Monday 3 February 2014

Democracy and Meritocracy are incompatible.

Two of the things you could say about Singapore is that,

1) Singapore subscribes to the idea of meritocracy. That is, the best person for the job, gets the job; and

2) Singapore is not a Democracy - there is no freedom of speech, freedom of association, and our votes are not secret.

Here's a mind-boggling idea (or not):

Democracy is the natural enemy of Meritocracy.

The rest of the post is long. Maybe too long. So here's the summary:

Meritocracy is the selection of a candidate based on  ability or merit. Democracy is the election of candidates based on popularity. Ergo, Democracy, if not the enemy of Meritocracy, is not compatible with Meritocracy.

A critique of democracy (and its variants)

If you are going to critique Democracy, the first thing you might want to do is to see if any other influential thinkers (or at least, famous people) think the same way. So Google "Democracy worst" and you'll probably get this:

"Democracy is the worst form of government..."

... which is a quote from Winston Churchill!

Of course, the quote goes on: "... except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

First off, let's clarify one thing.

Democracy is NOT a form of government. Well, one form of democracy is a form of government.

That would be DIRECT democracy. Where every time there is a decision to be made, there is a referendum, a vote. And EVERYBODY votes on the issue.

Now, think about it. Isn't that a GREAT way to run our country?

You don't like the COE, put it up for referendum and "poof!" I'm quite sure we can vote it away!

You don't like property tax? Vote on it and "Poof!" it's gone!

Don't like noisy weddings at your void deck? Vote it away!

Don't like icky funerals there either? Vote it away!

Don't want a foreign worker dormitory in your upmarket landed property neighbourhood?

And so it goes.

Do you see the problem?

No? Then Direct Democracy may be for you!

The other form of democracy is representative democracy, where elections are held and you vote for a representative, and this representative goes to Parliament (hence the name Member of Parliament or MP), to represent YOUR interests.

BUT, you say, he didn't represent MY interest! There's still COE, it's still very high, and I still can't afford to buy a car. I still have to pay property taxes. There are still foreign workers and so-called "foreign talents" in Singapore - too many of them! Weddings and Funerals are still going on at my void deck, and I still can't afford a condo. So HOW is he representing MY interests?

I'm voting him out the next election!

What exactly is going on with representative democracy?

For an answer, let's look at critiques of democracy.

There are many criticisms of Democracy.

I'll just highlight those more easily understood.

Democracy is sometimes derisively (or ominously) called "mob rule", which is somewhat similar to the idea of "tyranny of the majority".  In direct democracy, as long as you are part of the majority - ethnic majority, male (usually), heterosexual, middle-class, member of the major organised religious group, in the right age group, you will be quite sure that you can get what you want. Unless you want something quite different from your various demographic groups.

Since majority rules, the more majority groups that you are part of, the more policies will go your way. 

And if you are in any minority (in all likelihood, in some aspects of your life, you would be a minority in some way), direct democracy would oppress you.

Maybe you were born with a disability. Or born into a rich family owning mega-property. Or follow a minority religion. Or your religion was a major religion but conversions and apostasy have reduced the ranks of your fellow faithful until you are now a follower of a minority religion.

And up for vote next is the allocation of land to religious groups to build their places of worship.

Or there is a plan for a foreign worker dormitory in YOUR upmarket landed property residential estate. You of course vote against it, as do your 10,000 neighbours. But 1 million other Singaporeans worried that the dormitory might be relocated to THEIR estate has voted for the dormitory to be built in YOUR estate. 

You see the problem? That is the tyranny of the majority.

Another problem with democracy is that there is no long-view. Because problems today are more pressing than problems tomorrow most people will vote to solve today's problems without worrying about how big other problems will get tomorrow.

And this is partly the reason why measures to slow or even reverse climate change is so difficult. The measures to reverse climate change will hurt immediately. But the benefits may only be seen decades down the road. If at all. This we can call, the tyranny of the immediate, the tyranny of the present, the tyranny of instant gratification. Actually, wikipedia calls this "short-termism".

And so there is the argument that there should be some sort of buffer between the immediate (short-term) will of the people, and the levers of government.  Hence, Republicanism, or sometimes called "Representative Democracy".

In a representative democracy, voters elect their members of parliament (or equivalent such as legislative assemblies, legislature, Congress, House of representatives, etc.)

The issues of the day are then voted on by the MPs or representatives. The idea then is that, being able to rationally consider longer-term views and issues, the MPs or representatives are able to distance themselves from the "mob" and their immediate wants, and focus on longer term needs and the measures and short-term sacrifices required to meet those longer term and more permanent needs in the future. (Which is why we still have taxes, GST, COE, ERP, etc...)

It was a good idea, and there is some buffer between the voters and the issues. But the results were mixed.

In most cases, MPs or representatives felt the need to "represent" their constituents or risk being voted out in the next election.

Hence, pandering, populist measures and eventually corruption.

The corollary to "Power corrupts" is "Power attracts the corruptible".

And if you define corruption as "using your power and authority to ensure that you continue to have power and authority" then pandering to populism is a form of corruption.

And Representative Democracy in the U.S. does not seem to be working out well at all. There may be many issues to consider and it may be a slight over-simplification but even with representative democracy, legislators seem unable to make the decision for long-term well-being of their nation.

The problem may be the impermanence of politicians, and the permanence of interest groups. Or the growing influence of interest groups.

