Arnold Kling  

Confucianism vs. Irrational Voters

PRINT
See One-Man, One-Vote Question... Prescriptions for Democracy...

Daniel A. Bell writes,


The Confucian view is that political leaders should be the most talented and public-spirited members of the community, and the process of choosing such leaders should be meritocratic, meaning that there should be equal opportunity for the best to rise to the top. Historically, Confucian meritocracy was implemented by means of examinations, and there have been proposals to revive and update Confucian examinations for contemporary China.

My co-blogger believes that voters are irrational. Does he think that Confucianism is the answer? What are the pros and cons of exam-based meritocracy?


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (15 to date)
Horatio writes:

Smarter people do usually make better decisions, but they are also better at rationalizing the bad ones.

The National Socialists were pretty bright.

J Evans writes:

This is similar to the system used by the British Foreign Office during the colonial period - the BFO exam was considered one of the most challenging, but successful 'students' received some of the most prestigious government posts.

Eric Hanneken writes:

An obvious con is that incumbents get to design the exam. Governments can improve themselves by testing aspiring bureaucrats, but what they will actually do is another matter. Consider the footnote to the passage that Arnold quoted from Daniel Bell's essay:

Civil service examinations have been revived in China, with thousands of people competing for top spots. These exams are largely meritocratic (meaning that the successful candidates are the ones with the top scores), but they test for political ideology in ways that reward conformity rather than political ability.

Acad Ronin writes:

1) The exams for the mandrinate were exams on Confucian ethics. I don't know if they selected for more than rote memorization.
2) What sort of exam would one suggest. Pure math? An SAT? Philosophy?
3) While the presidents of the US seem to have been of above average intelligence, it is not clear that there is a monotonic relationship, or even a roughly monotonic one, between intelligence and the ability to be a good president.

SheetWise writes:

Exam-based meritocracy? Go to any Mensa gathering and you'll get your answer.

ryan writes:

Maybe I'm misunderstanding Caplan, but my reading isn't that he thinks political leaders are irrational, but that voters are. Even supposing the exam system worked perfectly, I don't see how it's responsive to the problem he's describing, unless (a) leaders are appointed for life, or (b) the exams are given to voters.

Mensarefugee writes:
SheetWise writes:

Exam-based meritocracy? Go to any Mensa gathering and you'll get your answer.

=----------------------------------

Mensa members make up approximately 2% of the 98+%ile population. Youre judging the group by 2% of its members?

Mensarefugee writes:

Yeah Ryan,
The vote needs to be made less universal >_>

Jonathan writes:

The later century's exams of china not only tested mental ability, but also their grasp of language and communication. All questions were asked in Tang Poetic format, and all answers necessitated a response in Tang Poetic format. Today it is like answering an interview question in haiku and thus allows those who have superior communication skills to succeed.

TGGP writes:

Was Daniel Bell endorsing Marxism there? It seems rather anachronistic for people to still do that after the unmitigated disaster that was communism.

Dog of Justice writes:

Ding ding ding, Eric Hanneken is a winner.

The Achilles heel of the Chinese meritocratic examination system was that, since the existing government wrote the exams, the overall effect was one of calcification, and no peaceful way was provided for citizens to "throw the bums out". Internal revolt was made more difficult by the fact that many of the smartest people were brain-drained into the sclerotic government... but this didn't hamper foreign conquerors.

So the question is how to best use meritocratic exams in a more limited capacity.

SheetWise writes:

Mensarefugee -

From my evidence, people above 98 percentile have very different perespectives and life experiences. People who have usually been the smartest person in the room usually have a very poor grasp of how little they know.

My guess is that most proponents of central planning, and dictatorial governance come from the 98+ group.

While being smart is certainly an asset, and it should be sought -- it's only one of thye qualities we want in leaders. To rely on it alone would be extremely dangerous.

TGGP writes:

People who have usually been the smartest person in the room usually have a very poor grasp of how little they know.

Just the opposite, SheetWise. It is the LEAST intelligent who most overrate themselves. You can read about it in Unskilled and Unaware and Caplan's Behavioral Economics and the Perverse Effects of the Welfare State

Robert Scarth writes:

SheetWise - "...people above 98 percentile have very different perespectives and life experiences. People who have usually been the smartest person in the room usually have a very poor grasp of how little they know."

TGGP has provided the killer fact, but if I might just add:
1) smart people come from smart families. So a top 2%er most likely had close family members who were at least almost as, if not as smart or smarter then them.
2) smart people tend to go to good universities and meet other smart people, and then go on to get jobs working with other smart people. I'm a top 2%er, and while I was the smartest in my high school class, I was only one of the top people in my undergraduate maths class, and then just an ordinary PhD student. I now work in finance with a bunch of other PhDs and I know more about some things than them, and less about others.
For someone to be so consistently the "smartest person in the room" that it skewed their view of themselves, they would have to either be very very smart indeed, totally lack any kind of social awareness, or (most likely) not go to university at all.

In my experience the people who are least aware of how little they know are uneducated smart people. These are the people who have mostly been the smartest person in the room, but they also suffer from the biases TGGP mentions, as being uneducated means that they are intellectually unskilled.

Mensarefugee writes:
In my experience the people who are least aware of how little they know are uneducated smart people. These are the people who have mostly been the smartest person in the room, but they also suffer from the biases TGGP mentions, as being uneducated means that they are intellectually unskilled.

A fine case. But I would say, while there IS a correlation, it is low. The thing is, people who go to universities etc spend 4-10 years in a predominately liberal (aka one sided biased) institution. They can have their minds closed off to contradictory data. Which is, I believe, something Thomas Sowell brings up again and again.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top