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I just finished the book The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge. I’ll obviously provide a review of it in my monthly book roundup at the beginning of December. If, for some reason, you need to decide before then whether or not to read it I will say that it spends more time than I would have expected on the history of meritocracy. But if history is precisely what you’re looking for then you should enjoy it.
This post is not going to be a review—though it may end up being one incidentally—rather I bring up the book because it was the inspiration for this post. The book helped illuminate a broader category. A category which contains many possibilities, of which meritocracy is only one. For thousands of years people have been asking, “What is the best way to organize society?” Meritocracy is one of many answers to that question, though up until fairly recently most people thought that it was not merely an answer, but The Answer. As I mentioned this has recently changed and people have started to have doubts, assuaging these doubts is one of the reasons why Wooldridge wrote his book. He still believes it’s The Answer. He even calls meritocracy the “Golden Ticket”. But as I said this is not a review, nor is it the place to dissect Wooldridge, rather I want to fit meritocracy into the broader search for “The Answer”.
Somewhat hypocritically, after accusing Wooldridge of focusing too much on history, that’s where I’m going to start as well. After all he does have a point, in order to understand current conditions it’s critical to understand how we got here. In order to understand The Answer of the present we need to understand how people answered this question in the past.
The most obvious answer for how to organize a society and the one underlying all other answers is “survival”. You must first organize your society such that it survives, because, as I often point out, if it can’t survive it can’t do much of anything else.
Closely related to survival is The Answer of “power”. Anyone who has the power to organize society will almost always organize it such that it benefits them. Or to put it another way, imagine that everyone, individually, gets asked, “How should society be organized?” To which everyone naturally answers “To my benefit!” And those who have or can acquire power are the ones who are able to turn that answer into reality. As you have probably already deduced, power is another thing which ends up being foundational to structuring how the world works.
Unfortunately for those exercising power, and perhaps fortunately for those who are powerless, organizing society for the benefit of the powerful often conflicts with organizing society such that it survives—particularly over the long term. Thus, in order for societies to continue, checks on the powerful must necessarily become part of the system by which the society is organized. This can, perhaps, be seen most clearly when it comes to warfare. The powerful can’t win wars on their own, and any society better able to marshal all of its resources will have an advantage in such conflicts. As a consequence of this, societies evolve systems and traditions that work towards these ends. It might be a culture which encourages child-bearing. Or an ideology which inspires people to feel pride in their tribe or nation, and to sacrifice for the benefit of those close to them. Or a hierarchical system designed such that the most powerful can grant power to others in a structured and useful fashion.
Eventually all of this gets packaged up and turned into something that might be called a religion, though one that only loosely resembles modern religions. But for the purposes of our topic the comparison is a useful one, since for modern religions providing The Answer is the whole point. And we see something similar here, though early on most religions were regional, and they didn’t aspire to provide The Answer, just answers. Which is to say that at the time there wasn’t a lot of zeal for evangelization, a point which will become important later on.
Obviously any discussion of religion puts us at the top of a very deep rabbit hole. We’re going to go some of the way down that hole, but in order to keep things manageable I’ll confine myself to a discussion of the civic role played by religion rather than its supernatural claims.
At this point in our story, the various societies were still mostly focused on balancing power and survival. As they did so each society ended up with its own answers. These answers weren’t all encompassing, but rather very specific—relating to local challenges of geography, resources, and the threats posed by neighboring nations. Out of this attempt to balance power and survival, combined with all of this regional specificity, there emerged an interesting menagerie of systems. As time went on the systems grew more sophisticated, but there was still a Roman answer on how to organize things and a Chinese answer, and both were very different.
