Rights Theory, Democracy

Judgments of Superiority

Another except from chapter 5 (“Politics Is Not a Poem”) of Against Democracy.


                  Thomas Christiano bases an argument for the duty to obey democratic laws in part on semiotic grounds. He argues that if I choose to disregard or refuse to obey a democratic law, “I am in effect saying that my judgment on these matters is better than [my fellow citizens’]… I am in effect treating myself like a god or the others like children.”[i] By refusing to obey democratic law, I fail to treat their judgment as equal to mine.[ii] By refusing to obey democratic laws, I would be “putting [my] judgment ahead of others…in effect expressing the superiority of [my] interests over others.”[iii] It is morally wrong to express such attitudes and so therefore it is wrong to disobey democratic laws.[iv] Christiano isn’t the only prominent philosopher with such worries. As I noted above, Estlund similarly worries that epistocracy would involve invidious comparisons.

In the passages I just cited, Christiano’s goal is to defend a moral duty to obey democratic laws. He is not in first instance trying to make a semiotic objection to epistocracy. However, I bring up his argument here, because his argument suggests that epistocracy is objectionable on semiotic grounds. Christiano believes that the choice to violate a democratic law with which one disagrees expresses contempt for one’s fellow citizens’ political judgment and expresses immoral attitudes of superiority. His argument thus suggests that to refuse the franchise to the incompetent expresses even greater contempt and an even stronger view of superiority.

Restricted suffrage and other forms of epistocracy do indeed communicate the idea that some citizens have better political judgment than others. After all, epistocracies in one way or another attempt to apportion political power on the basis of political competence. Epistocratic institutions may not express the view that some are like gods and others like children, but they do indeed express the view that that some people have better judgment than others when it comes to political matters.

Christiano thinks it is morally wrong to express such views. Presumably, in his opinion, the views defended in this book are not simply mistaken; I do something morally wrong by writing this book. But Christiano’s position is puzzling for a number of reasons.

First, Christiano makes the puzzling claim that by viewing one person’s judgment as superior to others’, that one thereby “in effect” regards that persons’ interests as more valuable. Christiano’s main argument for this claim seems to be that people suffer from self-serving biases. So, if we privilege the political judgment of some over others, the privileged will exercise power in ways that promote their interests at the expense of others interest.

However, while people are generally biased to be overconfident in their own judgment, as we discussed in previous chapters, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly shows that voters are not biased to vote in their self-interest. On the contrary, as we discussed in chapter two, empirical evidence overwhelmingly shows that citizens vote in what they regard as the national interest. Remember that the evidence does not simply show that voters believe themselves to be voting for the national interest. Rather, political scientists overwhelmingly find that citizens’ voting behavior is not predicted by what the political scientist would independently define as in the citizens’ interests. So long as the voting population in an epistocracy is in the thousands or greater, we can expect epistocratic voters to vote altruistically rather than selfishly.[v]

Beyond that, if Christiano is worried about self-serving biases, this doesn’t seem to call for a categorical rejection of epistocracy. Instead, it leaves open as an empirical question whether epistocracy does a better or worse job promoting justice than democracy, given whatever biases people have. If people are biased, this calls for comparative institutional analysis, and picking whichever system works better.

Second, it is unclear why it would be unjust or wrongful to express the view that some citizens have inferior normative or political judgment to others.[vi] I agree with Christiano that all citizens have equal basic moral rights. I agree that governments should not to privilege the interests of some over others. None of this precludes me from thinking that some people have inferior judgment to others on political matters, both in general or about specific topics.

About almost any topic inside or outside of politics, some people have superior judgment to others. Despite disagreement, diversity, and self-serving cognitive biases, we can and do form justified true beliefs that some people have superior judgment to others. I justifiably believe my surgeon brother-in-law has superior medical judgment than I do. I justifiably believe my IT tech brother has superior judgment about computers than I do. I justifiably believe my plumber has superior judgment about pipefitting that I do. I justifiably believe that Quantas pilots have superior judgment about piloting than I do. And, while I no doubt suffer from some degree of confirmation bias and self-serving bias, perhaps I justifiably believe that I—a professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at an elite research university, with a Ph.D. from the top-ranked political philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and with a strong record of peer-reviewed publications in top journals and academic presses—have superior political judgment on a great many political matters to many of my fellow citizens, including to many large groups of them. If I didn’t believe that about myself, I’d feel like a fraud every time I teach a political economy course.[vii]

Note that such judgments (that on some topic, one person knows more and has better judgment than the other) need not carry with them the further judgment that some people are better than others, tout court. I think my plumber is better at plumbing than I am, but I don’t think he’s better than I am, period. I think I’m better at economic reasoning than my plumber, but I don’t think I’m better than he is, period.

