should be no limit to education. Being the best constitutes of: hardwork, determination, what you know and how to apply what you know etc. If everyone is hardworking, determined, all information is made available and teachers to help you apply what you know etc, then in theory, everyone has an equal opportunity to be the best.

    1. Bisade,

      I want to start by reinstating that I am very much in support of the idea of meritocracy, but my stance is that it is not feasible in reality.

      The reason why the majority of Chinese citizens adhere to the teachings of Confucius is because it part of their culture, and they have been brought up to have strong faith in their history and culture. It is not that their morals have changed, but that they have developed over time to be that way through a variety of factors which would be very difficult to replicate here in the UK, for example. Here, it would be tremendously hard to get the large majority of the public to back one man or one idea in the way that the Chinese do. This is because of the way our society is. To get people to change their morals would more difficult than I can express through words, especially with the rise of atheism and more individualistic thinking across the west (if not the globe).

      Hmmm... I don't think "the nature of humans has remained stagnant because the democratic society in which they dwell has also remained stagnant" simply because history doesn't tell us that. Society hasn't been democratic throughout history and yet human nature hasn't changed much (if at all) during that time. In fact after ancient Greek and Roman times, our experiences of democracy have been fairly recent. Think about when democracy really started to function in this country, for example. It wasn't until the late 19th century that the 'common' man got the vote (women, of course, had to wait even longer). In Germany, democracy failed to establish itself properly until after Hitler was removed from power in 1945. Consider the rise and fall of Fascism and Communism in the 20th century. They showed that, despite the societal system having been changed, human nature remained the same. The aims of the new systems were to improve society and make it fairer, or better. It was the trouble with human nature, though, that made Communism, for example, unworkable in the form that was intended by its father, Karl Marx.

      You've said that "for a meritocratic society to be effective, the morals of the people that make up that society must also change" and that "if the social system changes then human nature will follow". Isn't that a bit paradoxical? If people's morals must change to allow meritocracy to be effective and if the morals will only change if the social system is changed, then does that not mean that an effective meritocratic society is rendered impossible?

      I agree with you that a meritocratic society would not be very effective with the current form of government and you have explained the idea of democracy being like a popularity contest very well in your article. The meritocratic system you've explained in your comment is very intriguing and highly appealing, but I believe there are a few flaws in the system you've described. For one thing, who would decide who was the 'best' person in each field? How would this 'best' individual be picked from thousands of candidates? What would determine whether they were the best in their field?
      More importantly, how would corruption be prevented, even in this system?

      This last question leads on to my response to your last point. A person or a committee would have to choose the 'best' person in each field, but how would you ensure that there was no bribery or preference for friends etc. (presuming you are never able to rectify human nature, which, as I've argued above, is likely to be the case)? Your mention of equal access to resources sounds like a great idea, but it wouldn't prevent the sort of corruption that I've just talked about.

  6. Viva,

    I agree it would be difficult to integrate meritocratic ideals into society, but it is not impossible. Furthermore, I do not think it is solely because of their culture that the Chinese decideed to take Confucius's opinion and glorify them. It is more than that. It is because of the personal benefits it brings and many more and you don not have to be Chinese in order to attain those benefits. Many people practice Confucianism here in the UK.

    People ruled under a monarchy must have also thought that the concept of democracy was also impossible. Just because something seems unachievable right now, does not mean it cannot be achieved in the near future. That is what history has taught me.

    The simple act of instilling a sense of right and wrong unto a child that always did the wrong thing, I believe, is changing morals

    I do not think it is paradoxical, humans are constantly changing due to new things being created and implemented into society. Furthermore, it has been done before, the transition from a monarchy to a democracy, people in the UK adapted to that. Humans are not rigid things that find new concepts scary.

    Deciding who would be the best would not be a flaw in a meritocratic society. Examinations, simulations, past achievements and more importantly the ability to innovate are things that can be used in order to identify 'the best' (the method used to identify the best can vary, these are just brief examples). Tests could easily be constructed in order to test and identify if each candidates possess these skills.

    Lastly, corruption has existed for a very long time and it is hard to prevent corruption from happening, but you can limit to such an extent that the impact it brings is infinitesimal. This can be done by: distributing power evenly so not one person has to much of it, incorporating a sense of right and wrong into society and regular checks to identify if corruption is taking place. These are but a few ways to limit corruption, for corruption can never truly be eradicated.

    It has been extremely interesting discussing the various aspects of a meritocratic society with you Viva. Who knew such a topic could incite such a debate :)

    1. Bisade,

      Yes, it has been very interesting and a great deal of fun! :)


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