Here are two predictable but silly ways people who haven’t read Against Democracy will react to it:
- Quote Buckley saying that he’d rather be ruled by the first hundred people from the Cambridge phonebook than by Harvard faculty.
- Ask, “Didn’t Plato already advocate the rule of philosopher kings?”
To be clear, I think Plato is right that the rule of philosopher kings would be better than democracy, but Aristotle is right that no philosopher kings are available. But the case for epistocracy doesn’t rest on the rule of philosopher kings, nor is epistocracy necessarily the “rule of the few”. One reason why epistocracy gets a bad rep is that democrats, in true hooligan fashion, strawman the position. (I take that as a compliment!)
Here’s an excerpt from a draft of chapter 1 explaining why defending epistocracy does not mean defending philosophers kings or small bands of experts with totalitarian power.
Thousands of years ago, Plato worried that a democratic electorate would be too dumb, irrational, and ignorant to govern well. He seemed to argue that best form of government would be rule by a noble and wise philosopher-king. (Scholars debate whether Plato was serious.) Contemporary political philosophers would label Plato an “epistocrat”.[i] “Epistocracy” means the rule of the knowledgeable. More precisely, a political regime is epistocratic to the extent that political power is formally distributed according to competence, skill, and the good faith to act upon that skill.
Aristotle responded to Plato that while the rule of philosopher kings would be best, we’ll never have any philosopher kings. Real people just aren’t wise or good enough to fill that role, nor, contrary to Plato, can we reliably train them to become that wise or good.
Aristotle is right—trying to develop someone into a philosopher king is hopeless. In the real world, governing is too difficult for any one person to do alone. Worse, in the real world, if we imbued an office with the discretionary power of a philosopher king, that power would attract the wrong kind of people, people who would abuse that power for their own ends.
However, the case for epistocracy doesn’t hang on hopes of a philosopher king or guardian class. There are many other possible forms of epistocracy:
- Restricted Suffrage: Citizens may acquire the legal right to vote and run for office only if they are deemed (through some sort of process) competent and/or sufficiently well-informed. This system has representative government and institutions similar to modern democracies, but does not imbue everyone with voting power. Nevertheless, voting rights are widespread, if not as widespread as in a democracy.
- Plural Voting: As in a democracy, every citizen has a vote. However, some citizens, those who are deemed (through some legal process) to be more competent or better informed, have additional votes. So, for instance, John Stuart Mill advocated a plural voting regime. As we discussed above, he though getting everyone involved in politics would tend to ennoble them. However, he remained worried that too many citizens would be incompetent and insufficiently educated to make smart choices at the polls. Thus, he advocated giving better educated people more votes.
- The Enfranchisement Lottery: Electoral cycles proceed as normal, except that by default no citizen has any right to vote. Immediately before the election, thousands of citizens are selected, via a random lottery, to become pre-voters. These pre-voters may then earn the right to vote, but only if they participate in certain competence-building exercises, such as deliberative fora with their fellow citizens.[ii]
- Epistocratic Veto: All laws must be passed through democratic procedures via a democratic body. However, an epistocratic body with restricted membership retains the right to veto rules passed by the democratic body.
- Weighted Voting/Government by Simulated Oracle: Every citizen may vote, but must take a quiz concerning basic political knowledge at the same time. Their votes are weighted based on their objective political knowledge, perhaps while statistically controlling for the influence of race, income, sex, and/or other demographic factors.
In recent years, Plato is making a comeback. In political philosophy, epistocracy has re-emerged as the main challenger to democracy’s throne. Few political philosophers embrace epistocracy; most remain democrats. But they recognize that a proper defense of democracy must show that democracy is, all things considered, superior to epistocracy. They also recognize that this is not easy to show.
In this book, I argue the choice between democracy and epistocracy is instrumental. It ultimately comes down to which system would perform better in the real world. I will provide some reasons to believe that epistocracy would outperform democracy, though we do not yet have sufficient evidence to definitely favor epistocracy over democracy. We are forced to speculate, because the most promising forms of epistocracy have not been tried. My goal here is not to argue for the strong claim that epistocracy is superior to democracy. I am instead arguing for weaker claims: A) If any form of epistocracy, with whatever realistic flaws it has, turns out to be perform better than democracy, we ought to implement epistocracy instead of democracy. B) There are good grounds to presume that some feasible form of epistocracy would in fact outperform democracy. C) If democracy and epistocracy perform equally well, then we may justly instantiate either system.
Epistocrats strike many people as authoritarian. Epistocrats seem to hold that smart people should have the right to rule over others just because they know better. On this point, Estlund claims that defenses of epistocracy typically rest upon three tenets: a truth tenet, a knowledge tenet, and an authority tenet.
- The Truth Tenet: There are correct answers to (at least some) political questions.
- The Knowledge Tenet: Some citizens know more of these truths or are more reliable at determining these truths than others.
- TheAuthority Tenet: When some citizens have greater knowledge or reliability, this justifies granting them political authority over those with lesser knowledge.[iii]
Estlund accepts the truth and knowledge tenets, but argues that we should reject the authority tenet. The authority tenet commits what he calls the “expert/boss fallacy”. One commits the expert/boss fallacy when one thinks that being an expert is sufficient reason for a person to hold power over others. But, he says, possessing superior knowledge is not sufficient to justify having any power, let alone greater power, than others. We can always say to the experts, “You may know better, but who made you boss?” For example, my dietitian sister-in-law knows better than I do what I should eat, but that doesn’t mean she should be able to force me to follow a diet she prescribes. Exercise celebrity Shaun T knows better than I do how to get cut abs, but that doesn’t mean he may force me to do burpees.
I agree with Estlund that the authority tenet is false. But, as I’ll argue in chapter six, the case for epistocracy does not rest on the authority tenet, but instead on something closer to an anti-authority tenet.
The Anti-Authority Tenet: When some citizens are morally unreasonable, ignorant, or incompetent about politics, this justifies not permitting them to exercise political authority over others. It justifies either forbidding them from holding power, or reducing the power they have, in order to protect innocent people from their incompetence.
By saddling epistocrats with the authority tenet, Estlund unintentionally makes the case for epistocracy seem more difficult than it is. Epistocrats need not argue that experts should be bosses. Epistocrats need only argue that incompetent or unreasonable people should not be imposed upon others as bosses. Epistocrats need only argue that democratic decision-making, in certain cases, lacks authority or legitimacy because it tends to be incompetent. This leaves open what, if anything, justifies political power.
Further, this is a discussion about who should decide, but it’s neither a libertarian nor an anti-libertarian book:
I think most people are bad at politics and politics is bad for most of us, but I am not arguing that therefore we should have government do less (or more). Instead, I am arguing that—if the facts turn out the right way—fewer or us should be allowed to participate. If you’re a social democrat, I’m arguing you should consider becoming a social epistocrat. If you’re a democratic socialist, I’m arguing you should consider becoming an epistocrat socialist. If you’re a conservative republican, I’m arguing you should consider being a conservative epistocrat. If you’re an anarcho-capitalist libertarian or left-syndicalist anarchist, I’m arguing that you should consider epistocracy a possible improvement over current democracy, even if anarchism would be even better.