Government functionaries used to be selected by the spoils system, as it was called in the US in the nineteenth century. The King, Emperor, or Administration, however selected, gave posts to those in favor, and when a change came, those favored by the Old Regime were booted out and replaced by the favorites of the New.

This system has deficiencies that are obvious at first glance. At the top of that list is the fact that functionaries are not chosen according to their ability to do the job, but according to how well they get along with the leadership, new or continuing. This always leads to appointments of people who can’t do the job to important posts, which at minimum decreases efficiency and at maximum leads to disaster. Another is lack of continuity. Even if the sycophants of the New Regime are competent — perhaps even more competent than those of the Old — there is, at minimum, a confused period during which policies and procedures are discarded and replaced with others, and not much gets done.

Perhaps more subtly, the spoils system puts an upper bound on the endurance of dynasties. As a dynasty continues to exist, the people who make it up become more and more focussed on their position within the in-group, and lose touch with outside affairs. Posts become “plums”, more important for their financial return and for the relative level of prestige they give within the ruling group, than for their actual function.

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner
Eating his Christmas pie.
He stuck in his thumb
And pulled out a plum
And said, “What a good boy am I!”

We call that a “nursery rhyme”. The people who composed it and their contemporaries thought of it as we would an editorial cartoon, lampooning the gift of a valuable property to a greedy incompetent who betrayed his employer.

A regime come new to power inherently contains a lot of people whose focus has been more on normal life and getting by than on the internal dynamic of the regime itself. This is why we frequently see, in history, new rulers or dynasties being more successful than the old, and indeed how the new was able to supplant the old in the first place. The new bunch has a deeper bench of people who know how to cope with the entire system, rather than simply being expert at internal politics.

The traditional solution to the problems inherent in the spoils system is civil service. Functionaries are chosen according to abilities related to the needs of the work, rather than the degree of favor they enjoy with the rulers, and are assured at least some degree of continuity, in that they will not be arbitrarily replaced when a new bunch comes to power. This, we are assured by proponents, will of course result in better governance, because the people running things know what they are about. It’s persuasive, but it isn’t clear that practice has worked out in conformity with the theory.

The Romans paid lip-service to appointment by merit, especially in the early days, but the first to institutionalize the notion in the West were the militaries. Prior to the establishment of military academies, officers of all ranks were appointed from the ruling class with little or no attention paid to competence. The more attention was paid to competence, even if only in candidates from the ruling group, the more successful the military was; that was duly noted, and the notion of inculcating competence by instruction became current and was eventually implemented. That success is one of the threads of argument that led to establishment of of merit-based, careerist civil service.

The first to establish such a system, though, were the Chinese. Long, long ago, Chinese Emperors established the mandarinate, a system in which Government functionaries were not only chosen on merit and ability, but came from a class or subgroup of the population which received special training from an early age in the necessary skills. It would appear, from history, that this system was successful at the beginning but became less so with time, at least if guiding the population to successful, wealth-generating behavior is the criterion for success.

As a means of insuring continuity the mandarinate was wildly successful, although this may not, in retrospect, be entirely a good thing. As with any group, anywhere, that coheres around a common aim and lasts very long, the mandarins came to regard their internal dynamics, the inevitable competition for status within the group, as paramount, and their original purpose became less and less important. Soon enough, the rulers themselves were being chosen from the mandarin class, making the jostling for power, prestige, and status within the class the only criterion for management of the society. Worse, societal innovations including new inventions and other new sources of wealth would have disturbed that internal order, and were quashed, keeping Chinese society in stasis even as the population increased and new resources were needed. The result was a vast population kept in grinding poverty, and a minuscule class of the privileged and wealthy.

The mandarinate maintained that stasis a long time, until Chinese society came in contact with Western societies which had followed a different route of development. What soon became apparent in that clash was that the mandarins, in maintaining continuity and preserving their own privileged station, had so suppressed wealth generation that they were helpless in the face of competition from what were, in their view, less-ordered societies. The British, in particular, found it absurdly easy to manipulate and coerce a polity ten times their size, although they never even tried to achieve rule over the total mass, which could have simply buried them in bodies — but they didn’t need to; the profits were entirely sufficient as it was.

In Western societies, civil service is a relatively new innovation, two centuries old or less. Already, though, we can see it beginning to follow the same path as the Chinese mandarinate. They are compensated far above the norm for the society they putatively manage; their positions are for life and well-nigh unassailable; they come from a class which gets a better (or, at least, more prestigious) education, and that class is being more and more separated from the overall society by internal competition based on which institutions provided that education; visible rulers, including elected officials, are more and more required to come from that class, and the class is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to squash upstarts and competitors; power- and status-struggles within the group are of great importance, but they are prepared to form a united front to round upon challengers to the group; and they keep a firm and attentive thumb upon innovations that might provide wealth or power to anyone who might threaten their dominance.

Chinese innovators built ocean-going ships and used them for world exploration so long ago that, until recently, they were hardly even the stuff of legend. When those explorers came back the mandarins, aware that imperialism would generate new centers of power that would challenge their dominance, had the innovators killed, the ships burned, and their reports consigned to the deepest parts of the archives, then suppressed all forms of waterborne transportation that might threaten to leave littoral waters. Our modern-day mandarins are somewhat more subtle, but their overall goal is clear and identical to their predecessors’; under the guise of “global warming”, “fairness”, and a host of other slogans, keep power out of the hands of people who might coalesce into a challenge to their position. The result can only be the same as it was last time — a society so poor, and therefore so weak, that it cannot resist an external challenge. It is ironic that that challenge is likely to come from a Chinese society that has has eliminated its old mandarinate and established a new one that has not yet become entrenched.

The best way to avoid that fate is to eliminate the influences that lead up to it. Civil Service has to go. Eliminating “public sector” unions would be a big step in that direction, but the SEIU and similar groups merely accelerate a process that would continue if they did not exist, albeit at a slower pace. Bring back the spoils system! Yes, it has problems, but the supposed cure is not only worse than the disease, it didn’t actually cure anything. Incompetent managers are incompetent managers and do a lot of damage, whether they are brothers-in-law parachuted in by winning politicians or time-servers who achieved GS-12 by keeping up the paperwork and playing office politics.