Jason Brennan: The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge

BrennanWho should hold power: the few or the many? Concentrating power in the hands of a few – in monarchy, dictatorship or oligarchy – tends to result in power for personal benefit at the expense of others. Yet in spreading power among the many – as in a democracy – individual votes no longer matter, and so most voters remain ignorant, biased and misinformed.

We have a dilemma.

Republican, representative democracy tries to split the difference. Checks and balances, judicial reviews, bills of rights and elected representatives are all designed to hold leaders accountable to the people while also constraining the foolishness of the ignorant masses. Overall, these institutions work well: in general, people in democracies have the highest standards of living. But what if we could do better?

Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence.

The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent. Democracies tend to pass laws and policies that appeal to the median voter, yet the median voter would fail Econ, History, Sociology, and Poli Sci 101. Empirical work generally shows that voters would support different policies if they were better informed.

Voters tend to mean well, but voting well takes more than a kind heart. It requires tremendous social scientific knowledge: knowledge that most citizens lack. Most voters know nothing, but some know a great deal, and some know less than nothing. The goal of liberal republican epistocracy is to protect against democracy’s downsides, by reducing the power of the least-informed voters, or increasing the power of better-informed ones.

There are many ways of instituting epistocracy, some of which would work better than others. For instance, an epistocracy might deny citizens the franchise unless they can pass a test of basic political knowledge. They might give every citizen one vote, but grant additional votes to citizens who pass certain tests or obtain certain credentials. They might pass all laws through normal democratic means, but then permit bands of experts to veto badly designed legislation. For instance, a board of economic advisors might have the right to veto rent-control laws, just as the Supreme Court can veto laws that violate the Constitution.

Or, an epistocracy might allow every citizen to vote at the same time as requiring them to take a test of basic political knowledge and submit their demographic information. With such data, any statistician could calculate the public’s ‘enlightened preferences’, that is, what a demographically identical voting population would support if only it were better informed. An epistocracy might then instantiate the public’s enlightened preferences rather than their actual, unenlightened preferences.

A major question is what counts (and who decides what counts) as political competence, or basic political knowledge. We don’t want self-interested politicians rigging a political competence exam in their own favour. One might use widely accepted pre-existing tests; the Unites States citizenship test, for example, or the same questions that the American National Election Studies have used for 60 years. These questions – who is the current president? Which item is the largest part of the federal budget? – are easily verifiable and uncontroversial, plus an ability to answer them correctly is strongly correlated with the kind of political knowledge that does matter in an election.

One common objection to epistocracy – at least among political philosophers – is that democracy is essential to expressing the idea that everyone is equal. On its face, this is a strange claim. Democracy is a political system, not a poem or a painting. Yet people treat the right to vote like a certificate of commendation, meant to show that society regards you as a full member of the national club. (That’s one reason we disenfranchise felons.) But we could instead view the franchise as no more significant than a plumbing or medical licence. The US government denies me such licences, but I don’t regard that as expressing I’m inferior, all things considered, to others.

Others object that the equal right to vote is essential to make government respond to our interests. But the math doesn’t check out. In most major elections, I have as much chance of making a difference as I do of winning the lottery. How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes, or even whether one votes, makes no difference. It might be a disaster if Donald Trump wins the presidency, but it’s not a disaster for me to vote for him. As the political theorist Ben Saunders says: in a democracy, each person’s power is so small that insisting on equality is like arguing over the crumbs of a cake rather than an equal slice.

On the other hand, it’s true (at least right now) that certain demographic groups (such as rich white men) are more likely to pass a basic political knowledge test than others (such as poor black women). Hence the worry that epistocracies will favour the interests of some groups over others. But this worry might be overstated. Political scientists routinely find that so long as individual voters have a low chance of being decisive, they vote for what they perceive to be the common good rather than their self-interest. Further, it might well be that excluding or reducing the power of the least knowledgeable 75 per cent of white people produces better results for poor black women than democracy does.

Of course, any epistocratic system would face abuse. It’s easy to imagine all the things that might go wrong. But that’s also true of democracy. The more interesting question is which system, warts and all, would work best. In the end, it’s a mistake to picture epistocracy as being the rule of an elite band of technocrats or ‘philosopher kings’. Rather, the idea is: do what democracy does, but better. Democracy and epistocracy both spread power among the many, but epistocracy tries to make sure the informed many are not drowned out by the ignorant or misinformed many.Aeon counter – do not remove

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, Libertarianism and most recently, Against Democracy. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Jason Brennan: Justice isn’t “whatever democracy decides”

brennanThree cheers for democracy! Not so fast, says Jason Brennan, who argues that justice isn’t necessarily ‘whatever democracy decides’, and that participation in the political process all too often fails to produce citizens who are smarter, nobler, and more considerate of others. In his new book, Against Democracy, Brennan says democracy isn’t the only path to moral justice, and that it’s time to experiment with a new form of government called epistocracy. Recently, Brennan took the time to answer a few questions about his new book:

Your book is a response to a view you call “democratic triumphalism.” What is that view and what’s wrong with it?

