Democracy, Book/Article Reviews

Return of the Philosopher King? Not So Fast

Here are two predictable but silly ways people who haven’t read Against Democracy will react to it:

  1. Quote Buckley saying that he’d rather be ruled by the first hundred people from the Cambridge phonebook than by Harvard faculty.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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]
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  1. The Truth Tenet: There are correct answers to (at least some) political questions.
  2. The Knowledge Tenet: Some citizens know more of these truths or are more reliable at determining these truths than others.
  3. 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.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • Jeff Sylvester

    I’m very interested in this topic, and I have your book on pre-order. What I have yet been able to understand from what I’ve read from you so far is just how you evaluate someone’s knowledge.

    You have all kinds of people who believe awful things, and how do you prevent those people from enforcing their “knowledge” as the “one true knowledge”? It seems like any kind of testing opens the door to manipulate elections to favor what the powerful believe is right.

    And you do you resolve tension between schools of thought? So take your epistocrat socialist and your epistocrat libertarian, and how do you decide who gets to play at the table equally? Is the epistocrat libertarian going to have any respect for the so-called knowledge of the epistocrat socialist if they believe that the epistocrat socialist is wrong headed (and, of course, vice versa).

    And finally, how do you make sure that the well educated serve well the needs of the less educated who will never have representation under such a system (those in poverty with limited access to knowledge)? Haven’t we already seen the effects of this?

    Are these questions you deal with in your book? If so, I’ll read them soon enough!

    Given the rise of Trump/Clinton, I’m fully on board with judging the majority of the U.S. population as unqualified to make these decisions. Democracy appears to have failed us. But without resolving the above questions, it seems to me that trying to create a knowledgeable ruling class would end up being even worse.

    Please forgive if I’ve misunderstood where you are going with this. I’ve only read a handful of posts by you, and obviously I haven’t read the book yet.

    • Jason Brennan

      Hi Jeff, the short answer is that these are all very important questions, and I try to answer each of them in the book. Thanks for ordering!

      • Jeff Sylvester

        Great- well, I’m looking forward to it!

  • CJColucci

    This leaves open what, if anything, justifies political power.

    Perhaps that it is conferred on a basis that the governed are willing to accept?

    • Jason Brennan

      Absolutely! Consent would do it. But, unfortunately, consent theory leads to anarchism. See chapter 4.

      • Ron H.

        Why is that unfortunate?

      • CJColucci

        Since we’re talking about forms of government — democracy v. epistocracy — we are necessarily presupposing some sort of government. I’ve never seen any reason that people can’t consent to a form of government even if they don’t consent (and might even be able to predict that they won’t consent) to all or even most of that government’s acts. They may not have to play, but if they agree to play they have to accept that they might lose. But whether consent theory leads in some philosopher’s conception to anarchism or not, it remains true that if there is going to be a government, it can’t be a form of government that would send large numbers of the to-be-governed into the streets. I rest on what seems to me to be a true and simple factual proposition: people will accept democracy as a legitimate form of rule, even if they are often unhappy with how it works, and will not accept epistocracy as a legitimate form of government. And it is hard to see how epistocracy can “work” if the people it is supposed to work on or for don’t accept it.

        • j_m_h

          How are you defining anarchy and government? I agree that whatever institutional forms for governance are consistent with anarchy I’m not entirely sure one can just rule out either types of democratic processes or even the presence of some experts in resolving disputes and helping to establish the generally accepted social rules of interaction.

          • CJColucci

            I’m not. I don’t think that’s a particularly useful exercise at all, and surely not when we are comparing two things that all discussants agree are forms of government — epistocracy and democracy. As for anarchy, I didn’t bring it up. It has been suggested that basing the legitimacy of a form of government on the theory that the putatively governed are willing to be so governed leads somehow to anarchy, however defined. I’ve seen various versions of this argument, which I find hard to understand, let alone accept, and I’m not going to buy someone’s book just to find out if it contains some new and better theory. But anarchy is not on the table in a comparison between two things that clearly are forms of government, so I’ll politely decline to get into the subject.

