The myth of political merit

There is much current debate around gender quotas in politics. The popular case against quotas says that politicians should be chosen according to ‘merit’. Outside of politics this makes sense – you want the best doctors operating on you and the best lifeguards patrolling your beach etc, regardless of other superficial characteristics. But when it comes to politics, these commentators are calling for something other than the best politicians. ‘Merit’ in politics means playing the political game most effectively, as measured by whether you win. The ballot box victors are by definition the most talented individuals that society has to offer, in that particular pursuit.

In the fairly-tale version of politics, people like to imagine politicians doing things other than politics: ‘running the country’, ‘managing the economy’, ‘representing the people’ and other such inanities. Less euphemistically, we could say interfering in people’s lives, meddling in the economy and shilling for various pressure groups.

Whether politicians actually do those things is incidental. But if a political candidate can convince people that a particular agenda is important, and persuade people that they themselves are uniquely qualified to carry it out, they are displaying one form of political merit: the ability to string together a narrative and get people to buy into, and win.

Another way of showing political nous is to convince people to narrow the field of candidates, by restricting eligibility based on some characteristic that you possess but potential rivals don’t. Shutting it off to half the population based on chromosomes is a crafty way to begin. But it’s amateurish in the scheme of things. The most successful politicians are people like Castro, Mugabe and Chavez, who schemed up ways to close the door to anybody but themselves, for decades. They are the individuals who show the most ‘merit’ in what politics is really about, minus the fairy-tale mythology.

What’s the alternative?

If this removal of political fig leaves make you uncomfortable, there is no easy answer. Those who want to fulfil their goals through politics are choosing the means of coercion over peaceful persuasion. In such a system, individuals who clamour for power will find a way to attain it, and everybody who supports such inequality of power (even if you don’t like the individuals who hold it) is partly to blame.

Freedom exists to the extent that politics is resisted and stifled. So rather than obsessing over the process by which people grasp at power, a better answer is to greatly limit the power available to be grasped. The great abolitionist Lysander Spooner said it like this in 1877:

Women are human beings, and consequently have all the natural rights that any human beings can have. They have just as good a right to make laws as men have, and no better; AND THAT IS JUST NO RIGHT AT ALL. No human being, nor any number of human beings, have any right to make laws, and compel other human beings to obey them. To say that they have is to say that they are the masters and owners of those of whom they require such obedience.

The only law that any human being can rightfully be compelled to obey is simply the law of justice. And justice is not a thing that is made, or that can be unmade, or altered, by any human authority. It is a natural principle, inhering in the very nature of man and of things. It is that natural principle which determines what is mine and what is thine, what is one man’s right or property and what is another man’s right or property.

Mark Hornshaw

Mark Hornshaw

Mark Hornshaw is a lecturer in Economics, Entrepreneurship and Management at The University of Notre Dame Australia.
Mark Hornshaw

2 Comments on "The myth of political merit"

  1. The mandating of gender quotas of political candidates is another erosion of liberty.

  2. Great article, although the quote at the end somewhat undercuts it:

    “No human being, nor any number of human beings, have any right to make laws, and compel other human beings to obey them.”

    But then he says, “The only law that any human being can rightfully be compelled to obey is simply the law of justice.”

    So no humans should make laws, but humans can be “rightfully… compelled” to obey the law of justice?

    The quote seems to muddy rather than clarify an otherwise very interesting article.

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