Bell VI: Embrace Your Inner Elitist
I’ve been a bad boy. I jumped ahead and read the last chapter of Bell’s book, where he lays out his own recipe for “Chinese Democracy.” I don’t feel qualified to suggest whether his proposal would work in the contemporary Chinese context, but the idea itself is an interesting one. I am at least certain of one thing: it would have just about every good, down-home, corn-fed anti-intellectualist American (the majority of them) running screaming for the exits.
It becomes very clear fast in the fifth chapter that Bell is not enamored of pure democracy. He thinks it is important that people have a vote (he thinks that in the modern world not having a vote would not lead to a politically stable situation), but at the same time he is very worried about who is doing the voting, and how politicians behave when Joe-six-pack (or Joe the Plumber, perhaps) is the typical voter (he even toys with, but rejects, the idea of plural voter schemas).
Bell’s worry is not surprising. He is concerned that if the uneducated voter starts to make up the bulk of the voting population, two things (at least) will happen: (A) politicians will begin to focus on promising and giving the people “what they want” in the short-run, even when this is not for the long-term good of the country, and he’s worried that (B) politicians themselves will be selected by voters who know little to nothing about the actual issues that national-level politicians will be expected to think about and make legislation concerning. In the end, we get uneducated populist leaders. Basically, he’s worried about the uneducated masses and their parochial interests being in control of things, and politicians becoming more and more populist in their desire to get elected and to remain in office.
Bell thinks that such a formula – especially in a country like China where the vast majority of the population is composed of uneducated farmers – would be a disaster for China. For instance, politicians would be strongly tempted to repeal the one-child policy (not supported by the rural farmer population), might push for more aggressive (but in the long run harmful) levels of economic development people would desire for short term gains, and so on. What we really need, Bell thinks, are people who can see the “big picture” (the “helicopter view” as he calls it), and we need the people who have this view to be smart, knowledgeable, and above all virtuous as opposed to self-interested.
We need some intellectual/moral elites to grab on to (at least a significant portion of) the reins of the state’s power. Bell’s answer is to institutionalize this need through a “House of Scholars” that would serve (depending on the way in which the proposal is finally given a determinate shape) as a legislative body or simply as a check on the power of the Congress (which would be elected by a pure democratic process). The members of the House of Scholars would be chosen by a type of re-introduction of the old Confucian civil examinations. I say “a type” because it would not focus specifically on the same subject matter (not merely a test of knowledge of the classics), but would instead aim at revealing who, of the test takers, is overall, and in the most broad and general way, (a) smartest, (b) most knowledgeable, (c) most capable of thinking outside the box and finally, (d) the most virtuous. (I’ll leave aside the seeming intractable problem of determining how (c) and (d) would be determined and by whom).
Members of the House of Scholars would, Bell thinks, see further and have a better “helicopter view.” In addition, they would not be driven to rule or legislate in terms of their own parochial interests, but would instead make decisions based on the common good. Their decisions would also be informed, leading to enlightened governing overall.
Such a proposal, if it took shape alongside the development of a Congress that was democratically elected (where the House of Scholars is a check or equal power) would rein in the dangers of democracy in China, reinstitute a respect for the intellectual elite, and give the legislation and policies of the government a truly enlightened direction, free from the corrupting influences of pure democracies and their influences.
Best of all, it’s a system that could be easily “grafted” onto the early Confucian tradition, making the proposal a viable “outgrowth” of local knowledge (as it was argued for early in the book). It answers the “on the ground” problems in China, Bell thinks, and also is fully consistent with an ancient historical/cultural narrative, and so could be embraced by the population in a way that would be strategically viable and normatively authentic.
There are a lot of details that Bell leaves vague regarding the House of Scholars and its specific role in his imagined Chinese Democracy. But that’s okay – the idea itself is controversial enough. At least two questions come to mind:
1. Is it acceptable to have a significant chunk of governmental power located in the hands of the intellectual elite? Clearly members of the House of Scholars would not be elected, but would rather “test in” (in a way).
2. Would this build in a level of paternalism into government that most people would find entirely unacceptable? Clearly here Bell suspects that the elites just “know better” than the everyday Joe (the Plumber). As a result, the society as a whole needs to be protected from the danger that comes into existence where there are too many Joes operating in a kind of (political) unison.
Bell’s proposal also forces me to think of the obvious contrast with the way Americans think. Clearly, this idea would drive (most) Americans completely nuts. Especially where I live (the Midwest), where people with advanced degrees are typically seen as folks who made one too many bad decisions in life. When I think of the Midwest (and Southern, I suppose) anti-intellectual attitude, I think of the saying “ain’t no fool like an educated fool”. That about sums it up – not only are the intellectual elite incapable of governing others, in all likelihood they probably lack the “common sense” (as it is put) to govern themselves. Essentially, according to the American brand of anti-intellectualism, Joe the Plumber needs to save the intellectual elite, not the other way around (perhaps Midwesterners are good Taoists).
Of course, as there almost always is, there’s an Existential dimension to all of this (didn’t I say that Bell was an Existentialist?). It’s hard to imagine that a Kierkegaardian or Nietzschean politic would be democratic, with all of their discussions of the dangers of “the Public” and “the Herd”. Bell, on the other hand, wants to reintroduce a kind of national respect for “one’s betters” in an intellectual sense. He wants to move away from an embrace of the priority of the “min” (unwashed masses) and instead replace it with the superiority of the “shi” (gentleman) and “junzi” (gentleman). It’s time to roll back in the hierarchy, he thinks, and time to move away from the leveling characteristic of pure (or unchecked) democracy.
But this requires an embrace of a really robust paternalism. And most people I know can’t even rein in their anger at being forced to wear seat belts. Don’t tell me what to do, dammit! I can’t imagine any Americans embracing a House of Scholars that can (in some variations) overrule the legislation of the democratically elected Congress.
But does Bell have a(n uncomfortable) point? I hate to be waving the Daniel Bell flag here, but distasteful as it sounds on a level, something just seems right about what he says. I’m not sure about you, but I get tired of politicians voting on issues that I know they can’t possibly know anything about, and so are clearly voting in ways that have little to do with enlightened direction. I’m tired of people claiming that it is a necessary condition that a Presidential candidate be a guy/gal you could “have a beer with.” I don’t want to have a beer with the President. I want him to run the country. I don’t want a hockey mom in office who thinks that seeing Russia with your eyes makes you a foreign affairs expert. And at the same time, I’m fearful that a lot of political power is placed into the hands of people who seem to think that these very kinds of qualities are essential in elected leaders. Worse yet, I’m tired of people running for office hiding their education and knowledge. Isn’t there something wrong with a political process (in America) that has candidates hiding the fact that they have advanced degrees, for fear of annoying the voters? How many times did you hear Obama tout the fact that he attended Harvard? How many times did he talk about his career as a university law professor? I can’t remember any. Bad politics. Get back into that diner and make sure people see you eating that big flapjack instead.
So: why not a House of Scholars? I realize that Bell thinks this is an untenable idea for the West, but what the hell? Why not?
Maybe it’s time for more Americans to embrace their inner Elitist?
And what about China? I have no doubt that this idea of Bell’s will not win him any friends, especially not from the usual suspects around here!