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Beyond Liberal Democracy: Exiting Liberal Democracy: Where Does Confucian Virtuous Leadership Stand?

Beyond Elitism: Toward Meritocratic Rule in China? A Debate on Democracy and Confucian MeritocracyBell and Confucian ThoughtA Community Ideal for a Modern East AsiaA Response to Professors Dallmayr, Li, and Tan
Fred Dallmayr Chenyang Li Sor-hoon Tan Daniel A. Bell
Philosophy East and West, Volume 59, Number 4, October 2009, p. 523 (Article)
Published by University of Hawai'i Press DOI: 10.1353/pew.0.0075

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Beyond Liberal Democracy: A Debate on Democracy and Confucian Meritocracy

Fred Dallmayr, Chenyang Li, Sor-hoon Tan, and Daniel A. Bell

At the twenty-second World Congress of Philosophy held in Seoul, Korea, from July 29 to August 5, 2008, a panel was convened to debate the ideas for a democracy with Confucian characteristics in Daniel A. Bells Beyond Liberal Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). While all participants welcome the attempt to remedy the shortcomings of liberal democracy with Confucian teachings, Fred Dallmayr worries that Bells political thinking for an East Asian context may point beyond democracy tout court. For Sor-hoon Tan, Bells chapter 6, Taking Elitism Seriously: Democracy with Confucian Characteristics may not be so much an alternative to liberalism as it is a challenge to the democratic value of equality that overlooks the dangers of an imperfect meritocracy. Chenyang Li, on the other hand, approaches Bells proposal of combining a Confucianism-inspired Upper House of Talent and Virtue selected through competitive examinations with a lower house of democratically elected representatives from the concern that it surrenders the Confucian requirement of virtuous leadership. This feature review also concludes with a spirited reply from Daniel Bell.

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Exiting Liberal Democracy: Bell and Confucian Thought

Fred Dallmayr Departments of Philosophy and Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Some twenty years ago, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the so-called Cold War came to an end, terminating four decades of intense global rivalry. This ending, no doubt, had profound repercussions, ushering in radically new geopolitical alignments together with a new phase of economic globalization. Behindor despitethese transformations, however, one can also detect a curious kind of ideological persistence: in many Western societies, and especially in America, the liberal individualism cultivated as the stark antidote to Soviet collectivism remained in place, unchanged, and was even strengthened and elevated into a global ideological panacea. Under the auspices of neoliberalism, individual and corporate profitseeking was steadily unleashed while older social and political restrictions on profit seeking were marginalized or downsized. As a result of both the Cold War and subsequent developments, it became customary virtually to equate democracy with liberal democracy or a system prioritizing individual rightscompletely neglectful of the long-standing tension between the latter and democracy, seen as a shared political regime. That this equation is by no means cogent or self-evident, even in America, is demonstrated by the work of such prominent American intellectuals as John Dewey and Walter Lippmann. For both, the glorification of self-seeking or atomistic individualism was a derailment or corruption of democracy. For Dewey, in particular, democracy constituted an ethical association or community where private self-seeking is necessarily curbed.1 In light of this background one can only welcome Daniel Bells recent book, Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context, a text that exposes some of the glaring defects or shortcomings of liberal individualism as practiced in Western societies today. Without ignoring some of the benefits of individual freedom, the book seeks to correct or remedy these shortcomings through recourse to older Asian teachings, especially the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. In a way, the front cover captures the animus pervading the text: it shows a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding up a copy of the Analects of Confucius. What aggravates or antagonizes Bell is not so much the Western liberal model as such as the rather missionary zeal with which this model tends to be exported today by Western, especially American, intellectuals and policy makers. His opening chapter makes reference to the American legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, who, during a lecture tour in China in 2002, exhorted Chinese audiences to embrace Western liberalindividualistic values in preference to older indigenous traditions. As Bell comments wryly: His less-than-modest demeanor and hectoring tone did not help. The deeper problem, however, is that [he] made no serious attempt to learn about Chinese philosophy, to identify aspects worth defending and learning from, and to relate his own ideas to those of Chinese political traditions such as Confucianism and Legalism


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(pp. 34). What renders the hectoring tone even more odd and even absurd is the fact that the same theorist more recently has cast doubt on the very possibility of liberal democracy in the United Statesnever mind the rest of the world.2 Regardless of the possibility or impossibility of exportation, the meaning of liberal democracy in the text is not left in doubt. According to the introductory chapter (p. 9), the main hallmarks of liberal democracy are basically three, comprising human rights, democracy, and capitalism. As Bell adds at a later point: I define liberal democracy as being composed of three main pillarshuman rights, democracy, and capitalismthat have originated and been developed in Western countries. The chief aim of the text is to delineate alternative models of these pillars that may be more appropriatemore feasible and desirablefor East Asian societies (p. 333). In conformity with this aim, the book is divided into three major parts, dealing respectively with human rights, democracy, and capitalism for an East Asian context. Part 1 concentrates on such issues as the relevance of Asian values for human rights, the activities of international human rights NGOs, and comments by Mencius on just and unjust war. Part 2 turns to such problems as the merits and demerits of active citizenship, the possibility of a democracy with Confucian characteristics (which, we are told, involves taking elitism seriously), the effect of democracy on minority groups, and the system of education in Singapore. Part 3 offers discussions of Confucian constraints on property rights, East Asian provisions for social welfare, the treatment of migrant workers in East Asia, and, more generally, the pros and cons of Confucian teachings in both ideal and real settings in the contemporary world. The book offers valuable insights in each of the three focal areas. In addressing the issue of human rights, Bell deals sensibly with the Asian values conundrum, which often has generated more heat than light; somewhat unexpectedly, he delineates Mencius view on warfare, pointing out thatalthough not strictly a pacifist the Confucian sage strongly opposed wars of conquest, holding that states can defend themselves if the ruler is supported by the people (p. 10). Surely a good maxim for all times and places! The section on democracy compares the state-centered citizenship in Western societies with the more local and communal loyalties in East Asia; it also contains important comments on the need for civic education in our multicultural world, noting that one of the teaching methods designed to improve democratic education is public recognition of the intellectual contributions of different groups, including those historically marginalized (p. 13). Again, a good maxim that is valuable in many contexts. Probably the most intriguing idea advanced in the democracy section is the notion of a bicameral mode of representation, with the popularly elected lower house being supplemented by a meritocratic upper chamber. In a time dominated by neoliberal laissez-faire capitalism, readers will appreciate learning about East Asian attempts to curb rampant individual and corporate greed. In Bells words, Confucians defended constraints on the free market in the name of more fundamental values (pp. 1516). Among the constraints imposed by Confucian policy makers to secure peoples basic material welfare was the so-called well-field system designed by Mencius,

Fred Dallmayr


a system allowing farmers to make productive use of their land while ensuring that enough food is supplied to the nonfarming population. Among other constraining features was the principle that ownership rights should be vested in the family rather than the individual, an arrangement that encouraged filial piety and the care of elderly parents by their offspring. Although permitting regulation of the economy by a strong interventionist state, East Asian capitalism, past and present, is said to rely heavily on social networks to grease the wheels of economic transactions. From the angle of political theory or philosophy, Bells text displays a number of qualities that are urgently needed but also in short supply in our era of civilizational clashes. Among these qualities are a certain humility or tentativeness and a complete absence of hectoring. Repeatedly, Bell stresses the importance of cultural sensitivity, the need to be familiar with ones own as well as to be open to other cultural traditions. This culturally sensitive approach, he writes, allows for the possibility that deeply held values provide the motivational resources to influence certain outcomes (p. 18). Closely connected with this cultural sensitivity is the need to rely not only on abstract generalities but on concrete local knowledge. As he states (echoing Abdullahi An-Naim): It is more likely that the struggle to promote human rights can be won if it is fought in ways that build on, rather than challenge, local cultural traditions (p. 65).3 Although deviating from a bland universalism equaling uniformity, such attention to local knowledge and cultural particularities does not at all amount to an endorsement of relativism in the sense of parochial self-enclosure. For Bell, different particularities can and should engage in mutual scrutiny and critique, with the result that different cultural values can at best justify different priorities given to rights in cases of conflict (p. 62). One of the most valuable aspects of the text, in my view, is the deliberate attempt to connect or reconnect theory and practice, philosophical reflection and practical engagement. As Bell writes, in a passage implicitly harking back to Deweyan pragmatism: I work at the intersection of theory and practice. I have a particular context in mind when I am arguing for something, and I try not to lose sight of the question of effectiveness (p. 325). Notwithstanding these and many other qualities, the book is not as even or even-handed as one might wish. By even-handed I have in mind especially the image on the front cover: the Statue of Liberty holding in her hand the Analects. Quite often one has the impression of a mismatch between the latter and the handdespite the basic attractiveness of the image. What the image suggests, at least to me, is the notion of an ethical democracy, a democracy sustained by Confucian virtues, or perhaps by a mixture of Confucian, Aristotelian, and contemporary pluralist or multicultural virtues. This is a notion I find on the whole appealing (and have defended elsewhere). However, this does not quite seem the direction in which Bells text is moving. As indicated, the books title is Beyond Liberal Democracy, but one frequently gets the impression that the move is not just beyond liberal democracy but beyond democracy tout court, leaving as a remnant only what Bell calls minimal democracy (pp. 14, 151). Apart from the hankering for elitism (to which I turn later), the impression is sustained by the very definition of liberal democracy in the book. As previously


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stated, the term for Bell means a combination of three elements: human rights, democracy, and capitalismwith all three pillars marked by laissez-faire individualism. Hence, in the definition, and in the title of the book, democracy is already swallowed up in liberal individualism. Bell does not seem to know, or least seems reluctant to explicate, that there are and have been different meanings of democracy not congruent with liberal individualism, among them social democracy, popular or populist democracy, and also the kind of ethical democracy extolled by Montesquieu and Dewey. As mentioned before, it seems to be largely the pervasive effect of the Cold War that has blotted these alternatives out of the public imagination. Clearly, any one of these alternatives would have a different relation with the Analects and hence a different fit with the statues hand.4 The front cover involves another unevenness or incongruity, which touches the books basic intent. According to its subtitle, the text offers political thinking for an East Asian context. Each one of the three major parts of the book adds the clause for an East Asian context to its heading. The clause speaks well for Bells modesty or humility and his distaste for missionary posturing. However, not all comparisons are missionary endeavors. There is also the possibilitywhich lies at the core of comparative studiesthat comparison is done for the sake of mutual learning where all parties are able to raise questions while being questioned in turn. Clearly, such mutual questioning (which can be, and has been, called a dialogue of cultures) cannot be arbitrarily restricted in terms of content or geographical scopewithout necessarily being conducive to universal consensus or uniformity. Bell frequently wavers or seems reluctant to concede this point; in any event, by tailoring his argument to an East Asian context, he courts the danger of obliterating the covers Statue of Liberty in favor of a narrowly confined Asian parochialism. At least some of the statements in his book point in that direction. As we read in the concluding chapter: My book is meant for an East Asian context; its main point is to provide ideas for people thinking about how to improve East Asian societies and hence, hopefully, East Asians will read it (p. 336). Since it is written in English, Westerners may also wish to read it; but the reason given for this expectationthat they have the power to shape events in East Asiaoddly contradicts the books anti-missionary bent. At another point, seemingly reinforcing Asian parochialism, Bell questions the value of cross-cultural dialogue, stating that it will lead to either empty platitudes or politically controversial conclusions likely to be rejected by affected constituents (p. 83).5 Fortunately, parochialism is not the books prevailing tenor. Referring specifically to the teachings of Mencius, Bell acknowledges at one point that the founding fathers of Confucianism defended ideals and practices that were held to be universalizable; they did not view Confucianism as being necessarily confined to a particular group such as the Chinese (pp. 251252). At another juncture, remembering the central Confucian virtue of humaneness or benevolence, he states that values similar to aspects of Western conceptions of human rights can also be found in the Confucian tradition; the notion of ren (variously translated as benevolence, humanity, or love), for example, expresses the value of impartial concern to

