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Democracy and meritocracy

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Democracy is a Greek word and it was in ancient Greece that democracy was first practised, at least according to the recorded history of which we are aware.

This democracy was markedly different from that which the French revolutionaries of 1789 espoused. They demanded liberty, equality and fraternity for all the citizens.

Greek democracy was divided into free men, women and helots (slaves). Only free men were allowed to participate in politics and vote on issues. In the history of western philosophy and democracy we notice that justice has been easier to concede than equality.

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Non-governmental organisations of the western democracies are very vocal about rights of women and wish to impose their conceptions on the rest of the world. Yet in the United States and the United Kingdom women had no rights to vote in general elections till after World War I.

In Switzerland one of the best countries to live in, women did not have the franchise until three or four decades ago.

Egalitarianism and meritocracy are advocated because they are equated with justice, economic and social development. But to some people equality is anathema. It is equated with injustice if enforced willy-nilly. Take for instance, should workers be paid the same salary? Not if one is working as a labourer and another as a technician. Should technicians, doctors, engineers and teachers be paid equal salaries? No, someone would say, it takes much longer for a person to qualify as an engineer than as a technician or teacher.

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Between people holding the same qualifications, it is not fair to accord them equal pay if one is hard working while another is lazy.

At this point we come to the conception of merit or meritocracy.

In a society recognised as meritocratic people are accorded positions and payments on the basis of their achievements, not privileges of birth, race, tribe or religion. People earn their positions through abilities demonstrated in the field or the factory.

Americans tried to reconcile equality with justice by expounding the principle of equality of opportunity. Everyone should be granted the freedom or liberty to improve their position or wealth according to their exertions. It is only in this sense that people are equal. They are not naturally equal since some are more intelligent than others, some are stronger, while some are born in rich families, others are born in poor families. Their domestic environments are different.

In Europe from where most Americans originate top positions in the army, politics, and judiciary were reserved for members of the aristocracy, if they were not outstanding in ability. In America men had reached highest position like that of President from obscure family backgrounds.

Equality of opportunity is to a certain extent a mirage. You may offer a prize to one of the three men who reach a given spot first. Each is free to use the means of self conveyance. One has a bicycle, a second man has a motor cycle while a third has a car. Are they really competing on equal terms?

You may say all children have the right to go to school, go up to Oxford or Harvard universities. But one is the son or daughter of a bank manager, the other the son of a clerk, while another is the son of a watchman. Do they really have equal opportunity?

When it comes to holding positions in the private or public sector children of lawyers, managers, administrative officers tend to hold similar jobs, partly due to family influence. An influential person will do networking to ensure that his son or daughter is also well placed.

Egalitarianism is advocated by the under privileged but resisted by those who benefit from their privileges, those who occupy influential positions on the bases other than merit.

But what is merit itself? It is not something always subject to scientific measurement. We have sometimes heard statements like so and so is qualified for this job but is not acceptable. In other words, though if given the job he would achieve the result we do not want him on other grounds. The speaker may give trivial reasons for rejecting the qualified person or may just say he is not obliged to give reasons.

A society that respects merit is likely to progress socially and economically. Development in all walks of life is dependent on great achievers, the intelligent and hardworking. If such people suffer discrimination in their country they will migrate to other countries. There are so many able Africans working in Europe and America because though fully qualified for certain positions they are not acceptable to rulers of their countries.

When someone attains an influential position like that of a President in Abanturika, his relatives and fellow tribesmen that surround him “think of us first, those over there are not royal to you.” These people are accorded top positions in diplomacy, parastatals and civil service. But they bring nothing to their positions except their tongues. No wonder Abanturika fails to grow to its potential.

“I appoint into senior positions persons of above average ability for these are the ones who bring about changes.”

Who said this? The late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore who piloted his country from third world to first.

Where merit is not accorded its due, a country fails.

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