I follow Dr. Steven Pinker on Twitter, and he just tweeted a link to an article that shills for an upcoming book titled Against Democracy. The article—and, I assume, the book—argues for replacing democracy as traditionally conceived with something called epistocracy, from the Greek episteme, meaning "knowledge." The idea harks back to at least Jefferson: voters should be knowledgeable; educated voting masses are better than uneducated ones. But Jason Brennan, the author of both Against Democracy and Pinker's linked article, alters the argument somewhat, saying that either (1) only knowledgeable citizens should be allowed to vote, or (2) knowledgeable citizens' votes should outweigh others'.
This is, I think, a baby step toward the ideal that Robert Heinlein expressed in his heavily political sci-fi novel Starship Troopers. In that book, Heinlein's vision of the future showcases a humanity in which only people who have gone through "federal service" (usually the military) have the right to become citizens, and only citizens may vote. Everyone else, in this scenario, is a non-voting "civilian," i.e., a subject with no political voice. Heinlein's concept is somewhat similar to Brennan's concept in that people who have acquired, through voluntary service, a visceral sort of knowledge about how civilizations work have the wisdom to vote well. Brennan isn't asking people to join the army, though; he's simply saying that people who understand things like civics and history should have more of a voice in electoral processes than the uneducated. Everyone will still have the right to vote, but educated voters' votes will carry more weight. That, or uneducated citizens won't have the right to vote at all.
Here's how Brennan puts it:
Democracies contain an essential flaw. By spreading power out widely, they remove any incentive for individual voters to use their power wisely. In a major election or referendum, individual voters have no greater chance of making a difference than they do of winning Powerball. They have no incentive to be well informed. They might as well indulge their worst prejudices. Democracy is the rule of the people, but entices people to be their worst.
What if there were an alternative? In my forthcoming book Against Democracy, I describe a new system of government called epistocracy. Epistocracy is meant to do what democracy does well, but guard against democracy’s downsides.
In a democracy, every citizen automatically receives an equal basic right to vote and run for office. Most modern democracies are republican democracies, containing checks and balances, with judicial review, constitutional constraints, multicameral legislatures, contestatory forums, bureaucratic autonomy, political parties and the like, all intended to slow down politics, prevent majoritarianism and protect minority interests.
Epistocracies retain such structures. The essential difference is that in an epistocracy, the right to vote is apportioned, to some degree, according to knowledge. An epistocracy might grant everyone the right to vote, but weigh some votes more than others, or more might exclude citizens from voting unless they can pass a basic test of political competence.
Democracy is the official religion of the West. Now is as good a time as any to question the faith.
I argue that political participation is not valuable for most people: it does most of us little good, and participating in politics tends to make us mean and dumb.
I argue that citizens don’t have any basic right to vote or run for office. The right to vote is not like other liberal rights. A right of free speech gives a citizen power over herself; the right to vote gives her power over others.
Democracy, I argue, is not an end in itself. It has the kind of value a hammer has. It’s just a useful instrument for producing just and efficient policies. If we can find a better hammer, we should use it. Indeed, epistocracy may be a better hammer. Perhaps a liberal republican epistocracy might outperform liberal republican democracy. It’s time to experiment and find out.
Should we give epistocracy a chance? Realistically, I don't see this ever happening. The move to epistocracy would be instantly politicized: people would cry racism, or classism, elitism, or some other -ism. Any "basic test of political competence" would be raked over the coals to a much greater degree than SAT questions are, in people's lust to suss out cultural bias. I simply can't foresee anything approaching epistocracy ever being realized. Your thoughts?