The Deserved Death of Democracy
Cynicism with politicians and politics has reached alarming levels because the inherent problems of democracy can no longer be concealed. Is it time to replace democracy with meritocracy?
Some political commentators have written in favour of meritocracy and suggested that this should be the big idea that our political leaders rally around. These commentators are right, but not in the way they think. This is indeed the time for meritocracy, but there’s one straightforward reason why democratic politicians would be mad to accept the challenge: meritocracy and democracy are totally incompatible.
Meritocracy is just a new way of saying a very old word: aristocracy – rule by the “best”. If democratic politicians were not the best individuals to be running our country – i.e. those most deserving by virtue of their talents – what right would they have to lead us in a meritocratic environment? As soon as the meritocratic genie is released from its bottle, the legitimacy of democracy itself is called into question. The democratic voting system – a system in which the only qualification required is that you should have achieved the astounding feat of surviving in this world for at least 18 years – is, and never has been, consistent with any principle of merit. If it were, voters would have to pass exams to demonstrate their merit before being allowed to participate in elections. It’s meritocracy’s revolutionary challenge to democracy that should be the focus of political debate.
And why shouldn’t democracy be forced to justify itself? As disillusionment with politicians grows inexorably, hasn’t the time come to try something new? Is it possible to construct an entirely new political system based not on democracy but on meritocracy?
We are bombarded with so much rhetoric promoting the virtues of democracy that people have been brainwashed into thinking there’s no alternative. Apart from extremist fringe parties, no one spends any time considering a radical reshaping of our political institutions. Yet through history few intellectuals have spoken supportively of democracy, and most have been openly contemptuous of it. The American journalist H. L. Mencken said in 1916, “Democracy is a form of religion. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.” One of his alternative definitions was: “Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage.” He considered democracy actively hostile to free thinking: “Democracy is grounded upon so childish a complex of fallacies that they must be protected by a rigid set of taboos, else even halfwits would argue it to pieces. Its first concern must thus be to penalise the free play of ideas.”
In this regard, democracy has surely succeeded in its aim – there is little discussion in modern intellectual circles of replacing democracy. That said, a book has appeared that accuses voters in democracies of being irrational. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies by Professor Brian Caplan advocates that a nation’s economic decisions should be taken by councils of economists insulated from the vagaries of democracy.
There are two central problems with democracy. The first is that the electorate by and large are grotesquely ill informed about the issues upon which they are voting. They are usually guided by emotive arguments, glib sound bites and crude, scare-mongering propaganda. The media is carefully controlled by the wealthy to promote their message at all times. A careful, considered analysis of complex issues never occurs. If typical British voters were asked to write a four-page essay on the pros and cons of joining the Euro, or on any other significant issue for that matter, they wouldn’t have a clue. In other words, democracy, at heart, is government by emotion rather than reason, which is why it’s associated with so much ineptitude.
The second problem is that democracy constantly provides the proof of its own inadequacy. Mencken says, “Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right.” If a democratic government were competent, what would be the point of an opposition? We are supposed to regard the opposition as keeping the government on its toes, but the opposition’s unending carping simply erodes confidence in both the government and democratic institutions in general.
Imagine a constructive opposition: one that praised the government at least as often as it criticised it, and only ever censured it in the interests of genuinely better government rather than petty politicking. Such an opposition is inconceivable in a democracy. How could the farce of Prime Minister’s Question Time continue if, on a regular basis, the Leader of the Opposition actually supported the government’s policies? Yet why shouldn’t he? Surely, if the government were performing well, it would be perverse not to.
Why is it that people find it so hard to conceive of alternatives to democracy? Is it laziness, brainwashing, lack of intellect? Even prominent democrats have acknowledged democracy’s flawed nature. Winston Churchill declared, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.” In other words, Churchill viewed democracy as the least bad option. Is that really the best we can aim for? – the least bad.
Aristotle defined six different political systems: monarchy, aristocracy, constitutional government, democracy, oligarchy and tyranny. He was no fan of democracy: “A democracy is a government in the hands of men of low birth, no property and vulgar employments.” The best political system, he said, was rule by a single wise ruler, followed by aristocracy (rule by a group of wise people), then constitutional government (a stable mixture of democracy and oligarchy). The worst forms of government were the mirror images of these three. So the worst political regime of all was a tyranny, where a single bad person wielded absolute power. Second worst was an oligarchy where a few corrupt individuals governed in their own interests. The third worst was the type of democracy which Aristotle regarded as practically the same as ochlocracy (government by the mob, the rabble).
In the modern age, the idea of a great, benign, kingly ruler is absurd. Tyrannies, on the other hand, are sadly not uncommon. In most nations, the prevailing political system is an oligarchy pandering to an ochlocracy.
Ludicrously, you sometimes hear people such as Tony Blair (a person from a highly privileged background) declaring that they are meritocrats. If they had a shred of philosophical decency they’d never dare to mention meritocracy. “Meritocracy” is merely the politically correct new name for old-style Aristotelian and Platonic aristocracy. It has nothing in common with democracy, which is rule by the people regardless of their merits.
What shape might a meritocratic regime assume? Meritocracy is a non-sexist, non-racist ideology seeking to ensure that every citizen can rise as high in society as their individual talent allows. People are judged on what they can do; not on the identity, wealth or influence of their parents. It’s what you know takes over from the currently all-conquering principle of It’s who you know. Meritocracy opposes nepotism, cronyism, and inherited privilege.
In a meritocracy, there are of course no opposition parties, or indeed parties of any description. Meritocracy is in this sense apolitical; there is no set agenda, no manifesto, that must be slavishly followed. The House of Lords is abolished as a revising chamber. In fact, in the absence of party politics there’s no need for a second chamber at all.
Raising inheritance tax one hundred percent is a mandatory aspect of meritocracy since no one can be allowed to use the wealth they have acquired to transmit a posthumous anti-meritocratic advantage to someone of their own choosing. As the great Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (once the richest man in the world), said, “By taxing estates heavily at death the state marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire’s unworthy life. It is desirable that nations should go much further in this direction. Indeed, it is difficult to set bounds to the share of the rich man’s estate which should go at his death to the state, and by all means such taxes should be graduated, beginning at nothing upon moderate sums to dependents, and increasing rapidly as the amounts swell.” Carnegie was strongly of the opinion that enormous legacies to children were harmful to those children. More importantly, they are harmful to the state because they provide an unfair, anti-competitive advantage to some people, thus transgressing the Meritocratic Principle and creating a society of privilege.
Meritocracy actively promotes the arts, science, mathematics, philosophy, architecture, design etc. It’s contemptuous of celebrity culture, and particularly those who are famous for being famous. It’s anti-materialistic. Whereas oligarchs are consumed with their desire for material wealth and conspicuous spending, meritocrats are obsessed with culture and the experiences of the mind. An excess of money would be vulgar for a meritocrat, and all meritocrats would bear in mind Andrew Carnegie’s warning, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”
Within the last few years, a government of the Labour Party was put in power thanks to the votes of a mere 21.6% of the total electorate of Britain, barely one in five. Is that democracy or an elective dictatorship by a minority with no popular mandate? Isn’t it the case that democratic rhetoric is a smokescreen for inherent incompetence? Meritocratic government would give us the main advantage of democracy (the means to vote people out of office) and none of the drawbacks. Surely it’s time for the birth of meritocracy.
- Michael Faust