Meritocracy here may subsume geniocracy (a system of governance where creativity, innovation, intelligence and wisdom are required from those who govern) and noocracy (government of a ‘wise collective’). It is proposed that this component of governance can take the form of a Constitutional Council consisting of a relatively small number of members (in comparison to other components)[1].

Why meritocracy is needed

For a society to survive and thrive it is necessary to be explicit about what it means to survive and thrive, and how to go about it. This is usually contained in constitutional documents. Every society needs a bigger picture and long-term goals; otherwise, it can be endangered by narrow self-interests and short-termism. The constitution can also protect minorities against the ‘tyranny of the majority’, by, for instance, containing a list of rights that every citizen must enjoy. Meritocracy seems best suited to take care of it. The most basic principles and long-term goals cannot be left to the whimsical nature of politics as usual. These choices would be compromised by politicians trying to please the electorate and/or the corporate world, as well as having their own partisan agenda. Also, being busy with elections and daily tasks and challenges, they don’t have much time for deep reflection and a broad view. Direct democracy would not be the best fit for this task either: making a coherent whole of these principles would require careful consideration and deliberation and could never be completed if every citizen is involved. In summary, the meritocratic component is needed to compensate for the shortcomings of indirect democracy and direct democracy (as discussed above).

It is no accident that this aspect, to some extent, already exists in many current democracies, for example, in the form of constitutional courts or so-called blue-ribbon panels in the US. A blue-ribbon panel (or blue ribbon commission) is a group of exceptional people appointed to investigate, study or analyse a given question. These panels generally have a degree of independence from political influence or other authority, and they usually have no direct authority of their own. Their value comes from utilising the expertise of those on the panel in order to issue findings or recommendations which can then be used by those with decision-making power to act. A blue-ribbon panel is often appointed by a government body or executive to report on a matter of controversy. It might be composed of independent scientific experts or academics with no direct government ties or it might be formed from a group of citizens well known for their general intelligence, experience and non-partisan interests. The “blue-ribbon” aspect comes from the presentation of the panel as the “best and brightest” for the task. The Constitutional Council would be something similar, but on a national level.

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How the council members can be selected

As the name suggests, the members of the council are selected on the basis of their merits from a pool of professionals, scientists, spiritual leaders, scholars, political activists, judges and other distinguished citizens. There are a number of options for how to choose them: they can be appointed by elected officials, but this is not ideal as the governing party can secure a majority from the same ideological pot (one of the major weaknesses of the American political system is that Supreme Court judges are selected in this way); another option is some form of examination, but this would give a lot of power to those who design these exams; the meritocrats themselves could choose new members – but this would mean always more of the same; a popular vote is also not practical as it would require from every voter a good knowledge of each candidate, which is unrealistic. The remaining option, suggested here, is having an independent body that makes the selection on the basis of candidates’ merits (distinction) and/or experience. Our proposal partly emulates the appointment procedures of the upper house in the UK Parliament.

An Appointments Commission, a non-partisan, non-statutory, independent body, would vet nominations and recommend people for appointment as non-party political members. The Commissioners could come from the judiciary and the civil service branches of the government and their appointments would have to be approved by parliament. To reduce the possibility of the political bias slipping into the process, recommendations should be guided by certain criteria such as these:

  • a record of significant achievement within their chosen way of life
  • the ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the council
  • sufficient available time to ensure they can contribute
  • some understanding of the constitutional framework
  • personal integrity and independence
  • a commitment to the highest standards of public life
  • independence from any political party

The reasons for recommendation (why a candidate, in the commission’s view, fulfils the above criteria) should be available for public scrutiny in order to make the process transparent and accountable. Furthermore, recommended candidates could be vetoed in parliament by a supermajority (two-thirds) to avoid the governing party dictating appointments, or by an absolute majority of the electorate (this would require more than 50% of all eligible voters to cast a veto).

We also need to ensure that desirable people are willing to take the role of a council member. To avoid attracting only the wealthy, the position would have to be salaried. Council members would need to retire from their day job or continue part-time. This may be suitable for some (e.g. distinguished politicians who have completed their term in office), but it also means that the role would mainly attract those in the later stages of their careers. This is considered acceptable, though, as the applicants would need to have substantial knowledge and experience anyway to qualify.

Consideration also needs to be given to the length of time council members should serve. Lifelong membership (as is the case in the UK’s upper house) is not the best option as certain conditions (such as physical or mental fitness) may prevent them from fulfilling their role adequately. Also, it would greatly slow down any infusion of fresh blood. On the other hand, a very short term would not be conducive to their roles, so we propose they should serve a ten-year term with the possibility of extending it for a maximum of one further term. They could be dismissed earlier if they cease to adequately fulfil their role (e.g. through regular attendance and engagement) by a two-thirds majority vote of other council members, or following a medical examination that assesses that they are not sufficiently fit for their duties. They could, of course, retire voluntarily too.

