A Ku Indeed!

Bell VI: Embrace Your Inner Elitist

Posted in Analects, Bell Reading Group, China, Chinese Philosophy, Politics by Chris on January 1, 2009

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!

10 Responses

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  1. Peony said, on January 2, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Chris– this was very interesting! And for me, timely, as I was just re-reading Plato’s Republic– in which (I’m sorry I just cannot resist) Plato bases his version of enlightened rule on universal truths (which are knoweable by human reason). Compare this to Bell’s point which is so firmly rooted in local context (ie his position is based firmly on what kind of electorate the Chinese have). I cannot really repond to his point as I just don’t know about the possible way Chinese voters would vote. All I can say– in my opinion– is that it really doesn’t matter what your average American thinks because he is basing his argument on local particulars, which have nothing whatsoever to do with anti-intellectualism and democracy in America….

    Saying this, however, at the same time, like you I do find it irresistable to compare to my own experiences in the US and in Japan.

    I recently read that upper realms of Chinese government is overwhelming composed of bureaucrats from an engineering background. If that is true, it explains a lot, I think. The train, the re-engineering of the cities, the planning….policies with a real engineered touch– the opening ceremony. This led me to wonder, what about in the US– it’s got to be business leaders who make up our government… or is it more varied? How about this? Large percentage of successful corporate leaders, some scholars (few??), some career politicians (??)… what do you think?

    And, then in Japan, Koizumi was one of the rare prime ministers (or top government leaders) not to have a Tokyo University law degree. I used to work as a translator for the prime ministers office and the 総務省 (doing their press releases) and every single person I had the mis-fortune of having contact with was as elite as it gets (male, tokyo university advanced degree in law or economics or engineering). Groomed really to form the elite leadership corp of the country, they were the elite of the elite. And, in one sense I agree with Bell that they do take a helicopter view– or put it this way, I feel no less confident entrusting government to these guys than I would from a leader who rose from corporate leadeship or business.

    I have come myself come full circle on my own stance. I remember when I first arrived in japan (at 22), I was so put-off by the overly authoratarian way of officials– from airports, to local government, to police to big goverenment, I felt that goverenment should be as stripped of power as possible. Recently (as I get older?) I just increasingly find myself looking to goverenment to think of enlightened policies, to keep things controlled, to install social safety nets… to plan policies in a centralized manner… it is not that there is only one way to get things done. I am not saying that. But what I am saying is that depending on culture or place, I can see why paternalist goverenment would have its appeal (that is to say that I disagree with Plato but agree with Bell when it comes to my own experiences in Japan).

    I will no doubt have more to say after I read the chapter, though 🙂

  2. Chris said, on January 3, 2009 at 7:47 am


    I’m not sure I understand the last sentence in paragraph one. Can you restate that?

    I think the important question from Bell’s point of view might be (with respect to your experience in Japan): would you be willing to allow those guys (the Tokyo U folks) to run the country (at least in some significant way) even if they were not elected by the people? If they took their positions merely through examination? I am not that familiar with the Japanese situation: how does it work now?

    Surprisingly, I am very anti-authoritarian. So my first impressions are similar to yours. But I have also “come around” in a way. But I feel as if my anti-authoritarianism was (and is) really a reaction against what I saw as abused authority. I respect merited hierarchies. So I think if I saw a hierarchy or authoritarian structure actually work, or actually embody a true set of virtues, I might very well be in favor of it — of course with _some_ set of checks and balances and accountability structures built in. I, like Demo, would feel that we need to have some institutional structures in place to check the power of such structures, because we cannot afford to “write a blank check” in a sense. However, I think Bell’s “House of Scholars” and the way it is integrated into the larger governmental structure, makes some movement in that direction.

  3. Bao Pu said, on January 3, 2009 at 9:04 am

    I don’t have much to say, except that the worry about “the uneducated voter” and what to do about them was one talked alot about by Thomas Jefferson.

    Happy New Year 🙂

  4. Peony said, on January 3, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Hi Chris,

    The first sentence: nothing all that interesting but I wanted to preface my own comparisons with the US and Japan with the qualification that because Bell’s arguments are not being based on *universal principles as objective truth* it really is irrelevant to bring up other contexts ….

    And, no I am not surprised you are anti-authoratarian (it is quite clear I would argue!) And for what it is worth, I am also anti-authoratarian and for that matter so is Daniel Bell (if you read him carefully, I think it is fairly obvious– or is that just me??)

    I guess my point was I would be very willing to let Japan’s “elite” (those who attended the country’s top university in the departments set up to groom such career bureacrats) run the country. or to put it another way, I would trust them as much as a career business man who jumped into politics. (On a totally un-related point, the US gov’t is presently downsizing its diplomatic corps and is outsourcing a lot of intelligence and sensitive work to outside corporations, I think it is a grave mistake to do away with educated career bureacrats).

    I wrote this post on China’s meritocratic bureaucracy if you have time… but what is interesting is that China had a meritocracy in place at what was really a surprisingly early time. Europe and Japan would not see anything like it till comparatively very recently, for example. Japan was pretty much like Europe I think in that it was ruled by its hereditary elite or power grabbers for most of its history.

