Thursday, September 08, 2016


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?


King Baeksu said...

Winston Churchill: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." That was a long time ago, however, and these days it only take a minute or two.

America began as an "epistocracy" of sorts, but it was founded on a base of "patriarchy" and "white supremacism," and therefore was inherently evil. In its present-day form, American democracy is not genuine "rule of the people," the literal meaning of the word derived from the original Greek, but rather mere "management of the people."

Unfortunately, our managerial elites are not wise "philosopher kings" of the kind advocated by Plato, but rather the silver-tongued handmaidens of darker forces standing in the shadows behind them. And they will never relinquish power without violent revolution against them. Thanks to feminism, football and Facebook, however, Americans are just too soft and deracinated at this point in their history to muster the necessary fortitude for radical change.

It's all just entertainment at this point, folks. Grab some popcorn and enjoy The Show.

Surprises Aplenty said...

It seems like communism, an ideal that theoretically looks great, with no way to get there.

Kevin Kim said...

Bill Keezer comments via email:

I have written on this in the past, and come to the conclusion that so-called low-information voters have just as much a stake in government as the well-educated. I see this as just another argument for the rule by elitists. The one restriction I see should be that anyone receiving welfare, grants, or any unearned money from the government should not be allowed to vote. That is like the wolf voting on dinner with the sheep, and is the biggest source of vote-buying in this country.

Nathan B. said...

I personally would class America as more of an oligarchy than a democracy. The true powers--the wealthiest who own the largest corporations--control how people can vote by controlling the quality and kinds of information they have access to. People can't make informed votes in that kind of a system. Then, too, there is the fact that so many important members of both parties in both Houses of Congress are beholden to corporate vested interests. Actually, I think many of the developed democracies of the world, including the one I live in, are headed in that same direction. It's very sad.

The US has the added twist of being a race-based oligarchy, though--hence all those voter suppression bills in the South. No sooner does the US Supreme Court strike them down then the various southern state legislatures and county officials try to accomplish through different means the same end again: the disenfranchisement of the Black vote. It's happening so often and with such obvious venom directed against the Blacks that I'm reminded of the enforced differences between the Spartiates and the helots in ancient Sparta.

Kevin Kim said...


Funnily enough, I've noticed that both sides of the right/left aisle use the term "the elite" (uncountable noun) or "the elites" (countable noun) in their discussions of power dynamics. Oligarchy, indeed.

Nathan B. said...

That's interesting, Kevin. I tend to see bitter complaints about "the elite(s)" only from those on the right. Sometimes, I see the term used by journalists who are trying to see the world through the eyes of those on the populist right.

For short, I like to refer to the wealthiest of the wealthy as the "one-percenters," but in my reading and writing, I usually find that phrases are used to describe them, rather than single terms. I don't read wild-eyed leftist bloggers, but I do like to read The Guardian and the New York Times, among others, and of course they skew in a leftward direction.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, wild-eyed anybody is usually bad news.

Surprises Aplenty said...

"The one restriction I see should be that anyone receiving welfare, grants, or any unearned money from the government should not be allowed to vote." If this applied to business owners who received grants and farmers who get aid, who would be left to vote?

I forget which American billionaire - Buffett, I think - who stated that he paid less tax than one of his secretary. These tax rebates or lower rates should surely disqualify a person of the right to vote if collection of welfare does.

" That is like the wolf voting on dinner with the sheep" This sounds like an appropriate attack on Citizens United.