Against epistocracy

I’ve finally been got around writing something about US philosopher Jason Brennan’s arguments for “epistocracy”, that is, restricting voting to people who are well-informed about the issues. For a long time, I assumed that such an idea would be ignored, and fade into oblivion, as most academic ideas do. But it’s popped up here in Australia. And, with democracy under challenge all around the world, it’s obviously not enough to say that it’s self-evidently a Good Thing that everyone should have the right to vote, and exercise it. So, I’ll try to offer some more specific objections.

First, suppose for the moment that university/college education was the criterion for having the franchise. What difference would that make to the outcome of recent elections? The answer, as far as I can tell, is “not much”. Other things equal, more highly educated people tend to be more likely to vote for left or centre-left parties. But other things aren’t equal. Higher education is correlated with higher income, and people with higher incomes tend to vote for right or centre-right parties. Historically, the income effect dominated, so people with more education, on average, voted more for the parties of the right. Nowadays, the two effects roughly cancel out. For example, exit polls from the US Presidential election suggest that most college-educated white voters supported Trump, though the margin wasn’t as great as for white voters without a college education. Divisions on age and race have generally been sharper than those based on education.

Under current conditions, restricting the franchise wouldn’t make a lot of difference. But even if it did, the discussion above points up the obvious problem. Whether more or less informed, voters are likely to support policies that benefit them personally (for example, by reducing their taxes) or reinforce their prejudices (by enacting their preferred cultural policies). Given the right political alignment, an election confined to college educated voters might produce outcomes that were more socially progressive (in the way this term is usually used) and more economically regressive (favorable to high income earners), than we see at the moment, simply because those are the policies that would suit the restricted electorate. I don’t know whether Brennan supports such an outcome (from what I’ve seen of his writing, I suspect so), but there is no justification for loading the political dice in its favor.

So far I’ve focused on the decision of which party to vote for, and what kind of broad policy platforms we might expect. But what about specific policies? Brennan holds out as an example the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was politically unpopular and was abandoned by Trump. According to Brennan, “most experts” agree that the TPP “is good for the global economy”.

That depends on what you mean by “most experts”. Certainly, experts from thinktanks that specialise in these deals supported the TPP, but that’s not very surprising – it’s what they do. Also, a lot of foreign policy experts backed the TPP as a way of enhancing the influence of the US at the expense of China, but that’s not obviously “good for the global economy.” At least as far as the Australian economics profession is concerned, I’d say the range of opinion ranged from lukewarm support to strong opposition. For those who focused on traditional trade issues, the TPP represented the final abandonment of the global approach represented by the long-stalled World Trade Organization negotiations. Most were unenthusiastic at best about the emerging bilateral and plurilateral deals. For those concerned with intellectual property issues, the TPP was seen as a disaster, embodying even more monopolistic protections for the owners of such “property”. And on the left, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement procedures, and the closed-door negotiations, were seen as entrenching corporate power.

There’s no need to resolve these divergent positions here. The crucial point is that Brennan has chosen to illustrate his argument for requiring voters to be better informed about the issues by picking an issue on which he himself is clearly not well-informed.

Finally of course, Brennan’s casual reference to “most experts” raises the obvious problem with epistocracy. Who gets to decide who is well-informed? And who gets to decide who gets to decide?

43 thoughts on “Against epistocracy

  1. James Wimberley @24, the Shire is the only polity we encounter in LOTR in which the head of government is democratically elected, and as far as we can infer from LOTR and The Hobbit it is the only one with a functioning legal system roughly resembling those of modern states including a body of contract law and property rights, and a postal service.

  2. And by our standards its political culture is far more modern than that surrounding the absolute monarchy, ideologically buttressed by superstition, of Gondor.

  3. The American education system varies from state to state. I am certainly not a fan of some State education systems that try to impose rigid censorship of library books, set minimum standards that become the norm, use parent based selection committees for teacher hiring and/or mandate curriculum narrowed syllabuses. But I am a fan of the Californian state education system. Particularly the version practiced in primary schools around San Francisco. Here there is a verbal teaching tradition. Students are encouraged to verbalize their cerebral stimuli and discuss a wide range of opinions. This may lead to better informed voters. Democracy has had as many failures as successes. It should be nurtured by a well thought out education philosophy. I am not a fan of either, Australia’s national curriculum, or, its political mandates, as far as the use of NAPLAN testing is concerned, Instead I would urge a rethink of education philosophy. this may be a better way to educate our children to be responsible voters. Edward De Bono once suggested that schools should have a dedicated syllabus that include lessons on how to think. This may be worth considering.

