The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democracy vs. Epistocracy

Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan’s important new book Against Democracy challenges a basic precept that most people take for granted: the morality of democracy. Dominant conventional wisdom on both right and left holds that all, or nearly all, adults should have a right to vote, and that the electorate has a right to rule. Brennan contends otherwise.

I. Hobbits, Hooligans, and Vulcans.

Brennan begins his analysis by showing that most citizens do a very poor job of considering political issues. He divides citizens into three categories, which he creatively labels hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. Hobbits have little or no interest in politics, and have very low levels of political knowledge. Hooligans tend to know more than hobbits do. But they are highly biased in their evaluation of information, tending to dismiss opposing arguments out of hand. They also lack any kind of social scientific sophistication. Vulcans, by contrast, combine extensive knowledge and analytical sophistication with open-mindedness. They also don’t let emotion and bias cloud their judgment. But very few of us even come close to being Vulcans.

Sadly, the vast majority of voters are some combination of hobbit and hooligan. They often lack even basic political knowledge; and what they do know, they analyze in a highly biased way. Instead of acting as truth-seekers, they function as “political fans” cheering on Team Red or Team Blue. The root of the problem is rational ignorance: because there is so little chance that an individual vote will make a difference, voters have little incentive to either acquire relevant knowledge or keep their biases under control. Voters’ ignorance and bias leave them easy pray for unscrupulous politicians, ideologues, and interest groups – rarely more so than during the current election.

Much of this part of Brennan’s book simply builds on the conventional wisdom of public opinion experts across the political spectrum. But most of of us still believe that the voters have a right to rule, no matter how ignorant and biased they might be. As political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels put it in another important new book on political ignorance, “the ideal of popular sovereignty plays the same role in contemporary democratic ideology that the divine right of kings played in the monarchical era.” Much like the kings and emperors of an earlier age, the people are seen as having an inherent right to wield political power, whether or not they do it well. Unlike Achen and Bartels, Brennan is willing to knock our multiheaded king off his pedestal.

In most situations, he points out, we readily assume that people should not be allowed to make important decisions for others unless they have at least a reasonable degree of competence to do so. Brennan calls this idea the “Competence Principle.” We don’t allow quacks to make medical decisions, for example. This is especially true when the medical decisions in question are extremely important, and the “patients” have no choice but to obey the doctor’s orders.

Voting, of course, often literally involves matters of life and death, and the politicians who get elected rule over the entire society, including those who voted against them or chose to abstain. Ignorant or illogical decisions by voters can easily lead to ill-advised wars, economic recessions, abusive law enforcement, environmental disasters, and other catastrophes that imperil the lives, freedom, and welfare of large numbers of people. If we refuse to tolerate ignorant medical practice or ignorant plumbing, we should take an equally dim view of ignorant voting.

Brennan does not argue that knowledgeable “Vulcans” are morally superior to others and have some sort of right to rule. He merely claims that the hobbits and hooligans do not have such a right. Like John Stuart Mill, he contends that voting is not merely an individual choice, but the exercise of “power over others.” Such power must be used responsibly, if at all.

II. The Epistocratic Alternative.

Even if democracy is flawed, many would argue – following Churchill – that it is the worst form of government, except for all the others. As Brennan recognizes, mounds of evidence show that democracy generally performs better than dictatorship or oligarchy. But he argues that these are not the only possible alternatives to democracy. There is also “epistocracy” – the “rule of the knowers.”

The electorate might make better decisions if it were restricted to make it more knowledgeable and less biased. For most people, ideas like epistocracy sound like advocacy of government by a small elite, which could easily abuse its powers. But Brennan presents a variety of strategies by which the quality of the electorate could be improved, while still keeping it large, and demographically representative. For example, the franchise could be limited to those who can pass a basic test of political knowledge. Those with greater knowledge could instead be given extra votes (as first advocated by John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century). If the resulting more knowledgeable electorate is unrepresentative (e.g. – on the basis of race, sex, age, or wealth), the votes of knowledgeable members of these “underrepresented” groups could be given greater weight. Alternatively, we could potentially make the electorate both more knowledgeable and more representative than it is now, by using an “enfranchisement lottery.”

Such ideas may seem very radical. In some ways they are. But in many respects they are just modest extensions of the status quo. We already exclude over 20% of our population from the franchise because we think they are ignorant and have poor judgment. We call those people “children,” and we feel no guilt over systematically excluding them from political power. It strikes most of us as just simple common sense. The idea of letting some of them vote if they can prove they are more knowledgeable than the average adult is considered radical and dangerous. We don’t let legal immigrants get the vote unless they can pass a civics test that most native-born Americans would likely fail. Many states also exclude convicted felons and many of the mentally ill from the franchise.

If it is perfectly fine to categorically exclude all 17 year olds from the franchise, why not a 19 year old or a 40 year old, whose understanding of the issues is as bad or worse than that of the average child? If we can exclude ignorant immigrants, why not ignorant natives? Under current US law, there is virtually nothing a person under 18 can do to get the vote. By contrast adults (and perhaps even children) denied the franchise under epistocracy could potentially remedy their situation simply by studying for and passing a test.

These and other similar questions posed by Brennan’s book should, at the very least, make us uncomfortable. Even if – like me – you are skeptical of Brennan’s proposals for epistocracy, he makes a strong case that the current electorate’s right to rule is not nearly as defensible as we might want to assume. It has more in common with the divine right of kings than we like to think.

Ultimately, however, while I agree with most of Brennan’s diagnosis of the problem, I am skeptical of his proposed solutions. As he recognizes, there is a substantial likelihood that real-world governments cannot be trusted to implement epistocracy in any kind of unbiased way. Instead of limiting the franchise to the knowledgeable, they are likely to structure tests, lotteries, or other similar mechanisms, in ways that overrepresent supporters of the party in power and exclude opponents. Such mechanisms also have a variety of other practical flaws.

Even if epistocratic selection mechanisms work better than I expect them to, the resulting more competent electorate might still lack the knowledge needed to effectively monitor more than a small fraction of the activities of the large and enormously complicated modern state. That herculean task may exceed the competence of even Vulcans. Ironically, the main flaw of epistocracy may be that we don’t have the knowledge to make it work.

At least for the time being, we are more likely to mitigate the harm caused by political ignorance by limiting and decentralizing the power of government, rather than by trying to transfer it to more knowledgeable hands. But even if full-blown epistocracy is impractical, modest movement in that direction may potentially be feasible. Brennan himself suggests trying out some of his proposed reforms on a small scale, perhaps at the state or local level – preferably in jurisdictions with low levels of corruption and no history of racial and ethnic discrimination in voting rules. At the very least, Brennan’s Competence Principle is a powerful challenge to the conventional wisdom about democracy. And his analysis of epistocratic alternatives to democracy is worth serious consideration – even if most of these ideas are nowhere near ready for large-scale implementation.