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Epistocracy is a Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing

Abstract

‘Epistocracy’ is the name of a type of political power structure in which the power is held by the knowledgable—for example, by restricting the right to vote to those who can demonstrate sufficient knowledge. Though Plato and Mill defended epistocratic views, it has found few contemporary advocates. In a recent book, however, Jason Brennan argues that epistocratic power structures are capable of outperforming democratic ones. His argument is two-pronged: first, he argues that democratic procedures with universal suffrage allow poorly-informed voters to pollute the electorate, and that doing so has negative policy-related consequences that are easily avoidable. Second, he argues that voting does not possess any non-intrinsic value, and so restricting suffrage to the educated does not result in a loss of status or standing for less well-educated persons in any meaningful way. I argue that epistocratic techniques are (a) impossible to implement fairly, and (b) represent an ineffective solution for the problems they are designed to solve. On these bases, I recommend rejecting it.

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Notes

  1. In (Brennan 2011), he argues that less well-educated citizens have an ethical obligation to refrain from voting, but with the caveat that this obligation is unenforceable. In (Brennan 2016), he is much more willing to suggest that this obligation be enforced.

  2. He makes a similar point in (Brennan 2011, pp. 7–8).

  3. These include Condorcet's Jury Theorem, the miracle of aggregation, and the Hong-Page theorem. Brennan argues that the systematicity of voter error renders them inapplicable. We will discuss them in more detail in §4.

  4. Brennan echoes this idea in (Brennan 2011, pp. 11–2), writing that “individual votes are of little instrumental value in influencing electoral outcomes or the quality of government”.

  5. While this may be true in elections in which the electorate is large or the margin of victory wide, it is less true in close elections, or those in which the electorate is small, such as elections for positions on the local school board, city council, county commissioner, or even U.S. Congressional Representative. In such elections, the power of one’s vote is not diluted nearly to the extent that it is in, say, a U.S. Presidential election.

  6. This is a reversal of his earlier position; Brennan advances a semiotic argument at (Schmidtz and Brennan 2010, p. 189).

  7. It is not obvious that Anderson’s remark here is a genuine semiotic argument. There is of course a reading according to which equality demands that we use universal suffrage to symbolically recognize everyone else’s equal standing, but this is not the only reading. On another reading, universal suffrage is constitutive of, rather than symbolic of, this equal standing. The text Brennan cites does not decisively favor the semiotic reading, and elsewhere Anderson writes, “the democratic way of life realizes the universal and equal standing of the members of society, and is therefore justified as morally right.” Anderson’s claim here is not that democracy symbolizes or represents the universal and equal standing of the members of society; her claim is that democracy realizes this equality. This later text favors a non-semiotic reading of the argument.

  8. It is also worth emphasizing that equality, dignity, and autonomy are all distinct moral values, and that recognizing someone’s equality is not identical with, nor necessary or sufficient for, recognizing their autonomy or dignity. I thank an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to emphasize this point.

  9. This demographic information was compiled by the United States Census, 2010. See Census.gov. For information about the Alabama Department of Licensing, see Alabama.gov.

  10. Estlund (2008, pp. 215–9) acknowledges this.

  11. Again, to be clear, Estlund ultimately rejects this proposal.

  12. It should be noted that although (Brennan 2011) does not propose an enforceable policy of disenfranchising uneducated voters, (Brennan 2016) does.

  13. This way of framing the objection does not make it easy to believe that he is treating it with the seriousness it deserves.

  14. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to emphasize this point.

  15. Brennan’s anti-democratic argument focuses on type (B) errors.

  16. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to stress this point.

  17. I thank an anonymous reviewer for stressing this point.

  18. Although not everyone will agree on precisely which decisions the of US electorate were correct, I suspect that there is a consensus that at least some of these decisions were correct (though perhaps not which ones were correct). Left-leaning liberals might point to the fact that the US elected Barack Obama to two terms as President; right-leaning conservatives might point to the fact that the US elected George W. Bush to two terms as President. Additionally, the electorate of the US has elected federal governments that enacted such pieces of legislation as the Clean Water Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, Medicare, and the COBRA program, each of which is popular and effective.

  19. I am grateful to Caroline Klocksiem, Seth Bordner, Hud Hudson, Marcy Lascano, Christian Lee, Rekha Nath, Jason Raibley, Neal Tognazzini, Mark Walker, Chase Wrenn, two anonymous referees for this journal, and audiences at California State University at Long Beach, the University of Alabama, and Western Washington University for helpful discussion of earlier versions of this paper.

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Klocksiem, J. Epistocracy is a Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing. J Ethics 23, 19–36 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-019-09279-1

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Keywords

  • Epistocracy
  • Democracy
  • Social philosophy