However both were successful enough that it started to feel like their answers to the question of how to organize societies might be The Answer. This is certainly one of the reasons the end of the Roman Empire has seemed so consequential down through the ages. After being in existence for hundreds of years it seemed clear that they had The Answer and when, after centuries, that turned out not to be the case, it was a big blow. Because if the Roman empire wasn’t the answer, what was? Obviously people moved on to a reliance on Christianity, and it clearly provided The Answer to millions of individuals, but from a civic perspective its organizing powers never reached the heights achieved by the empire. More recently, one can see a very similar arc with China, and that’s where I’m going to focus. Rome is interesting, but it was long ago, and if I was going to go down that path at some point I’d have to talk about how Byzantium fits into things, and I’m not sure I’m prepared to do that.
For China, unlike Rome, The Answer had a label, it was called Confucianism, and Confucianism had a very conspicuous manifestation: the imperial examination system. Now obviously neither the exams nor the underlying ideology turned China into some kind of utopia. There were plenty of bumps in the road, some of them very large, but for over a thousand years— two thousand if we’re liberal in our assessment—even as dynasties changed and wars raged, Confucianism acted as a lodestone for the Chinese, and indeed most of East Asia. Whether it actually was The Answer seems far less important than whether people believed it was the answer. (One detects a significant amount of secular faith in this whole undertaking.)
At some point one would think that Confucianism would inevitably fall out of favor for any number of reasons, very few ideologies survive very long, and in the end it took decades of China being humiliated by the West (part of what the Chinese later labeled the “century of humiliation”) before they officially abandoned the imperial examination system in 1905. And while the examination system has not returned, Confucianism more broadly returned almost as soon as it was able. The first conference aimed at rehabilitating it was held just a few years after Mao died. (Mao having been one of its chief opponents.) Confucianism’s hold was such that it was only out of favor for around 100 years—and that only happened under extreme pressure—before it came roaring back.
The abandonment of Confucianism seems to have been largely driven by a sense of survival. During the late 1800s and early 1900s China was facing an existential crisis. Which leads back to one of my original points, if you can’t survive you can’t do much of anything else. But once China’s survival appeared to no longer be threatened it was back in the picture.
This rehabilitation of Confucianism is not my primary focus, though it is interesting evidence of its staying power. I’m more interested in the way people handle things when they think that they have The Answer. That they have unlocked the secret of building a flourishing society.
The Europeans seemed to also feel that Confucianism might be The Answer for them as well when they first encountered it. As Wooldridge points out in Aristocracy of Talent the Europeans were particularly fascinated by the Chinese exam system and the mandarins it produced. There were immediately attempts to create something similar back home.
But, to be clear, we’re not interested in any specific answer for how society should be organized, we’re interested in the idea that there should be one answer, The Answer, a system which is better than all the rest. And it may be that hearing about the Chinese system was when this idea started to take root in the modern imagination, though by 17th century, when this was happening, lots of ideas were taking root, and it seems clear that one way or the other Europeans would have started experimenting politically just as they were beginning to be more serious about experimenting in other areas.
Before we leave China it’s interesting to ask how they felt about this bigger idea. Separate from the virtues of Confucianism, why should it be so important or attractive for them to discover The Answer? Important enough that once the Chinese had it they held onto it for a thousand or more years? Even as conditions, leaders and the external world changed. Attractive enough that even when Confucianism was out of favor, they always landed on another candidate. If it wasn’t going to be Confucianism then it would be something else. Historically Legalism was the primary competitor, and there were also dalliances with Taoism. And we can’t forget the eventual zeal with which they embraced communism.
One presumes that part of this tendency had to do with effectiveness. They’d seen how transformative having an answer could be, and by “they” I’m mostly talking about the rulers. Clearly if those in power had not noticed some ongoing benefit these various systems wouldn’t have been around for 2500 years. If you’ve read Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott you might be thinking of the benefits which would accrue to them from the legibility it imparted to the population. A population that was always quite massive, generally hovering at around one-fourth of the entire global population as far back as you want to look. If every part of China works the same way, that makes the country as a whole easier to manage. But perhaps the most interesting reason to adopt and seek an answer is that it gives you a goal, something to shoot for. It basically amounts to an early form of political science.
