Meritocracy and other bad ideas

Referring to my 2037 piece, I said:
when it comes to any kind of power, loyalty is more important than exceptional ability. That’s not to say that incompetence is OK, but if your system of government depends on having people of exceptional ability, then it’s broken. Instead take the most competent people from the pool of those brought up to privilege and loyalty, and if they’re not good enough to, say, run a car company, the solution is not to have a government car company... The motto of the civil service should be “Good Enough for Government Work”
Commenter newt0311 objected that “real power always ends up with the exceptional”, and that if the elite is no longer composed of the exceptional, the civilisation dies. My immediate response was that the elite might need the best people, but the government doesn’t.

That’s what I had in mind when I wrote “good enough for government work”; that the middle management of the state administration should not be sucking up top talent that would contribute more to the common good in the productive sector. That’s only half the argument, though; my initial point was that the most senior people had to be trustworthy, and it is better to compromise on ability than bring in people who cannot be counted on to be loyal.

The loyalty factor does not necessarily go away outside the government itself. I wrote that “If you have real power, you will be expected to positively show loyalty”, and that includes those outside the state.

(In itself, that is admittedly a questionable idea: the problem is that market competition could be corrupted by participants attempting to get their competitors into trouble. I think that’s a small risk compared to the massive rent-seeking that goes on under democracy, but it’s a worry).

So, is newt0311 right; does civilisation require that exception people be in control?  I don’t see it. If the elite systematically excluded those of exceptional ability, that would leave a superior “shadow elite” with an argument for, and the ability to, replace the ruling elite. That would be a bad situation. I’m not arguing for excluding the exceptional, nor for ignoring the value of ability. I am only claiming that there are other important factors to balance it.

To put my case in the simplest form, the single hardest thing for civilisation to achieve is to coordinate people effectively. Doing so does require individuals of great ability, but more than that, it requires trust. That, as I wrote before, is the solution to the “lobotomised by activity” problem that we see in both Nick Clegg and Barack Obama. Thus I advocate that the elite select first on the basis of insiders — people who have a stake in the system and can be trusted, and then choose for ability within that.

(An aside: “being from a good family”, which is more or less what I mean by “insider”, is not in itself a sufficient guarantee of loyalty. For more sensitive positions, more evidence than that will be needed. But it’s a good start, and it also provides a way to get other evidence: the employer will know people who know the candidate, and be much better able to gauge their character than in a meritocratic system.)

Our current form of government is effectively the opposite. We are ruled by people of exceptional ability, in the public and private sectors; every position is open to anyone, and the winners are those who have beaten their rivals in the most demanding contest. However, they then represent themselves, with varying degrees of credibility, as ordinary people. Also, because they have all come through highly selective processes, they have no connections to each other, and are still competing and fighting each other at the highest level of government.

This leads to the “arrogance and recklessness” problem I discussed some time ago: not only is each individual selected for ability over reliability, but they are in a peer group that is immersed in the idea that second-best is a disgrace. That produces the “champion or bust” attitude that has caused so many of our recent disasters. A soupçon of meritocracy is a manageable thing when added into a culture of in-group loyalty. When meritocracy becomes the culture, it is time to head for the bunker.

(The other problem, of course, is what their exceptional ability actually is. They’re not necessarily the best people for doing their jobs; they are the best at getting their jobs. But the premise of the discussion is that ability is ability; these are exceptional people.)