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Epistocracy and Public Interests


Epistocratic systems of government have received renewed attention, and considerable opposition, in recent political philosophy. Although they vary significantly in form, epistocracies generally reject universal suffrage. But can they maintain the advantages of universal suffrage despite rejecting it? This paper develops an argument for a significant instrumental advantage of universal suffrage: that governments must take into account the interests of all of those enfranchised in their policy decisions or else risk losing power. This is called ‘the Interests Argument’. One problem for the Interests Argument is that governments are not entirely responsive to voter interests, partly because voters do not always know what is in their interests. I will show how this epistemic claim can be used to support certain forms of epistocracy, but deny that it undermines the Interests Argument. I then consider whether we can identify forms of epistocracy that preserve the benefits of the Interests Argument whilst overcoming the epistemic limitations of democracy. I propose six forms of epistocracy, and argue that two are able to maintain these benefits, hence providing an evaluation of the relative strengths of these epistocracies with respect to one of the most valuable instrumental benefits of universal suffrage. Whilst epistocracy lacks many of the advantages of democracy, this paper shows that some forms fare better than others.

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  1. Note that whilst Estlund coined the term ‘epistocracy’ he does not support it. Other recent theories that diverge from universal suffrage include defences of rule by sortition (Guerrero 2014).

  2. See Arlen and Rossi (forthcoming), Gunn (2019), Klocksiem (2019), Moraro (2018), Reiss (2019), Talisse (forthcoming) and Somin (forthcoming). For some responses, see Brennan (forthcoming).

  3. Whilst this typology overlaps in places, these positions are distinct from one another. For instance, those electing the lifelong ruler in (b) could be restricted in the sense of (c) or (d), and hence (b) would be compatible with (c) and (d). However, both (c) and (d) are proposed to operate in contexts of regular election cycles, which would then be incompatible with (b). And whilst Guardians in (a) could put in place a system that decides who rules based on how knowledgeable voters would vote, as in (f), this cannot be the case for Plato’s Guardianship which has no elections at all. The distinctions between the different epistocratic systems will become clearer in the later sections.

  4. The US government estimates that China’s PRC has detained more than one million members of religious groups in internment camps ‘and subjected them to forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, psychological and physical abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity’. See 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: China—Xinjiang:

  5. And depending on the country, those in prison and citizens with mental impairments as well. For arguments that minors and the cognitively impaired should be enfranchised, see López-Guerra (2012).

  6. See the report from 2006 by Human Rights Watch, Building Towers, Cheating Workers: Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates. According to the report, ‘the federal government of the UAE…has failed to enforce UAE law that since 1980 has required the government to implement a minimum wage…[T]he migrant [construction] worker…on average receives the equivalent of US$175 a month for his labor on a construction site. This stands in stark contrast to the average per capita income in the UAE of $2106 a month’ (p. 6).

  7. For other seminal works on this theory, see Fiorina (1981) and Kramer (1971), and for recent critical appraisal, Achen and Bartels (2016) and Healy and Malhotra (2013).

  8. Karl Popper referred to Plato’s system as ‘the ruler of learnedness,’ or, ‘sophocracy’ (1945, p. 144).

  9. Arguably, the interests of the members of each unit are better represented under such a consensual system than they are under party systems where the interests of a minority group can be ignored.

  10. See Brennan (2016) for extensive discussion of this issue.


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Correspondence to Finlay Malcolm.

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Malcolm, F. Epistocracy and Public Interests. Res Publica 28, 173–192 (2022).

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  • Epistocracy
  • Universal suffrage
  • Democracy
  • Public interests
  • Power