Judging that one has superior normative or political judgment seems especially unproblematic once we examine empirical work on what citizens know. As we saw in chapter two, the empirical evidence shows that on even the most basic questions about politics, most citizens know nothing, and many know less than nothing. We have evidence that the public makes systematic mistakes about social scientific matters. The American public sets the bar low. My five-year-old son is agnostic about economics, while the average and modal American is a mercantilist. This means that on many questions in economics, he is superior to the American public as a whole. He is merely ignorant, while they’re mistaken. My son Keaton might not understand much about economics, but at least he’s not a mercantilist, like almost everyone in the United States.

In light of these objections, a semiotic defender of democracy might agree that it is not essentially disrespectful to judge that some have superior judgment to others, but then object that it is usually disrespectful to express such judgments. It is fine to believe that some have better judgment than others, but we should keep this belief to ourselves, and avoid expressing it through our institutions.

To illustrate: my surgeon brother-in-law David correctly believes that he has superior medical judgment to most people. It is not morally wrong for him to have this belief. But that does not mean he should walk around Target, telling everyone meets that he has better medical judgment than they do. This would express arrogance or contempt.

However, there are times when something important is at stake. In such cases, it can become permissible or even mandatory that one publicly judge and express who is superior to others along some dimension.  Indeed, democrats seem to agree—most seem to think that when we’re voting for elected officials, we’re supposed to look for the better candidates, those better fit to lead.[viii]

For instance, if someone starts choking in front of David during his Target shopping trip, he should not be modest. Someone’s life is at stake. He should declare that he is a doctor—thus expressing that he has superior medical judgment to others and should be charged with helping the choking customer. Suppose bystander Bob, who has no medical training, says, “Hey, Doctor David, I want to help the choking person too! It’s disrespectful of you to insist you help him. You and I are equals. We should flip a coin to determine who will help. Otherwise you’re hurting my feelings.” In this scenario, Bob acts badly. David should take charge, and Bob should get over himself. Even if Bob sincerely believed he and David are equals, Bob is negligent in holding this belief, and shouldn’t act upon it.

It can be immoral or disrespectful under some conditions to express the view that some have better judgment than others, but under other conditions, it can be permissible or even mandatory. Let us apply this to a political example. Suppose an evil demon said, “I will cast a spell condemning all of you to lower quality government—and thus more unjust wars, bad economic policies that harm the poor, more bigotry, and more poverty and suffering—unless you do a moderately decent job identifying which citizens tend to have better political judgment from others.” In this case, under the demon’s threat, we would have good reason to try to distinguish the more from the less competent. If people feel insulted, it is just too bad, and they need to grow up. The point of distinguishing the more from the less competent is not to insult the incompetent, but to save us from the bad government the evil demon will inflict upon us.

Yet this is more or less the situation epistocrats claim we are in, except that in the real world, the evil demon is democracy. Now, epistocrats may be wrong about this—perhaps it turns out that democracy functions better than epistocracy—but the issue we’re currently considering is whether epistocracy has disrespectful semiotics. (Remember, the semiotic arguments for democracy are mean to show that we should use democracy instead of epistocracy, even if epistocracy performs better.) If epistocrats are right about the dangers of democracy and the advantages of epistocracy, then they are just as justified in expressing the view that some have superior political judgment as David was in expressing the view that he has superior medical judgment. If this offends voters, they are acting like Bob in the story above, and are morally obligated to get over it. We cannot let the country choke just because people are sensitive about or have unjustified beliefs about their political competence. It seems strange to hold that we should have less just policies, greater chance of unjust war, greater poverty, and so on, in order to avoid expressing the correct view that some people have better judgment about politics than others.

In response to worries like this, Christiano says that justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done.[ix] If fundamental political power is distributed equally, then citizens will tend to believe that everyone’s interests are being promoted equally. If power is distributed unequally, then citizens will tend to believe (or be suspicious) that the government favors some over others.[x] If some citizens are granted the right to vote but others are not, people might be suspicious that the former’s interests are being promoted while the latter’s interests are not.

