(July 10 0935 -0400) see also Soon Sze Meng's paper
on the Scholarship System in Singapore, Vaughn Tan's critique
of the same, and my further thoughts
on the "freakonomical model"--especially the addition discussion
in the comments where I spelt out the reasons why this model is ultimately inadequate.]
: major addition to this post below
. another note
: Thank you Singapore Ink
and Simon World
for linking. Some caveats in response to certain comments
left at Ink and to forestall further misunderstanding: despite appearances, this post is not
about Soon Sze Meng's letter, or the widening income gap, etc. (though I did leave some remarks in the comments section
). Rather, it is
intended from the beginning to be some--roughly philosophical--reflections relating to how we think about meritocracy
. In particular, I wanted to explore alternative models of motivational structures
that might support academic meritocracy. There is, however, a very concrete application: stop and think the next time someone talks about the meritocracy as a source of benefits for the scholar
rather than society as a whole: what are the implications of that way of thinking? What are the implications if he were not to think like that? The final "Coda"
, however, is an appendix on various distinction issues that are often conflated; it does not belong with the post proper.)
* * * * *
This bit from today's ST Forum page (June 28) caught my eye. From "Help ensure social mobility for bottom 20%", by Soon Sze Meng:
When I was studying in Stanford University, I was surprised that more than 75 per cent of the Singaporean students did not live in Housing Board flats, even though more than 85 per cent of our population lives in HDB flats. These Singaporean students were mainly scholarship holders, and this begged the question whether the rich are the main beneficiaries of our meritocratic system.
Quick quibble: this is not the technically correct way to use "begged the question"
, but one that's been gaining ground, much to the unhappiness of philosophy types
, such as myself. In any case, the writer does mean to raise the legitimate question: exactly who benefits from Singapore's academic metitocracy?
[Note: This is not meant to be a criticism of the writer or the ST editor who gave the letter its final shape. Take it as some reflections that were loosely inspired by the letter.]
Believe it or not, the question that the writer has in mind has not been properly phrased. This is because the answer to the one he stated
is obvious. If the academic meritocracy is supposed to benefit
anyone, it should benefit everybody
. The point of a meritocracy in which the minority with merit (however defined), whatever background they are from (i.e., rich or poor), are advanced in society above the others, given special educational opportunities, and eventually responsibilities and power had better be the benefitting of society as a whole
. This is supposed to be the justification of a meritocractic system in the first place. There could be, in principle, other justifications, but I think this is the official one. From this point of view, even if the meritorious happened to come mostly from a wealthy background, as long as they truly are advanced on account of their merit (and not their background), society as a whole would be better off. If society as a whole is not better off, then a plank is taken out from underneath the justifiability of meritocracy.
One could dispute whether the present system in Singapore really does benefit society as a whole, or whether any meritocractic system really does what it is supposed to do--but let me bracket those issues to come back to the question posed by the writer. It goes without saying that my previous discussion couldn't be the answer to the question intended
by the writer, and the reason is simple. For him, to be a "beneficiary of our meritocratic system" is, for example, to be a scholarship holder sent overseas to receive a fancy education. This involves a rather different perspective. Previously, the meritocratic system is something by which everyone is benefitted, and giving the scholarship to someone who merits it is part of the means
by which we are all benefitted. From the other perspective, the system becomes some sort of money tree (摇钱树) by means of which the scholarship holder is himself or herself benefitted
Now the two perspectives co-exist. In fact, we might even see the scholarship system and its attendant prestige and promise of social advancement as a powerful incentive to draw out the efforts of the talented, the said effort being channelled by the system to then benefit everyone. In other words, paraphrasing Adam Smith, "It is not from the benevolence (or altruism or social consciousness) of the talented that we expect our economic development, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." (My apologies to the writer of The Wealth of Nations
Note that if this is so, the perspective of the talented might well be in a sense fundamentally at odds with what the system is meant to achieve (benefit for all)--a rather "freakonomical"
state of affairs, no doubt, but not totally wacky either. It has worked wonders in economics, there's no reason why it can't work elsewhere. We just have to remember the caveats: it's not that the talented are necessarily selfish, just that nobody should really count on their altruism, only their self-love. It's not that the talented deserve
their special position, but just that this is a way to harness their abilities for all.
