The testing and examination system of ordering society in a chronological order of talent and skill is deeply flawed, argues a new book
February 7, 2023
Making Meritocracy: Lessons from China and India, from Antiquity to the Present
Editors: Tarun Khanna & Michael Szonyi
Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap and Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit published in 2019 and 2020 respectively, caused a maelstrom among thinkers and public intellectuals. They challenged the sacrosanct established belief that human society progressed for the better as it moved away from a hereditary aristocracy to a meritocratic order. Other
excellent books such as The Caste of Merit by Ajantha Subramanian added to this discourse and “Indianised” this argument using the context of IIT education. These ideas shook the intellectual citadels of sociology, philosophy, politics and economics and triggered a variety of responses by other thinkers and intellectuals.
Another addition to this shelf is Making Meritocracy: Lessons from China and India, from Antiquity to the Present. It contains 13 essays by various academics that chart the history of the idea of meritocracy in China and India, lessons from Singapore’s experiment with a seemingly perfectly engineered meritocratic society, China’s notorious gaokao national entrance examination, India’s reservations policy and using technology to achieve a more efficient system of identification of merit.
Professors Markovits and Sandel’s ideas were largely predicated on the American and other Western nations’ experiences with meritocracy and its manifestation in the education and labour markets. There was a dire need for an intellectually rigorous and thought-provoking book about the merits and demerits of adopting an Anglo-Saxon meritocratic order in a deeply caste-driven and hierarchical Indian society. This book promised to fill that gap. While it provoked and incited, it fell short of a definitive discussion. To be sure, that may not have been the objective of this edited volume of essays.
The best parts of the book are the essays that trace the history and origins of the idea of merit in China and India. The essay by Michael Puett describing the first significant attempts to “reenvision a hereditary society” in China as early as 4th century BC is both enlightening and captivating. Humans’ consternation about a hereditary society is evidently perennial. The author contends that the need to transition to a more meritocratic order in 11th century China was driven by the need to have people of merit in positions of power and governance, which led to the idea of an entrance examination for civil servants in the Qing Empire.
Daniel Bell’s essay on Political Meritocracy in China is an evocative description of how the idea of meritocracy in politics and governance excites Chinese rulers and society. It pits meritocracy as a contradiction to democracy and argues that the Chinese obsession with meritocratic governance is what underpins their antipathy to elections and democracy, since elections produce suboptimal meritocratic rulers and lawmakers, in their belief. It is a provocative chapter that attempts to persuade the reader of how a meritocratic and efficient Organisation Department of the Chinese Communist Party is a better system of governance than Western notions of a multi-party democracy.
In contrast, the chapters on meritocracy in India from the Mughal Empire to the British times to the modern era are less analytically rigorous and stimulating than the ones on China. Predictably, there is a lot of discussion on the caste system, social mobility of lower castes and reservations as a social policy tool in the Indian context that are more a statement of facts, data and historical events than radical analysis and explanations. The Indian emphasis in the book is more on evaluating the policy outcomes of reservations and how to improve it than a philosophical argument of whether the Western framework of examination-based meritocracy will serve India’s caste-ridden society better or exacerbate inequities. Professor Subramanian’s essay stands out in its analysis of the “trope of upper-caste politics of meritocracy through mass examination” in contemporary India.
The very idea of a meritocracy rests in the belief that it is possible to organise and engineer a society in a chronological order of talent, skill and virtue to achieve superior outcomes for society as a whole. It is now well acknowledged that the testing and examination system of ordering society is deeply flawed since it inordinately favours the well to-do that have the means and the abilities to prepare. The essays in the book focus more on improving the system of merit identification through technology and other tweaks than convincing the reader of the risks and benefits of reorganising deeply caste-conflicted societies in a meritocratic order. Actually, the foreword and afterword are the sections that present such intellectually challenging and thought-provoking arguments than the essays themselves.
The idea of equal opportunity for all may be a noble one to strive for. But equal opportunity requires an equal start. Humankind’s attempts to offset the inequality of the divine lottery with an engineered social order of merit through examination and affirmative action policies have not been fully successful.
How should an already unequal Indian society with the historic burden of caste and class confront the challenges of the Western examination-based meritocratic order that threaten to exacerbate inequalities than bridge them? Is a meritocratic society a chimera that may cause more conflicts and division in Indian society? This book does not answer these questions but it is worth a read to understand how our ancestors grappled with these questions.
The reviewer is a political economist & a senior office-bearer in the Congress party