Fred Dallmayr


relieve human suffering (p. 63). Such concern, he adds, shows that Confucianism allows for duties or rights that belong to human persons simpliciter, independent of their roles (or geographical location).6 To be sure, just as in the case of Western traditions, the universalizable character of Confucian teachings does not entail a missionary or imperialist trajectory, but it does imply that Westerners can learn from Confucian teachings just as East Asians can learn and benefit from Western ideas about human rights and democracy. In some of the books more inspiring passages, the value of mutual learning and hence also the worth of comparative studyis recognized and underscored. Thus, in reflecting on education in contemporary pluralist societies, Bell comments that multicultural education should draw on the traditions of all ethnic groups in society; such an inclusive curriculum has the advantage of encouraging mutual learning and understanding, and thus strengthening the links between the various ethnic groups in society (p. 217). To this one can add a passage from the concluding chapter, which states: In present-day East Asian societies, Western categories [like human rights and democracy] have also become part of everyday political discourse; hence, the scholar of contemporary East Asian political thinking cant help being a comparativist (p. 326). Comments of this kind make it all the more puzzling that democracy is presented as uncongenial to, or not learnable by East Asians. As indicated earlier, the phrase beyond liberal democracy often points beyond democracy tout court. Here Bells elitist penchant comes to the fore, with largely disorienting results. As he writes, somewhat condescendingly at one point, most people in East Asia have devoted their time and energy to family and other local obligations, with political decision making left to an educated, public-spirited elite; hence, the ideal regime in East Asia is one that reconciles minimal democracy with elite politicswhere the term minimal denotes an arrangement not much more demanding than visiting the voting booth every few years (pp. 150151). For Bell, elite politics basically means a system of meritocracy where leaders are chosen by means of literary and educational tests (patterned in part on the civil service examinations of imperial China). No doubt, there is a great need for people with talent, expertise, and integrity in modern governmentsa need recognized at least since John Stuart Mill. The question is how this demand can be reconciled with democratic aspirations. Bells proposed meritocracy faces several issues on this score. For one thing, who can devise an equitable set of examinations that will not degenerate into a social caste system? Next, once chosen, how and to whom will the meritocrats be held accountable? These questions penetrate into the proposed bicameral structure, where one chamber is popularly elected while the upper chamber (the Xianshiyan) is based on merit. Although presented as an ideally balanced structure (between people and elite), the insistence on minimal democracy (with people only voting every few years but otherwise inactive) tilts or undermines the balance in favor of elite rule.7 To Bells credit, meritocracy is decidedly not synonymous with rule by a powerhungry, autocratic, and self-serving elite; ideally construed again, its function is one


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of service and educational guidance. As he notes, a basic assumption of the Confucian ethics that undergirds meritocracy, is that the highest human good lies in public service; accordingly, Confucius in the Analects speaks of teaching the people (p. 153). This assumption, however, implies that the people engaged in public service are imbued with the self-transcending virtues of Confucian ethics (rather than being slaves of their ambitions). The assumption of the Analects also implies that the people are indeed teachable, that is, that they understand the difference between ethical service and domination and thus can differentiate between benign teachers and vile autocrats (and express this distinction, if need be, in political action). This ability, in turn, means that democracy (in more than a minimal sense) cannot be out of their reach, providing proper education. Unfortunately, Bells comments on education are not always helpful. As he reports, in a cross-cultural course offered in Singapore he emphasized mainly politics without morality, choosing as his main exemplar the Chinese legalist thinker Han Fei Zi (pp. 211215). Generally speaking, Beyond Liberal Democracy often displays a disconcerting fascination with Legalism or Chinese realpolitik (despite the recorded atrocities inflicted by Legalists on Confucian scholars). This aspect is related to Bells assertion that East Asian political discourse involves basically an interaction between Legalism and Confucianism, and to his repeatedly stated preference for a Legalistic Confucianism (pp. 19, 258259). As against this preference, seeing that the West is already fully saturated with power politics, I find it advisable to uphold the idea of the Three Teachings in East Asia: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. In this formula, East Asian thought is marked by an admirable multicultural blend: with Confucians affirming a strong public ethics that at the same time is tempered by the playful anarchy of Daoists and by the Buddhist reminder of the contingency or emptiness of all supposedly stable worldly structures. With this blending of traditions, East Asia clearly has much to teach the rest of the world.8

Notes 1 See John Dewey, The Ethics of Democracy, in Dewey: The Early Books, vol. 1, ed. George Axtelle et al. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), pp. 233249. Regarding Walter Lippmann see especially his The Good Society (1936; New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1943), and also my Introduction to In Search of the Good Life: A Pedagogy for Troubled Times (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2007), pp. 120. Compare also C. B. Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966) and The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). 2 See Ronald Dworkin, Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

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3 Compare in this context Abdullahi A. An-Naim, ed., Human Rights in CrossCultural Perspective: A Quest for Consensus (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992). 4 The text has little or nothing to say about deliberative democracy and offers only a few negative comments on republicanism or republican democracy, mainly because of its support for active citizenship. As Bell writes: The republican tradition will likely seem problematic for members of modern-day liberal Western societies for whom, in Charles Taylors words, the affirmation of ordinary life has assumed greater importance. In East Asian societies with a Confucian heritage . . . the republican tradition is so far removed from peoples selfunderstanding that it is a complete nonstarter (p. 150). Somewhat grudgingly, the text concedes a certain affinity between Sun Yat-sen and republicanism (p. 150 n. 119). 5 In this context, Bell criticizes my work for leaning toward universal dialoguea critique that seems to ignore my rejection of a spurious universality in favor of a more genuine universalism respectful of differences. As Bell himself adds: I do not mean to imply that cross-cultural dialogue and comparative theorizing should not be done (quite the opposite), but my aim would be to identify areas of justifiable moral difference (p. 83 n. 90)which is precisely also my aim. 6 Compare also this statement in the closing chapter: The founding fathers of Confucianism . . . believed that their theories were universalizable; they were not intended only for one culture (p. 328). The point is made even more forcefully in one of Bells more recent writings: What makes [the works of Confucius and Mencius] classics is precisely that they provide resources for thinking about morally relevant concerns in different times and places. . . . Certain Confucian values can and should be taken seriously in Western societies (Daniel A. Bell, ed., Confucian Political Ethics [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008], pp. xixii). 7 The stress on minimal democracy makes Bell curiously an ally of devotees of rational choice (who completely dismiss ethical considerations, Confucian or otherwise). As it happens, I have myself proposed a similar bicameral arrangement, but in the case of Iran; see my Religion, Democracy, and Iran: A ModestProposal, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27 (2007): 503508. 8 In a very instructive fashion, Wm. Theodore de Bary has presented traditional East Asian thought as a multicultural dialogue involving mainly Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism (and more recently Western liberalism and Marxism). See his East Asian Civilizations: A Dialogue in Five Stages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).


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Where Does Confucian Virtuous Leadership Stand?

Chenyang Li

Philosophy Department, Central Washington University

For over a decade Daniel Bell has been a pioneer in the study of democracy and human rights in an East Asian context. His remarkable book Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context elevates his research to a new level. This new volume offers a critical examination of the uniquely parochial Western liberal democracy, which has been promoted in various parts of the world as universally valid regardless of local conditions. Based on his years of firsthand experience and personal knowledge of East Asian societies, Bell proposes a rather ambitious alternative model of democracy that would be suitable to a cultural setting where there is a long history of Confucian influence. Chapter 6, Taking Elitism Seriously: Democracy with Confucian Characteristics, is probably the most exciting and provocative part of the book. In it Bell argues for taking seriously not just one but two important values, namely democracy and political elitism. Confucian political elitism is defined as the rule of the wise. It exemplifies the ideal that the best and the brightest should exert more influence in order to build a good society. On the one hand, this kind of political elitism may be particularly appropriate for todays knowledge-based societies; on the other, Bell argues, there is an equally profound need to institutionalize the democratic virtues of accountability, transparency, and equal political participation. Balancing these two considerations leads Bell to propose his version of modern Confucian democracy. Specifically, this would involve the establishment of a bicameral legislature, with a democratically elected lower house and a Confucian upper house composed of representatives selected on the basis of competitive examinations (pp. 165166). The upper house would decide on policies by means of a majority vote following open and public deliberation. When the upper and lower houses disagree, Bell seems uncommitted as to which house should have the final word. Anticipating the obvious challenge, he proposes that deputies from the upper house be selected through an examination mechanism rooted in Chinese culture. Such an examination would be designed to single out the most desired traits in a candidate. This idea of a bicameral legislature is intriguing, to say the least. It is arguable that if the United States had such a system, Congress might not have given its approval to the disastrous war in Iraq. As Phil Donahues recent film Body of War shows, when the call to war in Iraq was brought to a vote on the floor of Congress, the Bush administration timed the debate so that the vote would take place just prior to the November election (the vote in the U.S. Senate took place on October 11, 2002). Facing a very angry post-9/11 nation, both houses were under tremendous pressure to support the war. It can be argued that if members of Congress in one of the two chambers had been selected through a knowledge-based examination process rather than by popular vote, these members would have been less likely to