          • j_m_h

            I clearly read something in that was not there. The “neccesarily presupposing some form of government” made me think you thought some of the discussion was in the context of no actual government — which is different from governance (culture is a governance structure but not a for of government). I agree that Brennan is most definitely speaking of a formal government structure.

  • j r

    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.

    That’s a bit of an understatement, no? The only relatively contemporary real world examples of your various forms of epistocracy of which I can think are the Jim Crow south with it’s literacy tests and the Islamic Republic of Iran, with its epistocratically named Assembly of Experts. Does that give you any pause?

    I’m also having a hard time distinguishing this Anti-Authority Tenet from the garden variety of excuses and rationalizations that authoritarians generally use to justify their own authority. The white supremacists of the antebellum and Jim Crow south preached that to share political power with blacks would lead to the enslavement of whites. The hardliners in Iran argue for the necessity of a group with the proper knowledge of God’s laws to keep to the goals of the Islamic Revolution. And communist countries have generally argued for the special role of the party as “the organized expression of the will of society.” What’s the difference between those systems and your anti-authority justification?

    • Jason Brennan

      So, basically, you’re saying that it counts as a critique of my view that you’re going to interpret it in the least charitable way you can?

      • j_m_h

        Maybe jr is just saying we know there are such risks in the real world so if you get to implement your approach how will you avoid them? I think it’s a legitimate question to pose and a requirement to have a reasonable answer in response. If not there it’s all just ivory tower stuff.

        • Jason Brennan

          IF that’s the case, that objection gets covered in the book. Of course epistocracy will get abused. But by the time we’re discussing epistocracy seriously, I should have gotten the reader to accept pure instrumentalism in the choice between democracy and epistocracy. If so, then the question is which system, warts, failing, and abuses and all, works better.

      • j r

        No. And I think that you know that.

        I actually was not making any interpretations. Rather, I was making a couple of observations and asking the questions that flowed from those observations.

        I am, however, interpreting your refusal to address meaningful critiques and questions of your work.

        • Jason Brennan

          JR, it seems uncharitable of me to think that you think the actual reason why Jim Crow laws were implemented is because of a philosophical commitment to epistocracy. And you know that, too.

          • Clearly literacy tests in the post-Civil War US South were instituted solely as a racially discriminatory measure, and in practice were administered in an unjust manner. However as I understand it your argument is that all else being equal epistocracy should be judged against democracy based on the results in practice, so it seems to me that even an unjust epistocracy can provide a data point relevant to that question. More specifically, is there any evidence one way or the other that Southern states had better governance (e.g., compared to Northern states) based on their having restricted the voting population in this way?

            Less controversially, consider the situation before and after the passage of the 17th Amendment: Is there any evidence one way or the other that having state legislators elect US Senators produced better governance than having Senators chosen by direct election?

            I’m not asking these questions to be snarky. I don’t have a fixed opinion on what the answers might be, nor do I know whether or how such answers might be found. But the questions do seem relevant to your thesis, and since my Kindle version won’t arrive until later this month I don’t know if you’ve addressed these or similar questions in the book itself.

      • Jameson Graber

        It *should* give one pause to think that you’re responding in basically the same way any communist does. “Oh, no, none of those real-world examples (USSR, Cuba, China, etc.) are *real* communism.”

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  • Joe Kane

    What would you think of a sort of combination of two “possible forms of epistocracy?” I’m think of perhaps some sort of competence test (restricted suffrage) + the ability of those who don’t pass the test to designate their votes to someone who did (plural voting). This seems similar to having a real, active electoral college.

    Would you say that the style of republicanism embodied by the original constitution (i.e. prior to 17th amendment, assumption that electors will follow popular vote, etc.) was a lot closer to your ideal?

  • Swami

    You seem to be comparing epistocracy to democracy. But democracy isn’t what we have. What we actually have in most cases is representative democracy. IOW, we have a system where voters get to decide who the deciders are. There is absolutely nothing to prevent the voters, or some of them, from electing philosopher representatives and from those philosophers further assigning the bureaucracies and agencies and such over to fellow philosopher juniors.