  4. what, you mean you would have to take some kind of exam to qualify to vote?

    the way the candidate list was pruned after too many stood independently for the BTR to stomach was bad enough.

    there seems to be some kind of reflex horror twitch when so called hung parliaments emerge.

    the idea that talking and debating potential legislation, for me, is good.

    the longer the talk and debate goes on, the more a subject becomes known, the more the extreme or just plain silly are on view and even the “unenlightened” or just uninterested have a chance to make up their mind one way or another.

    our system does seem to allow one person every now and then, though, enormous power.

    Harradine and Telstra, which was a pity.
    Muir and the renewable energy thingo, which was and is great.

    we are not stuck with them for life.

    like the religious blasphemy laws, apparently in our secular system we still have this throwback

    for real? aaargh.

    with all the micks on the front bench of both sides of the house we are in trouble.

    (i have Irish ancestry)

  5. Sorry I’m pressed for time today so have not read all the comments and as Canadian I don’t know Brennan but is he not just recycling Nevil Shute’s arguments from the 1950s where a person got more votes depending on career? IIRC, you could get the coveted ‘third vote’ for some distinguished behavour

  6. @jrkrideau

    Kind of, although the number of votes suggested is zero or one. Currently in the US and the UK they use floating point to weight votes by electorate, which is kinda of similar (the UK has some electorates almost triple the size of others).

  7. @Paul Norton

    But in Gondor and Middle Earth, superstition is not superstition. There, magic is real, kingship is real as a moral good, the Undying Lands are real and Illuvatar is real. We don’t have these comforting magical and spiritual realities on Actual Earth. 😉

    Here on Actual Earth only physics is real not magic. Kingship, along with all autocracies and dictatorships is a clear moral bad – the word “evil” is tainted by theocratic implications. There are no Undying Lands that anyone has reached and reported back from. Certainly there are no proven cross-emigrations and tourisms between between any Undying Lands and Actual Earth.
    Finally, there is nothing all to show that Illuvatar (or any of “his” illusory avatars) is real in our Cosmos.

    It’s a bummer. You live with imperfect knowledge. Then you die. Welcome to the “laws” of the known cosmos. 🙂

    To comment on the topic. Give the vote, one vote of equal value in every case, to any adult (18 and over) who can manage to register a valid vote. In places like prisons and asylums ask inmates if they want to vote. If they say “no” or clearly don’t understand the question then grant a pass on voting. But retain the compulsory vote, at about the current level of compulsion, for compos mentis adults at liberty (not committed or incarcerated).

  8. “equal value” is also very hard to measure, making it difficult to implement and maintain. Australia arguably does better than many countries, but we still have weirdness. Most obviously in the senate where each state gets 12 senators leading to my vote in NSW being worth about 1/10th as much as a similar vote cast in Tasmania. But just using fractional representatives elected, proportional systems generally win over our single-member preferential ones (and both win over first past the post systems).

    But there are other ways to measure value – is a vote for a single MP cast in a safe seat worth the same as one cast in a marginal one? Does it matter who that vote is cast for? Is “federal dollars spent in the electorate” a better or worse measure than “fraction of a representative elected” (and in the latter case, is a Derryn Hinch worth the same as a Brian Harradine or a Scott Ludlum?)

  9. Elected representatives, whilst having a degree of immunity in practice, are still bound by the rule of law and there are strong expectations around those holding positions of trust and responsibility that are intertwined with common law principles and precedents – including seeking, considering and acting on expert advice. Harms arising from failure to do so can be considered negligent and actionable under law. A popular vote does not give licence to take illegal actions or act negligently – although it may allow specific legislation to legalise previously illegal acts or impart legal amnesty for negligence.

    The appropriate part expertise plays is not as a requirement for voting or even for candidacy but as an element in the policy and decision making processes of those who hold positions of trust, responsibility and decision making power on the behalf of citizenry.

  10. Epistocracy – a weighted vote? Weighted by how well a voter’s comprehension of the electoral politics in play at the time and place aligns with their actual best vested interests? We have that already for those happy swingers in marginal seats.

    And how is a pork barrel best weighed for a rusted on electorate?

