Months after misplacing it, I have finally found and finished reading Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy. I want to record a few notes on his argument for Epistocracy.
First, a fundamental foundation of his argument is that people deserve competent government. He agrees that democracy is generally more competent than authoritarian systems (or at least less incompetent) particularly in securing all important civil liberties. But democracy is a tool, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Given the empirically demonstrated systemic knowledge biases of the public, perhaps there is a better means.
Second, he’s not engaging in ideal theory. After critiquing democratic theorists who ignore the real-world problems of democracy in favor of theoretical visions that depend on an electorate quite unlike what we have or can expect to have, he openly admits that epistocracy will also be imperfect.
Because of cultural and others differences, democratic institutions work better in [some countries] than in [others]. I’d expect something similar would hold true of epistocracy. Both systems will suffer abuse, scandal, and government failure.
Third, epistocracy is not a form of technocracy. He discusses several alternatives, all of which are notable for being reasonably democratic–the masses still participate in the choosing of those who govern us. In fact the extant institutions of governance and terms of office can remain exactly the same–it’s only the choosing process that changes, by restricting voting to those that demonstrate competence.
How to demonstrate that? He doesn’t insist on a method, but recognizes we could choose among multiple forms of testing, from demonstration of basic economic and political knowledge to a simple test of how informed prospective voters are about candidates, party, and issues, to passing an SAT style test, to simply identifying enough countries on a world map. It’s not that he thinks these are all equally good methods–it’s that he’s not building an ideal type system that has to have his specifically favored design.
What about demographic issues–would epistocracy produce de facto discrimination in potential to qualify as a voter? Brennan politely chooses not to note what a terrible condemnation of our public education system this fear is (and likely to be held by the same people who cling tenaciously to that system against proposed alternatives). He just notes that we can choose to create means for giving all citizens a reasonable opportunity to qualify. As one example he suggests a cash reward for everyone who qualifies, giving them incentive to learn. I would add that social service organizations like those that run GED and ESL classes could build the knowledge into their curriculum, or we could fund such classes publicly. How we do it is a choice of tool–find a tool or set of tools that work. He’s not suggesting qualifications so high that average adults are incapable of meeting them without effort. (We could, of course, choose such high qualifications, but I’d suggest the higher they are the less likely the prospect of getting public approval to implement them.)
Another alternative form continues universal suffrage (and Brennan actually appears to support broader suffrage than we currently have, favoring felons’ voting rights and suggesting giving voting rights to 16 year olds), but with an epistocratic council that has a veto over laws and perhaps even electoral outcomes (although I think he doesn’t address how much more politically charged the latter would be). The council would have no positive power to ceate laws or rules or place someone in office, merely a veto. How big a council? Whatever we choose. I’m sure he has some preference, but again he’s not insisting there is one and only one way to design this.
“There are many ways to fill in the details, some of which will be more defensible than others. The system might have just one council, for instance, or it might have multiple councils at different levels of government. The system might have a large council or it could be small, but have its members randomly drawn from all citizens who meet the competency requirement.”
And as yet another possible epistocratic structure he suggests we could give one vote to everyone at age 16, an additional vote (or votes) when they complete high school, more when they complete college, and still more if they complete a graduate degree (surely more for a PhD than an MA, Jason!). I specifically mention this because there are innumerable people with advanced degrees whose political views differ radically from Brennan’s. One can become a historian, or sociologist, or biologist, or even a philosopher like Brennan, without gaining the basic economic and political science knowledge he’d clearly prefer they have. But he’s not insisting on a system that excludes people who ideologically disagree with him.
In the end, epistocracy looks far less radical than I think people assume it’s going to be. It’s basic form, whichever we choose, is fairly democratic in nature, but with additional checks on the worst tendencies of the public. What really distinguishes it from democracy is that it doesn’t pretend voting power is fully equally distributed. It’s not anyway in the U.S., of course, although epistocracy would take this a step farther. But to the extent it disenfranchises people, it only disenfranchises those who least understand what they are doing with their vote.