    If this is the experiment you are arguing for then let’s give it a go somewhere and see how it works.

    • j_m_h

      from an experimental view I’m wondering if one can look at other setting where group decisions are made and see how the compare, what their pros and cons are in terms of over all results and the like. We have a lot of various clubs, corporation and even a host of levels of governments within the USA to look at. I’m going to take a wild guess that they don’t all use the same set of rules for participation.

      • Swami

        Good point. And my reading on the issue is that the skill sets of great intellectuals don’t overlap well with great leaders. But I suspect Jason agrees with this too.

    • Jason Brennan

      I agree. In chapter 8, I argue that part of the reason democracy as we have it works so well is because of mediating factors, such as representative independence, bureaucratic independence, the higher-than-normal influence of rich voters over poor voters, etc.

      Given the work that comes before that chapter, this leaves the reader with a dilemma:

      Either the mass election counts as a “high stakes” decision or it doesn’t. If it does, then my argument in chapter 6 gets us to the conclusion that mass elections are conducted in a presumptively unjust way, and we have presumptive grounds for preferring epistocracy to democracy. If it doesn’t, then you should be from a deontological point of view indifferent between democracy and epistocracy, but willing to use whatever system works better, all things considered. So, either you’re with me or not against me.

      • Swami

        I suggested it can be tried somewhere if voters agreed to try to elect philosopher representatives. I will add that most experiments fail, often catastrophically. As such I suggest it be tried on a small geographic scale to minimize potential problems. To the extent that is what you are suggesting, then we agree. Great experiment for a few cities to try it various ways.

        Stepping back, the central question we are answering is WHO DECIDES?

        Succesful modern societies have tended to come up with a model of some mix of free enterprise and government. In free enterprise the person who decides is the person(s) affected or with control of the property as defined by the property and contract conventions. Free enterprise can thus be viewed as a decentralized convention that determines who decides and how they can interact (voluntarily with others with everyone extended the right or freedom to try). It is my effort, my car, my house, my computer so I decide how to use them and how to interact with others who mutually agree.

        Government is of course not a bottoms up decentralized system. It is a system where those with control make the decisions which are then imposed on others. One such decision they can make is how to design the above rules and conventions of the market system (how are property conventions assigned, contract rules, etc). Another decision is where to transition from the need to make imposed decisions to decentralized decisions.

        To clarify, the decision is a meta decision. Not just who gets to decide, but how much of the spectrum of decision making gets to be made centrally. Who gets to decide who decides?

        The two weaknesses of any system with imposed decision making can be summarized as

        1) the Cooperation problem (the central dilemma in any social system — that the payoffs to defection/exploitation undermines cooperation and that this applies in spades to leaders), and

        2) the knowledge problem (Hayek — the person at top of hierarchy doesn’t have local knowledge nor does she know what the desired goal is or the path to get there as Friedman alludes to in his comment above)

        Again, modern societies have tended to manage these by limiting the scope of decision making of imposed decision making and by allowing the adult citizens to decide who the deciders are. Libertarians tend to want a very limited scope of imposed decision making, others prefer a not so limited role.

        I would suggest what we need is philosophers building and spreading the case for limited government to solve the cooperation and knowledge problems, and people who are great at representing citizens taking on this limited and constrained role. The best philosophers would likely be awful leaders and vice versa.

        Long way for me to say that society is a complex adaptive system, and complex adaptive systems are not controlled or planned from the top down.

        Once the system is set up right, the key decision is not what is imposed, but who gets to decide what is imposed. I think those affected (citizens) need to make that decision.

