The Case for Democratic Meritocracy

December 19, 2022

About the author:

Brian Wong Yueshun, Ph.D. candidate, Oxford University, Columnist, Hong Kong Economic Journal, TI Youth Observer


Discussions concerning political systems often slip into a false binary – that legitimate political systems should either take the form of closed, uncompetitive selection methods, with the disproportionate concentration of power in the hands of the few, or must involve vastly open and indiscriminate elections in which anyone and all could run, vote, and shape the outcomes of the elections. The issue with this false binary, of course, is that it neglects the structural issues underpinning both systems. 


Most “electoral democracies” around the world tend to suffer from varying degrees of elite capture by the wealthy growing risks of populism and emotivism in voting, which collectively culminate in misalignment between the preferences espoused by the public in elections, and what is in fact in their interests. On the other hand, systems that jettison elections and favor closed loops of leadership selection and succession, run the risk of slipping into cycles of systemic unaccountability and formulation of interest groups revolving around small cliques of elites. And, as this paper submits, it could not offer a mature, reasonable, and genuinely legitimate system of rule for any country around the world. 


After discussing both ends of this (false) binary, this paper proceeds to outline the tentative case for a democratic meritocracy – a system where leaders are chosen and promoted in accordance with their individual merits, as defined by the public; yet where they are held to account by suitable veto mechanisms that are currently lacking in closed and centralized systems of governance. 



The Waning of Electoral Democracies – As We Know Them 

It is imperative that one differentiates between democracy in principle and the present state of “electoral democracies” around the world. Democracy in principle remains fundamentally sound and unarguably counts amongst the most legitimate forms of governance around the world – it asks that those who wield executive power over their people, those who monopolize violence in the name of publicly agreed-upon law and order, must come to serve the people’s interests, abide by the people’s will, and be seen as fundamentally resonant with the people. We could simplify this into a trifecta: the substantive, the procedural, and the perceptual.


In practice, however, the ideals of democracy are rarely actualized – this is not to say that democracy is inherently impossible, or that there cannot be flawed democracies that are still preferable to “perfect” non-democracies. The claim advanced here is more modest, that there exists at least a significant number of nominal “electoral democracies” that fail to deliver upon above the criteria of substantive, procedural, and perceptual democracy. 


For example, the election of Donald J. Trump and the Brexit vote in 2016 have, respectively, delivered significant disruptions and posed vast liabilities to the peoples residing in the United States and the United Kingdom. As Barbara Walter points out in her How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them, the systemic disillusionment felt by a large swathe of white working-class voters who had viewed themselves as entitled to special treatment and privileges, on grounds of their ethnicity and cultural origins (or, for a slightly more skewed take, see J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy), in turn, fueled the surge of Trumpism in swing states, where the zealous ideology vanquished its counterpart in the “liberal metropolitan elite” embodied by Clinton. The Trump presidency brought nothing but turmoil and unfulfilled promises to the American populace, including those who had been prior victims of structural unemployment under the dual forces of globalization and mechanization of labor. In the case of Brexit, voters were deceived by the highly successful propaganda sprouted by the politicians such as Nigel Farage, which saw Britain commit one of its worst economic mistakes just yet by signing away its access to the second largest market in the world. Electoral democracies therefore flounder should their people fail to recognize, understand, or come to rectify the errs in their own cognition and understanding of the world.


As for the procedural – it is eminently reasonable to stand for a system where each and every individual, irrespective of their influence and status, powers, and origins, can have an equal say over electoral outcomes. The Jeffersonian pronouncement, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” is fair and reasonable. Yet in a world where leadership races are won or lost on the basis of donations – on the ability of candidates to court bankrolling from the mega-rich oligarchs or mega-influential patronage networks (e.g., lobbying firms, political dynasties, and religious groups), as perhaps best evidenced by the recent midterm elections in the United States, or past leadership races in the Philippines – it is not the case that voters in these countries get an equal say over their leaders. Democracy is thus undermined by vast inequalities, blatant misinformation, and – at times – collusion between domestic and foreign authoritarian actors in actualizing their nefarious agendas. It is not elections that are to blame, but the distortionary media-lobbying-capital webs of influence that are most perturbing.


Finally, on the perceptual front. Democracies around the world suffer from unprecedented challenges to their perceived legitimacy. The surge of echo chambers, polarization, and sometimes extreme violence has cast substantial shadows over the willingness on part of staunchly dedicated voters to accept electoral outcomes when things do not go their way. Take the denialism exhibited by Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters over the recently concluded Brazilian elections, for instance, or the pathetic “Stop the Steal” tirade mounted by Trumpists against both Republican and Democratic candidates who stood for a modicum of moderation and pragmatism in US politics today. Electoral democracies are grappling with problems of low approval ratings, skyrocketing mistrust in governments, and significant anti-establishment sentiments – which have all contributed towards the much stifled and hampered efforts against the pandemic.



Yet Centralized, Non-Democratic Institutions Cannot Be the Solution, Either. 

Electoral democracies are in crisis. Yet the answer does not rest with centralized, non-democratic institutions where the public cannot participate in running or voting for candidates in elections, either. It is tempting to see the eradication of elections as the solution – after all, doing so eliminates the need for ceaseless leadership contests, incessant turmoil, and partisan infighting, as well as the insidious impacts of powerful lobbyists and money politics.


