This article was last modified on April 8, 2011.

Meritocracy as Legitimate Authority

What is legitimate authority? We generally accept that totalitarian rule, dictatorships or monarchies are not legitimate, at least not in America. Over the course of multiple centuries, our concept of democracy has evolved and has become both expansive and sacred. But is democracy by itself a sufficient criterion of legitimate authority? Should there be other requirements to ensure the will of the people is carried out, along with the country’s best interests? I believe this to be the case.

Political participation, through voting, is denied to many citizens: those under the age of majority, as well as many criminals or the insane. Are we to assume that all minors are less intelligent or less affected by government choices than the adults? Convicted felons in many states are denied the vote — on what grounds, and what reason do they have to care about decisions made if they cannot participate even after they have served their time? As Dahl says, “Everyone who is affected by the decisions of a government should have the right to participate in that government.” [Dahl: 64] That’s just a basic American principle: no taxation without representation.

Suppose Mr. Green needs open-heart surgery. He consults with Nurse Smith and Dr. Jones. “I think they would all be inclined to reject political equality in the operating room and instead give a decisive voice to Dr. Jones.” [Dahl: 13] Equality is important, but sometimes competence is more important. If we can deny the insane a right to vote, and Mr. Green can choose to give Dr. Jones authority over his life, could we not recognize that on some issues, voting by others may be best for our own life? Indeed, in some cases, we accept this — the Supreme Court makes voting decisions, as does the Congress, without direct participation from people.

There are two directions laws can flow, either for regulation or against it. As Dahl says, “…in the United States, owning and driving a machine that emits exhaust fumes is rapidly moving out of the domain of Autonomous Decisions to regulation by collective decision (though not, I must say, rapidly enough for some of us), while sexual practices among consenting adults are moving from collective regulation to the domain of individual choice.” [Dahl: 20] Dahl further references marijuana use and that when he was a youth, children could purchase fireworks.

We cannot be our own dictators, and must rely on some level of regulation. “Since I am to live with other people, which I believe I must, and since I shall not always agree with them, which I believe in inevitable, my exclusive reliance on the Criterion of Personal Choice can lead with sinister neutrality to my own despotic rule, to my subjection by others, or to anarchy among us…” [Dahl: 26] And “as our examples show, the fact that decisions on some matter affect your interests in a vital way does not mean that it is necessarily rational for you to insist upon participating.” [Dahl: 31] If we agree that Dr. Jones has more authority over a heart, or adults have more authority than children or that the courts have more authority than a drunk driver when it comes to granting a license, is it hard to imagine that voting is something that some are more competent at than others?

In general, should we choose democracy or aristocracy? Dahl says, “If you believe, as I do, that on the whole the ordinary man is more competent than anyone else to decide when and how much he should intervene on decisions he feels are important to him, then you will surely opt for political equality and democracy. But if you believe that he is less competent in this fundamental way than some particular person or minority, then I imagine like Plato your vision of the best government is an aristocracy of this qualified person or elite.” [Dahl: 35]

I disagree with Dahl on this point, and do not fully support Plato, but propose a third way: a revision of aristocracy that may be called a meritocracy.

While I would be hard-pressed to name any other view I share with former congressman Tom Tancredo, on this issue we tend to dovetail, at least to a point. In February 2010, he announced at a Tea Party convention his support of what was termed a civics literacy test. As he put it: “Because if you can’t answer the same questions an immigrant has to answer in order to become a citizen, what the hell right do you have to vote?” I wouldn’t use such strong rhetoric, but he makes a valid point.

Tancredo was criticized for his view on the grounds of racial discrimination. Historically, tests were used to shut out the lower classes from voting. “Lower classes” being a general euphemism for blacks. In fact, due to this association, such tests were outlawed in 1965 under the Voting Rights Act. But Tancredo is not suggesting a test based on race or income or any other such thing; he simply wants those who vote to have a knowledge of what they are voting for. If we set up classes, not unlike driver’s education, there’s no reason that anyone would have to be excluded from voting if they cared enough to learn about the government.

Perhaps ironically, his own test might exclude him from voting. In the course of the Tea Party speech, he also said, “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House… His name is Barack Hussein Obama.” Putting aside who actually voted for Obama — it is debatable and not important to this discussion — if Tancredo thinks Obama is “a committed socialist”, he clearly does not understand the basic political spectrum. This, again, makes the idea of a civics class appealing, if for no other reason than it may help dispel uninformed rhetoric, though that may be asking too much.


Bartels, Lynn. Tancredo blasted for poll test idea, The Denver Post. February 6, 2010.

Dahl, Robert A. After the Revolution?: Authority in a Good Society. Yale University Press, 1970.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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