- Beyond Liberal Democracy: A Debate on Democracy and Confucian Meritocracy
At the twenty-second World Congress of Philosophy held in Seoul, Korea, from July 29 to August 5, 2008, a panel was convened to debate the ideas for a “democracy with Confucian characteristics” in Daniel A. Bell’s Beyond Liberal Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). While all participants welcome the attempt to remedy the shortcomings of liberal democracy with Confucian teachings, Fred Dallmayr worries that Bell’s political thinking for an East Asian context may “point beyond democracy tout court.” For Sor-hoon Tan, Bell’s chapter 6, “Taking Elitism Seriously: Democracy with Confucian Characteristics” may not be so much an alternative to liberalism as it is a challenge to the democratic value of equality that overlooks the dangers of an imperfect meritocracy. Chenyang Li, on the other hand, approaches Bell’s proposal of combining a Confucianism-inspired Upper House of Talent and Virtue selected through competitive examinations with a lower house of democratically elected representatives from the concern that it surrenders the Confucian requirement of virtuous leadership. This feature review also concludes with a spirited reply from Daniel Bell. [End Page 523]
- Exiting Liberal Democracy: Bell and Confucian Thought
Some twenty years ago, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the so-called “Cold War” came to an end, terminating four decades of intense global rivalry. This ending, no doubt, had profound repercussions, ushering in radically new geopolitical alignments together with a new phase of economic globalization. Behind—or despite—these transformations, however, one can also detect a curious kind of ideological persistence: in many Western societies, and especially in America, the liberal individualism cultivated as the stark antidote to Soviet collectivism remained in place, unchanged, and was even strengthened and elevated into a global ideological panacea. Under the auspices of “neoliberalism,” individual and corporate profit-seeking was steadily unleashed while older social and political restrictions on profit seeking were marginalized or “downsized.” As a result of both the Cold War and subsequent developments, it became customary virtually to equate democracy with “liberal democracy” or a system prioritizing individual rights—completely neglectful of the long-standing tension between the latter and democracy, seen as a shared political regime. That this equation is by no means cogent or self-evident, even in America, is demonstrated by the work of such prominent American intellectuals as John Dewey and Walter Lippmann. For both, the glorification of self-seeking or atomistic individualism was a derailment or corruption of democracy. For Dewey, in particular, democracy constituted an ethical association or community where private self-seeking is necessarily curbed.1
In light of this background one can only welcome Daniel Bell’s recent book, Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context, a text that exposes some of the glaring defects or shortcomings of liberal individualism as practiced in Western societies today. Without ignoring some of the benefits of individual freedom, the book seeks to correct or remedy these shortcomings through recourse to older Asian teachings, especially the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. In a way, the front cover captures the animus pervading the text: it shows a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding up a copy of the Analects of Confucius. What aggravates or antagonizes Bell is not so much the Western “liberal” model as such as the rather missionary zeal with which this model tends to be exported today by Western, especially American, intellectuals and policy makers. His opening chapter makes reference to the American legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, who, during a lecture tour in China in 2002, exhorted Chinese audiences to embrace Western liberal-individualistic values in preference to older indigenous traditions. As Bell comments wryly: “His less-than-modest demeanor and hectoring tone did not help. The deeper problem, however, is that [he] made no serious attempt to learn about Chinese philosophy, to identify aspects worth defending and learning from, and to relate his own ideas to those of Chinese political traditions such as Confucianism and Legalism” [End Page 524] (pp. 3–4). What renders the “hectoring tone” even more odd and even absurd...