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succumb to public pressure. Furthermore, if we accept the argument that welleducated and knowledgeable people are less likely to support wars like the one in Iraq,1 Congress might not have approved of the invasion of Iraq had there been a national legislature on Bells model. To many, Bells proposal may sound like a twenty-first century Confucian fantasy. But it may not be as far-fetched as it first appears. Besides the Confucian cultural factors that Bell enlists in support of his view, recent political history in China may also give it plausibility. First, Sun Yet-sens scheme of a Constitution of Five Powers (Wu Quan Xian Fa) deliberately included a branch of government called the Kao Shi Yuan, the Ministry of Examinations. The Kao Shi Yuan was charged with selecting government officials through a carefully devised examination system. The Kao Shi Yuan was of such importance that it was given the same level of authority as, and independence from, the legislative branch (Li Fa Yuan), the executive branch (Xing Zheng Yuan), the judicial branch (Si Fa Yuan), and the supervisory branch (Jian Cha Yuan). More than just a theoretical construct, this system is a political reality in the Republic of China (Taiwan) today. Under this system, it is conceivable that the Kao Shi Yuan could be assigned the responsibility to select deputies to the Xian Shi Yuan, as in Bells proposal. Second, as Bell has pointed out in his book, in the China of today, besides the Peoples Congress, which is the legislative body, there is another assembly called the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The CPPCC is currently composed of the Communist Party, other political parties, mass organizations, and representative public personagesthat is, compatriots from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao as well as returned overseas Chinese and other specially invited people. It includes many social elites from all walks of life. Its function, according to the official definition, is to engage in political consultation and to exercise democratic supervisionthat is, to organize various noncommunist political parties, mass organizations, and public personages to take part in the discussion and management of state affairs. The actual roles of both the Peoples Congress and the CPPCC in the political life of China today are disputable, to say the least. However, it is conceivable that, once the Party steps back from power, the Peoples Congress and the CPPCC may become transformed into a political arrangement similar to what Bell proposes, following some degree of modification.2 While Bells proposal is definitely consistent with Confucian political elitism, he fails to provide a strong justification for such an arrangement. What gives the elites the right to occupy a separate upper house? Merely referring to tradition and a knowledge-based society does not create a strong case here; there is a need for moral justification. The issue ultimately has to do with the Confucian standpoint on equality. As I have discussed elsewhere,3 under Confucianism people are born with equal potential but ultimately find themselves unequal because they have arrived at different levels of attainment. Confucians believe that every person is born with the potential to become cultivated and even to become a sage, yet in real life everyones potential is actualized differently due to varying degrees of personal effort and different circumstances. Consequently some people are more morally worthy


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than others in terms of political decision making. This Confucian view is the foundation of the kind of political elitism that Bell would implement, even though it is unpopular among a modern generation for whom the affirmation of ordinary life is a dominant theme.4 Without addressing this fundamental issue, Bell cannot establish a solid justification for his proposal. Attempting to do so would put Bell in direct confrontation with the popular view of universal equality advocated by liberals such as Ronald Dworkin. I will not attempt to develop a Confucian philosophy of equality here. But I would like to suggest that such a philosophy would include two aspects. On the one hand, all human beings possess equal dignity because each has the potential to become cultivated into a knowledgeable, and virtuous person. Animals do not possess this capacity and are thus unequal to human beings. As far as our capacity to achieve is concerned, all human beings are equal. On the other hand, human beings do not necessarily achieve the same level of cultivation in terms of knowledge and virtue, and are thus not equal in these respects. When the making of important political decisions requires exceptional knowledge and virtue, we are not equally qualified in participating in this process. Again, such a view is not popular today, and Bell cannot make a strong case for his proposal without addressing this question. My second criticism of Bells proposal is that he has basically dismissed the requirement for virtuous leadership in Confucian political philosophy. Bells version of the Confucian rule of the wise is based on the reality of the prevailing knowledgebased society of today. Because present-day society is highly dependent on knowledge, it would seem that its political leaders must necessarily possess appropriate kinds of knowledge. Confucian elites are supposed to be well educated and wise. When they are in positions of authority, they must be able to make informed decisions. However, here Bell discusses only one aspect of Confucian elitist political philosophy, for Confucians feel that a leader should be not only knowledgeable but, and perhaps more importantly, virtuous as well. Confucian political philosophy places emphasis on the rule of virtue (de zhi ), the idea that the best form of government is one where the rulers are virtuous and lead by setting an appropriate example for the rest of society. In the Confucian view, the practice of government is not merely a bureaucratic exercise, but also a moral praxis. To make a bureaucracy function, all we need is knowledge and the technical skills of political maneuvering, but the key to success in moral praxis is ethical excellence or virtue. In Chinese, governance is called zheng . Confucius defined this word in terms of another word zheng , namely setting things right. The Aigongwen chapter of the Liji records a conversation between Confucius and Duke Ai of the state of Lu, in which the duke asks Confucius what is most important in human affairs. Confucius replies that governance (zheng ) is most important. The duke further inquires what governance is about. Confucius says, governance is about setting things right (, ). Here the second zheng means correct, to make something right, and upright. To set things right in politics requires leaders to govern with virtue (), an ideal traceable to the Confucian classic Shangshu (Book of history). The idea of virtue-based leader-

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ship is a prominent one for both Confucius and Mencius. In the Weizheng chapter of the Analects Confucius says, If you lead with government decrees and regulate with penal law, people may avoid doing things so that they are not punished, but they will not develop a sense of shame. If you lead with virtue and regulate with rules of propriety, people will develop a sense of shame and will form good character (). The goal of government in Confucianism is the building of a harmonious society. In such a society, people live in prosperity and peace. This goal requires the government not only to regulate society through rules and laws but also, more importantly, to foster a climate of virtue. The way to achieve this goal is by providing a role model. In the Yanyuan chapter of the Analects Confucius says that if the leader strives for goodness, the people will follow him in being good. The virtue of the morally cultivated person (junzi) is like wind; the common peoples virtue is like grass. Grass always bends in the direction of the wind ( ). When virtuous leaders lead the way, the people will tend to be virtuous. Again in the Weizheng chapter Confucius says that One should govern with virtue. This is like the northern star: it takes its proper place and the rest of the stars rotate around it (). The philosophy behind the rule of virtue is that rulers themselves should be virtuous in the first place; then they will not only make good decisions in the interests of the people, but also serve as role models and foster the development of an uplifting moral climate. Confucian elitism is thus defined as consisting of equal amounts of knowledge and virtue. Bell aptly calls his upper house Xian Shi Yuan, which roughly means the House of Virtue and Talent, but his proposed arrangement is based on the presence of knowledge and misses the part played by virtue. On the ideal of rule by the virtuous, Bell is willing to go so far as making ethics tests a part of the examination for Xian Shi Yuan deputies (p. 168) and requiring that these deputies be publicspirited (p. 159). But this is still far from what is required by Confucian political philosophy. Without virtue as a requirement for leadership, Bells proposal is less than adequate from a Confucian standpoint. In this regard, Bells proposal may be a step back from the model already developed in contemporary China in the form of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Surely the CPPCC includes knowledgeable people as its members, such as well-trained scientists. But it also includes people who are not typically considered knowledgeable in the usual sense. It includes model workers, accomplished actors and actresses, and military heroes. These people are there in part because they represent the best one can be in various walks of life. They are considered role-model personages (mo fan ren wu), and insofar as they are role models they set an example for the rest of society. Inseparable from their career successes is their personal virtue. Let us take a member of the eleventh CPPCC named Zhang Haidi as an example. Paralyzed when she was a young girl, Zhang never gave up on herself. Displaying a tremendous amount of endurance and determination, she worked hard to become a popular author. But what she is known for


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primarily is her personal virtue, not her knowledge. Zhang is not alone on the CPPCC. There have been many CPPCC members who were manual workers and peasants, selected in part because they demonstrated virtue. This is not to say that the current CPPCC is full of virtuous people. But at least it purports to include those who are held up as exemplary role models, and this may reflect the importance attached to the Confucian rule of virtue. Some may argue that in todays world the philosophy of the rule of virtue is outdatedthat true democracy is about open competition for political leadership in a social marketplace where there are no established requirements with regard to the personal character of societys leaders. After all, it may be asked, who is to say what virtue is and who possesses it? I believe that those who raise these kinds of questions have lost sight of what it means to be Confucian. Confucianism is a philosophy with a strong emphasis on ethics. It is not value-neutral; it is not some obscure, abstract political theory. The significance of Confucianism lies in what it stands for: a just society led by virtuous persons who possess qualities such as benevolence (ren), rightness (yi), propriety (li), wisdom (zhi), and trustworthiness (xin). In the Confucian view, a person without these qualities cannot be a good leader, and a good society, however it produces its leaders, must have virtuous leaders. A related question, then, is how does a society find virtuous leaders? Bell proposes that the Xian Shi Yuan select knowledgeable members through an examination process, as in pre-twentieth-century China. But it is problematic whether a society can obtain virtuous leaders via an examination process. Bells solution of having an ethics test (p. 168) does not achieve this goal. But there are cultural resources in Chinese society that can be utilized. For example, the Chinese now use a method of sampling public opinion known as qun zhong ping yi during elections. This involves the assessment of the opinions on not only a candidates ability as a leader but also the candidates trustworthiness and relationships with other people (qun zhong guan xi). The latter reflects a candidates degree of virtue. When a university needs a new department chair, they first call for applications and nominations. Then they go through the qun zhong ping yi process to gather opinions from faculty and staff. Then the university administration makes public the choice of a candidate or list of candidates. After this, an election takes place to fill the new chair. This process is by no means flawless, but it has its merits and can be useful in helping us to think through issues associated with political leadership. An alternative method is to combine the examination process with a qun zhong ping yi to produce deputies in the Xian Shi Yuan. Specifically, there would be two committees involved, one in charge of the examination and the other in charge of the qun zhong ping yi. A candidate would have to pass both phases of the process before being appointed to the Xian Shi Yuan. In this way, not only would Xian Shi Yuan deputies be certain to possess the necessary knowledge requirements, but they would also be admired by others for their virtuous character. In summary, I believe Bells proposal is both interesting and promising. But I feel that aside from the issue of equality he has not included one of the most important elements of Confucian political philosophy, namely the quality of virtue. Without it,

Chenyang Li


Bells proposal is inadequate. In recent times, Confucianism has encountered many challenges, and it has appropriately adapted to accommodate itself to changing social realities. However, there are traditional elements that Confucianism should never abandon, and one of them is the rule of virtue. If Confucianism is to continue in any meaningful way, virtue must be among those personal attributes upon which it places the greatest emphasis.

Notes 1 The philosophy club at my university sponsored a public panel on campus just prior to the war; most people at the panel were opposed to an invasion of Iraq. 2 Right before the June 4 incident in 1989, a few members of the Peoples Congress Standing Committee stood up and called for an emergency session of the standing committee so that they would be able to discuss the student-led demonstration. These deputies were contained by the Communist Party before they could exert any influence. It is conceivable that in the future, when the time is right, the CPPCC could evolve into an independent branch of the government. 3 Chenyang Li, Whether Confucianism and Democracy Are Compatible, in The Tao Encounters the West (State University of New York Press, 1999), pp. 172180. 4 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), pt. 3.


