One of the defining features that separates advanced societies from those that are either evolving or primitive, is that the most successful and most highly advanced societies are formed on a meritocratic basis. Meritocracy is equality in action and it expresses itself in society by rewarding those who do good, whilst refraining from flattering those who fail to do good and punishing those who commit acts of wickedness. This is the case irrespective of one’s race/ethnicity/national background, socio-economic class, caste, title, educational background, sex/gender, religion or belief system.
In the context of a pure meritocracy, doing good simply means contributing to society in a positive manner. In a meritocracy, both the man who keeps the streets clean and the man in a laboratory trying to cure a terrible disease are doing something good for society. As such, neither man should be treated unfairly by society, neither should be ignored or discounted and neither should be without a baseline sustainable living standard. Due to the fact that the ability to cure a disease is a rarer talent than cleaning the streets, the scientist will tend to have a higher living standard than the cleaner. That being said, in an ethical meritocracy, neither man will ever go hungry, be homeless or wanting for the basic needs of life.
The next group are those who neither contribute to society, nor do they engage in acts of banditry and wickedness. Whilst such hopeless individuals are common in anti-meritocratic societies due to a lack of economic opportunity, because meritocratic societies produce more wealth than less evolved societies, this wealth in turn produces jobs and jobs prevent idleness. Furthermore, because meritocratic societies encourage innovation and entrepreneurialism, there are far fewer idle individuals in fully fledged meritocratic societies than in under-developed places.
Finally, there are those who engage in acts of wickedness. Such people exist in all societies, but due to the fact that many acts of wickedness are opportunistic crimes, a well-policed meritocracy tends to have less crime than societies that provide little economic opportunity, have poor policing or are incapable of supporting either. A classic lose-lose situation is a society that pays police so poorly that they can be bribed by the wicked criminal element, thus allowing crime to flourish.
In the most effectively run meritocratic societies, the uniquely talented are rewarded in a way that is proportional to their high level of contribution to society, whilst those who contribute in more ordinary ways are nevertheless rewarded in a fair and ethical manner. Finally, those who contribute minimally are not left without basic needs (housing, healthcare, education, freedom from abuse and exploitation), whilst the idle are few and far between and wickedness is discouraged through a combination of positive economic incentives and strict, un-corruptible policing.
From a starting point of two different political philosophies, China and Singapore are both socially advanced countries whose societies are generally highly meritocratic. Whilst no society is perfect, since Lee Kuan Yew’s drive for modernisation in Singapore and Deng Xiaopin’s reform and opening up in China after 1978, both societies have tended to maintain a balance between rewarding success and making sure that no decent person falls below the social safety net. Likewise, wages have been continually improving as both countries enrich themselves through tireless work. As such, innovation and entrepreneurialism have also increased over time in both China since 1978 and Singapore since the late 1960s. Finally, both countries have a reputation for punishing corruption with penalties that create a clear deterrent to criminality.
Neo-feudalism – the antithesis of meritocracy
Whilst meritocracy rewards success based on objective results and offers the same opportunities to all people, feudalism does the opposite. In feudalism, social rewards are given as a matter of birthright privilege rather than as a function of doing something objectively positive for society. As such, ones class, race, religion, title, family background, sex/gender and political alignment are the driving factors that a priori separate the socially successful from those who cannot achieve success.
In traditional feudal societies, masters, chiefs, headmen, big men, lords, sultans, kings, emirs or emperors rule on a hereditary basis whilst the peasants are provided neither legal nor practical opportunities to ever realise innate talents that they might otherwise have been able to cultivate.
Today, there are still some primitive societies predicated on traditional feudalism, but far more common in evolving societies is a neo-feudalism which in many ways is an even graver danger to progress due to the fact that neo-Feudalism is more difficult for some to recognise than for example the classical feudalism of a country like Eswatini (formally Swaziland).
The Philippines – a case study in neo-feudalism
On paper, The Philippines is far from a feudal society but in practice, it is demonstrative of how even in a country that not long ago had some of the highest living standards in the region and where the international language of business is an official language – neo-feudalism is nevertheless alive and well.
Neo-feudalism exists in today’s Philippines for the following reasons (listed in no particular order):
1. In spite of a legal separation of church and state, the Roman Catholic Church continues to have a domineering influence over the political life of the country. A fusing of religion and state, especially where the Roman Catholic church is concerned (due to its extremely hierarchical nature) is a sign of classical feudalism that transcends neo-feudalism
2. Anti-foreign direct investment (FDI) provisions in the 1987 constitution have prohibited international investors from creating jobs and have likewise retarded the ability of future generations of Filipinos from becoming business owners and innovators. Due to a lack of sustainable and ever-flowing FDI into The Philippines, full or near full employment is considered a pipe-dream, whilst the culture of the self-employed small businessman or entrepreneur remains the exception rather than the rule.
As such, wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a small group of oligarchs whose status in society is itself derived from the classically feudal hacienda model inherited from Spanish rule.
3. Because there are few opportunities for ordinary Filipinos to generate wealth by positively contributing to society, below the oligarchs are a group of titled elites whose opinions are disproportionately valued and whose existence is venerated not because of actual achievement, but merely because such individuals have titles. Unlike in a traditional feudal society, these people aren’t hereditary nobles but titled “scholars” with university degrees.