If you have arrived at a system. If you have The Answer. Then you also have a list of things you can try to make the country better. You can implement The Answer more completely in those areas which are lagging. You can refine The Answer, figure out what parts are working and what parts are unnecessary baggage, and then you can do more of the former while jettisoning the latter. You can compare slight differences in implementation and decide which of them works best. At some level all of these things happened in China, particularly with regards to the exams. One of my favorite examples is the procedure whereby all of the exams were recopied by someone else before being submitted to the judges, eliminating any potential bias that might occur if they recognized the handwriting. They also added various features to make cheating more difficult, and the exams as a whole got progressively more brutal.
As you can imagine the importance and brutality of the exam system had obvious side effects. Here’s how Wooldridge puts it:
The examination cult imposed a terrible strain on its devotees – not just on the young but on all those middle-aged and indeed elderly candidates who continued to put themselves forward. The examination halls that littered the country were widely known as ‘examination prisons’ and were sometimes subjected to riots and arson. Many of the greatest works of Chinese literature were devoted to demonizing the system.
Wooldridge even claims that my candidate for the biggest recent event no one knows about, the Taiping Rebellion, a Chinese civil war that happened at around the same time as the US Civil War in which 20-30 million people died, was “driven in part by frustrations with the civil service exam”. Which is a pretty big side effect.
All of this is relatively easy to identify retrospectively as we look back on China, but is something similar happening today? Have we taken one answer and pushed it too far? Is it possible that it’s the quest for The Answer itself that has gotten out of hand?
The first thing we should consider as we move from an historical examination to the present day is what do we currently think The Answer is? Here, as is so often the case, we turn to Francis Fukuyama. The central claim of his book The End of History and the Last Man was that after centuries of trial and error, and contests between various systems that we had finally, and definitively answered the question of how best to organize society. The Answer turned out to be: liberal democracy. This was in part because of the many advantages of liberal democracy, but perhaps more importantly because, Fukuyama asserted, there were no remaining contenders.
At the time Fukuyama was making this claim the strengths of liberal democracy were obvious, its weaknesses less so. As an example of one of these weaknesses, liberal democracy is not as well defined as Confucianism. Liberal democracy has no text that compares to the centrality of the Analects, and no activity that is as pivotal as the imperial examinations. Rather liberal democracy is more the assemblage of numerous good ideas, which Fukuyama defines directionally rather than absolutely. Liberal democracy is the endeavor of “getting to Denmark”.
Denmark is a mythical place that is known to have good political and economic institutions: it is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption.
It’s less of a definition than a goal, but with that goal to aspire to, and no remaining contenders we should basically be done, right? We’ve got The Answer, the rest is just implementation?
Unfortunately, no. First implementation has proved to be more difficult than expected, but more importantly, not everyone agrees with Fukuyama. Certainly, as you might already have guessed, the leaders of countries like China and Russia definitely don’t agree with Fukuyama. But nor do all the citizens of the liberal democracies. Meritocracy is a great example of this. While it was not mentioned in the description of Denmark, people like Wooldridge, and many others, would nevertheless argue that it’s a central component of the liberal democratic/getting to Denmark package. But the whole reason Wooldridge wrote his book is not everyone agrees that it should be. The idea is under attack from both the left and the right.
Nor is it the only liberal democratic idea under attack. Free trade and globalism are similarly under siege, and there are people who feel just as strongly about the centrality of these ideas as Wooldridge feels about meritocracy. Part of the reason people have turned against free trade is that it didn’t work as advertised. Back in 2001 when China was admitted into the WTO it was an article of faith for many that this opening would inevitably lead to China adopting the rest of the liberal democratic package. This was even more true when Fukuyama made his initial assertion. It was assumed that if you had true representative government, it would lead to meritocracy and free trade. Or that if you free trade and capitalism, it would lead to liberal speech norms and democracy. As we discovered to our sorrow with China this is not the case. We may have to settle for a world of free trade with illiberal nations. Or choose a system which minimizes inequality, or one which maximizes meritocracy.
