Res Publica

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 241–258 | Cite as

Estlund on Epistocracy: A Critique



An influential anti-democratic argument says: ‘(1) Answers to political questions are truth-apt. (2) A small elite only—the epistocrats—knows these truths. (3) If answers to political questions are truth-apt, then those with this knowledge about these matters should rule. (4) Thus, epistocrats should rule.’ Many democrats have responded by denying (1), arguing that, say, answers to political questions are a matter of sheer personal preference. Others have rejected (2), contending that knowledge of the true answers to political questions is evenly distributed. David Estlund finds neither of these replies conclusive. Instead, he attacks (3) arguing that there can be no agreement between qualified people as to who the epistocrats are and that people are not subject to being ruled by experts, whose status as such they can reasonably dispute. Critically, I argue that this argument does not block all forms of epistocratic argument and that Estlund fails to consider the full range of plausible epistocratic views. More constructively, I offer a modest argument for why greater expertise does not necessarily warrant greater political authority. Presumably, the set of feasible options might differ, depending on what procedure is used, and a sub-optimal choice by nonepistocrats from a better set might be superior to the optimal choice by epistocrats from a worse set. In such cases, the mere fact of greater expertise does not warrant political authority, i.e., (3) is false.


Authority Democracy Epistocracy Estlund Political justification Plural voting Political knowledge 



Previous versions of this paper were presented at workshops at CSMN, University of Oslo, 8 December 2009 and at Yale, 22 October 2011. I thank Lene Bomann-Larsen, Jacob Busch, Jakob Elster, Jon Elster, Hans Fink, Søren Flinch Midtgaard, Robert Huseby, Cristina Lafont, Hélène Landemore, Mats Lundström, Erik Oddvar Eriksen, Raffaele Rodogno, Bo Rothstein, Rasmus Sommer Hansen, Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen, Susan Stokes, Andrew Williams, and, in particular, David Estlund for helpful criticisms.


  1. Anderson, Elizabeth. 2008. An epistemic defense of democracy: David Estlund’s democratic authority. Episteme 5: 129–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Estlund, David. 2003. Why not epistocracy? In Desire, identity and. existence: Essays in honor of T. M. Penner, ed. Naomi Reshotko, 53–69. Canada: Academic Printing and Publishing.Google Scholar
  3. Estlund, David. 2008. Democratic authority: A philosophical framework. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Estlund, David. 2010. Replies to Saunders, Lister and Quong. Representation 46: 53–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Gaus, Gerald. 2011. On seeking the truth (whatever that is) through democracy: Estlund’s case for the qualified epistemic claim. Ethics 121: 270–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Hong, Lu, and Scott E Page. 2004. Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America, vol. 101, p. 16385.Google Scholar
  7. Lafont, Cristina. Who’s afraid of epistemocracy? On D. Estlund’s Democratic Authority (forthcoming).Google Scholar
  8. List, Christian. 2005. Group knowledge and group rationality: A judgment aggregation perspective. Episteme 2: 25–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Marsilius of Padua. 2005 [1324]. In The Defender of the peace, Ed and trans, Annabelle Brett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Mill, John Stuart. 1987 [1861]. Considerations on representative government. London: Dent.Google Scholar
  11. Plato. 1983 [c. 380BC]. The republic. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  12. Quong, Jonathan. 2010. The distribution of authority. Representation 46: 35–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Rydgren, Jens. 2008. Immigration sceptics, xenophobes or racists? Radical right-wing voting in six west European countries. European Journal of Political Research 47: 737–765.Google Scholar
  14. Zollman, Kevin J.S. 2010. The transient benefit of transient diversity. Erkenntnis 72: 17–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut for StatskundskabAarhus UniversitetAarhusDenmark

Personalised recommendations