In America democracy is a sacred cow. Sure, it is a representative democracy rather than a fully direct democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. That the will of the people is the ultimate foundation of the government and its authority is central to the American identity. Some acknowledge that our democracy is imperfect, but they usually claim that the solutions is making it more directly democratic. If one were to suggest that America is already too democratic and that the will of the majority is often in serious fault, that person would be met with spite and scorn.
We are allowed to criticize aspects of our democracy but we are not allowed to suggest a system better than democracy, certainly not one that restricts the vote in any way (though, we already restrict the vote, but more on that later). I will here argue that a form of epistocracy—rule of the educated and competent—would very likely be better than democracy as we know it. I will do this partially by summarizing the arguments in a book I believe makes an extremely strong argument for epistocracy and against democracy. It is called Against Democracy, by American philosopher and professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, Jason Brennen.
Proceduralism Versus Instrumentalism
His argument begins with distinguishing between proceduralism and instrumentalism. The proceduralist argument for democracy says that the democratic process itself is superior and ultimately more just than other systems of governance. Pure proceduralists, the most radical kind, are less concerned with whether democracy produces the best outcomes, instead taking the position that even if another system may provide better results, democracy is more just and preferable because of how it distributes power. Iñigo González-Ricoy, a pure proceduralist philosopher, contends that because there is general disagreement about what is a good or bad outcome, it only matters whether the process is just; that outcomes are just and right by definition if the majority in a democracy says they are. This is Brennen’s interpretation of González-Ricoy anyway.
Conversely, what I—and Brennen—find to be much more reasonable is instrumentalism. Whereas proceduralists see the process of democracy as an end itself, an instrumentalist sees democracy as a means to an end; a tool. The tool is only as valuable as its results. If I see a hammer that would produce better results than the hammer I’m using, I should switch to the better hammer. Same with government. Democracy is working decently, but if epistocracy would produce better results, it would be logical to switch to epistocracy. It is possible that epistocracy wouldn’t be better than democracy, but I think it likely would be.
Pure instrumentalism would contend that there are no fundamentally just or unjust ways of distributing political power. The only thing that matters is the results, the outcome, the effect of any given way distributing political power. This includes long and short-term. A benevolent philosopher king may be good for a generation or two, but there is no guarantee that the king’s heirs will not be the opposite. Thus, an instrumentalist would not choose an enlightened despot just to buy good short-term outcomes.
Of course, you could be a mix of instrumentalist and proceduralist. You could rule out absolute monarchy, oligarchy, or dictatorship on the grounds that it tends to produce bad results, but oppose epistocracy in favor of democracy because of proceduralist reasons. Personally, I’m concerned mostly with results. That isn’t to say I subscribe to the purest of pure instrumentalism, but I certainly lean in that direction. My argument, and that of Jason Brennen, is that the choice between democracy and epistocracy is most rightly based on their instrumental value.
Arguing for Political Inequality
Epistocrats need not make the argument that experts should have ultimate authority. Instead, the only argument necessary is that the uninformed and incompetent should not have authority over others. We epistocrats only need to argue that democratic decision-making often lacks legitimacy and authority because it is generally incompetent. This leaves it an open question about who should have power.
Arbitrary Versus Non-Arbitrary Grounds for Political Inequality
It is true that for much of history excuses have been used to arbitrarily disenfranchise women, people of different skin colors, people who don’t own land, non-nobles, etc. However, that doesn’t prove political inequality is inherently unjust, it just proves that political inequality can be unjust. Indeed, we still don’t have full political equality now. People under 18 can’t vote, felons can’t vote (even after completing their sentence), people declared mentally incapable can’t vote, and anyone living here legally or illegally who is not a citizen can’t vote.
Our reasoning for not letting people under 18 vote is that they are too uninformed and immature. I’d argue that a large portion of the adult populace has those traits just as much as a 15 year-old.
Also keep in mind that political inequality is different than legal equality, which is equality before the law. We must obviously be legal equals in any civilized society. Nobody should be above the law.