But such suspicions are not enough to ground a theory of justice in the distribution of political power. One problem for Christiano is that “to see” is a success verb. One cannot see a ghost in the shadows unless there actually is a ghost. One cannot “see” justice being done unless justice is actually being done. So, suppose it turned out—as it well may—that epistocracy is superior to democracy at promoting just outcomes. If so, then instantiating democracy over epistocracy would not cause citizens to see justice done—it would at best cause them to mistakenly believe they are seeing justice done. Christiano’s objection gets off the ground only if citizens’ suspicions of epistocracy are well-grounded, that is, only if democracy actually performs better than epistocracy in promoting all citizens’ interests equitably. In that case, the semiotic concerns would no longer be decisive. Instead, we should have democracy simply because it works better. But if epistocracy would perform better than democracy, then in order for citizens to see justice being done, they would need to see epistocracy.

Now, suppose Christiano modified his view to say that it’s important that people believe justice is being done, and in some cases, it might be more important that people falsely believe justice is being done than that justice actually be done. For instance, suppose it turned out that people are terribly stubborn. Even if we had overwhelming proof that epistocracy produces more substantive justice than democracy does, they would still regard epistocracy as unjust, and, as a result, epistocracy would be more unstable than democracy. If the instability is bad enough, perhaps that would be outweigh whatever substantive benefits epistocracy would bring, and would be reason to favor democracy over epistocracy. But notice here that we’ve moved away from a semiotic argument for democracy to the instrumentalist question of which system performs better, all things considered.

[i] Christiano 2008, p. 98.

[ii] Christiano 2008, p. 99.

[iii] Christiano 2008, p. 99.

[iv] Christiano 2004, p. 287.

[v] Fedderson, Gailmard, and Sandroni 2009.

[vi] By “political judgment,” I mean here to include everything I think Christiano would include, meaning both the ability to determine what the appropriate final ends of government ought to be as well as the ability to determine what the most effective means of achieving those ends is.

[vii] One might hold the following view of university teaching: We professors don’t really have better political judgment than our students, but we are good at making them have better judgment. However, we professors have also taken a great number of courses from other professors who are supposedly (according to this view) good at making students have better judgment. Did our professors make all the other students develop better judgment, but fail to help us—the ones who became professors—have better judgment? So, I don’t see a way out of the view that if you’re a professor of X, you should believe you have better judgment with regard to X than the average person.

[viii] E.g., see Dovi 2007’s theory of good representatives.

[ix] Christiano 2008, 47.

[x] Christiano 2001, 208; Christiano 2008.

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Author: Jason Brennan
  • Krinein_ev

    This line of posts provide a great example of the principle that some ideas are so stupid, only an intellectual could believe them.

    • Jason Brennan

      Thanks, I agree. Fortunately I’m here to refute those stupid ideas.

  • pierre menard

    I wonder if you’ve seen the recent book The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind?
    The authors’ expertise is in cognitive science and psychology, and they argue that the large academic literature which holds that self-interest is not a strong predictor of political behavior is wrong, or, at least, a matter of slightly modifying the notion of self-interest. There is a summary at

    • Jason Brennan

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll take a look!

  • CJColucci

    Outside of a direct democracy, which no nation of any size has, the ignorant do not vote on policy. They vote for people who talk about policy, and who often talk nonsense about policy. But they voters often lack knowledge not only about policy, but about what the candidates say about policy, let alone what the candidates actually mean about policy. They also lack knowledge about the capabilities of the people they vote for to enact the policies that either: (a) the candidate says he wants to enact or (b) the policies the voter thinks the candidate wants to enact. A candidate says he wants to reduce the deficit without raising taxes, but, like most candidates who say that, he talks about the chump-change items in the federal budget, a couple of programs that appear to give money to People Not Like Us, and “waste, fraud, and abuse.” The ignorant voter doesn’t know whether, in the present economic circumstances, cutting the deficit is a good idea. Paul Krugman, who knows a lot more about this than the ignorant voter, thinks it isn’t, so maybe they should just listen to him. The ignorant voter doesn’t know that foreign aid, the NEA, and a handful of federally-subsidized experiments that didn’t work out are nothing more than rounding errors in the budget. The ignorant voter doesn’t know, often because the candidate doesn’t know or won’t say, where the real savings would come from or whether it is a good idea to make those cuts. And there is no such thing as expertise about the capabilities of candidates, at least within a normal range of candidates. The ignorant voter is equally ignorant about a lot of other things as well. But someone gets elected, and the elected someones haggle in a somewhat more reality-based way, if only because of conflicting ignorant views, and something gets done, which the ignorant voter did not intend, probably doesn’t want, but cannot really evaluate. The deficit does not get cut significantly because cutting chump change items can’t do it and the elected someones can’t agree on big cuts not because they are ignorant of facts (though they often are), but because they disagree on interests and values and can’t do better than some ugly and ineffective compromise. The ignorant voter may be unseemly, or, if one thinks this is a useful way of putting it, unjust, but I don’t see where his ignorance is a significant causal mechanism leading to bad policies.

