- China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Daniel A. Bell
Politicians’ decisions affect not only the lives of their fellow countrymen but also the lives of people living in other countries, the global economy, financial markets, the environment, and ultimately the lives of future generations. Therefore, if a cordial human existence depends in part on the quality of political decision making, the system adopted by societies to choose their political leaders is of crucial importance.
However, are democratic elections the best way to select political leaders? Not according to Daniel Bell’s recent book, China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. The book attempts to cover China’s political system from two perspectives: on the one hand it aims to challenge the common assumptions of democratic theories that elections are a precondition for good government (p. 19), and on the other it intends to offer an evolved political model for contemporary China (p. 10).
In general, “political meritocracy” is the idea that only the most praiseworthy should rule. Meritocratic principles motivate the selection of the members of political institutions — such as the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court of the United States — that, even in contemporary democratic political systems, are required to resolve matters in specific domains. Bell argues for an extension and inclusion of meritocratic mechanisms into the political domain. For the Chinese context, Bell proposes a meritocratic system to select and promote political leaders on the basis of their intellectual abilities, social skills, and moral virtues — such as their disposition to sacrifice their private interests for the common good (p. 104). The proposed meritocratic model is drawn partly from the civil service examination system developed and adopted in Imperial China from the time of the Han dynasty, so [End Page 295] Bell is confident that some meritocratic features already characterize the Chinese political system.
The instrumental defense of political meritocracy is strengthened throughout the book. By drawing from studies on American elections, chapter 1 argues that the flaws of electoral democracy can lead to the implementation of political decisions based on the average voter’s short-term interests, augmenting social inequalities and neglecting necessary long-term and proactive policies. Chapter 2 investigates the appropriate standards needed for a meritocratic selection of political leaders for contemporary China.1 Chapter 3 proposes the use of free speech, rule of law, and anti-corruption agencies and peer review to prevent corruption and elitism and to guarantee the legitimacy of the political system. Assuming that meritocratic institutions perform better for the solution of general problems, chapter 4 advocates the implementation of one wide-ranging meritocratic agency to deal with national and international politics, and the limitation of the authority of democratic institutions to policies at the local level. Thus, “Democracy at the bottom, meritocracy at the top” is concluded to be the best political model for modern China.
China Model is one of the first serious contemporary works exclusively dedicated to the concept of “political meritocracy.” In this regard, the book indisputably has the merit of both disclosing some of the potentialities of meritocratic mechanisms and, more generally, contributing to focusing more attention on the importance of the quality of political decision making.2 However, by focusing exclusively on the consequentialist case for democracy, Bell overlooks defenses of democratic institutions that are based on non-instrumental arguments. For example, the idea that political egalitarianism is the summum bonum and that democratic elections are intrinsically valuable representations of political equality are quite popular in the Anglo-American debate on democratic theory.3 Thus, the absence of a serious engagement with these doctrines arguably weakens Bell’s critique of electoral democracy.
Clearly, one of the attractive features of political meritocracy is the perceived likelihood that meritocratic governments can make better political decisions. In this sense, Bell’s proposed approach risks being unachievable in a large, pluralistic modern society, at least. The desires of people living in a modern industrialized society can be more heterogeneous...