Additionally, there is equality of human value. A civilized society cannot consider some of its inhabitants as sub-human. Some might argue that political inequality, saying that some citizens aren’t qualified to vote, is indistinguishable from valuing them less as humans. This is patently absurd. If I tell you that you aren’t qualified to practice medicine, to wire a public building, to repair piping, to lead NASA, or to advise the president on foreign policy, am I suggesting you have less human value as a result? Of course not. Same with saying someone isn’t qualified to vote and influence the power of the state, which itself has a duty to competence.
Lastly, there is equality of opportunity as a fundamental value. People should not be denied opportunities because of sex, race, age, sexual preference, gender-identity, country of origin, or any other arbitrary reason.
Hobbits and Hooligans
Jason Brennen makes analogies to represent the types of voters in the US; hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. Hobbits are good-intentioned people who are simply oblivious to the information necessary to make important decisions, and as a result, are bad at making accurate political conclusions and choices. Hooligans are bad-faith, tribal, worse than uninformed (systematically misinformed) people who reign havoc in politics. Lastly, we have Vulcans, those who are highly informed, and possess the logical faculties to properly interpret the facts and come to correct conclusions.
To bring things into focus, Brennen mentions “ideal” and “non-ideal” political theory. An ideal theory of politics asks what system would work if everybody was perfect, altruistic, just, informed, empathetic, and the rest. Non-ideal theory asks what political system would work best given how people actually are. Brennen and I contend that most of the voting populace are closer to hooligans and hobbits rather than Vulcans. And because most voters are uninformed, misinformed, and/or generally incompetent at making political choices, they don’t deserve to have power over me through the democratic process. Whatever political system we want to implement should be concerned with how people actually are, not how we wish they would be.
Ignorant, Irrational, Misinformed Nationalists
But what is the proof that the average voters are all these bad things? What is the proof that they are incompetent? Jason Brennen goes into detail about that with empirical evidence in his book, which corroborates other evidence that I have seen.
What Citizens Don’t Know
Most citizens are ignorant of political information and the information necessary to make informed political choices. And many are worse than simply uninformed, they systematically believe false information; those who buy into conspiracy theories, false political slogans, etc. Quoting political scientist Philip Converse, Brennen writes:
“The two simplest truths I know about the distribution of political information in modern electorates are that the mean is low and the variance is high.”
In other words, the average knowledge is very low, but those who know a lot know astronomically more, and those who are worse than uninformed believe mountains of false information. Citing the research of George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin, Brennan says that 35% of voters are “know-nothings” regarding politics (Somin, 2013). He then goes on to enumerate a few examples.
- Most citizens cannot identify any congressional candidates in their district in a voting years (Hardin, 2009).
- Citizens generally don’t know which party controls Congress (Somin, 2013).
- In 2010 only 34% of voters knew TARP was enacted under Bush rather than Obama, and only 39% knew that defense was the largest category of discretionary spending in the US federal budget (Somin, 2013).
- Americans overestimate how much we spend on foreign aid, and in fact believe we can meaningfully reduce the budget deficit by reducing foreign aid—we in fact spend just over 1% of the federal budget on foreign aid (Bialik, 2012).
- In 1964, less than half of citizens knew that the Soviet Union was not in NATO (Page & Shapiro, 1993). That is a big deal considering NATO was formed in large part as an alliance against the Soviet Union.
- Seventy-three percent of Americans don’t know what the Cold War was about (Newsweek, 2011).
- Most Americans don’t know a ballpark figure of what is spent on social security, or what portion of the US federal budget it accounts for (Somin, 2013).
- Forty percent of Americans don’t know the country the US fought in World War II (Newsweek, 2011).
- During the 2000 election barely half of all Americans knew Gore was more liberal than Bush, and less than half knew Gore was more supportive of abortion rights, more supportive of welfare programs, favored more aid to the black community, or was more supportive of environmental regulation (Somin, 2013). Only 37% knew that federal spending on the poor had increased or that crime had decreased in the 1990s. Similar results were found in other election years before that (Althaus, 2003).
- In 2015 only 22% of non-voters (those who are eligible, but abstain) knew that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives (Pew Research Center, 2012).
And this is just a few examples from Brennen in 2015. I can supplement this list with some more examples.
- Only 41% of Americans knew it requires 60 votes in the Senate to prevent or end a filibuster (Pew Research Center, 2018). Barely a majority, 54%, know that the vice president breaks ties in the Senate.
