Bryan Caplan  

Epistocracy and the Anti-Authority Tenet

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While you're waiting for Jason Brennan's The Ethics of Voting to arrive in the mail, check out his new article in The Philosophical Quarterly.  In the book, Brennan merely argues that uninformed and irrational voters should voluntarily abstain.  In the article, Brennan makes the stronger argument that uninformed and irrational voters should not be allowed to vote.  "Epistocracy," rule by the well-informed and rational, is at least less unjust than universal suffrage. 

The highlight of the piece is Brennan's clever response to David Estlund, who objects that epistocracy commits the "expert/boss fallacy."  Brennan: 
To commit the expert/boss fallacy is to think that being an expert is sufficient reason for one person to hold power over others. But possessing superior knowledge is not sufficient to justify having any power, let alone greater power than others. We can always say to the experts 'You may know better, but who made you boss?'. For example, a nutritionist may not compel me to conform to a diet, even if in possession of the knowledge that the diet would be good for me. You may not force me to listen to the newest Celine Dion album, even if you have indisputable proof that I would love it. And so on.

However, the argument I am making for epistocracy does not rest upon the authority tenet, but instead on an anti-authority tenet.

3*. The anti-authority tenet: when some citizens are morally unreasonable, ignorant or incompetent about politics, this justifies not granting them political authority over others.
I took on the same issue here, but Brennan's account is markedly clearer and more convincing.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
MikeDC writes:

Clever... as in "too clever by half".

A: "Hey, you're irrational, don't vote!"
B: "OK, you're right. I won't vote."
A: "Really? OK, you're actually quite rational. Go ahead and vote".
B: "I think you should consider your own rationality. That's not a rational question."
A: "Hmmm... you're right... I won't vote!"

Daublin writes:

It is an interesting argument, Bryan. However, it is neatly circumvented if you think the main point of democracy is to avoid absolute horrors such as mass starvation, genocide, or a abysmal failure to balance the budget.

If you think that way, then the only expertise needed to vote is that you can identify absolute horror. It's not a very high bar.

frankcross writes:

I don't understand the rebuttal. How does disenfranchising the ignorant and incompetent not commit the expert/boss fallacy? It would seem to apply to the nutrition example as well. Renaming it doesn't change the theory.

Mark R. writes:

Here's the article in MS Word format.

Jayson Virissimo writes:
I don't understand the rebuttal. How does disenfranchising the ignorant and incompetent not commit the expert/boss fallacy? It would seem to apply to the nutrition example as well. Renaming it doesn't change the theory.

Surely, if being an expert isn't sufficient justification for having power of others, then being a non-expert isn't sufficient justification for having power of others.

Correction: "of" should be "over".

Jason Brennan writes:

Thanks, Bryan!

To frank Cross:

Estlund says arguments for epistocracy rest upon an authority tenet, which says that someone's being an expert is a reason to given him power. An anti-authority tenet says that someone's being incompetent is reason not to force other people to accept his power. The authority tenet justifies power, but the anti-authority tenet undermines it. The authority tenet is a principle that says some people should have power, but the anti-authority tenet says some people should not.

On it's own, the anti-authority tenet does not say anyone should have power. It does not say experts should rule, and it doesn't justify expert rule. So, it doesn't commit the expert-boss fallacy.

jason Brennan writes:


Ungated copy of the article is here:

Kevin H writes:

Who decides who is fit to vote and from what is that authority derived?

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

This entire discussion rests on the rather otherworldly assumption that democracy is some kind of truth-seeking process; a rational deliberation to find the 'common good'.

In reality, it is of course a simple tug-of-war; who gets the biggest piece of the pie? Even one-year olds can play very competently in that arena. To deny some groups access to the trough is a very clever way to take that game to another level; but dont expect the other pigs to buy your tune of taking care of their share of the common good.

Who decides who is fit to vote and from what is that authority derived?

That is a question that could be asked of any democracy, whether or not it has universal suffrage.

stuhlmann writes:

May I suggest (re)reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers, which contains a lot of philosophy, in addition to battles against space aliens. In the world of Starship Troopers, citizens have to earn the right to vote by voluntarily serving their country for two years, either in the military or in a number of other capacities. Any person of any age or physical ability could sign up, serve honorably, and earn the right to vote. Heinlein's point was that having to earn the right to vote made for more serious and thoughtful voters.

MikeDC writes:

But determination of competence is a power itself.

Appealing to the anti-authority tenet to resolve the issue of incompetent voters simply recreates the authority tenet around the issue of determining competence. It's a philosophical moving of the goal posts.

Now, I can imagine theoretical reasons we might consider it easier or better to solve the latter issue than the former. But the history and practice of authorities determining competence is long and frankly, really scary. From Ancient Greece to to early 20th century sterilization and IQ testing, to "virginity checks" performed on female protesters in Egypt in the past couple weeks, I see mountains and mountains of evidence to suggest implementing this in a non-trivial way is a really, really dangerous idea.

As a libertarian, I rank it up there with the theoretical and practical efficacy of central planning or beating the stock market on a consistent basis. Maybe in theory it works, but there's an overwhelming amount of evidence that you'll lose by trying.

eccdogg writes:

I am with Daublin,

The key feature of democracy is the throw the bums out effect. It does not take a genius to figure out when things are really screwed up.