Interest groups serve the interests of their constituents, and in doing so, they may be extremely narrow in their views and the scope of their concerns. They advocate the interests of the members to the exclusion of all other interests or concern.

For example in Rock Creek Park in D.C., Animal Rights Groups are fighting the US National Park Service (NPS) programme to cull white tail deers (much like the animal rights groups in Singapore being upset with the programme to cull wild boars in Singapore sometime in Aug 2012). Ironically, the Hunters Rights group are upset with the NPS for not allowing deer hunting in the park, which would have prevented the problem from emerging. They are now upset that the NPS is getting to hunt (cull) the deers themselves.

The example above illustrates the limitations of interest groups. Animal rights group fight to keep every animal alive regardless of other concerns. It was unfortunate that there was no Nature group to provide balance (the need to cull the deers for the good of the park overall). Or more likely, if there were any nature groups, they might have been allies with the animal rights groups more regularly and did not want to jeopardise their "working" relationship.

The point is that there are bigger issues and other priorities. However, interest groups will want their interests to have priority, regardless of any other issues or the context. Individually and independently, each member of an interest group might well have different opinions or might have been persuaded by the argument to see the big picture, but as a group, their standing in the group might well have depended on their unwavering commitment to the group's shared priorities.

So even if "leaders" of such interests groups wanted to "moderate" their position and consider other concerns or wider issues, their constituents and the "democratic" process WILL NOT ALLOW THEM to do so. Doing so will lose them the leadership of the interest group.

This is fundamentally scary. Or it should be.

And it illustrates the point that trying to ameliorate the weakness of "pure" democracy (or direct democracy) with "representative" democracy merely cascades the problem to the next level.

But the fundamental problem with democracy is that a "civilised" democracy need to address the threat of the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of the immediate, and special interest groups.

Meritocracy and Democracy

Now consider how Meritocracy would work in or with Democracy. Or not.

Democracy in its purest form can best be described as "majority wins". Selection is simply by the choice of the majority. Why individual voters choose one candidate over another is not quite relevant to the process. Ideally, it is hoped that most voters make a choice based on rationality. It is further hoped that voters choose based on the candidates ability and relevance of their ability to the issues at hand.

However, there is no guarantee that voters select based on ability. If you look at the history of the Hougang voters, when Low Thia Khiang first won the seat, in his rally speech he made it explicitly clear that "wa si teochew nang!" - "I am a Teochew!" This was an appeal not to ability, or principles, or plans or political manifesto. It was a pure appeal to in-group identity.

While the optimist may argue that over the years, the opposition has grown (well, Low's Workers Party if not the rest), and the message is more balanced. But "wa si teochew nang" is still a key feature in Low's political rallies, attracting one of the most applause, if not THE most applause. Sure, the message is more nuanced, but certainly if you speak to a 70 yr old Teochew-speaking voter and ask him why he's voting for Low, do you think he will say a) because he wants a first world parliament, or b) because Low is a Teochew and can speak his language?

This is not to say that what Low did is unscrupulous. No. That is not the point. In politics, in a democratic election campaign, you strive to win votes. You try to be all things to all people. You kiss babies if necessary. Speak Teochew if that's what you need to do (and can do). Lee Kuan Yew learned Mandarin to connect with the people.

So not only is there no guarantee that voters will vote based on ability, it is highly likely that they will vote base on in-group identity, affiliations (perceived or real), similarities, and other factors. It is implicitly, if not explicitly, recognised that people would likely vote on racial lines. We hope that this is assuming all else is equal - i.e. both candidates are equally qualified, but race is the tie-breaker. However, would anyone argue that it is unlikely that anyone would consider race first, and maybe consider ability second?

It is precisely this worry that the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) was created. The underlying assumption is that minorities in a pure democracy would be unlikely to carry the day. That the tyranny of the majority will persist and prevail. This is of course a broad generalisation, and people are not always so base. Barack Obama is an example.

And in any case, it is my hypothesis, that the GRC system serves a different purpose.

But that purpose is not incompatible with the theme of this post. Which I should get back to. That is, Democracy and Meritocracy are Incompatible.

In the simplest form, democracy is a popularity contest. Meritocracy is selection by ability. The most able person may not be the most popular. Or may not know how to be popular. Thus if we want to select leaders based on ability, popularity does not correlate with ability.

Put another way, the abilities necessary for the job may not be the ability that wins you that job. Political candidates campaign on popularity, and appeal. But having won the office, their ability to perform the task has little to do with their popularity, or their appeal.

This weakness of democracy (electing persons without reference to the ability) makes for interesting results. In the US, actors have been governor (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Mayor (Clint Eastwood) and even president (Ronald Reagan). Another governer was a former wrestler (Jesse "The Body" Ventura).

Are these candidates the best persons for the job? They may well be. Certainly, I am not saying that these candidates and elected officials may be incompetent. But how much of their election win was because of their popularity? Or their popular persona they portrayed in their movies? How much difference did the "Governator's" popularity make? Should it have mattered at all?

Ultimately, it is irrelevant. Democracy is a popularity contest. One may argue that it is possible that the most popular person can be the most qualified, but that is purely coincidence, not the result of intentional design of the system. In other words, if the democratic process returns the most qualified person to do the job, it is the result of luck, coincidence, or a unique alignment of factors.

[See also the rise of "How civil society can delivery a more participatory democracy" and "Meritocracy and the Just World Belief". 

Update 21/6/2021: Why Socrates hated Democracy (YouTube).]


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

interesting thoughts. will share your blog on mine :)