The role of knowledge in political decision-making has been a central topic in political theory and social science since Plato’s proposal of an exclusive rule of philosopher kings and Aristotle’s more modest proposal of a rule of the wise.
Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown University, in his book Against Democracy, advocates for an Epistocracy, meaning rule by the knowledgeable. “ Trump’s victory,” he wrote in Foreign Policy “is the victory of the uninformed. But, to be fair, Clinton’s victory would also have been. Democracy is the rule of the people, but the people are in many ways unfit to rule.”
Democracy, according to Brennan, is other people, and the ignorance of the many has long galled the few, especially the few who consider themselves intellectuals therefore, it is entirely justifiable to limit the political power that the irrational, the ignorant, and the incompetent have over others. “Public welfare is more important than anyone’s hurt feelings….excluding the bottom 80% of white voters from voting might be just what poor blacks need.”
Voting often literally involves matters of life and death, and the politicians who get elected rules over the entire society, including those who voted against them. Ignorance can easily lead to ill-advised wars, economic recessions, abusive law enforcement, environmental disasters, 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.
Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are and only half are aware that their state has two of them.
Brennan divides voters into three categories: The Hobbit, an uninformed voter, best suited to stay at home on election day; the Hooligans who enjoy political news as a recreation akin to sports, and lastly, the Vulcans who investigate politics with scientific objectivity, respect opposing points of view and carefully “adjust” their opinions to the facts, which they seek out diligently. It’s the Vulcans presumably, who Brennan hopes will someday rule over us.
An epistocracy, according to Brennan, would try to copy what makes democracies work, but do it better. Most of our current system would remain – checks and balances, judicial review, constitutional constraints, three branches of government, bureaucratic autonomy, political parties, etc. It would be that pesky right to vote that goes under the microscope. An Epistocracy would make certain that the informed many are not drowned out by the ignorant or misinformed many.
So how would an epistocracy work? Extra votes for degree holders, a council of epistocrats with veto power, a qualifying exam?
You could allow everyone to vote and then grant extra votes to those knowledgeable individuals who pass a test of basic political knowledge or you could require everyone to pass a basic political knowledge test before they could vote. You could also go with the “enfranchisement lottery” whereby a certain number of voters would be selected at random to vote. There is also a “simulated oracle” poll where eligible voters (those who pass a test) would disclose their preference for the candidates and policies and be required to disclose their demographic information. Using this data, a statistician would calculate the public’s “enlightened preferences,” that is, what a demographically identical voting population would support if only it were better informed.
My question would be who decides what counts as political competence or basic political knowledge? We don’t want self-interested politicians or academia to rig a competence exam in their favor. There is no guarantee that an Epistocracy would prevent abuse of the electoral system any more than a democracy does. It is not the system that is the problem – it’s the people in charge.
Unlike Brennan I blame voter ignorance on an educational system that has turned our schools and universities into a propaganda machine for the left. No longer are core subjects vital to our national wellbeing taught. Classes that study the Constitution, the Civil War, the lives of our founders and the general history of Western Civilization have given way to specialized studies such as Harvard’s “Emotions in History” and Yale’s “Indigenous Religious History,” “Witchcraft and Society in Colonial America,” History of the Supernatural” and “Sex, Life and Generation,” to name a few. Stanford provides a study on “Mad Women: The History of Women and Mental Illness in the U.S.”
These specialized classes also carry a political message championed by those with a social, political agenda. The narrow focus of such a course disconnects it from its place in the arc of history, causing wrong conclusions to be drawn, creating an unfair bias in which the truth and the past are distorted. Ignorance of history leaves an individual without any memory beyond his own, without any guide by which to make decisions. But then, that is exactly what the left wants.
Jason Brennan has been described as a bleeding heart libertarian who combines libertarian emphasis on economics and civil liberties with a left wing emphasis on social justice. He is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. Brennan blogs at Bleeding-Heart Libertarians, a web site for self-important intellects who actually defended Kathy Griffin for her latest disgusting act against President Trump.