Monday, May 9, 2011

Who Should Govern?


One of the most important and enduring questions of political philosophy is, ‘Who should govern?’ If we take ‘politics’ to refer not only to government but to the whole life of the city, the question of who should govern includes not only who should be president or mayor, but also admiral, CEO, high school principal and countless other roles.

The question of who should govern is often intertwined with the question of how they should be selected. Democracy is an answer to the question of selection, but it does not tell us whom we should elect, or why. Likewise, the ancients enjoyed dividing regimes into those governed by the one, the few and the many. This distinction, though helpful, most directly answers the question, ‘How many should govern?’ Shy of truly universal and direct democracy, someone will be excluded from some portion of governing; on what basis do we select those who do participate?

These matters were rattling around in my head when a friend asked me to name historical heavyweights (of the modern era) who were born into privilege. The question implied that those descended from previous governors ought to govern, and are broadly capable of doing so, by virtue of nature or training. I was surprised, however, to find that some of the first people to come to mind were self-made men, whose titles followed, not preceded, their success. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke’s father was only a minor nobleman. Sir Francis Drake, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Lord Burghley were all more or less middle class men who were knighted for their hard work and intelligence. Admiral Lord Nelson was the son of an Anglican priest; Sir Winston Churchill was not born a knight (though he was the grandson of a duke). This is not to say that those born into privilege cannot also be accomplished leaders; Pitt the Younger, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Carl Gustaf von Rosen, Otto von Habsburg, Fra’ Andrew Bertie and Fra’ Matthew Festing come to mind.

Who, then, should govern? Are we limited to exploring historical examples, or are there principles we can identify?

Having turned over the question a few times, I have settled on a three-fold answer: Equality. Hierarchy. Merit.

There is a logical sequence to these three ideas. Before all else, we must acknowledge the fundamental equality of all men. Common experience teaches that death comes for all of us; divine revelation teaches that we are all made in the divine image. Any further statement about who should govern or in what manner must take into account this basic equality, in dignity and in death.

Though all men are equal, they are not the same. Some are stronger, some are faster, some are more intelligent. A football coach would be a fool to consider his linemen and wide receivers interchangeable; likewise, he would be a fool to play his first and third strings for equal amounts of time, simply on the basis of their equal human dignity. The natural result of such differences among men is hierarchy. We must be clear that this hierarchy is circumscribed by the deeper human equality, and pertains only to certain qualities or functions. The fastest receiver may have a right to be in the starting line-up; he does not have a right, by virtue of his speed, to dictate morality to the third string receivers. Thus, those who reject hierarchy altogether are in error, but so are those who slavishly support it in all things.

If hierarchy naturally exists, within a broader framework of equality, who should be in its upper echelons? Here I contend that merit is the operative principle. This may seem obvious; if we are to have three strings on a football team, who wouldn’t put the fast receivers in the first string? But if this is obvious with regard to football, it is often less clear with regard to politics. As already suggested, the question of who is meritorious is often confused with how they are selected. This is not simply a matter of semantics, but can cloud our thinking.

The democrat, for example, is interested in experience and honesty, but would usually tell you that he votes for someone with whom he agrees on key issues. Notice, however, that the question has become self-referential: merit is defined primarily by views, which are measured against the individual voter. The voter does not ask, ‘Does this candidate conform himself to reality?’ but ‘Does he conform to me?’ (I have observed similar behavior from my colleagues in the historical profession. When asked what they thought of a given author, they frequently reply, ‘I liked Smith. I agreed with his main points.’ To which I sometimes respond, ‘I don’t care if you agreed with him or not. Is he right?’) While most voters would like to think that their own views conform to reality, and therefore candidates who conform to the voter also, by extension, conform to reality, I cannot help but think that our discourse has become so self-referential as to forget about the broader criteria of merit or reality.

Aristocrats are liable to be similarly confused about merit. They would, of course, argue – as my friend’s question implied – that a family history near the top of the hierarchy produces men who are more meritorious. But this too is frequently reduced to a shorthand that tradition or birth should dictate who governs, and as a consequence is in danger of forgetting why they should govern. Even so-call meritocrats often reduce merit to the means by which it is measured: civil service exams, years of experience or outcomes of one’s previous work. These may be good measures, but can easily become fossilized, forgetting about merit. Likewise, one must remember that poor examinations or faulty rubrics will inadequately assess merit.

Frankly, I have no silver bullet for determining merit. It is an elusive thing which is not easily defined, measured or agreed upon. But I think we would do well to at least keep the discussion focused on merit, rather than allowing peripheral matters to take center stage.

The prudent man, when choosing a leader – of a city, a nation, an academic department or a business unit – should recall that leaders govern those who are fundamentally their equals, though it is permissible and even advisable that particular individuals exercise leadership in certain areas. Finally, those choosing leaders, seeking that elusive quality of merit, would do well to find someone who conforms himself to reality, who comes from a tradition of excellence and who has demonstrated his capacity in education and outcomes.

If you want to accuse me of giving a bland and platitudinous conclusion to one of the most lively questions of political philosophy, next time you are at a political rally, try shouting, ‘Equality! Hierarchy! Merit!’ You might have some explaining to do.
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