Uninformed Democracy


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.

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:

Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy.

It would be much safer, Plato thought, to entrust power to carefully educated guardians. To keep their minds pure of distractions—such as family, money, and the inherent pleasures of naughtiness—he proposed housing them in a eugenically supervised free-love compound where they could be taught to fear the touch of gold and prevented from reading any literature in which the characters have speaking parts, which might lead them to forget themselves. The scheme was so byzantine and cockamamie that many suspect Plato couldn’t have been serious; Hobbes, for one, called the idea “useless.”

A more practical suggestion came from J. S. Mill, in the nineteenth century: give extra votes to citizens with university degrees or intellectually demanding jobs. (In fact, in Mill’s day, select universities had had their own constituencies for centuries, allowing someone with a degree from, say, Oxford to vote both in his university constituency and wherever he lived. The system wasn’t abolished until 1950.) Mill’s larger project—at a time when no more than nine per cent of British adults could vote—was for the franchise to expand and to include women. But he worried that new voters would lack knowledge and judgment, and fixed on supplementary votes as a defense against ignorance.

In the United States, élites 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. They helped racists in the South circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment and disenfranchise blacks, and even in immigrant-rich New York a 1921 law required new voters to take a test if they couldn’t prove that they had an eighth-grade education. About fifteen per cent flunked. Voter literacy tests weren’t permanently outlawed by Congress until 1975, years after the civil-rights movement had discredited them.

Worry about voters’ intelligence lingers, however. Mill’s proposal, in particular, remains “actually fairly formidable,” according to David Estlund, a political philosopher at Brown. His 2008 book, “Democratic Authority,” tried to construct a philosophical justification for democracy, a feat that he thought could be achieved only by balancing two propositions: democratic procedures tend to make correct policy decisions, and democratic procedures are fair in the eyes of reasonable observers. Fairness alone didn’t seem to be enough. If it were, Estlund wrote, “why not flip a coin?” It must be that we value democracy for tending to get things right more often than not, which democracy seems to do by making use of the information in our votes. Indeed, although this year we seem to be living through a rough patch, democracy does have a fairly good track record. The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has made the case that democracies never have famines, and other scholars believe that they almost never go to war with one another, rarely murder their own populations, nearly always have peaceful transitions of government, and respect human rights more consistently than other regimes do.

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.” It’s an idea that “advocates of democracy, and other enemies of despotism, will want to resist,” he wrote, and he counted himself among the resisters. As a purely philosophical matter, however, he saw only three valid objections.

First, one could deny that truth was a suitable standard for measuring political judgment. This sounds extreme, but it’s a fairly common move in political philosophy. After all, in debates over contentious issues, such as when human life begins or whether human activity is warming the planet, appeals to the truth tend to be incendiary. Truth “peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate,” Hannah Arendt pointed out in this magazine, in 1967, “and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.” Estlund wasn’t a relativist, however; he agreed that politicians should refrain from appealing to absolute truth, but he didn’t think a political theorist could avoid doing so.

The second argument against epistocracy would be to deny that some citizens know more about good government than others. Estlund simply didn’t find this plausible (maybe a political philosopher is professionally disinclined to). The third and final option: deny that knowing more imparts political authority. As Estlund put it, “You might be right, but who made you boss?”

It’s a very good question, and Estlund rested his defense of democracy on it, but he felt obliged to look for holes in his argument. He had a sneaking suspicion that a polity ruled by educated voters probably would perform better than a democracy, and he thought that some of the resulting inequities could be remedied. If historically disadvantaged groups, such as African-Americans or women, turned out to be underrepresented in an epistocratic system, those who made the grade could be given additional votes, in compensation.

By the end of Estlund’s analysis, there were only two practical arguments against epistocracy left standing. The first was the possibility that an epistocracy’s method of screening voters might be biased in a way that couldn’t readily be identified and therefore couldn’t be corrected for. The second was that universal suffrage is so established in our minds as a default that giving the knowledgeable power over the ignorant will always feel more unjust than giving those in the majority power over those in the minority. As defenses of democracy go, these are even less rousing than Churchill’s shruggie.

Adapted from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/07/the-case-against-democracy


  1. American voters= lack political knowledge
    political power=educated


  2. democracy = problem, concerned about uneducated, epistocracy > democracy


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