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The role of meritocracy

In order to minimise the possible abuse of its position, the council would have neither legislative nor executive power. Its major role would be to provide a social framework in the form of constitutional documents. The documents should outline societal values and long-term goals, as well as broad guidelines on what may be necessary to actualise them. Therefore, this role would involve two interrelated tasks:

  • Deciding what (is conducive for society to survive and thrive), which would involve formulating basic principles, such as, for example, safety or fairness. These principles may seem obvious, but it is nevertheless important to clearly spell them out, because they can have a unifying power, give a sense of direction, and provide the bottom line for deliberations and discussions. The principles themselves can be discerned through deliberations and discussions by council members, as well as through surveys that could provide some inklings of what sort of society the general public wants. The council would, of course, need to clarify what ‘safe’ or ‘just’ actually mean, but this would not be enough. Even if there is broad agreement on what constitutes a safe society, the question of how to achieve it would still remain: by arming everybody? Or by banning firearms? Or perhaps something in between? Each of these options have advantages and disadvantages that need to be weighed in an impassionate way. For this reason, the council would have another task.
  • Deciding how (to go about it): if it is determined, for example, that for society to survive and thrive it needs to be fair, the council needs to delineate what ought to be done to create the conditions for a fair society. To clarify, this is about a broad trajectory, rather than specific legislative recommendations. In our example, it may involve deliberations on the extent to which society needs to be egalitarian or to take into account the views and needs of other countries as well as of future generations, in order to be fair.

These two tasks can be embedded in a so-called fluid constitution and accompanying documents. ‘Fluid’ indicates that these documents are not to be set in stone – they will be living documents that adapt to changes in circumstances and of society (lacking this is another weakness of the US political system). To ensure that the constitution is indeed fluid, its amendments should be presented at regular periods to the legislature (see below) as well as to the general public for approval.

A further function of the council would be to provide feedback to the other two political components (indirect and direct democracy), in order to ensure that their choices align with the agreed general framework (the constitution). The council can also have an arbitration role when there is a conflict between these two components (e.g. the government decides to go to war against the wishes of the general public)[2]. This is necessary to keep the balance of power in check. In the case of such a conflict, the council could rule in favour of one side, which would then be final. Alternatively, it could offer another way forward (e.g. a compromise solution) to be considered by both sides.

How meritocracy can be kept in check

The constitution and any major amendments would need to be approved by the other two components of this political model. Various feedback mechanisms available to the legislature and the citizens can be applied to both aspects of the Council’s work:

  • Regarding the what aspect, we suggest a referendum. As a fluid constitutional model is proposed, these referendums should take place at regular intervals (e.g. every ten years). Such referendums should not be hugely controversial though, as the what aspect deals with refining general principles that normally have broad approval. The vast majority of people are likely to agree that they want to live in a safe, just and sustainable society, one of equal opportunities that fosters human freedom and development, and perhaps even one that is optimally egalitarian.
  • Proposals related to the how aspect are likely to be more frequent, but they do not need to be automatically put to a referendum. The council would need to provide a justification though, and to argue publicly for the legitimacy of its decisions, to ensure that its work is subject to robust feedback. This feedback could come from the legislature and/or from the citizens. The legislature could provide a ‘reality check’, as some council recommendations may not be feasible if certain practical factors have not been taken into account (e.g. the finances or particular cultural mores). The council would be obliged to address the feedback within a mutually agreed timeframe. They could abandon, modify or expand the proposal in question, and could also reject the feedback, but in the latter case they would need to provide the reasons for the rejection. If the legislature disagrees and a compromise cannot be found, the general public is consulted, via a referendum, the outcome of which would be final and binding. Besides the legislature, the citizens too could highlight possible blind spots and challenge evidence or arguments for the council’s proposals through, for example, petitions (which would need to pass a certain threshold of signatures to be considered). They should also be able to trigger a referendum and potentially reject a proposal if enough signatures can be obtained within a fixed time period. This system already exists in some places. In Switzerland, for example, a group of citizens may challenge a law passed by parliament, provided they gather 50,000 signatures against that law within 100 days of it being enacted. If they do so, a national vote is scheduled, and voters decide by a simple majority whether to accept or reject the proposed law.

If the legislature and the public agree that the council’s proposal is unacceptable, it would have to be modified. If one agrees and the other does not, the proposal would stand. This would avoid undue pressure from the lawmakers on one hand and populist sentiment on the other. The Council should not be insulated from the other two components, but also it should not depend on either, as none of them is infallible.

For example, some people may not be able or willing to engage with the possibly complex and nuanced arguments (climate change may be one example, and there are many others). So, good long-term strategies may be rejected by the general public for the sake of immediate benefits or because they require some short-term sacrifices that they are not prepared to make. This is why the two that agree should trump one that does not, no matter which one it is. A concern that the legislature would always take the side of the general public because it depends on their votes is unwarranted. In the model we propose below, the approval of a constitutional amendment would rarely be decisive when choosing parliament’s representatives. Another concern may be that these processes could take time and in some cases this could be true. We need to bear in mind, though, that constitutional issues are not responses to immediate challenges and should not be rushed. The legislature, to which we turn now, will be there to deal with urgent and day-to-day matters.

[1] This and some other numbers cannot be specified as they may differ, depending on the size of the country.
[2] To make a case, the government may need to disclose some sensitive information to council members, so they would have to be bound by the same confidentiality clause as the government members.

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