13. Elitism And Merit
From The Australian Achievement by LJM Cooray (1996)

Elitism, privilege, authority and control by vested interests are focused on by Marxists and other socialists. Elitism and authority are inherent in any human organisation. The idea of a society of equals is a dream world, existing only in the minds and writings of those with little or no understanding of human nature and human history: a dream world of drabness, monotony, stagnation, poverty, non-fulfilment and non-achievement. Marxists and socialists themselves are highly elitist in their belief that they know, better than the people themselves, what is good for the people. They flourish in that most elitist of institutions, the university.

Elitism, authority and privilege exist, but in the western democratic order there are a number of countervailing factors:

  1. the merit principle,
  2. the concept of individual responsibility,
  3. the control of public power by constitutional and legal safeguards,
  4. moral values and
  5. the existence of a considerable degree of upward (and downward) social mobility.

These may seem insignificant. Yet their significance becomes apparent when compared to other systems (past and existing). If they are less effective now than they were some time ago, the reason is the growth of government, the influence of the progressivists and counter-productive reform.

Elitism today is a dirty word. It is undeniable that some forms of elitism are wholly reprehensible. Privilege and position derived from factors such as birthright, patronage or dictatorial political power are often examples of retrogressive forms of elitism. Such elitism excludes the able, the persevering and the deserving. It rewards not talent and effort, but power and connections. It creates a parasitic elite which stifles progress. In fact the beneficiaries of such a system do not deserve the name elite.

But there are other more important forms of elitism which are indispensable to human progress. A society which does not reward effort and talent cannot progress. A progressive society needs to allocate tasks and responsibilities to those who are most competent to undertake them. It is also unavoidable that the performance of tasks and the discharge of responsibilities requires commensurate powers. But it is important to ensure that public positions are accessible to the most competent through fair and free competition and that powers are coupled with responsibility. To operate a system of productive elitism, it is necessary to have freedom to compete and the right to be judged on merit alone. Freedom and the merit principle operate to allocate tasks according to capability. The capable would not seek position without just reward. Therefore, just reward is an indispensable element in maximising the benefits to society.

Elitism in one form or another is unavoidable. The choice is between productive, merit based elitism and retrogressive elitism. Communist nations which set out to destroy all privileges have only succeeded in establishing the most entrenched forms of bureaucratic hierarchy. They have created impregnable bastions of elitism based not on merit or competition but on political power. In democratic societies there are attempts to prevent elitism, particularly in public institutions. Managers are being replaced by committees and Presidents and Chairmen are being replaced by "convenors". Nevertheless, in their actual functioning these bodies become stratified into a pecking order with some being "more equal than others". Decisions are taken — but when things go wrong no one claims responsibility. Alternatively, they become ineffective and useless forums; nett burdens on the institutions they are supposed to serve.

Elitism which rewards endeavour, and which places the most gifted in positions of responsibility, is the hallmark of a progressive polity. But elitism in this sense cannot be maintained without legal and moral sanctions. It requires guarantees of freedom and checks upon power to ensure that authority is not abused. In short, it can only operate within an institutional framework which promotes freedom and inhibits corruption.

In a market order a certain form of elitism is unavoidable. A person whose abilities, skills or other qualities are in demand is likely to be more respected and more economically powerful. This, in itself, is not an evil as those who desire his service freely concede that position. It is the only way in which an impersonal market can operate to the benefit of all. The qualities that are respected may be very diverse, eg, skill, diligence, effort, honesty or even possession of capital wealth. People who possess such qualities provide services for economic gains or less tangible social gains such as reputation. The important factor is that in a market order elitism is unlikely to last unless the elite pays its price by some service desired by others. In a non market order (such as feudalism, socialism or fascism) elitism will persist where there is no such mutual benefit.

Responsible and merit based elitism is desirable in public institutions, subject to one important qualification. That is, the power of public institutions should be limited. Today, officials who constitute the bureaucratic elite are gaining powers to control the lives of citizens to an alarming extent, reminiscent of the powers of the feudal barons. The first task is to define and limit the power of government. The second is to choose the right people to exercise the powers.