    Japan, though, remains a place ruled by educated elites and in general you just do not see the anti-intellectualism you see in the US for example. Politicians are repsectfully called sensei, and the word “eilite” is not perjorative in any way. They have the old fashioned word that no one uses 高級官僚 which I assume comes straight from the continent, but most Japanese just use the English word “elite” エリート. One of my closest friends here works as a career woman in local government and she seriously told me not to tell anyone what she does. I mean the American in me thinks, come on, does anyone care? But she feels that people will treat her “differently”– and this is perhaps because bureacrats are seen as functioning apart from the populace.

    Anyway, I do think there is a balanced respect toward those who are educated– but this is different from blind following or blind trust too. Japan perhaps does have a sufficient number of checks and balances within the system and also from watchguard groups (however, I really do not know enough about it to say…

  5. Chris said, on January 3, 2009 at 7:50 pm


    When I said “authoritarian” I was being sloppy. Of course Bell is not authoritarian (a flip through his chapter titles would reveal that quickly). I meant that I was always opposed to hierarchical structuring of relationships, or institutions, or whatever. As I got older, I realized I wasn’t against these things at all — just abuse of them. To suggest a “House of Scholars” is to reinstitute (or reenforce) hierarchical structures in a way that pure democracy does not. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve moved slowly away from pure democracy myself, and more towards a sympathetic view of “House of Scholars” style thinking.

    The Japanese system sounds very interesting (and appealing) to me. I know little about it, unfortunately. The notion of “balanced respect” sounds appropriate to me, a recognition of excellence while at the same time a recognition of the possibility of corruption.

    I fear that in America we move closer and closer towards Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean notions of “leveling” the more we push the notion that it is admirable to be mediocre (think of the portrayal of the “Last Man” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra). I have an in-law who, a few years ago (he was at the time a freshman in college), proudly announced at the dinner table that he was, like a friend of his, “bout’ average.” No one objected or found it an odd thing to say. Being average is one thing, but to strive for it is quite another thing.

    Case in point: can you believe that people have actually strongly encouraged “Joe the Plumber” to run for Congress? I mean, seriously? You’d love to think it is a joke, and maybe it is, but in such a case the joke is on us (Americans).

  6. Phil Hand said, on January 8, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    About Bell’s House of Scholars:
    Being British, having grown up with a House of Lords, I don’t have much problem with this. On a more theoretical level, I don’t have a problem with it because I don’t see the precise mechanisms of choosing leaders as very important. For example, China’s current election system involves the public voting at village-level, then village representatives voting for county reps, then county reps voting for reps to the National People’s Congress. I think that’s fine. It so happens that the system doesn’t function, because it’s hijacked by the Party at every level – but I don’t think the multi-tier election system is necessarily bad. Nor would a non-elected system be necessarily bad, though it’s hard to imagine how a government could be made accountable without some elections.

    The problems are the surrounding institutions and traditions. You need independent courts, a civil service free from corruption, a free press, a vibrant civil society. If you have those, then ideas get through, no matter how you pick the actual politicians.

    I actually think Bell misses a trick when he has Lo and Wang argue over what happens when the Scholars and the Elected chamber get deadlocked. The important thing isn’t who should wield ultimate power; it’s how to prevent intractable differences from arising. If you’ve got two parts of the government so at odds with each other that it’s necessary to impose a solution, then there’s a problem in the system. There need to be mechanisms for dialogue and exchange and compromise.

    The problem with Wang’s view is that Wang seems really to be harking back to an old view of junzi wherein the junzi just knows what is right because he’s a junzi. This is then ranged against a view of rabble democracy wherein the people have a single voice, which represents their short-term interests.

    But the reality of modern government doesn’t look anything like that to me. Rather, the process of horse-trading and negotiation among many different lobbies and viewpoints is exactly how good (compromise) paths are found. The problem of modern government should not be how to pick the guy with the best ideas; it should be how to put lots of guys with different ideas together and see what comes out. This concept of political pluralism seems to me to be what is missing in the vast majority of Chinese political thinking today. There’s an obsession with *zhengque* – correctness. The Party is always described as “correct”.

    This relates to the revolution that China is trying to complete at the moment, moving from rule by man to rule by law. I actually think rule by tradition and institution is what is needed, and in China this is particularly clear, because Chinese law is so incomplete. It’s obvious to anyone who looks that China can’t be ruled by current Chinese law; but the process of institution building is slow and painful because the Party’s so scared of non-Party institutions.

    Just thinking about the House of Scholars, and comparing it to the civil service exams of imperial China, there is the potential for the HoS to be much less effective, because the Scholars will be legislators rather than executors of the law. They will be cut off from the public and the effects of their policies (not “committed”, if you like). Having passed the exams, the scholars of old had to deal with the practical problems of local government. For a HoS to work, there would need to be very very robust input of real data and criticism, or they would simply reason themselves into irrelevance in their big chamber in Beijing.

  7. […] concepts of rights. I have not been that impressed with the book, but Chris had an interesting post on Bell’s final suggestion, that the way to democracy in China is to protect the nation from […]

  8. A Ku Indeed! » Archive » Blog Love said, on January 20, 2010 at 6:12 am

    […] Bell VI:Embrace Your Inner Elitist […]

  9. […] concepts of rights. I have not been that impressed with the book, but Chris had an interesting post on Bell’s final suggestion, that the way to democracy in China is to protect the nation from […]

  10. MaxGabroAnype said, on February 20, 2017 at 3:49 am

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