The trick becomes that of designing the right system of incentives so as to make sure that everybody actually would be benefitted.
Deflating, isn't it?continued
(1210 June 28 -0400)
The above account--where the intention of the system as a whole stands in tension with the motivations of the individuals within the system--is not the only possibility. Let's call it the "Freakonomical Model" of meritocracy. In that model, the point of the meritocratic system is so that society as a whole would be benefitted by harnessing the abilities of the talented, and this is done by presenting them with a suitable incentive structure so that in seeking their own self-advantage, the talented ends up serving society as a whole. For the purposes of contrast, let me now paint an alternative model in which the motivation of the talent does not stand in tension with the intention of the system as a whole.
In Imperial China, the sure way to worldly success--not just for the individual but also for one's family--was passing the Imperial Exams with flying colors, thus landing one a magistracy in the Imperial Bureaucracy. If sonny became the Magistrate of Town X, the whole family stood to benefit greatly from the increased prestige, wealth, and opportunities for more advancements in the world for the rest of the family. Every family knew this.
But not all families could afford to provide every son with the expensive education in the Classics that was pretty much prerequisite to passing the Exams. Some families were so poor they couldn't even afford to have just one son educated. Enter the clan system: entire extended families would organise themselves, pool their resources, and select the brightest kids from among its members--the ones who showed the most promise at an early stage--and spend the pooled resources providing them with education, the best that money can buy. The point was that since not all the sons would have a real chance at becoming magistrates (or even passing the highly competitive exams) if they tried to educate them all, the most rational thing to do was to maximise the expected outcome by spending one's resources on a narrower front where they would be of most effect.
The selected son was expected to bring glory and material benefit to the clan as a whole if and when he makes it big at the Exams and lands a Job. Upon succeeding, he would then use his power and influence to protect his clan from encroachments of others and generally, to advance its interests in the world. Most importantly, his motivation for studying hard for the exams (not necessarily something he likes to do) was so that the common advantage of the clan will be served. There was a concurrance of his perspective and the perspective of the group.
Incidentally, the above--let's call it the "Communal Model" of meritocracy--is still discerned in the practice of many Chinese business families (in the past 100+ years, and still occuring today) sending their brightest kids overseas for an expensive education, with the aim that they will come back and take the company to greater heights.
There is a certain charm to the "Communal Model" of meritocracy. If implemented at the level of society, the meritorious might be seen as being motivated by the noble aim of give back to society what he receives from it (取诸社会还诸社会). There is no tension between their motivation and the intention of the system as a whole. But let me say up front that, despite appearances, it is not obvious that the "Communal Model" is simply superior to the "Freakonomical Model" of meritocracy.
To begin with, it is an idealisation to believe that every favored son who received special attention was in it altruistically for the common advantage of the group. A lot depended on them having internalised the values of the group
. So even though there may not be incentives and disincentives of a more material sort as would be found in the "Freakonomical Model", there were usually powerful incentives and disincentives of a more social sort operative. Not "bringing shame to the family name" (败坏家门) but "bringing glory to one's ancestors" (光宗耀祖) were real concerns for these people. And there were social constraints on other members of the clan as well: not only would the scholar himself be shamed if he failed to attend to the common advantage, so would his immediate family (mom, dad, brothers, sisters, etc.) before the rest of the clan. There was thus every incentive for them
to impress upon the favored son the utmost importance of doing right by the clan--lest we (the immediate family) lose our face before everybody else, or worse still, forfeit the clan's protection.
The point, again, is not that there were no altruistic people or sons who genuinely were concerned about the common advantage--they obviously existed, and there were probably many of them as well. Rather, the point is that the "Communal Model" likely worked as much because of a background of powerful social incentives that even the would be selfish freeloader cannot simply ignore
. In a nutshell, the wily clan elders were not silly enough to depend only upon the good intentions of the favored sons. In any case, the system presupposed (without conscious human planning) a background of widely accepted familial values enforced by a sense of shame.