- In June 2017, only 47% of Americans knew Mueller was the person leading the DOJ investigation into Russia, 45% knew Neil Gorsuch was a SCOTUS justice, 44% knew Rex Tillerson was secretary of state, 37% knew Macron was the president of France, and only 37% correctly identified the unemployment rate at 4%, while 20% thought it was 7%, 20% thought it was 12%, and 12% thought it was 17% (Pew Research Center, 2017). Correct answers were starkly associated with education level. While only 29% of high-school-or-less correctly identified the unemployment rate question, 53% of the college+ group answered correctly. This trend held for all other questions.
- On cybersecurity, in 2016 only 46% correctly answered that e-mail isn’t encrypted by default, only 39% knew that “private browsing” in browsers didn’t prevent the IPS from seeing where you go, and 33% knew “https” meant a website is encrypted. This information is important when evaluating many aspects of national security policies (Smith, 2017).
In Against Democracy Brennen quotes political scientist Scott Althaus (2003) talking about the results of a political knowledge survey:
“While people in the highest knowledge quartile averaged 15.6 correct answers out of 18 possible, people in the lowest averaged only 2.5 correct answers.”
Elaborating on this Brennen explains that on this test the top 25% of voters were well informed, the next 25% were underinformed, the next 25% were “know-nothings,” and the bottom 25% were systematically misinformed.
The effect of knowledge and its importance in driving voting and public policy can’t be emphasized enough. Ninety-three percent of Democrats with high levels of scientific knowledge (based on a 9-item index) accept that climate change is due mostly to human activity, while only 49% of Democrats with low scientific knowledge did (Funk, 2017). Republicans with high and low scientific knowledge rejected the facts on climate change equally. On nuclear power, 75% of Republicans with high levels of scientific knowledge supported expanding nuclear power, while only 37% of Republicans with low scientific knowledge supported it. High and low scientific knowledge Democrats rejected nuclear nearly equally, with only around 40% supporting it.
You may think that many of the deficiencies in public knowledge mentioned are trivial or unimportant, but many in fact would have (and many already have had) dire consequences for public policy. If the most intelligent got their way, for example, acknowledgment of the human component of climate change would have been reflected in public policy a long time ago, and nuclear would rightfully be a major component to our approach in addressing it. And if the 24-hour news cycles were targeting a voting population with a higher mean knowledge, partisanship would likely ease up.
This trend in policy between the highly educated versus the undereducated holds for other issues as well. In 2009, 49% of the college+ category supported gay marriage, with only 47% rejecting it (Pew Research Center, 2009). Only 32% of the high-school-or-less crowd supported it, and a large 59% outright opposed it. Later, in 2015, 70% of post-grads supported gay marriage, while only 49% of high-school-or-less did (Pew Research Center, 2015).
Again citing Althaus (2003), Brennen points out that even when adjusting for race, income, and gender, the more informed a person is the more they support free trade, oppose protectionism, support abortion rights, oppose punitive and harsh measures for addressing crime, are less hawkish on military policy, are more supportive of affirmative action, are less supportive of teacher-led prayer in public schools, and oppose government imposing morality on the populace. In other words, the more they resemble a pragmatic, economically literate, center-left liberal.
In other words, quantity of political knowledge has systematic direct effects on our political choices and beliefs. People with more knowledge tend to support much better policies than people with less political knowledge.
Don’t interpret this as me saying that the public doesn’t know anything. My point is that a majority is wrong or clueless on far too many issues regarding public policy, issues that have serious consequences. Not that they are ignorant and clueless on literally everything.
Why Are Voters This Way?
Why don’t voters bother to educate themselves before voting? Much of it comes down to incentive. You have an incentive to look both ways before crossing a busy street, lest you would become roadkill. We pay attention to acute problems that have potentially severe and immediate consequences for us. That is not the case with voting.
In 2016 about 130,000,000 people voted in the presidential election. Any individual person knows their vote is completely drown out by everyone else’s and is unlikely to have any severe immediate consequences in and of itself. If you vote based on a false belief, there is never any salient punishment no matter how bad the choice. If you drink a bottle of bleach based on a false belief, the consequences are swift and severe.
