Sunday, June 21, 2015

What is meritocracy?

 There's a new book out called The China Model (Princeton University Press) by Daniel A. Bell, a government professor. I  read a review  after reading a post about it at Marginal Revolution. The attention in the book and review seem to be on autocracy vs. democracy but phrased as being meritocracy v. democracy, something quite different. Either an autocracy  or a democracy can be meritocratic or not, because it's a different dimension. 

   I don’t know about the book, but when I think of meritocracy, I don’t think of choosing the top leader by examination, which I don’t think has ever been done anywhere. It certaintly doesn’t mean oligarchy, with a group of powerful men at the top running things and choosing who will be the titular head of state. Rather, it refers to having a large amount of the state’s power in the hands of civil servants who are chosen by merit, by some non-political means such as blind examination. The top leaders are still chosen by some other means.

Thus, the real question is whether there should be civil service examinations such as the United States used to have before Jimmy Carter ended them because they were thought to be racist, or overt political choice of employees, or choice delegated to existing employees based on whatever criteria they like, which I understand is our current system. Note that the last is not really non political— it just uses the political views of the existing civil servants rather than of the elected leaders. Thus, we get the highly politicized Justice Dept. Civil Rights Division civil servant hiring.

It *is* a very good question how far down in the ranks political hiring should go. 


  But am I right? What is a good definition of meritocracy? And what is our current system of government hiring--- is there a limit on discretion? I do recall someone saying that, for example, having a college degree helps, but it doesn't matter whether that degree is from mail order or from Princeton.

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