JB: Triumphalism—a widely accepted set of conclusions—holds that democracy deserves three cheers. Cheer one: Political participation is good for us, makes us smarter, and produces fellow-feeling. Cheer two: We have a basic right to an equal share of political power. Cheer three: Democracy is a uniquely just form of politics.

I think democracy doesn’t deserve the first two cheers, and probably doesn’t deserve the latter. Politics is bad for us and we’re bad at politics.

Empirical work generally shows that participating in politics makes us worse: meaner, more biased, more angry. Ideally, I argue, we’d want to minimize our degree of political participation. Further, I examine about twelve major arguments for the claim that we’re owed the right to vote, and find them all lacking. In the end, the right to vote isn’t so much about giving individuals power over themselves, but power over others. The problem is that because individuals matter so little, most individuals use what little power they have unwisely. As a result, democracies tend to make bad decisions. Against the third chair, I suggest that epistocracy—a constitutional, republican form of government in which political power is to some degree, by law, apportioned according to competence—may outperform democracy.

What kind of value does democracy have, then?

JB: The best places to live right now are almost all liberal democracies. So, the point isn’t to argue that democracy is a disaster. But it’s not the end of history either. In my view, democracy has the same kind of value a hammer has. It’s an instrument for producing just and efficient outcomes, according to procedure-independent standards of justice. If we can find a better hammer, we should feel free to use it.

Some people deny there are procedure-independent standards of justice. Justice, they say, is whatever a democracy decides. But on reflection, I doubt anyone would accept that. Suppose the US has a referendum and unanimously votes to nuke Tuvalu. Or suppose 70 percent of voters decide to enact protectionist policies simply because they don’t understand economics. I don’t see either move as just.

We tend to treat the right to vote as a badge of honor, as a way of saying, “You’re a valuable member of our national club.” I think that’s a mistake. We should view the right to vote the way we view a fishing or plumbing license. We should view the president not as a majestic leader but as the chief public goods administrator. We need to downgrade the “status” we attach to political participation and power. If we did that, then differences in voting rights would carry no further stigma than the stigma I face for lacking a plumbing license.

You claim people have a “right to competent government.” What does that mean, and why think that?

JB: Political decisions are high stakes. They decide matters of life and death, peace and prosperity. Our decisions can deprive innocent people of life, liberty, and their rights, or greatly harm them.

Most of us think a jury owes the defendant (or owes the rest of us) a competent decision. They should decide a criminal trial by 1) being aware of the relevant facts, 2) processing those facts in a rational way, and 3) deciding on good faith rather than out of prejudice, malice, or bias. Similarly, I argue, any group that wields political power must act out competently and in good faith. Just as it would be unjust to enforce a jury decision if the jurors paid no attention to the fact and decided on whim, it would be unjust to enforce a vote made out of ignorance, misinformation, or whimsy.

Are democracies competent?

JB: Sixty years of empirical work show that mean, median, and modal levels of political knowledge among the electorate are low. In fact, voters aren’t just ignorant, but systematically misinformed about many issues, including simple issues like what the unemployment rate is, and complicated issues like basic economic theory. Further, empirical work shows that voters would have different policy preferences if they were better informed. In a world where every voter has high information, we’d never have an election between Trump and Clinton. We’d have better candidates.

That said, democracies do tend to have pretty good policies compared to, say, monarchies and oligarchies. But part of the reason for that is that democracies don’t just do what the people want. Instead, elites, parties, bureaucrats, and others have significant discretion to act against the will of the people.

Some political theorists have advanced ambitious arguments trying to claim that democratic electorates are highly competent as a whole even though most voters are ignorant. These arguments, however, are usually based on mathematical theorems that, while correct in principle, bear no resemblance to the reality of democratic behavior. For instance, Hélène Landemore’s book Democratic Reason (PUP 2012) isn’t a defense of any actual existing  or likely to exist democracy, but instead at most an argument about why democracies would be smart if only voters behaved in radically different ways.

Throughout the book, you talk about three species of voters: hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. What are these?

 JB: I use these as terms of art to describe three classes of voters. In the Lord of the Rings, Hobbits are simply folk who don’t care much about the outside world, and just want to eat, drink, and be merry. The political analogue would be a person who doesn’t care much about politics, doesn’t have strong opinions, doesn’t know much, and doesn’t participate much. Roughly half of Americans are political hobbits. Think the typical non-voter.

Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. Consider: Soccer hooligans are pretty well informed about soccer, but they are biased and mean. They tend to be nasty toward fans from other teams. They only accept information that makes their team look good. Political hooligans are like that about Team Republican or Team Democrat. They have more information, and they participate frequently. But they are biased, and only accept evidence that confirms their own pre-existing views. They tend to think anyone who disagrees with them is mean or stupid. Roughly half of Americans are political hooligans. Think your typical activist or party member.

