Three cheers for meritocracy!

Photographer: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Defending the Chinese Model

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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People in Western democracies are unsure about a lot of things but not about whether one person, one vote is a good way of choosing governments. That's an article of faith. Any suggestion to the contrary is shocking.

Daniel A. Bell, in his new book "The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy," dares to argue that a perfected version of Chinese authoritarianism is not merely a viable alternative to the Western norm but in fact might be better -- and maybe not just for China.

I'm unpersuaded but (like Gideon Rachman, who reviewed the book for the Financial Times) I'm impressed by a book that made me think. Bell, a professor of political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has written a fascinating study. Open-minded readers will find it equips them with a more intelligent understanding of Chinese politics and, no less valuable, forces them to examine their devotion to democracy.

Bell begins by reflecting on Winston Churchill's observation, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time." In the West, the drawbacks of actually existing democracy are recognized, almost celebrated -- yet the idea that anything else might be better is dismissed as unthinkable. For Bell, that's the puzzle.

What makes it especially puzzling, in his view, is the stunning economic success that some non-democratic countries -- Singapore and China, most notably -- have achieved in recent decades. Bell recalls Amartya Sen's much-quoted nostrum that famines don't happen in democracies. China, he points out, has not only eradicated famine, it has a much better record on malnutrition than democratic India. Surely, he says, a more open-minded appraisal of the rival systems is warranted.

That's what he aims to provide. He compares, in an even-handed way, the strengths and weaknesses of Western democracy and Chinese one-party rule. The book concentrates on one main issue: how the systems choose their political leaders. It asks, in effect, which would you expect to work better -- rigorous selection on merit, or ballots cast by voters who don't know what they're doing?

Bell favors meritocracy. He explains China's elaborate system for selecting and promoting officials, locates it in the long tradition of political Confucianism, argues for its legitimacy, and attributes the economy's astonishing success in large part to this method.

He's candid about the defects -- political meritocracy is prone to corruption and complacency, and China has had plenty of both. He discusses at length what China should do to improve its system. But the principle of political meritocracy isn't wrong, he concludes: It's a more appropriate model for China than Western electoral politics would be, and there's much the West could learn from understanding how it operates.

I agree with that last point. Government can be good or bad, with or without one person, one vote. To work well, democracy needs more than a universal franchise: It also needs divided powers and a constitutional apparatus that puts able people in power at different levels of government and regulates their performance. Democracies, in other words, also need to be sufficiently meritocratic. Western contempt for China's system is not just counter-productive (because it inflames anti-Western chauvinism), it's also lazy. The systems have challenges in common. Look and learn.

On other points, absorbing as the book's analysis may be, it's unconvincing. Bell discusses the difficulties of selecting for merit, but understates the problem. At the lowest levels China is looking for the brightest young people; as they move up and acquire experience in government, they face different and more demanding tests. In this finely tuned system, Bell notes (quoting a venture capitalist from Shanghai), a person with as little experience of government as Barack Obama "would not even be the manager of a small county."

Maybe that commends the Chinese system to some Americans. But the list of leaders who wouldn't have made it on to the first rung of the meritocratic ladder is long. Churchill couldn't do math. Franklin D. Roosevelt was no academic star. Abraham Lincoln barely went to school. When it comes to recognizing the ability to lead, voters aren't always clueless.

Related to this is the question of what government is for -- in other words, "merit" to what end? Bell's argument sits most comfortably with the idea that good government is about designing and carrying out the objectively correct policy. According to this view, there's no great need to put choices to the people. But this view is wrong, because there's no such thing as objectively correct policy.

Good government is partly, if not mainly, about mediating disagreement about what the correct policy is -- disagreement arising over values and not just facts. Meritocrats don't -- indeed, shouldn't -- agree about everything, and their value judgments have no more merit than anybody else's. "Put the best managers in charge and let them get on with it" isn't enough.

Most fundamentally, Bell gives short shrift to the idea that one person, one vote has intrinsic value: The "politically relevant question," he says," is whether democratic elections lead to good consequences." Yet, as he points out, people aren't willing to give up the vote once they have it, and this is as true in East Asian societies such as Japan and Taiwan as it is in the West. Far from being politically irrelevant, I'd say the high value that people everywhere put on the right to vote once they have it is telling, if not decisive.

But don't let these criticisms deflect you from reading "The China Model." It isn't just for those who want to better understand China. More than anything I've read for a while, it also forced me to think about what's good and bad about Western systems of government. From start to finish, the book is a pleasure and an education.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net