« Blackmail by Maoists | Main | Nepal's Social Movement Makes a Difference »

The Merits of Meritocracy

Printer-friendly version |

Representative republicanism is inadequate, but meritocracy offers the best hope for expert and compassionate leadership as well as a condition of peace, prosperity and civilization, argues MANOJ K. MISHRA.

We are currently debating the restructuring of our nation. And this is a natural process nations undergo time and again.

Human beings need governance to run societies and the systems of governance vary. The concepts of new system are introduced through revolutions or conventions. In each new concept people evaluate the problems and merits of the new experiment with the old system and then try to alleviate the problem that occurred in the past and increase the positive aspects for the benefit of future generations.

Meritocracy is one among such systems. This is a new concept which is partially accepted in the developed countries but has not been fully experimented in any country. In this essay, I will try to emphasize the need of meritocracy in today’s world, even as the debate on democracy and republic rages in our country.

Defining the “-cracy” in Merit
Meritocracy is a system of governance based on the demonstrated ability (merit) and talent of people rather than their wealth, family connections, class privilege, cronyism or other historical determinants of social position and political power. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States (1801-1809), was a strong advocate of meritocratic government. He believed that meritocracy was superior to all other known forms of government.

The word "meritocracy" is now often used to describe a type of society where wealth, position, and social status are in part assigned through competition or demonstrated talent and competence. The assumption is that the positions of trust, responsibility and social standing should be earned, not inherited or assigned on arbitrary basis.

A meritocratic government believes in the principle of equal opportunity via equality before the law. It believes in a just society where social distinctions based on sex, race and social connections have no place. But a condition of absolute equality exists no where in nature. Inequalities of income, wealth and status are considered as a function of merit, talents, competence, efforts. This contrasts with utopian fantasies of egalitarian societies where roles and privileges are assigned on a supposedly more equal footing.

The origin of the term "meritocracy" remains vague. In writing the "Declaration of Independence" of the United States, Thomas Jefferson relied heavily on Chapter Five of John Locke's Second Treatise on Government, which conceives of a society where the foundation of all property is solely the labor exerted by men. Locke argued that [the acquisition of property, was not morally wrong, if it was acquired through the exertion of labor and if it was in order to meet one's own immediate needs. So, he said,] society is necessarily stratified, but by merit, not by birth. This doctrine of industry and merit as opposed to idleness and inheritance as the determining factor in a just society argued strongly against kings, and governments of nobles and their lackeys, in favor of representative republicanism.

Among modern nation-states, the Republic of Singapore aspires to be a pure Meritocracy, placing a great emphasis on identifying and grooming bright young citizens for positions of leadership. It also heavily emphasizes academic credentials, which are seen as objective measures of both intelligence and effort.
The United States likes to think of itself as the very embodiment of meritocracy— a country where people are judged on their individual abilities rather than their family connections.

Through the ages, scholars and thinkers have advocated meritocracy in some forms. Sages of ancient India, Confucius in China, Voltaire in Europe and others in various civilizations have argued that human societies or nations should be led by scholars and meritorious, i.e., who deserves, in order to gain peace and prosperity.

In modern times in the subcontinent, Rajneesh, the Indian mystic and philosopher who later adopted the name Osho, emphasized meritocracy. Osho said that in near future the problems of society and nation will be so much complicated that only persons of high calibers will have the capacity to solve specific problems. Such a person will be experts in their fields and they will also be humanely sensitive in their dispositions. Hence, future societies will be bound to shift the leadership in the hands of meritorious people.

A Collective Pursuit of Happiness
A nation or society is more than a geographic entity or group of population. It is an institution of people in pursuit of a system (order). Such as system, they hope, would enable them to flourish, prosper and achieve a life of happiness, wellbeing and comfort.

History shows that almost all thinkers and seers through ages have tried to establish a social and national system of governance in such way that the group effort of people could manage every needs of society and its inhabitants, and doing so would make every person happy and free from agony and thus elevated from the material struggles.

But no any system has yet been devised which can serve the above mentioned purposes. Some philosophers have claimed that being free from agony is a psychological issue and that is not possible just by material means. But the obvious reality of life is that human psychology is influenced by the matter and our environments. A major improvement in that environment should definitely influence some change in the nature and extent of social agony, and it may even help reduce the pains.