Vulcans are dispassionate, scientific thinkers. They have high knowledge, but are also aware of what they don’t know. They change their minds when the evidence calls for it. In the US, hardly anyone is a Vulcan.

Most political theories that defend democracy inadvertently do so by imagining how democracy would work if only we were all Vulcans (or on our way to becoming Vulcans). But we’re not Vulcans; we’re hobbits and hooligans. And so many proposals for making democracy better actually make it worse. For example, democratic deliberation not only fails to deliver the results political theorist say it would, but backfires.

 Your view is often criticized as elitist. What’s your response?

JB: We don’t say it’s elitist to think a plumber knows more about pipes than I do. We don’t think it’s elitist to say a truck driver knows more about driving than I do. But for some reason it seems elitist to say that I know more about economics than the average truck driver or plumber. Why? The issue here is that we treat truck driving and plumbing as low status, and political power as high status. But, I think, we should change that attitude. We should upgrade the status of non-political activities and downgrade the status of political activity. Once we do that, we can freely say something that’s, to be blunt, obviously true: The electorate doesn’t know what it’s doing, and putting so much power in the hands of a body that doesn’t know what it’s doing is dangerous.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Policy at the McDonough School of Business in Georgetown University. He is the author of  The Ethics of VotingWhy Not Capitalism? and Libertarianism.

Along with these books, Brennan is the co-author of Markets Without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He is a regular writer for the blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians.



Ethicist Jason Brennan: Brexit, Democracy, and Epistocracy

By Jason Brennan

The Washington Post reports that there is a sharp uptick today in the number of Britons Googling basic questions about what the European Union is and what the implications of leaving are. This is a bit like deciding to study after you’ve already taken the final exam.

Technically, the Brexit referendum is not binding. Parliament could decide to hold their own vote on whether to leave the European Union. Perhaps they should. Perhaps the UK’s leaders owe it to the people to thwart their expressed will.

Leaving the EU is no small affair. It probably will have enormous effects on the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. But just what these effects will be is unclear. To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit, a person would need to possess tremendous social scientific knowledge. One would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.

Political scientists have been studying voter knowledge for the past 60 years. The results are uniformly depressing. Most voters in most countries are systematically ignorant of even the most basic political facts, let alone more the social scientific theories needed to make sense of these facts.

This brings us to the central injustice of democracy, and why holding a referendum was a bad idea. Imagine, as an analogy, that you are sick. You go to a doctor. But suppose your “doctor” doesn’t study the facts, doesn’t know any medicine, and makes her decisions about how to treat you on a whim, on the basis of prejudice or wishful thinking. Imagine the doctor not only prescribes you a course of treatment, but literally forces you, at gunpoint, to accept the treatment.

We’d find this behavior intolerable. Your doctor owes you a duty of care. She owes it to you to deliver an expert opinion on the basis of good information, a strong background knowledge of medicine, and only after considering the facts in a rational and scientific way. To force you to follow the decisions incompetent and bad faith doctor is unjust.

But this is roughly what happens in democracy. Most voters are ignorant of both basic political facts and the background social scientific theories needed to evaluate the facts. They process what little information they have in highly biased and irrational ways. They decided largely on whim. And, worse, we’re each stuck having to put up with the group’s decision. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has the right and means to emigrate, you’re forced to accept your democracy’s poorly chosen decisions.

There’s a big dilemma in the design of political institutions. Should we be ruled by the few or the many? What this amounts to is the choice between being ruled by the smart but selfish or dumb but nice. When only a small number of people hold power, they tend to use this power for their own ends at the expense of everyone else. If a king holds all the power, his decisions matter. He will likely use that power in a smart way, but smart for himself, rather than smart for everybody. Suppose instead we give everyone power. In doing so, we largely remove the incentive and ability for people to use power in self-serving ways at the expense of everyone else. But, at the same time, we remove the incentive for people to use power wisely. Since individual votes count for so little, individual voters have no incentive to become well-informed or to process information with any degree of care. Democracy incentivizes voters to be dumb.

Going back to the doctor analogy, here’s the dilemma: Suppose you could choose between two doctors. The first doctor prescribes you medicine based on what’s good for her, not you. The second is a complete fool who prescribes you medicine on whim and fancy, without reference to the facts. Roughly, with some exaggeration, that’s what the choice between monarchy or democracy amounts to. Neither is appealing.

What if there were a third way, though? In my forthcoming book, Against Democracy, I explore a way of splitting the difference. The trick is to find a political system that both 1) spreads power out enough to prevent people from using power selfishly and 2) weeds out or at least reduces the power of incompetent decision-makers.

In some sense, republican democracy, with checks and balances, was meant to do just that. And to a significant degree it succeeds. But perhaps a new system, epistocracy, could do even better.

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.

All across the West, we’re seeing the rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters. Perhaps it’s time to put aside the childish and magical theory that democracy is intrinsically just, and start asking the serious question of whether there are better alternatives. The stakes are high.

brennanJason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His new book, Against Democracy, is out this August. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.