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November 04, 2016



Alternatively our elites might consider relearning the art of persuasion rather than simply attempting to smear opponents as unconscionable monsters.

It unarguably worked for a while however it seems the magic has quite worn off.

Dave Timoney

Actually, I think everyone would agree that we all have the *right* to drive. The distinction is whether we are qualified to drive, which means an objective test of capability based on commonly-agreed norms.

Similarly, an epistocracy does not necessarily impinge on the universal right to vote, any more than the temporary disenfranchisement of prisoners does. What matters is the mechanism. For example, a system that required voters to show a minimum level of knowledge would potentially allow everyone to vote. The problem with most epistocratic schemes is that they seek to reduce the franchise, either through socially biased qualifications (e.g. university degrees) or through random selection (e.g. sortition).

I've not read Brennan's book, but to judge by your review (and others) it is little more than a rehash of Plato's ship of fools: a rational "against" that falls apart when it attempts to describe the "for". You'd think the persistent failure over millennia to come up with a compelling case for epistocracy might strike political scientists as a clue. Democracy, as Churchill noted, succeeds because it is least worst.

Ultimately, arguments for epistocracy are arguments for the demotion of groups within society, either by outright exclusion or by relative disadvantage (e.g. Mill's idea on supplementary votes). They are inherently resentful and reactionary, which is why they struggle to move from the weary disgust of "against" to the positive articulation of "for".

An alternative reading of contemporary affairs is that what you refer to as our "epistocratic institutions" are actually democratic, in that they seek to reflect the interests of groups who feel they were demoted by the EU referendum. The "them vs us" that has arisen since June reflects the way that plebiscites become acts of qualification. Demanding that the vote be restricted to people who wear poppies is no more ridiculous than demanding it be restricted to graduates.


"it seems wrong to force me to submit to the decisions of incompetent voters."

Someone is a special snowflake.


You're right Chris and so too @ scratch. You mention QT. Disappointing, no guest willing and able to represent a constitutional view of the judiciary, yet known for days the judgement would be given on Thursday.

Miguel Madeira

«Another possibility is that bad candidates whom the voters choose can be vetoed by an “epistocratic council.” This seems impractical.»

See Iran, with the Guardian Council.


You can hear him discussing his book and ideas here: http://economicsdetective.com/2016/09/democracy-versus-epistocracy-jason-brennan/


Anyone who thinks epistocracy is the answer is probably asking the wrong question.

Politics is ultimately about making value judgements - decisions about what we "ought" to do. But Hume persuasively showed us that no amount of knowledge can get us to an "ought".

Knowledge might be able to tell us whether immigration will help or hinder economic growth, but it can't tell us whether we ought to favour economic growth over having fewer foreigners live in the UK.

So the problem with modern politics is not that the electorate is ignorant, but that we've allowed ignorance (and knowledge) to become relevant. Most political debates are now spent arguing about facts - which frankly, should be settled by the experts and academics. Elections should be about choosing the values we want to pursue and the direction we want the country to go in.

Donald A. Coffin

"...it seems wrong to force me to submit to the decisions of incompetent voters."

My problem is that he wants to be the one who decides which voters are competent, which are incompetent. I'm not sure that we know how to do that. And don't tell me that someone could devise a "civics" or "public-policy knowledge" test that would answer that question. I've seen tests that purport to do that and the obvious class and race biases in every one of them I have ever seen are pretty amazing. And, what do I (or people like me) really know about the lives of other people whom we might deem to be "unqualified" to vote? Not much.

So universal rights to vote for everyone (over age 18?) might not be perfect, but, like democracy, it's better than any of the alternatives I have ever seen proposed.


Is the fault that of the voters however? Surely there are two other problems. 1, that no one can be an expert on every question. We all rely on leadership from other people on many issues. So an informative press and media is a vital element in a liberal democracy and we have a very skewed media in the US and UK. Also 2, politicians need to show leadership. Including moral leadership and integrity. Cameron held a referendum on departure from the EU to avoid splitting his party and the right wing vote. Rather than argue for what he and his chancellor really believed in. In the USA the GOP has encouraged the most ignorant bigoted part of the public to believe in lies and falsehoods deliberately to gain power. They skew where they can the electoral districts in their parties favour and engage in voter suppression. The failure to actually debate real policy choices, consider facts and complexity and call out moral failure is lamentable and a key problem. It is a problem of the elite failing to provide leadership and act with integrity. Voters are not to be blamed for living their life rather than spending all their time on correcting the failures of the ruling class and media. How are they supposed to do that anyway? That is like blaming the conscripted tommy for the first world war rather than the secret diplomacy of the foreign secretaries and generals.

As a way of deciding EU policy single question plebiscites are of course a bad idea as they allow the public to be driven to support contradictory arguments. The EU referendum answers none of the key questions about what the UK should do now as it was never designed to decide policy but only keep Cameron in power. If you want a reasonable answer to a problem you ask a meaningful question in the first place. Rather than a question that can be answered any way those in power wish it answered ex post facto.


Does Brennan distinguish between modern liberal democracy and more local types of democracy (workplace, local govt, community)? I know you've argued before that the latter are more likely to produce better outcomes as they take advantage of Hayekian knowledge and participants have more of a personal stake in the outcomes.


Adam and Arse to Elbow have it right. The problem is not the who, it is the how. Perhaps we need to approach election preparation in a new way. Marketing has a lot to answer for (mainly in creating a infantilised population). But the guy who suggested that people should show some sort of minimal understanding of the PARTICULAR issues AT STAKE first before voting, had an interesting idea.


«Some voters are so irrational and ill-informed that their preferences endanger the rest of us. Just as we have a right to be protected from bad drivers, so we should be protected from bad voters.»

But democracy is not about getting "the best" decisions, in part because what is best depends on interests, not knowledge, and is anyhow often highly uncertain.

But mostly because democracy is about ensuring that voters who make bad decisions suffer their consequences, and vice-versa that if bad decisions are made to ensure that they have been made by voters.

If voters continue to make bad decisions despite suffering their consequences, too bad for them.

In the case where some voters think that «we should be protected from bad voters», the solution is not disenfranchisement of the «bad voters», but *secession* into two polities, so that the voters of each polity be fully accountable to themselves for the consequences of their votes.

Disenfranchisement results in some people being made to suffer the consequences of decisions taken by other people, and that is not democracy, properly speaking.


Agree with blissex.


Another possibility is that bad candidates whom the voters choose can be vetoed by an “epistocratic council.”

This of course is the perfect solution as exemplified by Iran.

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