My own gut feeling is that elements of both models exist in Singapore's Academic Meritocracy. To see that, simply counterpose the contractual aspects of the scholarship system (e.g., how much one has to pay back if one breaks the bond) with the "moral" aspects (e.g., the social opprobrium upon bondbreakers).
Notice that both models sketched above agree on one thing: the point of the meritorcatic system is so that the group
will be benefitted. One might think of this as the group's--be it society, the clan, the business family--investment on manpower (more precisely, skilled
manpower), as WhiteOut correctly points out in the comments
. Despite the difference between them, neither of the above two models support any notion that the scholar or favored son deserves
or is entitled to
his special attention, or that he is being rewarded
for his talents--if "desert", "entitlement" and "reward" are meant to carry a weight that is independent of system as a whole. The point
of the system is not to reward anyone or to give the talented what they deserve or are entitled to, but to make an investment in manpower so as to benefit the whole. This is not to say that some weaker notion of "desert", "entitlement" and "reward" cannot find their place within
the system: the talented "deserves" or is "entitled to" his "reward" because that's the best way to maximise the investment, but not because there's anything special about him.
It is possible, however, to imagine models of meritocracy that build in stronger notions of "desert", "entitlement" and "reward" (see e.g., this
for a suggestion). Whether they are plausible in their own right, or implementable in real life, is another matter altogether.coda:
Some important distinctions (1415 June 28 -0400)
I understand that to mean a system of social (or group) organisation in which the meritorious
are given responsibility and power (over the rest), where merit
is roughly defined by abilities plus effort of the individual, and usually indicated by his achievements. (Academic
meritocracy is thus one particular species of the genus meritocracy, in which merit is defined in terms of academic abilities and effort, and such indicated by academic achievement.) We can now separate out several distinct parameters:
1. The underlying aim of the meritocracy; e.g., an investment on manpower, or to give the meritorious what is due to them on account of their superior abilities, etc.
2. The criterion of merit within the particular meritocratic system; e.g., academic ability, military prowess, enterprise, some combination, etc.
3. The specific responsibilities and powers given the meritorious; e.g., they rule
over the rest, they are given special duties and jobs, etc.
4. The schedule of social advantages accorded the meritorious; e.g., superior status and wealth, or only superior prestige but not wealth, or neither, etc.
5. The methods by which merit (or just potential merit) is operationally determined
; e.g., by standardize testings, or number of captured enemy heads, etc.
6. The methods by which the potentially meritorious are cultivated (if any); e.g., special scholarships, leisure for education, apprenticeship with the masters, etc.
7. The domain of operation of the meritocracy; e.g., the whole society, or some organisation (e.g., association or company), etc.
8. The structure of motivation by which the meritocracy is kept running; e.g. the self interests of the individuals, a conscious desire to advance the common good on the part of individuals, the sheer imposition of a military overlord class, an underlying ideology or noble lie, some combination, etc.
Every meritocratic system
will incorporate a specific combination of values to each of the above parameters (there could be more, but these are the more obvious ones). This means that when discussing "meritocracy", we should be clear whether we are talking about meritocracy in the abstract (i.e., every plausible combination of values to the above parameters) or a specific meritocratic system (i.e., a given combination of values to the above parameters). In addition, it also means that if we want to "critique meritocracy", we should be clear if we are critiquing a specific meritocratic system, or the principle of meritocracy simpliciter (i.e., the set of all possible meritocratic systems). And we can also distinguish between internal
critiques. In an internal critique of a specific meritocratic system, we argue against the value given to a parameter on the basis of that given to another parameter (e.g., "if what we really want is to advance the truly academically capable, then an exam system is not a good way to go"). In an external critique of a meritocratic system, we argue against the value given to a parameter on the basis of something external to the system as a whole (e.g., "the very notion of advancing those with academic merit is contrary to the requirements of equality"). A special form of critique (could be taken as either internal or external depending on how it's spelt out) would be to show that the specific combination of values given the the parameters cannot be instantiated in the real world, e.g., given the truth about the specific conditions of the domain in question or human nature in general.