This is why people like Wooldridge have started picking pieces of the package to defend. If liberal democracy writ large is not The Answer perhaps meritocracy is. Or maybe it’s immigration. Perhaps we just haven’t given free trade enough time. Or perhaps it’s none of the above and we need a successor ideology. I’ve even seen more people moving back to communism. (Though because of the connotations they generally identify as hardcore socialists.)
In all of these efforts they are borrowing the evangelizing spirit that came about when people first thought they had The Answer. If you really have uncovered the one true way to organize society, why would you not want to spread it as widely and as deeply as possible? We can see this impulse playing out at least as early as the French Revolution. And down through the decades since then. It’s impractical to list all of the examples, but certainly Wilson, and his call to make “the world safe for democracy” comes to mind. You can also see it in Bush Jr’s invasion of Iraq, continuing up to and including our support for Ukraine in the current conflict. But this idea of evangelization wasn’t limited to liberal democracy. If anything communism had an even bigger evangelical urge, not only desiring to spread throughout the world, but going farther in their claims that it was inevitable. This was part of what made the Cold War seem so important. It was a contest between two sides that both thought that they had The Answer.
Now, even as the liberal democratic package is fracturing, the evangelizing, if anything, is getting more intense. It’s proving difficult to be semi-meritocratic, but even more difficult to be completely meritocratic. It’s also difficult to be a semi-protectionists, but free trade has its own large set of issues. And no one says we should be semi-democratic, but everyone has their own definition of what democracy should look like, and oftentimes populism isn’t included in that definition. Don’t even get people started on the idea of being semi-unequal.
In closing I’d like to include a long quote from a recent post from Ross Douthat. I’ve been talking about the fracturing of liberalism, he’s talking about the prospects for it’s renewal, but the underlying diagnosis is the same:
…liberalism cannot easily renew itself, because despite what certain of its detractors and some of its champions insist, it isn’t really a political-moral-theological system in full; rather, it’s a deliberately thinned-out structure designed to manage pluralism, which depends on constant infusions from other sources, preliberal or nonliberal, to generate meaning and energy and purpose. There are moments of transition and turmoil when liberalism appears to stand alone, and liberals sometimes confuse these moments for an aspirational norm. But nobody except Hugh Hefner, Gordon Gekko and a few devotees of the old A.C.L.U. can bear to live for very long under conditions of pure liberalism. Instead, the norm for successful societies and would-be society builders is liberalism-plus: liberalism plus nationalism (as in 19th-century Europe or Ukraine today), liberalism plus intense ethnic homogeneity (the Scandinavian model, now showing signs of strain), liberalism plus mainline Protestantism (the old American tradition), liberalism plus therapeutic spirituality (the mode of American culture since the 1970s), liberalism plus social justice progressivism (the mode of today’s cultural left), etc., etc. Something must be added, some ghost needs to inhabit the machine, or else society begins to resemble the portraits painted by liberalism’s enemies — a realm of atomized, unhappy consumers, creatures of self-interest whose time horizons for those interests are always a month rather than a decade, Lockean individuals moving in a miserable herd.
Douthat gets to the heart of the problem, but I don’t share his implicit optimism that liberalism can be reinfused and thereby revived. And one of the sources for the chaos of our time is that people have recognized that. Thus the fracturing. And from that fracturing a landscape where rather than having one answer there are dozens. People aren’t trying to save liberalism, they’re trying to save what they feel is the critical piece. They’re rallying around their version of The Answer. Whether it’s meritocracy or social justice or globalism or Christianity. Personally I lean towards the last one, but I also don’t see any path forward to a workable Christian Nationalism or any path back to the “liberalism plus mainline Protestantism” spoken of by Douthat.
But perhaps the beginning of any path forward is to acknowledge that we haven’t found The Answer, at least not yet.
This post didn’t come together as easily as I hoped. And then there was the whole FTX/SBF explosion in the middle which I spent way too much time reading about. This not only slowed me down, it made me reluctant to give money to anyone. If you had a similar reaction, let me reassure you. If you donate to me I won’t use the money to power an elaborate fraud. I’ll probably just use it to buy a book.