You only need an informed electorate if you think the government ought to be doing a bunch of things. If instead you think as I do that the government ought to only pursue activities that their is near total agreement among the electorate then you don't need a bunch of well informed voters.

John writes:

The anti-authority tenant on it's own may not commit the same fallacy but when combines with the underlying rational for ethical voting it produces the same results -- the voters having power over the non-voters.

I we over estimate the difficulty for the average Joe to understand good and bad policies. The problem stems more from a very poor institutional structure that intentionally over complicates issues. Also, much of what is done by government can be done as well privately -- under institutional structures with an operational invisible hand present. Let's solve those problems and then see if experts will do better than the average Joe in seeing the "common good".

Jayson V., while the question may be asked of any democracy it's still true that it needs to be answered.

While I'm not completely convinced by the book's argument I can appreciate the underlying thought. I'm not sure I can say the same for this expert-bassed democracy, but need to read the paper. The experts cannot get planning right with economic matters and those are actually much simpler than politics.

Mark Brady writes:

Am I the only person who believes that libertarian philosophers have many more important tasks facing them than the question of who should vote or not vote in a democracy? Libertarianism is about peaceful alternatives to political rule.

And if we're going to talk about representative democracy, let's at least exclude from the voting rolls those who receive more government funds than they pay in taxes. That was the demand of radical classical liberals in the nineteenth century. No votes for the military for a start.

mbk writes:

There are a lot of things wrong with this idea even though it sounds appealing at first. I thought of this when I was a student - "let people vote only if they're well informed and participate in public activities" - and my mom just said "ok so then it's power to the busybodies only".

Seriously now, the elephant in the room is a confusion of the descriptive with the proscriptive. Politics is not at first about how to achieve things - it is about what to achieve. "Experts" are experts in the how and this has nothing much to do with the what and why.

Besides the dangers of seeing nothing but nails for his expert hammer, there is no reason that the (normative, proscriptive) political desires of any expert should have higher weightings than the just as legitimate political desires of the non-expert, just because the expert has knowledge of (factual, descriptive) power to achieve ends once these ends are chosen by whatever means. It's a "you can't get an ought from an is" kind of problem.

And then there are the legion side issues: power always needs the consent of the governed, if this consent is broken for whatever reason, political violence usually follows (angry, excluded non experts); who determines the expert class?; expertise usually implies specialization and specialization implies narrow focus, ipso facto the expert would be the least reliable person to make an informed judgment under multi faceted complex uncertainties; however, experts are often convinced that their expertise extends beyond its actual limitations; and yet the voting paradoxes guarantee that the sum of all expert opinions does not neatly sum to an expertly decided outcome (this if one would want to circumvent the problem of specialization by getting input from each specialist and then weighting this input); finally the whole wisdom of the crowds kind of argument, that non experts are often quite good at judging situations in the aggregate, witness the "market", we let non experts trade stocks and influence prices all the time, the horror, why doesn't anyone stop this either?; chopping off the tails of a distribution doesn't make the average "better", it just kills data; and to top it off, what happened to Polanyi, Hayek, the distribution of knowledge in society and tacit knowledge?

Basically I'm sorry but the basic idea of it does not sound very promising.

Bob Montgomery writes:

I'm in agreement that this argument just moves the goalposts. In the US the nominal theory is that the governments "deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Which really seems to imply universal sufferage; if you forbid the ignorant from voting than the government does not (and cannot) have their consent. So now you have (perhaps) a more rationally chosen government with no legitimacy. Is that a win? Or do you now propose a new test for the legitimacy of government?

Not to mention all the pragmatic questions raised by MikeDC et al.

John T. Kennedy writes:

"The anti-authority tenet: when some citizens are morally unreasonable, ignorant or incompetent about politics, this justifies not granting them political authority over others."


Political authority over others is morally unreasonable in the first place, so it could never be morally reasonable to grant it. The quoted statement is true, but cannot reasonably be used other than in an argument for anarchy because properly understood it morally rules out granting any political authority to anyone.

Vlad writes:

A quote from Matt Zwolinski given earlier applies here as well:

"[T]he mere fact that there is a valid moral distinction to be made does not entail that we want our public policies to make it. It is, after all, difficult to discern between the deserving and the undeserving - maybe especially for governments"

The point with (quasi)universal suffrage is precisely that there's no satisfactory answer to the questions: (1) What are the correct and explicit selection criteria for who should be allowed to vote? (The paper does not say, it only mentions that rasism would obviously be a bad selection criteria.) (2) How do you make sure that those who decide and enforce the criteria don't bias the selection process to their own advantage?

After all, the ignorant & irrational voters problem is an externality problem, and we wouldn't want the government to solve it because "[g]overnment isn't a solution to externalities problems; it's the best example of the problem".

I'd say that even the voluntary "don't vote if you're ignorant" advice is bad because the ignorant are also more ignorant of their own ignorance (as compared to the less ignorant). So, if many people were to adopt this moral heuristic it would be precisely the ignorant who would predominantly go to vote as the more knowledgeable people would also be more skeptical of themselves.

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