  • j_m_h

    “But the case for epistocracy doesn’t rest on the rule of philosopher kings, nor is epistocracy necessarily the ‘rule of the few’.”
    Is that a theoretical claim or the statement that empirically, once in place, the system will not devolve to one or the other — with the caveat being the “philosopher kings” will be self proclaimed more or less and operationally no different from the rule of a minority (which we already have).
    One thing that continues to disturb me about this approach is the reliance on people rather than institutional structure. This is more alarming to me coming for those who largely claim markets work. No one thinks market participants need to be fully informed for markets to work pretty well. The presumption is that incentives towards “corrective actions” exist so behaviors will adjust to produce better outcomes is competition is real and information disseminates within the economy.
    Regarding form 4 above — I’d prefer the check in the form of existing common law process to confirm the stated goals of the laws (which are always claimed to produce common/general good results and not transfer wealth to my group or prevent entry so I keep or get monopoly profits…). There is simply too much complexity in some much of policy that no one has that level of knowledge (think Hayek here).

    • Jason Brennan

      I think, actually, that everything I propose takes this into account. I’m pushing on comparative institutional analysis and using what we know about how politics gets corrupted to get better outcomes. No ideal theory here.

      • j_m_h

        So other than who gets to vote, or the value of that vote, what institutional changes are you suggesting?

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    You say: “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.”

    Why, fantastic! Now we just need to agree on what it means to “outperform;” does this mean a polity that looks more like the one envisioned by Marx, Dworkin, Nagel, Rawls, Nozick, Hayek, etc.? It seems to me you have two options: first, simply posit the form that seems best to you, which clearly begs the question against the 99% of people who have a materially different view. Second, claim that a criterion is not necessary because you are merely making the point that if we could somehow agree on an ideal, progress would be evident if we adopted some form of epistocracy. The latter alternative seems to me like boldly asserting that you have invented a way to double the output of any cold fusion device, if only one were presented to you.

    In this light, I find your last para incoherent. Why should a libertarian welcome epistocracy if this policy–applied to the electorate at large– would move us in a more socialist direction? Perhaps I have missed the clever point you have made.

  • Jason Fireston

    But to some degree we already have an epistocracy, just not as much as you would like. Groups like the ACLU file litigation when it’s clear that democracy has failed.

    • Jason Brennan

      I agree! This one of the arguments I make in chapter 7–that democracy already has epistocratic elements, and that’s why it over-performs.

  • Jameson Graber

    There is no such thing as a closed experiment in political science. Institutions can’t be artificially put into a fair competition. That’s too bad for anyone who wants to reduce the argument down to expediency. I highly doubt any form of government will ever come into being because people are convinced by arguments detailing how it would work. Rather, people are moved by principles that resonate with their sense of justice. Democracy means every voice is equal, says the common man of our day. It does not matter whether that assertion is correct. All that matters is that people associate a form of government with their most deeply cherished values.

  • IEIUNUS

    Just realized the title is a Lord of the Rings reference.

    Good for you.

  • assman35

    I can think of several arguments against Epistocracy:

    1) Democracy will always seen to be more legitimate than epistocracy and legitimacy is important because results seen as legitimate have less likelihood in resulting in political violence or revolution.

    2) Epistocracy may get stuck in local minima. What I mean by that is that a known way of optimizing a fitness function is to choose the path of steepest descent. But the problem is that you get stuck in local minima and you need a random jump to get out. Populism is the random jump. But with Epistocracy there is no random jump. This may be sub-optimal.

    3) We already have all the best aspects of Epistocracy without its defects in the current sham democracy. Current democracy gives the perception of legitimacy but actually strongly favors elite interests. There are many reason for this including the domination of educated elites in media, think tanks, corporations, political party machines, judiciary and most other areas of government and regulation. The influence of campaign finance and the revolving doors between various elite associations.

    For instance, why have governments throughout the world pursued free trade and immigration policies that are strongly at odds with what most of their population wants. Obviously because elite opinion is at odds with democratic opinion.

    Given your obviously low opinion of the majority of the population why would you want to alert them to this fact by actually formalizing the concept of epistocracy. Better to feed them the idea that they have a democracy while actually having better informed people control it.

    In other words Sham Democracy > Epistocracy > Democracy.