A Mohist Approach to the American Civil Service

Once upon a time, during the classical period of Chinese political philosophy, there was a wise teacher named Mozi, whose life was devoted to revitalizing the era’s leadership culture through a series of philosophical texts and a cohort of carefully trained disciples.

In his time, he was well-known, and Mohism was a thriving school of thought which has unfortunately long since fallen into obscurity, on account of the Mohists being mostly exterminated during the reign of Qin Shi Huang. This is a great shame, as many of Mozi’s words still ring true in today’s political environment.

The heart of Mozi’s philosophy runs as follows: in order to maximize the prosperity and happiness of a state, 1) promote the worthy to high office, 2) demote the unworthy as soon as possible, and 3) try to do both of these things with impartiality. This last point was a major precept of Mohism, as “impartial care” (sometimes translated fancifully as “universal love”) exemplified what, to Mozi, was basically the key to international wellbeing and world peace.

But let us return to his recommendations for best practice in hiring: nepotism is bad, and meritocracy is good! Mozi’s justifications for his suggestion hinge on both its benefits for a leader and for the survival of the state. In his view, promoting people who are competent regardless of family background or observance of public ritual helps prevent the rise of a tyrannical elite. Upon seeing ordinary people raised to high office and awarded a magnificent salary, the close associates and family of the governing clique are forced to cooperate with the system and develop their own skills if they wish to reap the benefits of participation in government. Thus, the rich and powerful are kept honest (at least, outwardly so) and the state is blessed with competent, well-chosen officials who help the trains run on time.

If these are the benefits of impartiality, what are the consequences of ignoring it? The times in which Mozi lived provide an excellent illustration. While the feudal lords of classical China technically owed fealty to the Zhou dynasty, in reality the influence of the central government had entered what proved to be a terminal decline. Across the land, little semi-independent states dominated by powerful families exercised power with limitless discretion, and fought vicious wars against each other in order to gain control of the puppet Zhou regime. This was the Warring States period, and by all accounts it was a great time to be alive in the same sense that the Magdalene Laundries were a safe and nurturing environment for Irish girls.

Now, let’s focus on Mozi’s helpful advice and ignore the eccentric bits where he encourages belief in ghosts (as part of a subtle campaign to co-opt the local religious structure) and attempts to ban music (because the production and elaborate performance of music for evil kings had historically been an economic burden in early Chinese history). Mozi might, for example, advise present-day politicians to appoint the most talented and experienced diplomats to handle delicate geopolitical issues, instead of sending one’s son-in-law and business associate to bring peace to the Middle East as his first major assignment. Or, just to hypothesize, he might suggest reaching outside one’s inner circle to find good advisors instead of selecting one’s old friend, a politically controversial bankruptcy lawyer, to be ambassador to Israel. Maybe he’d suggest nominating anybody at all to staff top governmental posts, instead of leaving more than a hundred executive branch offices vacant and without even a nomination for Congress to vote on.

“In ancient times,” Mozi writes, “Yao promoted Shun from southern Fuyang, entrusted him with the administration of his kingdom, and the world was at peace. Yu promoted Yi from central Yinfang, entrusted him with the administration of his kingdom, and the nine realms were brought to perfection.” Again and again, Mozi lists case studies where promoting competent assistants resulted in good fortune and choosing sycophants brought disaster upon the realm. His text ends with an unequivocal declaration on the importance of this principle: “Honoring the worthy is the root and basis of good government.”