Democracy, Book/Article Reviews

Schleisser contra Brennan on Epistocracy, Sort Of

Eric Schleisser considers himself a fierce critic of Brennanism. I’m not so sure he his, because he often seems to be arguing against positions that are closely related to mine, but not quite what I’ve argued.

In a piece at the Monkey Cage today, Schliesser and co-author van der Meer argue against the “rule of experts,” a position they attribute to me. I’m not quite sure if what I’ve argued for in Against Democracy or “The Right to a Competent Electorate” could properly be called that. I’m talking about doing things like only allowing the top 30% of voters to vote, or giving them extra votes, or, my favorite proposal, allow everyone to vote, but weigh votes by demonstrated knowledge while correcting for demographic influences. (I call this “government by simulated oracle”.) That’s not quite what one would call the rule of experts, as if we were making the Harvard Econ department the ruling oligarchy.

That issue aside, let’s look at some of their substantive criticisms. (Note that they also argue against lottocracies/sortition, an idea made popular by Ben Saunders, Alex Guerrero, and others.)

“And both approaches fail to acknowledge that representatives need to be accountable to citizens as a prerequisite for democratic legitimacy.”

Well, shucks, maybe. But Against Democracy does in fact have two full chapters explaining and then attacking various theories of democratic legitimacy. Further, there’s some stuff in there about “Weberian legitimacy” and stability. So I take this as a “We haven’t gotten our copy of Against Democracy yet” sort of criticism rather than an actual criticism. In all fairness, Against Democracy might not be available in Europe just yet. But as I say in the preface, there are like 10,000 books defending democracy out there, and it’s not as though I try to refute every possible argument for democracy. I just take down some popular ones and some important ones.

“No group has primacy in the moral debates of politics. American political scientist E.E. Schattschneider concluded in his 1960 masterpiece, The Semisovereign People: “There is no escape from the problem of ignorance because nobody knows enough to run the government” [emphasis in original].”

Again, I’d sure be interested in hearing their response to what I say in the book once they get a chance to read it. After all, I’m not saying we can get rid of the Hooligans and Hobbits and just let the Vulcans rule. Rather, I readily acknowledge that pretty much everyone is too ignorant to run the government. Instead, what I’m talking about is using weighted voting or other methods to both 1) gain the epistemic value (see the Hong-Page theorem), stability, and check against abuse that comes from widespread power, but 2) reduce the damage done by the worst voters. I’m advocating the rule of the many, but I want to use a somewhat smarter many than the American or Dutch or Belgian public at large.

A more sophisticated version of Schattschneider’s argument could be found more recently in Tetlock, whom I discuss at great length in chapter 7. Tetlock is often misread as saying that experts are no better than laypeople. But what Tetlock actually finds is that experts are bad at making predictions on the questions that the experts themselves consider the hard questions. They’re still good at the easy questions. The problem with democracy is that the median, modal, and mean voter gets the easy questions wrong, and we get somewhat worse government as a result.

“And isn’t government already the province of the educated? Within the U.S. Congress, 95 percent of the members have an academic degree. College graduates make up important parts of the government and semi-government bureaucracies. Increasingly, governments answer to the demands of the higher educated, in any case. Social, political and economic inequalities correlate with educational opportunities and outcomes, putting the lower educated in a more vulnerable position.”

I agree! Again, in chapter seven of the new book, I make these very points (that is, that government agents are themselves better informed, and, following Gilens’s work on this topic, that some voters have more influence than others) and argue this part of the reason why democracies perform better than they otherwise would. Democracy “works” because it doesn’t work.

But to show that disproportionate influence “hurts” the other voters, Schliesser would need to show that it, well, hurts them. He kind of just asserts it here. I realize it’s an op-ed. But, still, one would need to show that. And it’s harder than he thinks. The problem here is that giving people like you the right to vote doesn’t necessarily help you, even if you wield great power. After all, if you’re ignorant, misinformed, or irrational–as almost all voters are–then you are quite likely to support things that undermine your interests. For instance, Trump voters sincerely want to promote the national interest. But they are systematically misinformed about trade policy, immigrants, and the like, and so vote for things that screw over America in general and themselves in particular.

Giving you a gun doesn’t do you good if you use it to shoot yourself in the foot.

Again, all covered in the new book. Nothing new here. Schliesser and van der Meer aren’t saying my response to this objection fails, but, rather, they just aren’t aware that I’ve acknowledged it. Again, I’d be curious to know what their response to the argument in the book is.

In a recent editorial, Brennan notes that “all across the West, we’re seeing the rise of rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters.” What he fails to recognize is that these developments take place in a political culture with institutions that are already expert-heavy. As the higher educated already dominate politics, giving additional power to skilled technocrats is not necessarily an effective solution.”

This seems to be a strange response to me. [update: Eric and Tom say I’m misunderstanding their intent with the paragraph above, and so what follows is, in their view, irrelevant.] Brexit leave voters are pissed off and resent expert rule, so they vote for a stupid, harmful policy. Schleisser and van der Meer seem to be saying here, “See! You made them mad! And now they use their power to do bad things!” But my response is, “Yeah, that’s the problem with them, which is why I want to reduce their power in the first place. Brexit leave voters were, as we’ve measured, systematically misinformed (by a very large margin) about things such as how many immigrants there are, how much China vs. the EU invest in the UK, how much the UK pays in welfare benefits to the EU, and the like. If I had my way, British citizens would have been protected from these misinformed citizens, because they wouldn’t have had power to abuse in the first place.”

To some degree, the debate between Schliesser and me here seems subject to the parody below.

Brennan: “Many cops abuse their power and use it incompetently. I say we screen cops better.” [Note that the incentives cops face are different from what voters face, so I really doubt screening cops would be as effective as screening voters.]

Schliesser: “Well, did you know that some cops heard people like you say that, and they also discovered that better qualified cops tend to hold higher offices? This made them mad, and as a result, they acted like assholes and abused their power even more! The reason cops are murdering people in the US is because they’re reacting to elitism in who becomes an detective or chief.”

Brennan: “Um, so should we fire the bad guys then and implement the screening mechanism I suggested? This seems like precisely the problem I’m talking about.”

Schliesser: “No, I’m saying we’d better stop talking about screening people and just let the cops do whatever they want. If we stop trying to control who gets to be a cop and stop letting the best cops get the better jobs, they’ll all behave better.”

  • Swami

    I have added this book to my list. I find your arguments fascinating.

  • jm15xy

    When only 30% can vote, only 15.01% rule.

  • assman35

    I can’t argue with any of this because its exactly what I have been thinking and saying for a long time.

    I do wonder about one thing though. I used to also make a strong argument for lobbyists and political corruption of the US type (as opposed to Indian style corruption) being a very good thing because it in effect handed more power to elites who were smarter. And that US democracy was vastly improved for this reason. I wonder if you make the same argument.

  • ThatGuyMontag

    What about instances where the elites both have the power to act against the public will and use it, but don’t get it right? Austerity in Europe is a huge case in point. I mean, in this example the elite capture of the political process is so great it’s literally taken down successive governments in both Italy and Greece. All this despite the fact that the academic consensus is that austerity can’t work (which isn’t entirely surprising given that austerity’s primary claim is that the way you grow an economy is by shrinking it).

    So what do you think has gone wrong here? What kind of solution would save the epistocracy from this sort of problem?