Acquiring information has a cost in time and effort. When people feel the price in time and effort is not worth it, knowing their vote is only 1 out of many millions, they won’t bother to learn the information. This is a phenomenon economist would call rational ignorance. People know they as individuals have almost no power over government and their votes have a near-zero value. Thus, there’s little incentive to become a competent voter.
This is an issue with all collective action problems. E.g., if I know my pollution makes up only a tiny percent of the overall pollution, there is little incentive for me to stop since cost of polluting less (spending more on efficient electronics, investing time and effort researching more energy efficient products, avoiding beef products, etc.) is much more salient than the less visible and more psychologically removed severe consequence of climate change and a trashed planet. Solving collective action problems is something government action is quite useful with.
People Vote Irrationally
Most of the time political information is processed in a deeply and cripplingly biased and irrational way. Brennen quotes political scientists Milton Lodge and Charles Taber (2013) summarizing the academic literature on citizen processing of political information:
“The evidence is reliable [and] strong…in showing that people find it very difficult to escape the pull of their prior attitudes and beliefs, which guide the processing of new information in predictable and sometimes insidious ways”
Political scientists Leonie Huddy, David Sears, and Jack Levy (2013) summarize:
“Political decision-making is often beset with biases that privilege habitual though and consistency over careful consideration of new information.”
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2013) summarizes the research:
“Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments… Reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions…Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions.”
Somin (2013) says people treat politics like sports. They enjoy rooting for a team, learning its history, learning player stats, sports facts, and such. They do this not because it will increase a team’s chances of winning but because it increases their enjoyment of the game. They systematically play up evidence that makes their team look good and downplay evidence that cuts the other way.
Similarly, most voters are crippled by cognitive biases, including confirmation and disconfirmation bias. They are affected much so that even when they are presented with near irrefutable evidence they are wrong, they just double down and believe the false thing even stronger (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010; Taber & Lodge, 2006).
In a study by Dan Kahan and colleagues (2013), a group of people were asked to evaluate what conclusion the mathematical evidence, if true, would support for a neutral topic; skin cream efficacy. This was to get a baseline. Then, the question was reworded, but used the exact same math. This time, the subject matter was not skin cream but gun control. Two new versions were made; one where the evidence would be more convenient for the liberal position, one where it would be more convenient for the conservative position. Despite the math being identical to the skin cream scenario, liberals and conservatives overwhelmingly concluded that the math supported their pre-existing positions on the topic.
Another cognitive problem is the availability bias, which warps the ability of voters to make true conclusions on politics. Despite the fact homicide has been dropping precipitously since the early 1990s, because everyone can name a recent mass shooting or similar event, they always assume violence overall is increasing. Whether it’s kidnapping, stealing, cheating neighbors, corrupt politicians being caught, etc., statements like “people these days,” “we live in a broken nation,” “we are a fallen people,” betray the availability bias working in the background to convince people now is always the worst time because they can think of some colorful examples they saw in the news recently. Nevermind that hard numbers of historic trends show that we’re actually pretty well off compared to almost every time in the past.
Then there is emotion. Strong emotion or passion systematically leads us to make false conclusion. It is no wonder, then, that people trying to take control in politics by inflaming us with simplistic and outraging narratives that get us override cool logic with emotion.
I could go on much longer in this vein (as Brennen does in the book), and continue to cite mountains of academic evidence to prove it. But I think the point has been sufficiently made.
People are most often perfectly good at believing enough true things from day to day to get through their personal lives. They can generally operate rationally in situations that have salient and imminent consequences, especially when emotions are cool. But the nature of politics makes most people uninterested in seeking political information in the first place, and when they do, they most often do it tribally and in bad faith, and they interpret this information in a very bias and self-serving tribal way. People are usually only instrumentally rational. If everyone in your peer group is liberal, it makes sense for you to conform. It is a logical decision to conform because of the benefits. This however makes you less likely to make logical conclusions on political topics, and all this makes the majority of people hobbits and hooligans in politics, not Vulcans.
Political Participation Corrupts
John Stewart Mill, the 19th century philosopher, hypothesized that democratic participation would transform the populous from ignorant to informed. He thought it would force people to engage in moral and social scientific investigation. Essentially, he believed civic and political activity would make the people more informed, rational, and virtuous. This can be called the education argument for democracy. Well, it has been over 100 years, so what does the empirical evidence say?
