Merit and fitness

In last week’s column, we tackled efficiency and honesty as the twin bastions defining what “service” is in the civil service. Today we will reflect upon the merit and fitness principle, specifically what it means for us Filipinos.

The merit and fitness principle, or meritocracy, is that which describes a system of administration where appointments in government positions, especially the higher ones, are based on personal capabilities, strengths, and competence, rather than connection or privilege.

Meritocracy is said to be the overwhelming template governing appointments in the many bureaucracies around the world today. Look around at various countries at present, and in one way or another, they have the merit and fitness system animating the distribution and running of their government.

One would think that the merit and fitness principle, given its emphasis on individual talent and achievement, originated in the West. This is not entirely true. It may surprise you to know that the principle might have actually originated in Asia, particularly China, as early as the 2nd century, is already taught by early Chinese sages, the most notable of whom was Confucius, as a philosophical rather than a utilitarian principle.

Before the emergence of colonizers who brought with them already fairly established practices of government, including entrance to the civil service, the indigenous tradition in many countries particularly Asia saw the appointing system as either based on family status, personal loyalty, or wealth.

This meant the Monarch or King appointed to state service was limited to only family members and relatives. They were classified as only “servants of the Chief,” not of the state. Likewise, the monarch appointed only those who were personally loyal to him, answering to his whim and desire, no matter how misguided. The monarch also appointed to high offices, particularly those in far-flung places, only those who can pay for them.

Family ties and personal loyalty were critical in those times past, and this is because part of the service rendered by the monarch was to suppress any resistance to authority to keep the family or clan ruling. Those given authority to collect taxes also needed to be trusted to keep their collections intact until they were turned over to the monarch.

Money was also at that time important to acquiring state positions because of the practice of giving the positions of power and authority, especially to far-flung areas to those who could best pay for them. However, these appointees quickly became small tyrants who lorded it over their appointed fiefdoms, far from the direct gaze of the appointing authority whose only interest was to ensure imperial presence in the territory.

This is not to say that the indigenous ways of appointments to state positions were corrupt, and in contrast, the ways introduced by the colonizers were excellent. Far from it. The recent interest of scholars in the ways of merit and fitness as practiced by Asian countries in the past attests to a hitherto undiscovered treasure trove of useful knowledge that might be obtained from them.

On the other hand, the observation has been made that what the colonizers did was merely to impose on the countries they occupied their own systems of appointments that were, ostensibly based on merit and fitness, were in fact primarily geared toward serving their own interests and only secondarily the interests of the native population.

Today, the fact is that we have the merit and fitness principles deeply engrained in our government bureaucracy, as our own Constitution ordains.

The real questions then are: given this, have we, as a country, really benefited from the merit and fitness principle? Are our civil servants now really shielded from the pernicious influence of patronage politics? Are the old monarchs who valued loyalty as the highest good still in place?

These are hard conversations paramount to having the best individuals in government positions.

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