No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.Winston Churchill

It seems like such a good idea: the merit system. Who can argue with a system that promises to fill a position of public trust with the best qualified and most capable candidate? Who can oppose "merit"?

There's just one problem with the merit system: it's not based on pure merit. It's based on some particular person or group's idea of merit.

Someone has to be the arbiter of merit, and that someone – individual or group – is not likely to be impartial. In fact, the arbiter of merit may be more partial, being -- by virtue of smaller numbers -- more subject to influence.

Voters can, and do, make bad decisions, but there are lots of voters and it's hard to fool them all. Give an individual or a small group the power to make decisions for that multitude of voters, however, and the cost of influence peddling suddenly becomes affordable.

One of the best ways to become an associate judge in Cook County, for instance, is by way of an endorsement from House Speaker Mike Madigan. Being on "Madigan's list" is tantamount to an eventual judgeship.

Technically, the associate judges are chosen by Cook County's 275 circuit judges. But, as the Chicago Tribune recently reported, Madigan frequently recommends associate judge candidates and his recommendations are heeded – 25 of 37 times since 2003.

Clearly, these candidates had merit as defined by Madigan. But how did Madigan determine their merit? Are judges elected by the people less meritorious than those anointed by Madigan?

"About half of those on Madigan's list made political donations to his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the state's highest law enforcement official," the Tribune reports. "Campaign contributions are common among lawyers vying for judgeships and are typically not large -- but enough to indicate the donor recognizes the value of political participation."

If that's the merit system, let's stick with democracy.

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