One place to start would be looking at countries that have compulsory voting and force the majority of the population to engage in the political process. Do their governments work better than those with lower non-compulsory voter participation? Political scientist Sarah Birch conducted an exhaustive review of the academic literature on compulsory voting and whether it improved the knowledge of voters (Birch, 2009). She concluded it does not. It doesn’t make people more likely to contact their politicians, increase tendencies to work with others to solve a problem, or participate in campaign activities. Political scientist Annabelle Lever concluded the same thing in her review published in British Journal of Political Science. She said, there was “no noticeable effect on political knowledge or interest [or] electoral outcomes” (Lever, 2010).
Some say simple voting isn’t enough, that we need a Deliberative Democracy whereby the people come together, enlarge the pools of ideas and information, weed out the good arguments from the bad, and lead to a consensus on the ‘better’ or more ‘reasonable’ solutions. By deliberate they mean an orderly reason-guided process. Of course, this is more of a fantasy if we’re talking about the general population. There are a few rational Vulcans out there, but most are tribal, ignorant, and crippled by cognitive biases. But what does the empirical evidence say?
In a survey of the existing evidence, political scientist Tali Mendelberg says the “empirical evidence of the benefits that deliberative theorists expect…is thin or non-existent” (Mendelberg, 2002). Brennen quotes Mendelberg:
“The use of reasoned argument to reinforce prior sentiment is a widespread phenomenon that poses a significant challenge to deliberative expectations. Motivated reasoning has considerable power to interfere with the motivation that deliberative theory cherishes—the motivation to be open-minded, evenhanded, and fair. Deliberators can hardly pursue truth and justice if they view everything in favor of their priors through rose-tinted glass and everything against it through dark ones.”
Remember we’re talking about how the people overall deliberate, not necessarily representatives; they have different incentives. Elected representatives tend to have weak principles that they are willing to violate to stay popular with their voter-base. Instead, think of what happens on social media to get a better idea of what the masses do when they “deliberate,” if you could even call it that. Brennen goes on to cite much more than Mendelberg to hammer home this point, but doing so here would make an already long article more bloated.
Politics tends to make people consider each other enemies. Republicans will say you can’t be a good American, a good Christian, or a moral person if you are a Democrat. Democrats will say everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, that all people on the Right hate poor people and minorities. This tribal hatred is visceral. Spouses and family members often have to agree to avoid discussing politics with one-another because it leads to intense feelings of resentment.
Most people view politics as a zero-sum game (which it kind of is). For one team to win, another has to lose. In a zero-sum game, people have reason to undermine the other tribe, to attack them. People usually have a genuine desire to improve the country, but they disagree on what improvement is. People who define improvement differently as seen as fundamentally evil. And fairly consistently, the lest knowledgeable among the populace are the least able to rationally evaluate what would be an improvement.
To help make this point, Brennen cites political commentators Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus:
“Politics takes a continuum of possibilities and turns it into a small group of discrete outcomes, often just two. Either this guy gets elected, or that guy does. Either a given policy becomes law or it doesn’t. As a result, political choices matter greatly to those most affected. An electoral loss is the loss of a possibility. These black and white choices mean politics will often manufacture problems that previously didn’t exist, such as the “problem” of whether we—as a community, as a nation—will teach children creation or evolution.”
Politics Doesn’t Empower You or Me
Often people say democracy empowers people, but it doesn’t. Democracy is designed specifically to disempower the individual and empower the majority. Apply democracy to other situations and we see it isn’t some apex of civility. For example, what if we weren’t allowed to choose our own spouse, but rather than an arranged marriage by our parents, the community puts it to a democratic vote. This obviously isn’t particularly empowering. As individuals, we are more empowered by finding a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk than we are by being able to vote or run for office.
Some say that universal equal suffrage is necessary for the needs of the lower rungs of the societal ladder to be represented or considered. They claim that a government of the smartest would inherently ignore these populations. However, as the evidence mentioned earlier proves, as education increases, so does a person’s support for programs intended to help the less fortunate. Smart people support affirmative action, universal healthcare, the welfare safety net, law reform to decriminalize marijuana and let the disproportionately affected black and low-income people rotting in prison out, and more. It seems that the most disenfranchised in society are more held down by the people one rung above them than the ones in the middle or top.