In societies that do not produce enough wealth to give all people opportunity in the workplace or in self-employment, those whose titles derive from tertiary education tend to fulfil the role of noblemen who are respected because they have a venerable title before their name and little else to show for themselves in the context of the real world.
Finally, unlike the oligarchs who are wealthy enough by international standards to court prestige abroad and unlike OFWs forced to sell their labour or start their own businesses abroad, titled scholars tend to be unusually xenophobic in The Philippine context. This is because unlike the oligarchs, the workers, the poor and OFWs, the titled scholars’ position is uniquely vested in a parochial and cloistered system that values their alleged social contributions which in a truly meritocratic and economically open society, would scarcely carry any weight.
It is therefore no wonder that the titled scholars are generally opposed to political and economic reform. They have a clear interest at stake and it is not the interest of the people as a whole. Although a handful of northern European countries retain ceremonial monarchies, noble families in modern Europe are scarcely noticed and are generally politically irrelevant. The same would gradually happen to the arrogant titled class of scholars in The Philippines, were the country to open itself to a new meritocratic era.
4. After the neo-feudal nobles come the neo-feudal gentry. In traditional feudalism, the gentry were not titled, but derived their wealth (and consequently their social standing) from modest to substantial land ownership. Unlike cleaning streets, being a doctor, a computer scientists, an architect or an economic expert, land ownership is a means to become wealthy without the need for any genuine talent.
In The Philippines, the entertainers and sportsmen are today’s landed gentry. Whilst it is true that entertainers and sportsmen in the United States are also wealthy, because the US traditionally had a more meritocratic economic model than many other countries (this is rapidly changing), in the US, whilst Leonardo di Caprio and Shaquille O’Neal are wealthy, they are not nearly as wealthy as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or other tech pioneers whose lasting contribution to society is manifestly far greater than any actor or basketball player. This is not to say that entertainers and sportsmen do not contribute to society, they merely contribute less than those who for example invent a 5G telecom system.
It could have gone differently for The Philippines
In the 1950s, The Philippines was the economic leader in south-east Asia. Post-independence American investment helped the country to recover more rapidly from Japanese occupation than many others in the region and as such, there was a golden opportunity to use this head start that foreign money gave The Philippines, in order to develop a modern economic model that prioritised meritocracy over both neo-feudalism or communism.
But while Lee Kuan Yew used the institutional model of British parliamentary governance to give his impoverished island a head-start, the monetary head-start that The Philippines had (a bigger asset than Lee Kuan Yew’s understanding of the British parliamentary model), was ultimately squandered in a few short decades. By 1987, neo-feudalism was enshrined into the constitution. This has lead to the following:
–No culture of high employment, self-employment and entrepreneurialism
–Wealth concentrated among dynastic oligarchs
–A political system corrupted by both the oligarchs and their comrades in the Church
–A society where people have little self-confidence because titled men and women with university degrees are deemed to have a superior opinion (and consequently a superior social standing) to others based not on the objective quality of the opinion but based on their title as a thing in itself
–A Presidential system which reinforces the prestige of individuals rather than a parliamentary system which reinforces collective problem solving, ideas based democracy and a head of government that is not seen as a symbol of the state itself
–Tagalog as an official language which reinforces the idea that Tagalogs are somehow superior to non-Tagalogs.
–Open up the country to foreign direct investment on the Singapore model so that jobs, the future prospect of self-employment and entrepreneurialism/innovation can grow. This will weaken the economic power of the oligarchs and also weaken the social power of titled classes by giving people the confidence that comes with economic empowerment. This in turn will lead to increased autodidacticism in the country as those with a stronger economic safety net have the ability to use their leisure time for enlightened pursuits, whereas this economically disenfranchised disproportionately turn to lowly pursuits.
–Switch to a parliamentary system of governance that encourages meritocracy among the political class as opposed to the elitism and obscurantism of a presidential system. Furthermore, as presidential systems emphasise the individual over the idea, such systems automatically reinforce a neo-feudal social structure. This is especially true of presidential systems in developing countries.
–Switch to a federal system in order to end the trickling up of both wealth and human capital to Imperial Manila.
–Make all indigenous languages of The Philippines official languages. End mandatory Tagalog language lessons in non-Tagalog regions and mandate the universal teaching of spoken and written English on the Singapore model.
–Use the revenue generated from foreign direct investment to create a universal education system that prioritises high quality Secondary education over Tertiary education.
–In respect of Tertiary education, fund the hard sciences at the expense of all other areas of study.
–Restrict clergy from making political statements. Those who violate such rules must donate a substantial amount of money to help the poor.
–Reject all manner of affirmative action. This includes the ethnic affirmative action of Malaysia (an otherwise successful pro-FDI federal-parliamentary system) as well as the anti-dynastic legislation favoured by some pseudo-reformists in The Philippines. In a true meritocracy, everyone gets the same chance to prove their capabilities.
By taking these action steps, The Philippines won’t change overnight. However, the road from neo-feudalism to meritocracy requires a clear vision which seeks to stimulate social change through economic modernisation. By addressing the real problems in The Philippines without prejudice, the country has every opportunity to become a model of meritocratic excellence by the end of the 21st century.