Philosophy East & West

Beyond Elitism: A Community Ideal for a Modern East Asia

Sor-hoon Tan National University of Singapore

It is often remarked that East Asian polities have been hierarchical and the elite category continues to figure prominently in works on Chinese society and politics.1 Many scholars believe that hierarchy and elitism are deeply rooted in Confucianism, which served as the state orthodoxy in imperial China and provided the psychocultural construct of the way of life in other East Asian cultural communities as well. It is therefore not surprising that some should believe that if modern Confucian societies are to be democratic at all, elitism must be reconciled with democracy. In contrast, elitism is commonly a pejorative term in liberal democracies today, especially the United States, notwithstanding the portrayal of these polities by political scientists as cases of democratic elitism.2 Presenting democracy with Confucian characteristics as elitism, therefore, highlights its challenge to liberal forms of democracy. Taking elitism seriously, Daniel A. Bell, in his Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context, offers us an institutional arrangement that combines what he sees as an elitist Confucian rule of virtue with a transparent and accountable democratic government that would check abuses of power. I shall first consider in what way Bells proposal is an alternative to liberal democracy, and then explore theories of elitism for a better understanding of why elitism is usually seen to threaten or undermine democracy, whether liberal or otherwise. These two sets of theoretical explorations will provide the basis for evaluating whether Bells proposal could realize the purposes and values of both Confucianism and democracy. I shall argue, contra Bell, that the community ideal of Confucian democracy, if it is to work in East Asia, would do better to eschew elitism for historical as well as pragmatic reasons. Elitism as an Alternative to Liberalism: Is Democracy a Means or an End? The democratic value most directly threatened by elitism is not liberty but equality. Ironically, one view is that just as elites inaugurated the age of equality, the age of equality brought forth elitism.3 Until equality came to be taken seriously as a value, the domination of societies by a select minoritythat is, the existence and importance of eliteswas taken for granted and did not need justification. Elitism as a political philosophy asserts that those who distinguish themselves by occupation or special knowledge or some other valued ability can make better decisions and should decide for the less able; it attempts to explain or justify elites and their roles in society.4 In doing so, elitists have only to deny a practical equality of competence between elites and other people; they can believe in fundamental or innate human equality, which has been associated with some classical liberal political philoso-

Philosophy East & West Volume 59, Number 4 October 2009 537553 > 2009 by University of Hawaii Press


phies such as John Lockes. Despite this association between liberty and equality, in practice there is often a tension between these two values, so sometimes liberalism can be found on the side of elitism. Nineteenth-century classical liberals believed that the leadership of moral and intellectual, as well as technical, elites is required for any liberal order to flourish. More recently, sociologists G. Lowell Field and John Higley even have considered elitism an obligation for those who hold liberal values; they see nearly all features of modern liberal democracies as instrumental liberal values which under certain circumstances may provide or promote ultimate liberal values.5 They argue that the failure of liberal thinking to understand the elitist character of legally and constitutionally established representative government was largely responsible for liberalisms failure to expand its effective influence in the world after 1900.6 Bell intends his Confucian institutional innovation to be an alternative to liberalism, but no less a liberal than John Stuart Mill declares:
No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except insofar as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.7

Bell would probably disagree with Mill that the democratic masses, even at their best, have followed or will follow the lead of the gifted few. They also part company when the liberal insists that all that the highly gifted and well instructed can claim is freedom to point the way8 and that they should not be organized or given institutional power, as Bells proposed Xianshiyuan clearly is an institution organized to give elites political power. Will the institutional safeguards suggested by Bell enable this elitist institution to avoid corrupting its worthy occupants, despite the liberal belief that, unless it is to prevent harm to others, the power to coerce people, even when it is for their own good, always corrupts? John Skorupski describes Mill and other classical liberals as moderate elitists.9 Bells recommended elitism fits what Skorupski calls strong elitism, which organizes the authority of the elite into a formal power that undermines the freedom of others. To Skorupski, elitism is opposed to populism rather than liberalism. Populism subscribes to two tenets: first, deliberation applies only to means but not to ends and values; second, the ends and values of all individuals deserve equal respect. Moreover, the second tenet is derived from the first. Liberals also believe in equal respect for everyones ends and values, but, according to Skorupski, this equal respect in classical liberalism was derived from religious or metaphysical or at least regulative principles which are now difficult to sustain.10 Whereas classical liberals reject the first tenet, modernist liberalism has come to ground equality of respect as ethical neutrality on the uncriticizability of ends.11 Insofar as current liberal wisdom effaces that crucial difference between classical liberalism and populism and adopts what Skorupski calls Populist Values, Bell is justified in presenting his elitist Xianshiyuan as an alternative to existing liberal democracy.


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Others have contrasted elitism and populism in terms of attitudes toward the ability of elites to decide on behalf of the people versus the peoples ability to make decisions about their lives: elitists are optimistic about the former while populists are optimistic about the latter.12 Elitists argue that the complexities of government in todays world require knowledge and abilities that only a few experts possess and could never be acquired by the majority of people; therefore the task of government is best left in the hands of these experts, who belong to the elite. However, opponents could argue that the role of such experts is to serve the people, whose choices should determine the goals before experts can advise on how best to proceed. In other words, knowledge and expertise only matter in ensuring effectiveness and efficiency of means. To quote John Dewey, the man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.13 Democracy can recognize the need for expertise in the different roles of elected representatives and career civil servants. We see this already in Mills Representative Government, which tries to combine the benefits of popular control and skilled legislation and administration by separating the functions of government by disjoining the office of control and criticism from the actual conduct of affairs, and devolving the former on the representatives of the Many, while securing for the latter, under strict responsibility to the nation, the acquired knowledge and practiced intelligence of a specially trained and experienced Few.14 In liberal democracies, government bureaucracies can acquire the best expertise through meritocratic recruitment and promotion; this could be supplemented by ad hoc advice invited from relevant experts in various fields to remedy specific problems. However, democracy requires that policies being considered should be made public, clearly explained in terms of their impact on the people and their relevance to the peoples important concerns, and that the power to prioritize concerns and to choose the alternative policies available to deal with various issues ultimately belongs to the people, although their power may be delegated to elected representatives for specific limited periods of time. If power is taken away from the people by a minority of experts, then democracy is replaced by technocracy, that is, expert elitism or merit-based elitism. The danger of this happening is greatest in a society lacking in the free and open circulation of information and public debates about matters affecting the people, which makes it difficult to hold even elected representatives accountable let alone career bureaucrats or experts. Insofar as liberalism is committed to such freedom and facilitates such openness, it safeguards against such elitism. Meritocracy may be more justifiable than hereditary privilege or arbitrary power, but it needs to be kept in check by various measures to ensure accountability and prevent members of the elite from abusing their power. The argument above against expert elitism assumes that expertise does not apply to ends and values. This populist tenet, as mentioned earlier, supports optimism about a peoples ability to choose for themselves. However, if ends and values require deliberation, and the peoples ability to deliberate varies widely, then it

Sor-hoon Tan


becomes more difficult to justify respecting everyones choice and giving everyone equal freedom to choose, if good choice or the right choice matters. If only a select minority is able to choose wisely when it comes to ends and values, besides having the expertise to find the best means to these ends, then the best results would be achieved for all if these few are given the power to decide and act on everyones behalf. Sometimes the question of who is best at choosing ends is evaded by assuming that it is obvious or that there is a clear consensus on which are the most important ends of good governmentthe top two choices being security and economic growthso that the people need not be consulted, as the elite know best how to achieve these goals. It is clear that the elitism proposed by Bell is pessimistic about the peoples ability to make good decisions in matters of government, whether these pertain to means or ends, and Bell believes that better results are achieved when such decisions are put in the hands of an elite selected through examinations similar to those used in East Asian societies with a Confucian heritage. Could we turn the antidemocratic argument for government expertise, offered as early as Platos Protagoras, on its head by noting that the plausibility of a few individuals having or acquiring the expertise to govern in a simple Greek polis diminishes rapidly as society becomes more complex and arguably ungovernable, unless the entire citizenry is activated to govern itself?15 To cope with a more complex world, the elitist could increase the size of the elite, or even admit the existence of multiple elites (but with these still a minority of the polity), and argue that elitist government would still work better than one involving the majority, let alone everyone. Friedrich Hayek, the liberal thinker who has become very influential in China, also subscribes to a kind of ungovernability thesis in his attacks on central planning.16 This has led him, however, to criticize rather than support democracy, insofar as democracy asserts the sovereignty of the people. For Hayek, the advent of democracy rendered legitimate the claim of unlimited sovereignty, which he identifies with absolutism. In claiming sovereignty of the people, democracy has inherited the tradition of absolutism and made it worse.17 If by activating the entire citizenry to govern itself means giving the people the sovereign power to shape and control social life, then, to Hayek and his followers, democracy would be as inadequate as and probably more dangerous than authoritarian central planning. Hayeks ambivalence toward democracy is sometimes linked to elitism because he believes that most things of value in the development of civilization were the work of minorities.18 Hayek may believe in the existence and importance of elites, but he is not an elitist in the sense of advocating that elites, because of their superiority, be given the power to decide for others how to live their lives. Hayeks ambiguity toward democracy is due at least in part to his view that Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom.19 This instrumental view of democracy is shared by elitist liberals as well as Bells Confucian elitists. Bell understands democracy in the minimal sense as free and fair competitive elections under universal franchise to fill policy making positions (p. 185); as such it is simply an imperfect means of achieving good government. Liberals who have reservations about democracy usu-


Philosophy East & West

ally are suspicious of its effect on liberty. Liberal elitism often arises from giving priority to liberty when confronted with the tension between liberty and equality. Confucians have different priorities. Instead of individual liberty, their chief goal of good government is to achieve a Confucian community of morally cultivated persons in harmonious relations. Insofar as Confucians believe that exemplary persons (junzi) and petty persons (xiaoren) would not make equally good decisions, whether choosing means or ends, they would support inequality of political power corresponding to inequality of moral merit. Confucians would prefer to put government in the hands of those who would govern virtuously, the moral elite of a society, instead of entrusting such an important task to those elected by people whose lack of virtue would lead to bad choices. The question remains: have Confucians really developed the institutional device (i.e., competitive examinations) that could identify such a moral elite? The successes of civil service examinations in Confucian societies are patchy at best, and, if measured by the ideal of achieving a true Confucian order, have been no more successful than universal suffrage has been successful in producing true democracy. Elitism against Democracy Bell modifies what he understands to be Confucian elitism with a democratically elected lower house in his proposed bicameral legislature, and spends some time discussing the pros and cons of different balance-of-power schemes between the two. Bells preference for a stronger Xianshiyuanwhile acknowledging the historical trends probably renders a relatively weak Xianshiyuan more feasibleis basically a desire to rein in democracy with elitism in the belief that the latter will yield better results for government than the former. This is a common response to democracy throughout its history. Some founders of the American republic like Alexander Hamilton offered elitist arguments against democracy conceived as popular sovereignty, based on the perceived tendency of the masses to make bad choices:
All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and wellborn, the other the masses of people. . . . The people are turbulent and changing, they seldom judge or determine right.20

