Democracy, Current Events

Demagogues and Democracy; Trump and Epistocracy

Zócalo Public Square has discussion today on democracies and the problem of demagogues. Here’s my piece. Excerpt:

In a well-functioning democracy, elites and the people keep each other in check. To some extent, the elites keep the people from implementing dumb policies, policies the people support only because they’re badly informed. To some extent, the people keep the elites from simply running the government to their own advantage at the expense of everyone else. Many supporters of democracy decry the power of elites. They should be careful what they wish for. Donald Trump is what happens when we the people get what we want.

At the Chronicle Review, I have a piece (the editors chose the title “Pox Populi”) on Trump’s rise, which I use as a springboard to discuss epistocracy.

We cannot “fix” democratic ignorance because we cannot change the incentives built into democracy. But perhaps we can reduce the problem by changing our political system. Trump’s supporters tend to be relatively low-information voters. What if instead of trying to make voters better informed and more reasonable, we tried to screen out the least reasonable and most misinformed voters? What if instead of a democracy we had an epistocracy?

…To state the obvious: Any realistic form of epistocracy will be subject to abuse. If there is a voter “exam,” special interests will try to rig the test in their favor. If getting a college degree gets you three extra votes, politicians will mess around with what counts as a degree in order to help empower their voters. Epistocracy will have warts. But so does democracy. Politicians already gerrymander districts, lie to voters, and abuse voter ID laws. Democracies sometimes choose disastrous leaders. The question isn’t whether epistocracy would be ideal, but whether it would be better than democracy.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • CJColucci

    “Better” at what? I don’t know anyone who seriously tries to justify democracy on the ground that it promotes better policies, as experts understand “better,” so proving that it does not is as relevant as proving that bicycles can’t get us across the ocean. Those who favor democracy favor it because it is currently the only broadly acceptable basis for legitimizing government; we won’t any longer accept being ruled on any other basis. Since government governs both the well- and ill-informed, both will insist on their say.

    • Pajser

      Exactly. People understand politics as fight for power, no matter if it is inspired by ideology or selfish interest, and then they prefer to count votes instead of bullets. Elitism assumes that masses do not want to fight for power at all.

      Simple way to incentivize voters to be better informed is to pay them to learn about most important political issues. Say, one exam per year, and those who pass are paid few thousand dollars. I can see few problems with that, but nothing essential.

  • stevenjohnson2

    Trump ran for President back in 2012 and went nowhere. He was the same man then as now. So what’s different? Billions of dollars in free publicity is the biggest difference I can see. The thing is, those billions of dollars aren’t coming from the vile rabble but from the elites in the media. If they wanted to, those elites would have no problem ignoring Trump the way they ignored Sanders. There is no case at all that Trump is somehow the vox populi of ignorant voters overcoming the wisdom of the owners. You can assume that sort of nonsense, but it self refutes the claim to being an epistocrat.

    Trump is instead proof that it’s the elites who want to keep voters “low information,” and go to great lengths to do so. Arguments for epistocracy are demagogy for low information elites who don’t understand how the system really works, and seek some sort of self-serving explanation of why they aren’t getting what they want and how they can get rid of democracy so that they do.

  • LLC

    Isn’t this yet another ‘lessor of evils’ argument, which so many decry?

  • Michael Zenz

    Jason, under such a system, would you still permit votes to be bought (as you have argued elsewhere should be permitted)?

  • Lacunaria

    Actually, according to polls, Hillary Clinton might be what happens when “We The People” get what “we” want. I’m not sure she is better overall, even if she may be epistocratically better.

    In addition, epistocracy violates the moral principle of self-determinism and consequent responsibility for our decisions.

    The better (moral, pragmatic, and libertarian) solution is to increase consent of the governed and localize the consequences, such as by splitting the demos and by restricting the government to only what a higher percentage of the demos agrees to.

    • martinbrock

      Right. But political elites want the opposite. They want to maximize their turf and the number of their subjects, and this desire filters any knowledge they might acquire.

      A Hayekian knowledge problem suggests than an epistocratic elite cannot simultaneously be a political elite. A sufficiently knowledgeable person knows that he cannot know enough to rule many others.

      Clinton’s brazen appeal to the Area 51 constituency belies her epistocratic credentials.

      • Lacunaria

        That would be nice, but epistocracy justs tests knowledge, not belief or integrity. Worse, it just tests knowledge of the answer you are supposed to give.

        Is the majority going to vote to create a test with the question, “Was the moon landing faked?” and the crackpots are going to answer it honestly?

        • martinbrock

          A faked moon landing seems extremely unlikely to me, but if a few people organize themselves around an ideology assuming a faked moon landing, I have no problem with it as long as they don’t impose their way of thinking on me, and there’s an extremely small chance, seems to me, that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

          • Lacunaria

            I agree, and you rightly identify that the issue is moral: “I have no problem with it as long as they don’t impose their way of thinking on me.”, not epistemological — or worse, simply giving majoritarian answers to a test.

            That’s why I think Brennan’s epistocracy doesn’t help that much and is kind of missing the moral point of democracy.

            This rule by consensus requires segregating people into ideologically homogeneous groups to some extent.

            I agree, it requires that freedom, and I think that the legitimacy of that separation feeds into the legitimacy of immigration restrictions.

  • JW Ogden

    As far as I can tell HRC is only better than Trump because we assume that she is lying but Trump may be lying too.

  • j r

    Does it really make sense to blame the individuals with the least amount of efficacy in the whole process?

    And we don’t need to “fix democratic ignorance.” Most people don’t know anything about computer science or electrical engineering or dentistry or how to take apart and put together an internal combustion engine, but people still manage to make good enough decisions about what computers and TVs to buy or where to get their teeth cleaned or who to take their car to when it stops working. Why? Because making the wrong decision comes with a cost and people are pretty good at reducing costs and maximizing utility.

    If you want to “fix” democracy, work to expose people more to the outcomes of the democratic process.

  • Christopher Ritchie

    The Problem with almost any proposed Epitocracy isn’t just that it can be gamed, or that it will be utilized to impose particular doctrine on the electorate. There exits two compounding problems: The first one is that the criteria selected to limit the electorate will inevitably tend towards conservatism(small c) and orthodoxy. Whatever standard of knowledge is utilized will rely on conventional wisdom and thus pose a higher barrier to challenge from new knowledge. The late 19th Century Qing state is a perfect example of this, in which attempts to integrate new knowledge into the government were limited by it’s reliance on scholars generated through the historical system. Dealing with prejudices and retained old information is hard enough in a democracy.

    The second problem is that it will run into legitimacy issues rapidly. You repeat the classic issues of the aristocracy where it is easy to demonstrate examples of those from the class ‘fit to rule’ are anything but, and those from the ruled who clearer are superior. Well and of course that those advocating for such a system never do so with a belief that they will be disenfranchised, which is always a bit suspicious in of itself.