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November 06, 2016


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Sam Taylor

Can institutional design not play a role here as well? Some institutions are designed to try to help people make the best and most rational decisions possible (jurors probably deliberate much more rationally on the cases they're judging than they would on many other things, and they're helped in this regard by all the institutional scaffolding) while other institutions often try to make people make bad decisions (convenience shops putting chocolate right by the register). Given that epistocracy would probably be a non starter in terms of political viability (who'd vote for it) I'd argue that institutional design is the best tool we have available to try to improve how our democracy functions.

From Arse To Elbow

Let us imagine that for the set of the whole population there is a subset that is best qualified to judge a particular public policy matter. As you note, this subset could be quite different for policy A than for policy B. They may in fact be mutually-exclusive. Given that we cannot know in advance what policy matters will arise, any attempt to institutionalise a particular subset as the default will inevitably entrench current prejudices, while the process of institutionalisation will in turn encourage overconfidence.

The orthodox theory of representative democracy imagines a legislature whose members are mostly in the lower-left quadrant (with some contingently migrating to the upper-left), but who are ultimately answerable to everyone because we cannot know who the optimum subset is for any particular matter. The current "failure" of democracy arises not from the aggregate ignorance of the set but from the slow drift of representatives from the left to the right - i.e. we have too many MPs who are both ignorant and irrational, and we've suffered successive executives who were overconfident.

The latter failing probably has a lot to do with neoliberal's supplanting of both organic conservatism on the right (which encouraged caution) and class politics on the left (which valued the rational over the irrational). The former failing may be a trick of the light - perhaps all social media have done is expose the longstanding low calibre of MPs - but it may also be the consequence of the rise of a politico-media class with narrow life experience and a tendency to confuse soundbites with argument.

Far from providing grounds to think that epistocracy might be a good idea, the EU referendum (like Iraq before it) suggests that we court disaster precisely when the epistocrats themselves (i.e. those who self-select as political arbiters) under-value their own ignorance and over-value their own faith. Democracy then is not just a defence against the systemic bias of epistocracy but against institutional decay.

B.L. Zebub


Who is an expert?

Ask Paul Krugman/Brad DeLong whether either John Cochrane or Niall Ferguson are experts and then ask Cochrane/Ferguson whether Krugman/DeLong are themselves experts.

For that matter, who is rational?


Chris, you've made a good argument for small-c conservatism and Establishment politics. I thought you liked your politics a little more spicy?


Entertainingly, "Munger" and "Brainard" sound like playground insults.

derrida derider

What Staberinde said. It kinda reads like a modern Edmund Burke.


As a point of information, Blair's interventions in Sierra Leone was indeed 'successful', but not for an humanitarian reasons.

It showed Blair that he could ignore UN arms sanctions, that peaceful options could be ignored and that the CPS could be relied upon not to prosecute criminal activity if pressured not to do so. It also opened his eyes to all sorts of moneymaking wheezes to keep his chums happy - see Craig Murray's 'The Catholic Orangement of Togo'.

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