We often think of ancient Athens as the classic example of democratic governance. In fact, however, ancient Athens was an epistocracy where only a small number of the most educated members of society voted. By definition, an epistocracy is rule by citizens with political knowledge. In contrast with democracy, where the right to vote is equally shared by all citizens, an epistocracy is a political system that concentrates political power in citizens according to their knowledge of public affairs. Epistocracy is government by the knowledgeable.
In an epistocracy, the votes of people who can demonstrate political knowledge count more than the votes of those who cannot, and many approaches have been suggest to accomplish this vote allocation. For example, English philosopher John Stuart Mill, to oppose the tyranny of the masses, proposed that votes should be weighted according to the educational standards of the citizens.
In his book Against Democracy (2016), political philosopher Jason Brennan challenges the idea that our modern version of democracy is good and moral. He argues that most citizens have little interest in politics, and do a poor job informing themselves on political issues. Accordingly, such people should not be allowed to make critically important decisions for others.
In his review of the book, law professor Ilya Somin notes that “Ignorant or illogical decisions by voters can easily lead to ill-advised wars, economic recessions… and other catastrophes that imperil the lives, freedom, and welfare of large numbers of people. If we refuse to tolerate ignorant medical practice or ignorant plumbing, we should take an equally dim view of ignorant voting.”
Plato, of course, argued for his philosopher king, but an interesting argument for epistocracy is what Brennan calls the “competence principle.” In his view, the right to participate in the political process is fundamentally different from other rights because it involves imposing our will upon other people. Consequently, voting it is a right that imposes the obligation of informing ourselves of political issues so as to use our voting power competently. Moreover, anyone denied the right to vote under epistocratic rules can remedy the situation by informing themselves and passing some testing system.
Democracy is not an end it itself, but a blunt instrument to generate good outcomes for society. Yet, democratic voting does not always produce good governments. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the final free election of the Weimar Republic, and Hugo Chavez’s election in Venezuela are just two salient examples.
In our popular understanding of democracy, we, as voters, have preferences about what the government should do, and we elect leaders that vow to enact policies in-line with our preferences. This idealistic theory of democracy assumes that engaged citizens are capable of informing themselves on the many issues a nation faces and can master the policy intricacies to judge intelligently. This view of democracy also posits that voters can assess the qualifications of competing candidates and then vote for the candidate that best matches their own political values. Unfortunately, contemporary political science has found little evidence that voters fit this idealistic profile.
These realizations take us back to the arguments for epistocracy. Can democracy be improved by allocating political power to citizens according to their knowledge of public affairs? This epistocratic model is viewed quite favorably in Latin America and other regions where a certain distrust for popular vote persists.
At the root of these issues is a basic misunderstanding of democracy itself. It is probably true that an epistocratic model of rule by the wise would promote wiser decision-making and wiser laws than a democratic model. It may even be claimed that epistocratic governance would improve the wellbeing of society. But democracy is not just about its capacity to promote good policy outcomes. Rather, democracy is more about how the decisions are arrived at.
Democracy is not necessarily about optimal decision-making; democracy is about sharing perspectives and power. Democracy is about delivering political equality and freedom, and sometimes democracy delivers suboptimal decision-making.
Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”
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