Meritocracy and a better economy

Wed, 12 Jan 2011 | wilfred

An excerpt from a recent e-mail

I have a theory; or perhaps a blind hope, that as the Chinese get richer, with more expectations of their own well-being, the population will demand more civil liberties, and the government will have to adapt. I'm not sure if a command economy, or an interventionist market economy, or whatever one would call what they've built, is better in the long term than the freer Western version, but I hope not.

But I am pretty sure there are a few obvious principles that will result in stronger Western economies, and result in happier and more responsible populations. They are, unfortunately, not principles that will benefit many conservative party policies in the short term, and that will prevent their implementation. They also fly in the face of some modern democratic principles.

Obvious principle 1: If the best people for the job have the job they are best for, the economy will benefit.

Obvious principle 2: The wiser the electorate, the better the representatives.

Blind hope: A political system where civil well-being trumps wealth-creation predominantly for the wealthy will win in the long term. I'm not convinced of this though. Slavery is fantastic for building things like pyramids, and economies. And if you can't buy humans and work them to death, the next best thing is to give them enough rope to enslave themselves. Just get them into debt, and make sure they work hard enough to try to pay it off during their lifetimes. And if you know they can't, then sell them life assurance. :-) So it would seem that a financially-responsible population isn't necessarily a good thing. But it would be nice if there were a way in which you could build a highly-productive society of financially-responsible individuals. You'll need machines to do a lot of your menial jobs, but that's not insurmountable.

The implications of principle 1 are that the taxpayer should pay for education as long as the student is passing. As soon as the guy starts failing, he's on his own. Tertiary education needs three splits instead of the current two. At the moment we have technical and academic institutions, but we need technical, academic and vocational. Vocational education would be for things like law, engineering, medicine; fields involving the application of knowledge. Academic would be the arts, philosophy, mathematics and physics; fields involving the creation or discovery of knowledge. (There'd be overlap, especially in fields like medicine, but I think the current approach of forcing academic institutions to cater for vocational courses hampers them, and requiring practically-minded students to master academic skills is in many cases counter-productive.)

Implications of principle 2 suggest to me a meritocracy with a political education as a foundation. And if you're going to teach your electorate how to spot bullshit, you'll need education to be independent of government, because which politician would want to teach his voters how to tell when he's distracting them, or misleading them? Education needs to be an independent pillar, like the (ideal) judiciary.

A meritocracy is a very tricky thing. It works in a web forum, where participation is voluntary. But I'm not sure how it would work equitably, and successfully in a country. Who would assign merit? One idea would be that everyone gets to set the rules for assigning merit, and to elect the people who administer it. Those people then apply the rules, and determine how many votes individuals get for electing representatives. If the system works, one might even be able to reduce the power of the representatives, and increase the power of the meritocrats, a little like Switzerland's direct democracy. But one will always need representatives in order to reach good decisions quickly.

If you are going to allocate power to voters, they need to be motivated, informed and insightful. (Otherwise all they're good for is banning minarets.) Government spending needs to be open. Media freedom is critical. But public participation can be rewarded using the system for assigning merit, and the population might end up quite adept at keeping government in line, and pushing for smart policies.

Of course no government would ever transition to something like this. And I don't have an army big enough to get my own country to test it in.

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