It reminds me of how in the pre-Civil War American South some of the staunchest supporters of slavery were poor white people who enjoyed knowing there was at least one rung below them in the social ladder. Another analogy is Russia in the Catherine II era. The top echelons of society were interested considering freeing the serfs, but the lowliest and most numerous of the nobility who held only a few serfs each were dead set against it. Or for a more modern example, the modest-income highly misinformed old right-wingers who vote to abolish the estate tax which they will almost certainly never make enough money to have to pay. The same people who cut welfare because they make slightly too much to benefit from it. They say it’s about personal responsibility, but these same people can’t be coaxed into taking responsibility for their germs during a pandemic and wearing a mask to protect others.
The Right to Competent Government
We are all subject to the actions of the government whether we like it or not. When a law is passed, we all have to follow it, and it is imposed with force. None of us have the option of opting out. For these reasons our right to a competent government supersedes any perceived right of automatic universal equally weighed suffrage. If such a system produced the best consequences, we should choose it. But if such a system does not, as the evidence I have provided strongly suggests, we should adopt a different system. Brennen says,
“Democracy with unconditional universal suffrage grants political power in a promiscuous way. When hobbits and hooligans vote, they exercise political power over others, and this cries out for justification… Most of my fellow citizens are incompetent, ignorant, irrational, and morally unreasonable about politics. Despite that, they hold political power over me. These people can staff offices of great power and wield the coercive authority of the state against me. They can force me to do things I do not wish to do or have no good reason to do. They wield their power in ways that they cannot justify, and impose policies on me that they would not support if they were informed or processed political information in a rational way.”Jason Brennen (2016)
Is Racism Inherent in Deciding Who Is Competent?
We know that because of many socioeconomic factors that the African American community would be disproportionately under-represented if even the most non-racist voter competency test was imposed. But does this mean such a test is racist? No, it means that we should invest more resources in uplifting that community so that more could pass such a test.
For example, the requirements to obtain a license to practice medicine also leads to African Americans being disproportionately underrepresented among physicians. You have to spend time and money to get doctorate in medicine to prove your education, among other things proving your competency. Is this process racist because black Americans are underrepresented? Should we reduce or eliminate such competency requirements so more black Americans can become physicians? Of course not. Because every patient has the right to a competent physician. Instead, our approach should be to invest resources to help African Americans afford to go medical school.
Why Should We Require Competency?
Let’s use court to illustrate a point. Defendants have a right to a fair and good-faith jury. In other words, they have the right to a competent jury. Why is this? Because juries are charged with making momentous decisions and are a vehicle by which justice is delivered; because a jury’s decisions can deprive a defendant of life, liberty, and/or property; the jury is part of a system that claims sole monopolistic right to decide such cases; and because the jury’s decision will be imposed on the defendant whether they like it or not. Brennan says these reasons are the grounds for why the jury must abide by the competence principle.
“Defendants and other citizens have a right that jury decisions should be made by competent people, who make their decisions competently and in good faith. It is unjust, and violates a citizen’s right, to forcibly deprive a citizen of life, liberty, or property, or significantly harm their life prospects, as a result of decisions made by an incompetent jury, or decisions made incompetently or in bad faith.”Brennen (2016)
Being ignorant and uninterested in the facts and details of a case, being irrational and willing to dismiss evidence for gut feelings and cognitive biases, being impaired in the sense that you are not capable or qualified of the comprehension necessary to come to a conclusion on the case, being immoral as in having explicit desire to watch people burn regardless of the facts, or being corrupt and willing to enrich yourself at the expense of the defendant would all violate the competency principle and justify rejecting the decision of a jury as illegitimate. This can all be applied to the democratic process.
First of all, the representatives and officials we elect have the same power as the court. They are a vehicle by which momentous decisions are made and justice is delivered. Their decisions can deprive citizens of life, liberty, and/or property. The state claims sole monopolistic right to create and enforce their decisions. And the decisions of the state are imposed on us whether we like it or not. Thus, it is completely reasonable for the voters to be required to fulfill the same principles of competency as we would expect from a jury.
