For the better part of a century people have believed that democracy was the best system we could come up with. And for good reason; hereditary monarchy, totalitarianism, theocracy, and oligarchy had quite a track record for being terrible. But our political religion has gone from the divine right of the kings to the divine right of the majority to inflict their whims, good or evil, on others.
The founding fathers of the United States designed our system of checks and balances and the electoral college in an attempt to get the best of democracy while restricting the worst of it. Unfortunately the electoral college today ends up mostly empowering the least competent voters, and the balance of power in the government favors gridlock in congress and demagoguery and incompetency in the executive branch.
So how can we have the best of democracy while restricting the worst of it? Perhaps a mix with epistocracy may hold the key. Epistocracy should be thought of as meritocracy of the voters and the elected. It can briefly be defined as rule by the knowledgeable. It makes sense that highly qualified voters voting for highly qualified candidates would have a positive result. But pro democracy opponents of epistocracy make several arguments, most of which I don’t find convincing.
Democrats (supporters of democracy, not the political party) see democracy as promoting the idea of equality. The thing is that the equality we all should have, equality before the law and equality of opportunity, can be achieved without pushing the false idea that we are all equally competent in politics. We are not all equal in skills, intelligence, compassion, or other similar traits. And for the same reason we wouldn’t allow a person to practice medicine without having proven themselves competent and ethical, people probably shouldn’t be able to cast ballots or run for office if they aren’t sufficiently competent. Or, if they are allowed to cast ballots, the ballots of the unqualified shouldn’t weigh as heavily as those who are qualified.
A democrat would respond with, “what, you want to implement poll tests, just like Jim Crow?” To which I would first ask, “before we even get to how to implement epistocracy, would you even support it if it could be done in a perfectly fair non-racist manner?” To which they almost always say no and cite the symbolism, the symbolic equality that democracy supposedly inspires. That answer betrays them and shows that their reference to Jim Crow was only an emotional knee-jerk; an after the fact rationalization to justify their pre-existing position on democratic rule.
To me whatever system we have, democracy or something else, is only as good as its result. Our method of choosing our government officials is nothing more than a tool to achieve a result. If a better tool could consistently achieve a better result I would say we should choose it. Conversely, proponents of democracy say that even if a different system may work better at achieving the best results we should still choose democracy because of its symbolic value regarding equality. This is where we have a fundamental difference in opinion that cannot be bridged because the democrat’s position is based on an emotional attachment to an ideology rather than carefully examining the evidence and weighing the pros and cons.
To be sure, that doesn’t prove that democrats are wrong, it just proves that they have irrational reasons for holding a belief whether or not that belief is correct.
We all are, or should be, equal before the law. The rich or intelligent should not receive preferential treatment or lighter sentences than the poor or less educated. The life of a billionaire should not be seen as more valuable than that of a coal-miner. A person coming from a “good family” should not be given extra opportunities at the expense of someone from a less prestigious family based on some assumption that the less prestigious person will squander the opportunity. And any person of any origin, poor or wealthy, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, should have the opportunity to prove that they are a competent voter or competent enough to run for public office. But that competence shouldn’t shouldn’t be assumed any more than they are assumed to automatically be competent at computer engineering or brain surgery.
Voting is not like any other thing we consider a “right.” Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, freedom to hold property, etc., are all freedoms that have to do with your right to self-determination, to control your own life. Voting is something that, while theoretically increasing your control over your own life, also allows you to control the lives of other people. It is for that reason I think such political engagement should involve proving you are competent and informed.
A libertarian would suggest simply shrinking the size and scope of government to ameliorate this problem. An issue with that is it disproportionately values negative liberty (freedom from restriction) over positive liberty (increased capacity to act upon one’s free will, or otherwise being empowered to make choices and control your fate to greater degrees).
An additional problem with the libertarian answer is that the same reasoning taken to its logical conclusion could be used to advocate Anarcho-Capitalism or Anarcho-Communism; complete abolition of the state. And these utopian ideas would require the overwhelming majority of the populace to possess empathy, foresight, knowledge, and other qualities in amounts that have never occurred in history and are unlikely to occur until the warp engine is developed and the Vulcans come to take us under their wing. Epistocracy only requires part of the populace to possess these qualities.
Probably the only reason we’ve made it as far as we have is because the most successful countries are Republics or constitutional monarchies, not direct democracies. Such setups rely on the populace to voluntarily vote for representatives that they understand are probably more qualified to make policy decisions than they are. Of course problems we’ve now run into are that the populace has become anti-intellectual and begun electing the dumbest demagogues into office out of spite for people smarter than them. Additionally, party tribalism has also taken over and created absurd levels of gridlock and reactionary steps backwards to counteract progress that we had made recently. Plato’s predictions are playing out before our very eyes.
This is where epistocracy comes in. When the more informed and competent get more say, better leaders are elected and better policies are passed.
Let me emphasize, my ideal epistocracy would not be any more of a true complete epistocracy than our democracy is a true direct absolute democracy. A great deal of democracy would still make up the process.
If we were to propose a poll test the first question is “who gets to choose the questions.” This question is usually asked with the assumption that some prejudiced elites will choose the questions intentionally to exclude and disenfranchise people they don’t like. However, a solution to this is to choose 500 or so people at random from across the country (a lottery basically) and let these people deliberate and create the test based on what they think a voter or candidate should know to be qualified. People may themselves often be uninformed on the facts, but they are usually pretty good about knowing which facts they should know to become informed.
Another question asked (usually as more of an assertion with the presumption it can’t be overcome) is what about existing ethnically disenfranchised groups? For example, the black community often has fewer opportunities and underfunded schools, and as a result would be disproportionately unable to pass the test. The epistocratic response is actually quite simple: statistically adjust for socioeconomic status (SES) and other relevant factors to either weigh the votes of those groups correspondingly higher, or set the threshold for a passing score lower by the proportion to which SES puts them at a disadvantage. It sounds complicated but in reality the math would be little more complicated than what we already do with the electoral college.
Moving forward from this procedure we could do any number of things. We could either let only people who can pass this test vote and run for office, or we could simply mathematically weigh the votes of people who passed the test more than those who didn’t.
We don’t even have to do the whole government epistocratically either. We could simply replace the Senate with an epistocratically chosen body and require presidential candidates to pass a more difficult version of the test voters took to prove that the candidate has a minimum competence worthy of the office. Such a system would do a drastically better and more fair job of what the US founders attempted to do.
Ultimately, I’m not claiming to guarantee that we could implement an epistocracy in the manner I described (though I think we could). My greater point is that this worship of democracy should end. No sacred cow should be beyond criticism the way many treat democracy. We should not give up searching to develop a better system to improve over democracy the same way it was sought to improve over hereditary monarchy. A system is only as good as its results and its perfection shouldn’t be assumed based on it having been the only thing we’ve known.