  11. In this modern era of Humanism special private truth resides within each individual (human) being . These truths guide choices in the various market places our lives have become. There is no higher authority .

    I like the idea that only people who know a bit about what they are looking at should have a say in its fate . However anyone set to benefit from a dumb electorate could easily use human rights arguments to keep it that way.

  12. The funny thing is if the electorate was restricted in this way Brexit would win in a landslide which I assume would horrify this person !

    TPP shows what is wrong with anti democratic politics.

  13. @Kyle

    Nope. Kyle, voters in your ‘restricted’, or a quizzed and weighted epistocracy electorate, who “know a bit about what they are looking at” as sunshine said above, would likely have delivered a vote to remain. They more likely wouldn’t have succumbed to the veritable bombardment of personal individually targeted fake news and sophisticated military grade electoral psyops that are now delivered by various media platforms on a huge scale, eg., the role of Facebook in securing the Brexit win:

    “The company, SCL Elections, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed Cambridge Analytica, and achieved a certain notoriety as the data analytics firm that played a role in both Trump and Brexit campaigns…

    It also reveals a critical and gaping hole in the political debate in Britain. Because what is happening in America and what is happening in Britain are entwined. Brexit and Trump are entwined. The Trump administration’s links to Russia and Britain are entwined. And Cambridge Analytica is one point of focus through which we can see all these relationships in play; it also reveals the elephant in the room as we hurtle into a general election: Britain tying its future to an America that is being remade – in a radical and alarming way – by Trump….

    What’s been lost in the US coverage of this “data analytics” firm is the understanding of where the firm came from: deep within the military-industrial complex. A weird British corner of it populated, as the military establishment in Britain is, by old-school Tories. Geoffrey Pattie, a former parliamentary under-secretary of state for defence procurement and director of Marconi Defence Systems, used to be on the board, and Lord Marland, David Cameron’s pro-Brexit former trade envoy, a shareholder…

    Facebook was the source of the psychological insights that enabled Cambridge Analytica to target individuals. It was also the mechanism that enabled them to be delivered on a large scale.

    The company also (perfectly legally) bought consumer datasets – on everything from magazine subscriptions to airline travel – and uniquely it appended these with the psych data to voter files. It matched all this information to people’s addresses, their phone numbers and often their email addresses. “The goal is to capture every single aspect of every voter’s information environment,” said David. “And the personality data enabled Cambridge Analytica to craft individual messages.”

    Finding “persuadable” voters is key for any campaign and with its treasure trove of data, Cambridge Analytica could target people high in neuroticism, for example, with images of immigrants “swamping” the country. The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter.”

  14. @Moz of Yarramulla

    They don’t have enough education and life experience m8. The line has to be drawn somewhere. Quite a few grade 1 children could vote validly and give you an almost passable reason for their decision (usually by a parroting a parent’s view). But would you give them the vote? The line is drawn at about the point where it is judged that a good majority (maybe 80%) have enough nous and independence of thought to vote meaningfully. Keep dropping the age and this rule of thumb will no longer be true. But I suspect you know all this. 🙂

  15. @Svante

    Is a rusted barrel heavier or lighter (for weighting of course)? It’s an interesting question. I guess it depends whether the rust is flakey or not. 😉

  16. When I did the NSW HSC in 1991 they had a 1 Unit subject called ‘General Studies’ that whilst interesting, anecdotally most people took to round up their units to the mandatory minimum requirement (i think it was 11 units?). Notable people to top the state in this unit i believe includes [former premier’s husband] Ben Keneally and [TV’s] Andrew O’Keefe).

    I think they should introduce something similar in Politics (including ethics) that would be mandatory for all year 12 students so as they approach voting for the first time, they have a better appreciation for voting, and better insights into what to examine in candidates and parties before they vote. The subject could be national and mandatory however counting the marks towards your ATAR or equivalent need not be.

  17. Ikonoclast :
    The {age} line is drawn at about the point where {most} have enough nous and independence of thought to vote meaningfully.

    You’re suggesting we already have epistocracy, just a really stupid form of it? Rather than even trying to test for the thing we care about, we just guess at a whole population level then assume the least competent 20% don’t matter? Sounds as though that 20% were the ones making the decisions (which would explain some other things).

    I felt happier thinking that the age requirement came from relaxing the land ownership, race and genital requirements. We are on the path to universal suffrage but we haven’t got there yet.

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