Is Democracy Competent?
Democracy has proven that it tends to be more competent then systems like dictatorship, absolute monarchy, oligarchy, and theocracy. However, in general, most citizens still fail to live up to the competency principle. Most people are irrational, impaired, immoral, and/or corrupt. The body of evidence I went over earlier strongly supports this conclusion. That democracy has worked as well as it has is likely a result of the indirectness of it, and the fact law-makers often are more knowledgeable than the people that elected them and often don’t give the people exactly what they want. Though, because they want to get re-elected, they still give the people what they want too much, and to the detriment of us all.
The Rule of the Knowers
If not democracy, then what? Isn’t epistocracy just a utopian pipe dream? Wouldn’t such “rule of the knowers” just devolve into an exclusive club of well-connected geniuses who are not responsive to the needs of anyone else? Well, no. Epistocracy isn’t restricted to philosopher kings and elitist oligarchies, none of which I advocate. There are much more reasonable forms it could take, multiple of which are likely to outperform democracy.
Regarding voting, I am not suggesting that we restrict it to some minuscule number of the most elite of the elite. If suffrage was restricted to, say, only the top most knowledgeable 0.01% of the population (~30,000 people), the argument that the representatives wouldn’t be particularly interested in the well-being of the overall populace may have something to it. However, epistocracy could be designed to never eliminate more than, for example, 50% of the otherwise eligible voting population for lack of competence. Around 230,000,000 people are currently eligible to vote in the US, so 50% of that would be 115,000,000. That’s about 35% of the overall population, already quite a larger ratio than in the original “democracy,” Athens, where only about 15% of the populace could vote. Indeed, only ~130,000,000 people voted for president in 2016, or 39% of the overall population. I’m not necessarily saying I think 50% exclusion is the most optimal number, I’m just pointing out that even that level of restriction isn’t terribly restrictive.
There are many ways to exclude the least informed and most incompetent in society. Like I said, a test would be just fine, and a test need not be any more racist than any test we currently require to practice a profession like medicine, social work, teaching, architecture, plumbing, etc. It could be designed by a national board made up of members sent from the national associations of each relevant profession, such as political science, law, business, social work, etc.
Regardless, some may that minorities and the poor would still be disadvantaged by such a test. Again, I don’t think that would be the case any more than with other professional tests, and like with such tests, the solution would be to empower minorities rather than change the test. Irrespective of that, there’s an option even for people who worry about such things.
Tests could be designed by a body of, say, 1,000 citizens chosen by random lottery every 10 years. The body could be required to perfectly mirror the racial makeup of the populace, or it could be required to over-represent minority groups by a certain amount (the math isn’t hard). While the average individual citizen is quite ignorant of the facts, they are generally decent at knowing what facts they should know if they were to be qualified for a position. And in a body of 1,000 random citizens, there will almost certainly be a few among them who know the facts being requested.
As Brennen says:
“It’s much easier for citizens to articulate a concrete view of political competence than to identify and vote for competent candidates. The average citizen is probably able to produce a good theory of political competence, even though they may be incompetent at applying their theory”
Voters know senators should not be blamed for weather, yet tend to punish incumbents senators for bad weather like tornadoes despite knowing senators are not to blame (Healy, 2010). Voters know politicians are not to blame for international events beyond their control, yet in fact punish incumbents for events like world downturns in the economy beyond their control when they actually vote. Leigh (2009) asked if voters “reward national leaders who are more competent economic managers, or merely those who happen to be in power when the world economy booms?” After analysis the author found that “the effect of luck is larger than the effect of competence.” Voters know being more attractive doesn’t make you a more competent candidate, yet they tend to vote for the more attractive candidates (Ballew & Todorov, 2007; Todorov, 2005). Similarly, voters know corrupt pathological liars should not be president, yet seem to have extreme difficulty determining if a candidate is in fact a corrupt liar.
Because of all this, voters may in fact be able to design a good test to measure competence even if most of them can’t live up to their own ideals or apply them.
Another approach in this vein would be that the legislature could write several tests and then put it up for vote as a referendum by current voters. There are any number of good solutions, but zealous adherents of democracy simply assume they don’t exist.