The difference between Bell and Hamilton lies in the characteristics of the elites they favored; Bells Confucian elite is a meritocracy selected through competitive examinations and therefore does not necessarily draw its members from the rich and wellborn, at least in theory. Instead of arguing that the elite should govern rather than the people, elitism was offered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a social theory about how society is actually organized. Vilfredo Pareto (18481923), Gaetano Mosca (1858 1941), and Robert Michels (18761936) asserted the empirical thesis that power is concentrated in the hands of a few in all societies.21 They focused on how elites form and work, and were interested in how elites could function better, rather than whether they should or should not rule, which becomes a moot question.22

Sor-hoon Tan


Notwithstanding the positivist stance of some theorists, such empirical theses have normative implications. At the very least, this changes the limits of possibility within which normative claims must lie. As Field and Higley point out, if there is no way to prevent elitism in societies of any complexity, then all normative commitments to goal values such as freedom and equality must be tempered by this ineluctable aspect of complex social organization.23 One sense in which we might take elitism seriously is to acknowledge that if power is inevitably concentrated in the hands of a select few, then any society is faced with a choice not between the presence and absence of elites, but only of different elites, whether and how their role might be transformed or enhanced to benefit rather than harm society. In that case, is not government by virtuous and talented elites, such as Confucians seem to advocate, surely a better choice than elites of prominent families, of wealth, or of military might? Not everyone who asserts the empirical thesis of elitism recommends it as a valuable norm. Marx maintained that an all-encompassing elite dominated capitalist societies, but viewed this as something to be changed by revolution. C. Wright Mills (19161962), in his study of American society, concluded that the economic, political, and military elites come togetheralbeit only on certain coinciding points and only on certain occasions of crisisto form the power elite:24
We must remember that these men of the power elite now occupy the strategic places in the structure of American Society; that they command the dominant institutions of a dominant nation; that, as a set of men, they are in a position to make decisions with terrible consequences for the underlying populations of the world.25

The outcome of elite rule in America as Mills saw it clearly left much to be desired. While he might not favor elite rule over democratic government, Mills pessimistic conclusion may be equally damning: democracy in the sense of government by the people is non-existent and probably impossible. Worse, liberals support for democracy is based on a misconception of how the political process works, which perpetuates the power elites domination.26 Others are less critical of elitism in American society and less pessimistic about democracy even given the fact of elitism. For some, democracy and elitism are already reconciled in American society. Thomas Dye, the author of Whos Running America, talks without irony about elitism in a democracy:
Great power in America is concentrated in a handful of people. A few thousand individuals out of 250 million Americans decide about war and peace, wages and prices, consumption and investment, employment and production, law and justice, taxes and benefits, education and learning, health and welfare, advertising and communication, life and leisure. In all societiesprimitive and advanced, totalitarian and democratic, capitalist and socialistonly a few people exercise great power. This is true whether or not such power is exercised in the name of the people.27

Democracy simply means that elites exercise their power in the name of the people.


Philosophy East & West

A few decades earlier, Joseph Schumpeter (18831950) had already combined elitism with democracy in what came to be called democratic elitism, wherein elites through political parties compete for power via the ballot box. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy proposes a theory of democracy that is much truer to life by reversing the two elements in the classical theory of democracy, which treats the vesting of power in the people as primary and the selection of representatives as secondary. The democratic method is defined as that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the peoples vote.28 Schumpeter was not interested in a normative judgment of ruling elites; he followed Pareto in taking as elites the groups who could actually occupy positions of power, regardless of whether they deserve to do so, or whether society would be better off without them even if that were possible. Subsequent works on democratic elitism have tried to show that in liberal democracies the consensus among competing elites supports democratic values (focusing on attitudes to civil liberties), so that empirical elitism works in favor of the norms of democracy once a democratic system is in place.29 This has been challenged recently by some political scientists, using Canadian data, who criticize as a fallacy democratic elitisms indifference to which elites prevail in the electoral competition for power, because elites differ among themselves in their attitudes toward civil liberties sometimes more significantly than they differ from the masses.30 Democratic elitism notwithstanding, some who take seriously government of the people, by the people, for the people will view combinations of democracy and elitism as rendering democracy a sham. Even purportedly empirical elitism threatens democratic values. Field and Higley believe that acceptance of the elitist paradigm requires refutation of the widely held assumption that values such as equality, liberty and freedom are universal and objective.31 Sometimes the normative political philosophy or ideology could be disguised as empirical statements; the authors of The Bell Curve have been accused of advancing the New Rights political agenda in an assault on equality deceivingly presented as an empirical study of innate inequality.32 The claim of elitism that only a few are fit to rule or are capable of achieving the best results in governing implies that power should be limited to these few. This means the opposite of democracy with its demand for equal access to power and position, and for accountability by decision makers to those affected by their decisions. Selection by examination may be open to all, but this will not be sufficient to ensure equality of opportunity because, talent and virtue aside, there may be sociopolitical factors that create differences in ability to take advantage of a given opportunity. Empirical studies have shown that elites tend to recruit their members mainly from certain narrow social strata, thus precluding government of the people. Elites are often autonomous and not accountable to the people for their decisions, and this undermines government by the people. Elites are an internally homogeneous group, unified and conscious of their special identity, and thus able to perpetuate their position of privilege at the expense of others, especially the masses.

Sor-hoon Tan


Confucian Democracy: Going beyond Elitism Part of the problem with Bells compromise solution is its focus on methods at the expense of goals. To some extent this is understandable if the objective is to offer a practical solution and if the goals are clear; but if the goals are unclear, misunderstood, or misrepresented, then emphasizing the methods of achieving them is hardly useful. I also suspect that Bell might have overlooked some of the consequences of applying his methods that might undermine both democratic and Confucian goals. His combination approach to forming a government, involving democratic elections and competitive examinations, is based on an assumed compatibility of Confucian and democratic values. I share the assumption about this compatibility, but disagree with Bells identifying popular participation, accountability, and transparency as democratic values; to me these are features of democratic institutions that reflect or aim at the values of community, equality, and liberty.33 Confucian democracy is a worthy ideal for East Asia only if it includes all these valuesnot if it means only improving the method of filling policy-making positions by means of free and fair competitive elections under universal franchise (the minimal sense of democracy adopted by Bell). Confucians would prefer a government by the virtuous and the talented, but does this mean that they are elitist in the sense of believing simply that such elites should make decisions for the people, even against their wishes? While I agree that the democratization of East Asian societies cannot ignore their Confucian legacy, a focus on elitism is misguided because it is likely to revive the more reprehensible aspects of Confucian political philosophy and the historical practice, often mistaken for Confucianism, that resulted from politicians distorting Confucianism through their appropriation of it as ideology. While the imperial civil service examination may have had its admirable aspects, we should also learn from its failures. These are not just a matter of imperfect execution, such as making too many exceptions to the meritocratic principle or choosing the wrong curricula or having inadequate assessment criteria. Did Confucius judge his students by their examination results? Did he not do so merely because he was too primitive a teacher to use that method or too wise to need it? I would rather think that the kind of virtues (including wisdom) with which Confucius was concerned cannot be tested or assessed through competitive examinations, however well designed. To delude ourselves into thinking otherwise would be dangerous as it would allow elites selected in this way to make unjustified claims and foster unwarranted expectations of them. Moreover, it is not at all clear that we can expand the Confucian notion of wisdom to include the kind of expert knowledge that we must admit is required to govern increasingly complex modern states in an increasingly difficult international environment, and to manage the new knowledge economy. While one need not adopt the dismissive attitudes that Confucius and later Confucians have expressed toward technical knowledgewhat in Neo-Confucian jargon is yong (use or technique) versus ti (substance, sometimes referring to values)one should take seriously the likelihood that knowledge in the sense of expertise diverges from


Philosophy East & West

wisdom in the Confucian sense, or any other sense of the virtuous or moral. One might use talent (cai) to encompass the expert knowledge or ability required for modern government, but the coupling of virtue or moral worthiness (xian) with talent (cai) may be too facile and needs to be questioned. Indeed, one could criticize Confucian political philosophy for its failure to take this division seriously; it either assumes that virtue always goes with knowledge or underestimates the importance of knowledge for good government. Even if it is plausible that a virtuous person in Confucius times was likely to have little trouble mastering the tasks of government, given the relative simplicity of life and the problems facing that society (or so we think), it seems laughable to suggest the same thing today. Unless Confucianism faces this problem squarely, its political practice will continue to fail by navely mis taking the expert for the virtuous, or unrealistically expecting the virtuous to be expert enough for anything and everything. Crime, corruption, and unethical behavior in high placesin politics, in the corporate world, and even in academiaconstantly remind us of that schism between knowledge (and the ability that comes with knowledge) and virtue. Even if we could agree with Bell on the ideal traits of political decision makers in contemporary societiesthat they should be intelligent, adaptable, long-term minded, and public spiritedand that these are not all that different from the traditional virtues of Confucian exemplary persons (p. 160), what reason do we have to assume that these traits would be combined in every individual member and that one could assess all these traits by means of examinations? Selected by competitive examinations, the upper house in Bells proposed system may be more talented or capable, but there is no reason to believe that they would therefore be more virtuous than the members of the lower house. It is dangerous to call the upper house a Confucian elite because this misrepresents the character of their legitimacy, and misleads us into thinking that they would necessarily be virtuous or even public spirited, when they may be as likely as the members of the lower house to allow personal interests and affiliations to influence their decisions. It is not so much the lack of ability of despotic rulers as their lack of morality, in particular their exploitative selfishness, that makes democracy an attractive alternative. After all, the charge against tyranny is that absolute power corrupts absolutely, not that it renders one absolutely incompetent or ineffective. If transferring sovereign power to the people is believed to be a more effective form of government, it is only because once it is accepted that a government should be a government for the people, and that rulers cannot be trusted not to abuse their power for their own selfish gain at the expense of the people, then government by the people is the best if not the only way to ensure a government that is for the people. What remains, then, is to build the most effective institutions possible, however imperfect and in need of constant improvement, to approximate government by the people. I agree that democratic institutions are always subject to improvement. I am also in favor of adapting democratic institutions to the needs of Confucian, in particular East Asian, societies. However, I do not believe that this can be done by setting Confucian elitism above democracy; elitism is the enemy of democracy. For a supporter