But to identify the needs of a system, we must first identify the collective needs of people. Those needs (of people on group level) can be pointed out as follows:
1. Peace: Lack of social conflict between castes, creeds, races and sexes; preservation of human rights and development of human duties.
2. Prosperity: Development of living standards through material facilitates; education, health, industry, communication and transportation etc.
3. Civilization: Availability of all recreations which can lead people to mental relaxation for e.g. literature, music, dance, painting, meditation, yoga and all other activities which make people more and more beautiful, calm, contented and splendid.

These goals can only be achieved by a social or national system which is led by persons with expertise in these areas of human needs. Such experts, who are known rightly as “meritorious” (deserving), grasp the complexity and the nature of these issues as well as the means to their attainment.

When a certain division of labor is led by a non-deserving candidate, the entire group of associates or workers under him or her will focus on serving his desires rather than the collective needs of the people. The workers are promoted only when they follow the style and approach of such a leader. This is often reflected in our civil service sector. Similarly, if a ministry is led by non-deserving candidate the whole ministry becomes workless, aimless and sluggish and the whole system suffers from a type of chronic disease which cannot be cured even with a talented therapist. Even a reform-loving or a deserving new leader will find it difficult to cure the maladies.

Needed less to say, we need a deserving or meritorious leader or leaders to supervise our collective public undertakings. Only then we can achieve peace, prosperity and civilization in society and nation. But the question remains, where is that leader? Will a republican system deliver such a leader or leaders?

Republican Inadequacies
Republicanism enables parliamentary representation based on population, backwardness, caste, race, and region. The leaders are selected via adult franchise. The candidate who is liked by the majority is selected.

The system is good in the sense that people enjoy full freedom and the backward classes get the opportunity to participate in mainstream of the government. They can make progress in their social standing based on their own desires and wishes and plans. In a republican system, at least in neighboring India, backwardness is generally defined on the basis of excluded caste and race and not on the basis of economic and educational status. In reality, backwardness shifts from one family to another, irrespective of castes.

The demerit of this system is that soon vote politics overtakes public needs. The majority classes govern on the basis of mere assurance and not by real work. As a result, the underprivileged continue to be ignored and excluded, and justice remains scarce. Hence, instead of the collective development of the nation, soon the various lines of divisions, including caste, become the major issues of the country. In realpolitik, only those leaders who can exploit such divisions, and offer false hopes and assurances to people can win elections.

It is also a matter of common experience that majority of people in many developing nations like Nepal remain uneducated. This means that majority of people know little about the resources of the country and about the ability or talents of political candidates. Education alone does not do. A vast majority of educated people lack human feelings. Thy do not regard others as equal to themselves. They do not treat others the same way as they would like be treated by others.

Most people like to become richer than others, more powerful than others, and a ruler of others. These self-serving instincts can hamper genuinely mutual relationships between people based one individual merits and collaboration. The concept of democracy (for instance, each person is equally able to contest a seat in the parliament) looks so attractive to the majority of people that they do not even think about the many flaws of the representative system.

Unfortunately, even the candidates with honest intentions cannot do much in the parliament because the parliament in a developing country (and in many instances, even in developed countries) is usually a storehouse of inefficient people, who are insensitive and lack the needed talents. Hence the popular adage-- democracy is the government of fools-- seems meaningful.

In developed countries, there are some exceptions. There, the representation in parliaments is based on the principle of representative democracy but the institutions and working departments generally based on meritocracy. If we study the history of developed countries, we see that their leaders were generally ambitious and efficient and they helped establish pure autonomous institutions in the early period of their establishment. The countries made significant material progress, but despite their affluence, they are still lacking in civilization. Many people in the developed world still struggle for the basic things of life, such as residence, foods and clothing. They have not attained the happiness they would like to achieve, and because of material competition, cases of mental depression and frustrations run high.

The fear of the others and the perceived need for security has led the developed countries to spend a major chunk of their budget in gathering or developing arms. It takes people (labor), time and natural resources to build arms. Such resources could be used for the direct benefit of mankind, such as in agricultural growth, managing natural calamities, and eliminating hunger and famine or curing deadly diseases like AIDS. The world needs meritorious leaders but the world also needs humanely sensitive leaders.