Something else to mention, none of the requirements mentioned here need be restricted to voters Those running for office should also have to meet at least such minimum competency requirements.
Another viable solution is to allow everyone to vote, but give those with a bachelor’s degree two votes, those with a masters three votes, and those with doctorates four votes. Someone may interject that a degree doesn’t guarantee you are smart, but in fact, on average, people are smarter the further up the degree ladder they get. Moreover, even though general knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean you have knowledge of economics or other topics of political importance, there is a strong correlation that generally smart people are much more likely to know about these topics than their non-degreed counterparts regardless (Althaus, 2003).
There’s also the structure of the government itself, and what votes are for. Voting for the Senate and president could require competence tests while leaving the House of Representatives as it is. Presidential elections could exclude only the bottom 10% most incompetent, while Senate races could exclude the bottom 60%. Any number of combinations are viable for consideration.
I will mention one last potential form of epistocracy, the enfranchisement lottery. This was proposed by political theorist Claudio Lopez-Guerra (2014). With this system every election there would be a number of randomly dawn people from the citizenry. These people would then go through a “competence-building process” designed specifically to optimize their knowledge of the political alternatives on the ballot. They would engage in multiple learning and deliberative workshops and study things like party platforms and topics relevant to proposals on those platforms. Only after all this would they earn the right to vote. This body would be required to reflect the general populace in demographics, and the process would be repeated each election with a new batch of candidates. This body of voters could be made to be relatively small (100,000), or very large (10,000,000).
When considering a political system and way of distributing political power there are two main ways of looking at things; proceduralism and instrumentalism. Proceduralists see democracy as an ends rather that just a means, they are less concerned with whether democracy actually produces the best results, and a large portion of proceduralist arguments center around emotional appeals to the indignation of the people. Instrumentalists, conversely, care about results and are interested in whether or not the empirical evidence supports a political system. Instrumentalists are utilitarian and consequentialist in nature and will choose the system of government that the best empirical evidence says will likely increase the prosperity and flourishing of the greatest number of people the most amount. My argument is an instrumentalist one.
I presented a large amount of empirical evidence that the average voter is in fact quite ignorant, irrational, and generally incompetent to make most political choices. Not only are people more often than not uninformed (and worse, systematically misinformed), but they don’t even seem to have much of an ability to evaluate whether things are improving or getting worse, and they can’t seem to determine which candidate actually reflects their values most.
I further provided evidence that the most democratic of democracies aren’t any better than more limited democracies. In addition to all that, I provided empirical evidence that people with low information systematically choose different policy than those with high information, and that these policy choices are bad choices much more often than the choices of the informed.
When we vote we are exercising power not just over ourselves, but other people. Citizens vote to use the power of the state to inflict their positions on other people, and when these positions are not made in an informed competent way they are transgressing on other people. Like the right of a defendant to a competent jury, we have the right to a competent electorate. I have explained why distributing voter power in a way that empowers the more knowledgeable isn’t any more fundamentally racist than licensing a doctor, and I have even given multiple examples of non-racist ways to determine who is competent.
I think virtually all the forms of epistocracy I’ve elaborated on would yield better results than our current democracy, and I think this because of the empirical evidence. However, I do think they should be tested out on smaller scales before being implemented on the national scale. For example, an individual state could test a particular form of epistocracy.
Also, let me be clear, I don’t think America will ever adopt an epistocratic form of government, I’m just saying they should. I don’t believe the demos (the Greek root of democracy) will ever muster the humility or logic en masse to realize that maybe everyone isn’t qualified to vote. My most hopeful scenario is that by random chance the populace becomes informed and reasonable enough as a whole that epistocracy is no longer necessary. In other words, I hope the child-minded public grows into adulthood before gorging themselves on candy for every meal, eating tide pods, or sticking a fork into an outlet leads to their (our) untimely demise.
I’m not arguing that my preferred epistocracy would be perfect. That would be an absurd argument. I am actually sure it won’t be perfect. I’m sure many bad voters will still vote, and I am sure corrupt and vile politicians will still be elected. What I am arguing is that under my preferred epistocracy those problems will be significantly reduced relative to their severity in our current system of election and governance.
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