Sor-hoon Tan


of Confucian democracy to take elitism seriously means to exclude elitism altogether. Historically, the rule by elites in China that was associated with Confucianism (or rather Confucian ideology) paid little attention to the values of liberty and equality and as a consequence was often oppressive. It was the claim by the elites and various individuals in positions of power, whether they were officials, village elders, fathers, husbands, or anyone else, that they knew better than others what was good for everyone and therefore were justified in making decisions for others, that resulted in so much injustice and tyranny, which finally broke the back of Confucian ideology amidst the May Fourth cries of Down with the Confucian Shop! It is vital to the project of reconciling Confucianism and democracy to distinguish between (1) elitist thinking and (2) the Confucian respect for the virtuous and talented (xian-cai) and the sense of responsibility of virtuous and talented Confucians, which could be put to good use in democratic politics. While I no longer call myself a liberal these days, at least not without a great deal of laborious qualifications, given the greater weight I give to community relative to some liberals, I agree with John Stuart Mill that we should draw the line at allowing elites to coerce others.34 Being limited to freedom to point the way should not frustrate a virtuous Confucian, even if it leads to substandard results in some specific cases, because Confucius himself teaches that the rule of virtue is about setting the best example (Analects 2.1, 12.19, 13.2). Since Confucians are not simply interested in social control, but aim for the kind of spontaneous harmonious order where self-cultivation is of central importance, to coerce others for good results would be as self-defeating as Mencius example of the man from Song who pulled on sprouts to aid their growth and killed them instead (2A2). Confucian government by virtue should not need to resort to violence or coercion; if the virtuous example is ignored, then this means that virtue is still in insufficient supply, and the virtuous should continue to strive toward improvement through self-cultivation rather than resort to naked power to make up for their personal inadequacy. This may sound overly idealistic to the political scientist, and so it may be, but the function of a social ideal is to set a high standard for practice so that it could guide improvement to the status quo. While imperfect reality may make coercion necessary in government, as Confucius recognized that the necessary evil of laws and punishments were needed, its use precludes the title of elite in any Confucian sense. According to some of the aforementioned studies on democratic elitism, democratic elites uphold democratic values, including that of equality. The valuing of equality in a democracy does not mean that one-size fits all, but rather is a matter of resisting unjustified inequalities while allowing for differences compatible with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Therefore, in a democracy, elites need not be a threat to reasonable egalitarian values if the elite institution is functional and meritocratic rather than privileged, and if it draws its members from all strata of society.35 In contrast, where there is a lack of accountability to the people, undemocratic societies are mostly likely to be ruled by elites who are exploitative, self-interested, and self-perpetuating at societys expense.36 This kind of elitist inequality is undemocratic. Historically, this situation has existed in China even


Philosophy East & West

when it claimed to be practicing Confucian values. Thus, until democratic values are firmly rooted in East Asian societies, to exalt Confucian elitism is to risk legitimating undemocratic elites. This would be true of Bells proposal, with its elites selected by competitive examinations, even though it would be Bells intention to guard against an undemocratic elitism as a distortion of the Confucian ideal. It is important to Confucian democracy to uphold the value of equality, not only because it has had a history of being trampled on in China during the imperial period, but also because the Confucian social ideal is so often mistaken as inherently hierarchical. Its inequality has been justified as unequal treatment of unequals which is just equality and part of its meritocracy.37 However, until it can be ensured that there will be a level playing field, a partial implementation of the meritocratic principle would only result in the entrenching of initial inequalities inherited from earlier, unjust systems. The tendency of even meritocratically promoted elites to favor their own kin would have the result of perpetuating themselves at others expense; this could occur even within the limits of Confucian understanding of legitimate partiality. Is it not appropriate for me to first send my child to college before helping other, more deserving children who could not afford to go to college? Or should I donate my childs college allowance to scholarships for those more deserving students?38 And there are other reasons for qualifying any description of the Confucian social ideal as meritocratic. There is ample evidence in the early Confucian texts of a conception of distributive justice based on needs over deserved rewards based on merit. Both Confucius and Mencius maintain that the government should first take care of the worst off in society even though they are likely to contribute the least to society.39 While he might not have argued explicitly for equality, Confucius was definitely concerned about disparities between the rich and the poor; he considered uneven distribution a more serious problem than poverty in a state (Analects 16.1). Exemplary persons help out the needy; they do not make the rich richer (Analects 6.4). Those who are powerful and of high rank should be satisfied with the same of what is available to those at the bottom of the social strata; they should not expect to be better off (Analects 12.9). Mencius insisted that rulers should share their joys with the people (1A1, 1B1), an ideal that could form the basis of an egalitarian principle of distribution in a Confucian democracy. Even the Xunzi, usually seen as advocating a hierarchical social order, recognized the subversive effect of a wide disparity between rich and poor even in autocratic regimes:
Accordingly, the True King enriches the people; the lord-protector enriches his scholarknights; a state that barely manages to survive enriches its grand officers; and a state that is doomed enriches only the rulers coffers and fills up his storehouses.40

Although there is no reason why the establishment of Bells Xianshiyuan, with the limits he imposes on the institution, should directly increase inequality or give rise to self-perpetuating exploitation by elites, it is preferable not to present the proposal as a form of elitism, given elitisms long-standing threat to equality. Even though the ideal Confucian community that is revealed in the early texts

Sor-hoon Tan


could be seen as hierarchical, I have argued that the inherent inequalities could be understood to mean that a Confucian community today should have functional differentiation rather than rigid hierarchy. The texts repeated emphasis on the importance of promoting the worthy and capable (ju-xian-cai) is testament to the conviction that Confucian elitism must be functional and meritocratic, rather than closed and privileged. Based on Confucius egalitarian attitude in accepting students (Analects 15.39, 7.7), Confucian elites should also draw their members from all social levels and groups. While it may not have been an issue in Confucius time, the need for complex and diverse abilities to carry out the tasks of the government of today as well as in other areas of life means that any judgment as to superiority or inferiority must be specific to a situation and does not yield a totalistic ranking in a simple roster of best to worst. This points to a differentiated order that is very different from a rigid hierarchy in which ones position is determined once and for all. A superior accountant may be an inferior manager, and a persons excellence in a ` field vis-a-vis others may change over time.41 This means that the membership of the elite changes over time; there is no life-time membership, and being good or even the best in a particular area does not make one elite without qualification. When the term elite ceases to refer to any specific coherent group exercising power over the rest of society, it becomes difficult to take elitism seriously in politics. Instead of having a bicameral legislature with an upper house whose membership is limited to seven years, it might be better to have a range of institutions, each comprising members who are worthy and capable within specific subject areas and whose decision-making power is of limited scope. The selection process should not depend solely on competitive examinations but include other appropriate means of assessing the abilities or qualities of the candidates. This differentiated approach to countering the inadequacy of elected representatives takes better account of the diversity of decision-making abilities needed in different policy areas as well the limitations of individuals, where no one person could possibly make good decisions on every policy issue. The matters to be decided by such institutions should be those that are either choice insensitive, or where the chances of people making the right choices are especially slim and the harm that would be done by the wrong choices would be especially great.42 Such institutions already do exist in many liberal democracies, where their function is to limit the power of the majority in matters often involving basic rights. Confucian societies could choose different areas for this kind of protection, and the institutions would function less as legal restraints and more as conscientious stewards. In the spirit of Confucian concern for individual moral cultivation and communal harmony, the public would have open access to the deliberations of such institutions and the reasons for their decisions would be publicized, not only to make them accessible to critical appraisal but also to educate the general population. The foregoing proposal is only a rough sketch intended as a first step to a better alternative to elitism if we are to take seriously the Confucian belief that both virtue and talent have a rightful place in a Confucian democracy.


Philosophy East & West

Notes 1 Some recent examples from a substantial literature include: Joseph Fewsmith, Elite Politics in Contemporary China (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001); Xiaowei Zang, Elite Dualism and Leadership Selection in China (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004); Zheng Yongnian, Will China become Democratic? Elite, Class and Regime Transition (Singapore: Eastern University Press, 2004); Victor C. Shih, Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict and Inflation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). 2 Recent studies of elitism lament that political correctness often stands in the way of inquiry and objective assessment (Eric Carlton, The Few and the Many [Aldershot: Ashgate, 1996], p. 2). According to one defender of Elitism, a culture critic for Time Magazine, the term elitist has come to rival if not to outstrip racist as the foremost catchall pejorative of 1990s America; see William A. Henry III, In Defense of Elitism (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 2. Henrys defense, based almost entirely on anecdotal sources, some of which are bigoted and ignorant, is a highly polemical attack on American egalitarianism, which, according the author, is exemplified by the special demands of minorities, feminists, and homosexuals, at the expense of reason and standards in the educational, economic, social, and cultural domains. See a review essay on this book by Morton P. Levitt, The Offense of Elitism, Journal of Modern Literature 24 (3/4) (2001): 534538. 3 Jeffrey Bell, Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1992), p. 57. 4 Ibid., p. 59. 5 G. Lowell Field and John Higley, Elitism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 58. 6 Ibid., p. 50. 7 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in Collected Works, ed. J. M. Robson (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), vol. 18, p. 269. 8 Ibid. 9 John Skorupski, Liberal Elitism, in David Milligan and William Watts Miller, eds., Liberalism, Citizenship, and Autonomy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1992), pp. 134153, 136. 10 Ibid., p. 135. 11 Ibid., p. 136. By modernist, Skorupski means that which pertains to the cultural phase of the first half of the twentieth century (Skorupski, Liberal Elitism, p. 146). Skorupski himself defends the possibility of deliberation about ends and values by grounding the discussion in a naturalist and historical concep-

Sor-hoon Tan


tion of rationality and objectivity (pp. 147150). For an account of the politics and values crisis in postWorld War II America that contributed to this transformation of liberal doctrine, see Bell, Populism and Elitism, chap. 12. 12 Jeffrey Bell, Populism and Elitism, p. 3. 13 John Dewey, The Public and its Problems, first published in 1927, in Jo Ann Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Later Works, 19251953 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), vol. 2, p. 364. See also David Spitz, Patterns of Anti-democratic Thought (New York: Free Press, 1965), pp. 148149. 14 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government (New York: Dutton, 1950), p. 323; quoted in Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey, The Roster Device: J. S. Mill and Contemporary Elitism, The Western Political Quarterly 21 (1) (1968): 2039, at p. 27. While resisting the conclusion that Mill is an elitist, Kendall and Carey show that Representative Government displays the mindset that permeates contemporary elitist thinking. 15 Jeffrey Bell, Populism and Elitism, p. 68. 16 Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976). On the relation of Hayeks ungovernability thesis and his uncertainty about democracy, see Chandran Kukathas, Friedrich Hayek: Elitism and Democracy, in Liberal Democracy and its Critics, ed. April Carter and Geoffrey Stokes (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), pp. 2138, at p. 34. 17 Ibid., p. 36; Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), vol. 3, pp. 3435. 18 Andrew Gamble, Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996), p. 97. Chandran Kukathas (Friedrich Hayek: Elitism and Democracy) disagrees with this reading of Hayek as an elitist. 19 Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, p. 52; quoted in Kukathas, Friedrich Hayek: Elitism and Democracy, p. 23. 20 Speech by Alexander Hamilton in 1787, Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), vol. 1, p. 299. 21 Sample works include: Vilfredo Pareto, The Governing Class in History (Albuquerque, NM: American Classical College Press, 1986); Vilfredo Pareto, The Rise and Fall of the Elites: An Application of Theoretical Sociology, introd. Hans L. Zetterberg (Totowa, NJ: Bedminster Press, 1968)a translation of Un applicazione di teorie sociologiche, in Revista Italiana di sociologia (1901): 402456; Gaetano Mosca, The Ruling Class, Elementi de scienze politica (1939), trans. by Hannah D. Kahn, ed. and rev. with an introd. by Arthur Livingston (New York and London: McGraw-Hill, 1968); Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (Glencoe: Free Press, 1949); C. Wright