The insensitive leadership of developed countries is a serious cause for concern. Such a leadership is generally responsible for environmental problems like global warming, and water-soil-air pollution. Some in the leadership of developed countries pretend to alleviate terrorism but they are helping perpetuate terrorism indirectly by supplying arms and money, if that suits their interests.

No doubt, a representative democracy is the best system among all the systems developed in past, but still it consists many flaws which are commonly observed in underdeveloped countries.

The Need of Meritocracy
It is matter of common experience that non-sensitive leaders in developing societies would not have scholars as their associates or even counterparts because the latter stick to truth and fairness more than the former. So a minister would rather select a person as the chief of certain institution only if that person follows his or her commands.

Scholars tend to be of free nature and would not blindly follow the minister who lacks the needed expertise but pretend to know everything. Again, there is the need for a leadership that combines expertise with compassion or humane sensitivity. A meritorious system means a healthy and fair competition among the people.

Ideally, meritocracy would mean that all institutions as well as government should be led by meritorious people with expertise and compassion. However, not everyone is equally able to lead a nation or an institution. That is why only meritorious people should be allowed to field their candidacy for parliamentary seats or to be the head of an institution. Similarly, meritorious people should have more rights, including the voting right, in comparison to non-meritorious people.

But the question remains: Who is more meritorious than others? Expertise and human sensitivity differ in terms of kind and degree. Expertise would include educational qualifications as well as professional experience. The measurement of human sensitivity can be defined psychometrically. A large number of psychometric tests have already been developed, and newer tests are being devised. Essentially, consciousness, creativity and love for others reflect the sensitivity of certain people. Past activities and interests of an individual are indicative of such characteristics.

Grades for the degree of merit should be defined and issued to all citizens. The higher the grade of citizens the higher should be the right to vote in numbers. For instance, if the citizen with the lowest grade has right to give one vote then the citizens with higher grade should have right to give more than one vote.

Another question, which has been debated at length among the scholars, is this: When should the process of grading begin? When is the ideal moment to start implementing meritocracy in a society? The answer is transitional moment when a country is on the verse of radical change, such as a revolution. A convention comprising a group of intellectuals, scientists, reformists, psychologists, human rightists, and politicians from all parties can be formed. Such a group devises a grading system based on measures of expertise and sensitivities. They will delineate the rights of people (of particular grades) to vote and the standards of eligibility. Their consensus on this matter is critical to the functioning of such a system.

How does this apply to Nepali context? This is country endowed with natural resources like water (for the generation of electricity and farming), fertile land (for cultivation of agro-based industries), forests (for woods and medicines) and beautiful mountains (to attract tourists from around the world). Yet, it remains very poor. Nepal could make much progress even if one of the above four resources could be utilized properly.

Again, this is a matter of leadership. The sole reason for the poverty in Nepal is the lack of talented leaders who can establish the best system of government to balance the needs of people of all cultures and exploit the resources of country properly and distribute them fairly. The control over resources for decades by the centralized government and the feudal monarchy, have only suppressed the talents of many gifted people. Also the leaders of political parties do not seem genuinely interested in the establishment of a good system which can lead the country towards peace, prosperity and civilization.

In my opinion, the current transitional period is the best time to implement meritocracy in Nepal. Since meritocracy may sound outlandish to many in Nepal, we must first understand it and define it to suit our needs. Only then it should be introduced on a gradual basis. We can begin to implement it by mixing it with representative democracy. For example, half the members of the Lower House and the Upper House should be selected in terms of the meritorious credentials of the members and half based on the process of representative republicanism.

The same system can be implemented at the local level as well as the center.

Manoj K. Mishra teaches Physics at Model Campus at Janakpur as well as R.R.M. Campus, Tribhuvan University, Janakpur. He contributed this essay to Nepal Monitor. He maintains keen interest in Philosphy and topics related with development and change of society. He can be reached at


Thanks for the good article. Its worth reading. Hopefully our present leaders will have a thought in this direction. The
article very much resembles my
feeling toward betterment of democracy and humanity.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the editors before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

Brihát Śhānti Sámjhautā, 2006
(Comprehensive Peace Agreement)

· Home · About · Support · Contact · Privacy Policy

© Copyright 1999-2012, Nepal Monitor (formerly All Rights Reserved.
Maintained and managed by the Media Foundation, Kathmandu, since 2012