We must nevertheless bear in mind that these very issues – factionalism, balkanization, domination by a small group of privileged individuals – could well persist in systems even without elections. Elections are potentially an amplifier, but by no means the sole amplifier, of hierarchical power structures. Indeed, the absence of transparent, competitive, and open elections could well lead to the further entrenchment of the power elite and the ossification of the proverbial ladder. Without the prospects of “voting them out,” the public would be bereft of options with which they can respond to derelict, negligent, or downright abusive and corrupt officials.


The standard move here is to appeal to meritocracy. Confucianism makes the case for wizened, sagacious leaders adhering to principles of harmony in governing with demure sophistication. Plato invoked the metaphor of the philosopher-king in advocating rule by the informed and capable. Meritocracy, in theory, could circumvent many of the aforementioned issues, through ensuring that only the crème de la crème, who must also espouse values and interests that reflect those of the public, could rise to the very top. Indeed, those who are most meritorious would presumably be capable of servicing the largest number of the public, whilst acknowledging and accommodating the needs of critical minorities concurrently. 


Yet the issue with implementing meritocracy via completely closed systems – with no institutionally enshrined opposition – is relatively clear. The first constitutes the nebulousness of “merit.” Philosophers Michael Sandel and Daniel Markovits interrogate this respectively in The Tyranny of Merit and The Meritocracy Trap, outlining concurrently different ways by which merit has become merely a tool by which the rich and affluent retrospectively justify the inherited advantages they have accrued, or the solipsistic egotism that permeates their reticence to accept redistribution and a modicum of equal access to prosperity. Common prosperity, unfortunately, remains a goal far aloof in systems where “merit” begets more perceived “merit,” and leads to distortionary allocations and flows of capital. Who gets to define “merit”? If the sole proprietor and designer of the question is left to those who are already in positions of power, who get to rewire and workshop rules to fit their own purposes, then this does not seem to be a reassuring basis for a sustainable and cogent method of selection for future leaders to come. Instead, “meritocracy” would only be brandished as an excuse to legitimize existing practices and distributive patterns.


The second is that meritocracy does not guarantee accountability. One could be the most capable nuclear scientist in the world – yet even then, one cannot be granted a unilateral say over how nuclear weapons ought to be used. Similarly, even if the ultra-competent rulers possess all the knowledge needed for them to govern effectively, there is no guarantee that they would care for their denizens – without robust institutional checks and balances, or the cultivation of strong and sincere internal discipline and devotion to the people. Stability may be preferable to instability – but only if stability brings about positive outcomes that serve the interests of all, as opposed to the few. 



The Case for a Democratic Meritocracy

The solution ultimately rests with democratic meritocracy. It is perfectly reasonable to take the basis of government as a rigorous examination and qualification system whose metrics straddle multiple components – exposure to municipal and local governance and communal affairs, a clear and sound grasp of current affairs and political contentions, professional and education credentials commensurate with the positions at hand. These different components may be assigned different weightings according to the level of governance the system is catering to here – local, municipal, provincial, or national, for instance. Citizens’ voices must be heeded and reflected comprehensively, through aggregative and processing technologies, in determining what counts as “core indicators” of merit. Yet beyond that, citizens may not need to play an active role, if at all, in the selection and appointment of their leaders. 


Where lies the accountability mechanism, then? The democraticity of this system can only be enshrined if citizens have the opportunity to vote out their leaders – and where such “veto votes” are respected and taken seriously by their governments, and enforced by a neutral third party. Perhaps the threshold of veto – as with recall elections in some US states – should be set at two-thirds as opposed to a half; or perhaps a veto can be triggered upon the leaders violating constitutionally defined limits to their power. One way or another, there needs to be ample veto mechanisms that can keep the selected powers in check. Elsewise, absolute power would only breed systemic corruption.


In many ways, the espoused model here mirrors what Joseph Schumpeter envisioned to be the right kind of democracy – one where the people ultimately serve in a vital gatekeeping fashion in eliminating and booting out leaders that have grown out of touch with them, and yet also one where leaders are given sufficient discretion and say to truly work in the interests of the people, as opposed to merely satisfy the transient whims of voters during any particular election cycle. 


Politicians should be rewarded not just for their ability to govern, issue decisions, or make policies (a part of substantive democracy), but also for their capacities to communicate, defend and improve public understanding of their policies (as a part of both procedural and perceptual democracy). Only through such mechanisms, could true merit be cultivated and sustained amongst politicians over time. 


The proposed model here is – in many ways – a hybrid. There are few countries that perfectly exemplify its implementation in their politics, but this is not a reason to deem it thereby impracticable. Even if it were indeed impracticable, we must strive our best to turn democratic meritocracy into reality, through pressing for gradual changes and reforms to existing governments. 


Electoral or non-electoral; direct elections or indirect elections – such questions of “form” only matter insofar as answering them enables us to produce a system of governance that works in accordance with the specific geopolitical and cultural context in which the state is situated. We must do away with the notion that democracy and meritocracy are a zero-sum game – they never have been. 





Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.


This article is from the November issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the October issue, please click here:




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