Philosophy East & West

Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956). Anthony Birch argues that none of the theories of these authors offers a serious intellectual challenge to democratic theory; Birch takes more seriously the Marxist and neo-Marxist critique that democracy is only elitism disguised, but eventually dismisses this for lack of evidence that the state is always a tool of the capitalist class and does not serve the people (Anthony H. Birch, The Concepts and Theories of Modern Democracy [London: Routledge, 1993], pp. 169195). 22 More recent works on elites also often premise their studies on similar observations. For example: Insofar as all societies require rules and general recognition and observance of such rules and conventions, to that extent some kind of ruling elite seems inevitable (Carlton, The Few and the Many, p. 19). 23 Field and Higley, Elitism, p. 72. 24 Mills, The Power Elite, p. 276. 25 Ibid., p. 286. 26 Ibid., p. 336. Beside Birchs critique of Mills (The Concepts and Theories of Modern Democracy, pp 182185), for a defense of democracy in Deweys philosophy against Mills elitism, see James Campbell, Understanding John Dewey (La Salle: Open Court, 1995), pp. 235265. 27 Thomas R. Dye, Whos Running America? The Clinton Years (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995), p. 8. The first volume of the series Whos Running America? was published in 1976 and covered the Nixon-Ford years; subsequent volumes covered the Carter years (1979), the Reagan years (1983), the conservative years (1986), and the Bush era (1990). Contrary to the claim of a power elite, Dye finds no convergence as far as the interlocking of institutional positions is concerned, even though 15 percent of those holding positions of power in the areas Dye examined held two or more positions and 30 percent of the positions were interlocked with one another (p. 167). See also Henry, In Defense of Elitism, p. 20. 28 Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, rev. ed. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1947), p. 269. 29 Examples of such works are Samuel Stouffer, Communism, Conformity and Civil Liberties (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955); Herbert McCloskey, Consensus and Ideology in American Politics, American Political Science Review 58 (1964): 361382; Thomas R. Dye and Herman Seigler, The Irony of Democracy, 7th ed. (Monterey: Brooks/Cole, 1987); Herbert McCloskey and Alida Brill, Dimensions of Tolerance: What Americans Think about Civil Liberties (New York: Russell Sage, 1983); David G. Barnum and John L. Sullivan, Attitudinal Tolerance and Political Freedom in Britain, British Journal of Political Science 18 (1988): 604614.

Sor-hoon Tan


30 Paul M. Sniderman, Joseph F. Fletcher, Peter H. Russell, Philip E. Tetlock, and Brian J. Gaines, The Fallacy of Democratic Elitism: Elite Competition and Commitment to Civil Liberties, British Journal of Political Science 21 (3) (July 1991): 349370. This view is expanded in a monograph by Paul M. Sniderman, Joseph F. Fletcher, Peter H. Russell, and Philip E. Tetlock, The Clash of Rights (New Haven: Yale University press, 1996). For an earlier challenge to the Elites Are More Democratic thesis, see James L. Gibson, Political Intolerance and Political Repression During the McCarthy Red Scare, American Political Science Review, 82 (1988): 511530. See also the subsequent debate between Snidermans team and the team of Vengroff and Morton, who claim that the elite differences highlighted by the earlier study reflect regional differences and do not challenge the democratic-elitist thesis of elite consensus. See Richard Vengroff and F. L. Morton, Regional Perspectives on Canadas Charter Rights and Freedoms: A Re-Examination of Democratic Elitism, Canadian Journal of Political Science 33 (2) (June 2000): 359382; Paul Sniderman, Joseph F. Fletcher, Peter H. Russell, Philip E. Tetlock, and Markus Prior, The Theory of Democratic Elitism Revisited: A Response to Vengroff and Morton, Canadian Journal of Political Science 33 (3) (September 2000): 569586; Richard Vengroff and F. L. Morton, The Theory of Democratic Elitism Revisited Again, Canadian Journal of Political Science 34 (1) (March 2001): 169173. Frank Bealy argues that it is not possible to generalize about the attitude of elites to democracy, in Democratic Elitism and the Autonomy of Elites, International Political Science Review 17 (3) (1996): 319331. 31 Field and Higley, Elitism, p. 3. 32 Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994); Peter Knapp et al., The Assault on Equality (Westport: Praeger, 1996). 33 Cf. John Deweys list of democratic values, fraternity, liberty, and equality, in The Public and Its Problems, p. 329. 34 If I must pick a label for my position, it would be a Deweyan social liberal who believes that democracy is the the idea of community life itself and that fraternity, liberty, and equality isolated from communal life are hopeless abstractions (ibid., pp. 328, 329). 35 Carlton, The Few and the Many, p. 19. Carton also believed that egalitarians would want elites to be prepared to give people what they want instead of what is thought to be good for them. I think this requirement would be rejected by elitism. 36 This understanding of elites and elitism informs studies of developing countries that tend to be critical of them. 37 For example, see A. T. Nuyen, Confucianism and the Idea of Equality, Asian Philosophy 11 (2) (2001): 6171.


Philosophy East & West

38 These problems of meritocracy are parodied in Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 18702033: An Essay on Education and Equality (Baltimore: Penguin, 1958). 39 See Analects 6.4, where Confucius disapproves of the amount Ranyou gave to Zihuas mother, not because it is excessive relative to Zihuas merit, but because Zihua was already well-to-do. Also see Mencius 1B5, in D. C. Lau, trans., Mencius (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 65; Joseph Chan, Making Sense of Confucian Justice, Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 3 (2001),, 2.12.3. 40 Xunzi, On the Regulations of a King, in John Knoblock, trans., Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), vol. 2, p. 98. 41 For a more detailed discussion of the Confucian differentiated order and the value of equality in Confucian democracy, see Sor-hoon Tan, Confucian Democracy: A Deweyan Reconstruction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), pp. 98112. 42 Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory of Practice of Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 204. I am borrowing from Dworkins distinction between choice-sensitive and choice-insensitive issues requiring collective action. The former are those whose correct solution, as a matter of justice, depends essentially on the character and distribution of preferences within the political community. Capital punishment, anti-discrimination laws, and other matters of principle, in contrast to those of policy, are Dworkins examples of choice-insensitive issues.

Sor-hoon Tan


Toward Meritocratic Rule in China? A Response to Professors Dallmayr, Li, and Tan
Daniel A. Bell Department of Philosophy, Tsinghua University

Let me first thank the critics for their insightful contributions to the debate. I hesitate to call the three professors critics since the areas of agreement may outweigh the areas of disagreement. But I should focus on areas of disagreement to further the debate, and thats what Ill try to do here. Ill begin with a few remarks about methodology, then attempt to clarify my own view regarding democracy with Confucian characteristics, and my response will conclude with some reflections on alternative proposals. On Methodology Professor Dallmayr worries that my book is primarily addressed to an East Asian audience and to those who can affect the lives of East Asians. But I wonder why this intent should be viewed as reinforcing Asian parochialism? We wouldnt worry about a book addressing an American audience that draws on the ideals of the Founding Fathers for thinking about reforming American politics today. Whats wrong with looking to East Asian political traditions like Confucianism and Legalism for the purpose of thinking about political reform in an East Asian context? Is it parochial to think that any stable and legitimate political arrangement in East Asia needs to be founded, at least partly, on political values from East Asian political traditions? I do not mean to deny that some thinkers would object to this approach. For much of the twentieth century, both Chinese Marxists and liberals were engaged in a totalizing critique of their own heritage and looked to the West for political inspiration. This kind of totalizing critique culminated in the Cultural Revolution, a mad, frenzied destruction of Chinas feudal past. But today, many Chinese intellectuals and students seriously try to engage and learn from traditions such as Confucianism, and to my mind this is a good thing. Of course, East Asians can also learn from Western and other nonEast Asian traditions. Those who deny the value of learning from other traditions would indeed be parochial. But Im not asking the question of what can be learned from the West. My own book asks the question what can be learned from Confucianism and Legalism and how their values can be realized in modern East Asian societies in ways that are morally defensible and politically effective. Nor do I mean to deny that people outside East Asia can learn from these traditions: perhaps Confucianism and Legalism can also inspire political reformers in the Westbut again, thats not the main focus of my book. Nor is my main task to compare East Asian and Western political theories. In fact, Dallmayr has written in


Philosophy East & West Volume 59, Number 4 October 2009 554560 > 2009 by University of Hawaii Press

greater depth and breadth on such questions, and I would urge readers to consult his works. Dallmayr asks: why focus on Confucianism and Legalismwhy not Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism? The main reason is that Confucianism and Legalism have been the two most influential political traditions in East Asia. I would also surmise that they have the most to offer for those thinking about social and political reform today. Dallmayr worries about Legalist realpolitik, but it seems to me that the tradition can help us think about how to build a strong state in chaotic times and about the kinds of economic and political institutions that can provide political stability and material well-being in large countries like China. The moral foundation of Legalism, so to speak, would have to be Confucian, meaning that the ultimate purpose of the state should be to serve the peoplebut some Legalist-inspired projects have had that effect. Consider the Dujiangyan irrigation structure near Chengdu built 2,300 years ago (it even withstood the recent earthquake, though nearby buildings collapsed). The builder, Li Bing, is still celebrated for an engineering feat in flood prevention that made Sichuan the most productive agricultural region in China. Should we object to such projects just because they were carried out under the mandate of the Legalist-inspired ruler of Qin? But why not spend more time discussing Daoism and Buddhism? One reason is that they have been relatively marginal in terms of political influence. I have my doubts about Daoism in particular: it seems otherwordly and not very practical with respect to managing the affairs of a large state. It also neglects values like social responsibility and political commitment. When it had influence in Chinese history, it was often problematic: the worst persecution of Buddhism, for example, was carried out by the Tang dynasty Emperor Wuzong, who was a devout Daoist. Of course, Confucianism has also been problematic in practice, and I do not mean to imply that Daoism is unique in that respect. And it would be dogmatic to rule out the possibility that Daoism can help us think about how to address some contemporary concerns, such as environmental degradation. Again, however, thats for another book. On Democracy and Meritocracy Most of the critical fire is directed at chapter 6, Taking Elitism Seriously: Democracy with Confucian Characteristics. In retrospect, the chapter should have been titled Taking Meritocracy Seriously, which might not have set off as many alarm bells. Its too late for that, unfortunately. Dallmayr worries that my defense of democracy amounts to nothing more than minimal democracy, defined as visiting a voting booth every few years. I should have been more explicit that I have in mind national-level democracy. At the subnational levels, Im all for thicker forms of democracy, including the sorts of experiments in deliberative democracy in Chinas Zeguo County carried out by He Baogang and his colleagues.1 Im also for the idea that political leaders should be chosen by the people in competitive elections at the village, city, township, and provincial levels, which goes far beyond the status quo in China. What Im questioning