    • Jason Brennan

      See chapters 2 and 7.

  • Nicholas Weininger

    I’ll be curious to see (having just preordered the e-book of Against Democracy) how you address what I think is a pretty strong and common “rule-instrumentalist” argument against epistocratic voting restrictions. Namely, we know that almost all actually existing restriction schemes, not only for voting but for the other things like medical practice, plumbing, driving, etc that you rightly compare to voting, are consistently abused by constructing elaborate rationalizations that make the restrictions sound just and public-spirited. For voting, you can look at the record of excuses made for things like poll taxes and literacy tests, which sound pretty epistocratic on their face. For occupational licensing, the various “public safety” justifications for rent-seeking guild limitations on licensees. For driving, the capricious suspension of drivers’ licenses for offenses with tenuous connections to safety on the road, e.g. nonpayment of fines and court fees.

    Given this history, one might say: in theory, yes, epistocratic restrictions could be just; but in any real modern society, government already has way too much license/restriction power that it consistently abuses, there are powerful political dynamics which will strongly tend to cause new powers to be abused and which we have no good idea how to counteract, and therefore when the stakes are so high (as they are in determining who gets political office) we should err on the side of not granting new license/restriction powers.

    • Jason Brennan

      I think this is actually an easy question. Of course such things will be abused. So, all I’m saying is that if epistocracy with all its abuses ends up working better than democracy with all its abuses, we may/must use epistocracy. I discuss this at greater length in chapter 8.

      Also, the places where epistocracy will work best are also places where democracy works best. Swiss epistocracy will, I suspect be better than Swiss democracy, which might be better than American epistocracy, which might be better then American democracy, which is better than Venezuelan democracy, and so on.

      So, for me, it’s all comparative institutional analysis. It’s not about comparing an ideal to a real.

  • Jameson Graber

    The semiotic justification seems pretty desperate. I’m far more inclined to simply ask how, as a matter of fact, we really judge some people as experts in political judgment.

    When a plumber fixes your toilet, you can see that it works again. There’s a pretty clear way of judging competence. If you take someone who does academic research, it becomes less clear, because arguably the only measure of success is peer review–which, to the outside observer, sounds pretty circular! But at least the sciences have some way of justifying themselves on the basis of products and concrete discoveries (e.g. iPhones, moon landings, gravitational waves) which implement our abstract ideas. Political (or any other type of) philosophy, on the other hand…

  • Greg Diderich

    As a practical matter, (and I believe you are trying to make a practical argument, that the results are better), I wouldn’t make light of this objection:

    “Even if we had overwhelming proof that epistocracy produces more substantive justice than democracy does, they would still regard epistocracy as unjust, and, as a result, epistocracy would be more unstable than democracy. If the instability is bad enough, perhaps that would be outweigh whatever substantive benefits epistocracy would bring, and would be reason to favor democracy over epistocracy. But notice here that we’ve moved away from a semiotic argument for democracy to the instrumentalist question of which system performs better, all things considered.”

    The Haitian revolution and the Second Venuzuelan revolution met extremely different ends from the US revolution when an unrepresented (and legitimately oppressed) group had a larger proportion of the population. Jose Tomas Boves pretty much rode around and recruited people by saying, “Do you want the white elite ruling over you? No? Do you want to kill them and steal their stuff? Yes? Ok, let’s go.”

    I know you have in mind a system where people would not be oppressed, because this system works so well, but it really does matter a lot how the unrepresented feel. You’ve made quite a convincing argument that the masses would have a strongly differing opinion on how the country should be run, as compared to an epistocracy. And I reckon a lot of their problems could find a scape goat in those policies, regardless of whether it’s true or not.

    As a thought experiment, it’s a good one, and maybe I’m jumping to the end. As a real world experiment, I prefer it was tried in a country i didn’t live in…the consequence of being wrong and there being a reactionary revolt is pretty severe.