06 July 2017

Epistocracy as an alternative to democracy

Excerpts from a book review in The New Yorker:
Democracy is other people, and the ignorance of the many has long galled the few, especially the few who consider themselves intellectuals. Plato, one of the earliest to see democracy as a problem, saw its typical citizen as shiftless and flighty...  It would be much safer, Plato thought, to entrust power to carefully educated guardians...

In the United States, √©lites who feared the ignorance of poor immigrants tried to restrict ballots. In 1855, Connecticut introduced the first literacy test for American voters. Although a New York Democrat protested, in 1868, that “if a man is ignorant, he needs the ballot for his protection all the more,” in the next half century the tests spread to almost all parts of the country... Voter literacy tests weren’t permanently outlawed by Congress until 1975, years after the civil-rights movement had discredited them.

Still, democracy is far from perfect—“the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” as Churchill famously said. So, if we value its power to make good decisions, why not try a system that’s a little less fair but makes good decisions even more often? Jamming the stub of the Greek word for “knowledge” into the Greek word for “rule,” Estlund coined the word “epistocracy,” meaning “government by the knowledgeable.”...

In a new book, “Against Democracy” (Princeton), Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown, has turned Estlund’s hedging inside out to create an uninhibited argument for epistocracy.  
More at the link.  The book is not in our local library.  Perhaps some reader here can browse it and report back to the class.


  1. Interesting. A meme about stupidity that puts forth the [all too common] idea that "average" indicates half the people are above X, and half the people are below X.

  2. "Makes good decisions more often"

    Nothing else to say here but "citation needed".

    One need not establish an "epistocracy" to see the consequences of the educated ruling over the unwashed masses. Pick any society in history with a privileged ruling class, and I would be happy to wager that more often than not they were better educated than the disenfranchised. I would be equally happy to bet that their rule did not last forever, that their attitude towards the masses was not always benevolent, and that their decision-making skills were flawed.

    Also take a moment to ask yourselves what means the uneducated would have to voice their displeasure with society without the vote. Democracy is many things, including a pressure valve for when a big enough chunk of society gets angry. This system would likely accomplish nothing more than replace ballots with bricks.

  3. Assuming that merit is a college degree, it would be a matriarchy. College graduation stats below from 2013 (note that the differential between male and female college graduation rates is expected to hold, if not increase.)

    "For the current graduating class of 2013, the Department of Education estimates that women will earn 61.6% of all associate’s degrees this year, 56.7% of all bachelor’s degrees, 59.9% of all master’s degrees, and 51.6% of all doctor’s degrees. Overall, 140 women will graduate with a college degree at some level this year for every 100 men."
    Source: https://collegepuzzle.stanford.edu/?tag=women-exceed-men-in-college-graduation


  4. Iron Horse has some good points. Though just about anything short of outright tyranny is better than a kakistocracy.

    From time to time I've played around with the idea of conscripting people to serve in public office (for a limited, specified term). They'd first go through an intense training, getting them up to speed on current issues, and use the career public servants to get things done. Their only job would be to provide policy guidance. But this too has its problems.


  5. The "some voters are stupid" argument always reminds me of the "some days are cold" thing global warming denialists use. In both cases that is a true fact, but meaningless. The study of climate and the wisdom of the crowd (as used in elections) both operate on large averages. Any given day or any given voter can be wildly off base and the average can still be meaningful.

  6. Considering the last election, it's interesting to note that the Founding Fathers established the Electoral College because they didn't trust the voters. I wonder how many of them are turning in their graves to view the results of the last presidential election, where the popular vote was overridden by the Electoral College to elect Donald Trump.

  7. Are manipulative olicharchs not intelligent?
    Could epistocrats not turn into manipulative olicharchs?

  8. If we were to be ruled by a group of "elites," they should be elite in wisdom and ethics, not education. However, even that would be problematic, since people tend to change when they are in power. Also, we would still have the question of who decides on the qualifications... there would be the real power.

  9. That problem has long been solved in theory. Direct democracy is terrible, because people tend to vote for Ronald McDonald and Boaty McBoatface.
    However indirect democracy where people elect representatives, who then vote and make (informed) decisions for them is still better. This does require a representative spectrum of political parties, that can also work as a coalition, not the choice between Corruplicans and Coruprats.

    Also relevant is the fear that the vast majority of poor and average people, will forever elect socialist parties, because it's in their interest to do so. Which as I learned from this blog, eventually put all rich countries into a crippling debt, making Socialist governments basically unable to change anything even once elected.

  10. makes me think of this excellent piece from one of my favorite blogs http://www.karlremarks.com/2016/06/a-plan-to-rescue-western-democracy-from.html#more


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...