Daniel A. Bell


is the idea that democratically elected leaders at the national level should hold all the political trump cards. Yes, they should have some political influence, but I think theres also a need for meritocratically selected decision makers. If I frame my position that way, hopefully its less controversial. I should also emphasize that I favor what might be called a non-authoritarian model of meritocracy. Professor Tan in particular takes me to task for defending authoritarian practices, but that is not my intention. Tan claims that my recommended elitism fits what Skorupsky calls strong elitism, which organizes the authority of the elite into a formal power that undermines the freedom of others. But the only freedom that would be undermined in a more meritocratic political system would be the freedom to participate equally in making the countrys most important political decisions. The Singapore model comes to mind as an elitist model that undermines civil freedoms. But my own ideal is closer to that of Hong Kong, where unelected decision makers rule in a society that secures the freedoms of the press and association as well as the key freedoms of everyday life, like the freedoms to form families, travel, work, and worship. Tan also points to dangers that might occur in a society lacking in the free and open circulation of information and public debates about matters affecting the people. That may be true of Singapore, but there are other possibilities. As I see it, there would be substantial deliberation before decisions are taken at the national level, and most debates in the meritocratic house would be televised and transmitted on the web. And there would be many opportunities to raise objections and present grievances to deputies at the national level. Tan also claims that elitism means the opposite of democracy with its demand for equal access to power and position, and for accountability by decision makers to those affected by their decisions. But an examination system open to all is one way of realizing the ideal of equal opportunity / access to power and position. And there are ways of holding decision makers accountable in the meritocratic house besides the threat of being voted out of office, such as stiff penalties for corruption and term limits. If the debates in the meritocratic house are public and transparent, that would also add an element of accountability. Again, Hong Kong may point to some valuable lessons about how politicians can be kept relatively clean and accountable in a nondemocratic context. Nor am I clear why the elites would be internally homogeneous and unified. The examinations can be modified to allow more minority representation, for example by including questions about Buddhism for representatives from Tibet. Plus, one effect of the examinations would be to substantially increase the proportion of women in government, which would add an important element of diversity. And there is no more reason to expect unanimity of decision making in a meritocratic house than there would be in a participatory assembly of university professors: following deliberations, there would likely be different interpretations of the good of the community, and the outcome of decision making in the meritocratic house could be decided by majority vote. Again, the Singapore model, where the ruling, predom-


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inantly male Peoples Action Party makes decisions in secret and then presents a united front to the population is not what I have in mind. Still, its worth asking why any arguments that question the idea of competitive elections for the countrys top political decision makers seem so controversial. To be more precise, I should ask why they seem so controversial in the Western world, because, in my experience, such proposals are far less controversial among students and intellectuals in China. One key reason is the way Westerners have come to think about democracy. They no longer partake of the assumptions that informed the defense of democracy by John Stuart Mill, for whom democratic mechanisms were ultimately valuable because of their consequences, and he could contemplate the possibility of morally justifiable alternative mechanisms without being thought to have lost his moral bearings. Today, democracy has come to be viewed as intrinsically valuable. Its as though rule by the people in the form of one person one vote has become the most sacred of modern Western values, one that we should stand up for regardless of its consequences. How can we explain this shift in political perspective? Im not a historian, but I would surmise that this has more to do with the growth of nationalism in the twentieth century than increased commitment to abstract Kantian or Christian ideas about the equality of human beings. After all, democratic equality ends at the boundaries of the political community: those outside the community are not treated as equals. Perhaps one person one vote has emerged as a key ritual that serves to unify the national community. Why is that a problem? One clear disadvantage of electoral democracy is the national focus of the democratically elected political leaders: they are meant to serve the community of voters, not foreigners living outside the political community. Even democracies that work well tend to focus on the interests of citizens and neglect the interests of foreigners. Its fine for democratically elected politicians to decide in their countrys intereststhats what they are supposed to do. In small countries like Singapore, we dont have to worry. But political leaders in a big country like China, where decisions affect the rest of the world, need to consider the interests of the rest of the world when they make decisions. Global warming is an obvious example. In the case of China, it seems to me, we have good reason to hope for more meritocratic models that work better than Western-style democracy. Professor Li puts forward a principle that could underpin meritocratic forms of government: Confucians believe that every person is born with the potential to become cultivated and even to become a sage, yet in real life everyones potential is actualized differently due to varying degrees of personal effort and different circumstances. Consequently some people are more morally worthy than others in terms of political decision making. I agree with this view, and its not as controversial as it sounds: who really believes that everybody has the equal capacity to make competent and morally justifiable political judgments? I love my mother, and I will be very upset if anybody questions her honor, but Im not sure if her capacity to make political judgments equals that of my friends doing political theory. The more difficult

Daniel A. Bell


question, to my mind, is whether it is possible to realize the value of meritocracy in a way that maximizes advantages and minimizes disadvantages compared to feasible alternatives, such as one person one vote. Realizing Meritocracy The Chinese imperial examination system can help us think about the implementation of meritocracy. As Tan suggests, the examination system had its admirable aspects. However imperfect, it contributed to such goods as social mobility and political stability, and it is worth thinking about its lessons for the modern world. Of course, the examination system would need to be modified, and heres one proposal for modern China. In this system, deputies in a meritocratic house would be chosen by free and fair competitive examinations. The meritocratic house would balance and complement a democratic house, and it would be entrusted with the task of representing the interests of those who are typically neglected or harmed by democratically selected politicians, such as foreigners, minority groups, future generations, and ancestors. The house would have the following features:
1. The deputies in the meritocratic house would serve seven- or eight-year terms, and there would be strict penalties for corruption. 2. The examinations would test for the Confucian classics, basic economics, world history, and a foreign language, and they would be written by an independent board of academics randomly chosen from Chinas universities who would be sequestered from the rest of society during the examination process. 3. There would be substantial deliberation before decisions are taken in the meritocratic house, and most debates would be televised and transmitted on the Web.

Professors Tan and Li both object to examinations because they cannot test for the kinds of virtues that concerned Confuciusflexibility, humility, compassion, and public-spiritednessand that, ideally, would also characterize political decision makers in the modern world. It is true that examinations wont test perfectly for these virtues, but the question is whether deputies chosen by such examinations are more likely to be virtuous than those chosen by democratic elections. There are reasons to believe so. As Li points out, this kind of meritocratic house would most likely not have approved the rushed and ultimately disastrous invasion of Iraq: in the United States there was a sharp divide between the more educated sectors of the population and the rest, with the former being far more skeptical of the justifications offered by the Bush administration. Drawing on extensive empirical research, Robert Kaplans book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton University Press, 2008) shows that voters are often irrational, and he suggests tests of voter competence as a remedy.2 Such proposals have a zero chance of being considered seriously in the United States, where the constitutional system is fixed in its basic outlines. In China, however, the political future is more wide open, and tests of competence in the form of examinations can be considered as proposals for political reform. The examinations


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would test for basic economic literacy, as Kaplan might favor, but they would also cover knowledge of the Confucian classics, testing for memorization as well as interpretation. There is an assumption that learning the classics does indeed improve the virtue of the learner. Is that an unfounded assumption? I dont think so, but perhaps we need more historical and empirical evidence. Li argues that there are better Confucian-inspired mechanisms to test for virtue because government should be viewed as a moral praxis, not just a bureaucratic exercise. Government should regulate society not only by laws and rules but, more importantly, by fostering a virtuous climate in society. And the way to achieve this goal is by providing a role model [my emphasis]. But there are other ways to achieve good government, and Li may be placing undue emphasis on the importance of virtuous example. Confucian-inspired thinkers typically recognize the importance of rituals and mediation as modes of regulating society. And Id also look to Xunzi, who points to the importance of legal regulation as a fallback mechanism once other modes of social regulation fail. In a modern society, its hard to imagine social regulation without legal mechanisms. Be that as it may, Li does propose an intriguing two-step process for choosing deputies to the meritocratic house. He argues for examinations but also for a mechanism that would select role models such as model workers, accomplished actors and actresses, and military heroes, similar to some deputies in the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, who were selected in part because they demonstrated virtues and provided good role models for the rest of society. Lis proposal would allow for the selection of deputies with both knowledge and virtue. More concretely, deputies of the meritocratic house would have to pass both an examination process and a nomination process that would allow for the selection of deputies who are admired by others for their virtuous charactersimilar to the nomination process involving the sampling of opinions from faculty and staff that characterizes the selection of departmental chairs in China. But the sampling of public opinion for the selection of national-level deputies may be too cumbersome and controversial. What works at the university departmental level is less likely to work in a political institution meant to represent the interests of large numbers of people. And what if it turns out that large numbers who do well in the examinations are excluded from the meritocratic house because they do poorly at the nomination stage? In such cases, the meritocratic house might not be viewed as sufficiently meritocratic and thus could find it difficult to secure political legitimacy. An important virtue of blind grading of examinations is that the successful candidates cannot be accused of being selected because of guanxi or favoritism, but the filter of a nomination process may undercut that virtue. In any case, there is no reason to be dogmatic before such proposals are actually implemented.3 China is a huge and diverse country, and it is a good laboratory for trying out different experiments in political reform. Experiments in village-level democracy have been under way for a couple of decades, and more recently there has been talk of intra-party democracy as well as democratic experiments in cities like Shenzhen and Guiyang. Why not try out some experiments in meritocracy and

Daniel A. Bell


see what works? The CCP has become more meritocratic in its recruitment policy, but there is ample room for institutional experimentation at different levels of government. Once we have a better idea of what works at the subnational levels, it might not be so risky to try something at the national level.

Notes 1 See Ethan J. Leib and Baogang He, eds., The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). 2 Another recent book, Philip Tetlocks Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton University Press, 2006), might seem to cast doubt on the idea of trusting experts, who are no better at predicting outcomes than people who follow current events by reading newspapers and magazines. But this would be an argument for exams that test for generalists rather than narrow experts, and updated Confucian examinations can be tailored for that purpose. 3 Other proposals can also be considered. Early Confucians had much to say about the importance of music as an underpinning of virtue and social harmony, and perhaps political deputies should also be tested for musical ability. Jiang Qing has proposed a tricameral legislature, including a democratic house, a house of exemplary persons, and a house of historical continuity (A Faith in Life and the Kingly Way in Politics: the Modern Value of Confucian Culture [Taipei: Yang Zheng Tang, 2004]). I evaluate his proposal in my book, Chinas New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton University Press, 2008), appendix 2. Tongdong Bai has proposed that deputies in the meritocratic house should have some practical experience at lower levels of government, in A Mencian Version of Limited Democracy, Res Publica 14 (1), 2008 (3): 1934. Joseph Chan has proposed different sorts of examinations for deputies, in Democracy and Meritocracy: Toward a Confucian Perspective, Journal of Chinese Philosophy 34 (2) (June 2007): 179193.


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