Against Democracy

Voting booths in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for the general election held on November 3, 2015. Flickr/Tim Evanson

Democracy has had a good run. But its design is fundamentally flawed.

Just over twenty years ago Francis Fukuyama declared liberal democracy the end of history. But history marched on, revealing rot in democracy’s roots. Around the world, from radical leftists in Venezuela and Greece to American Trump supporters, bitter voters wave their banners around populist demagogues. Nationalist movements, echoing those that lead to the first world war, are on the rise. The working classes reject globalization, immigration and economic liberalism. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and other countries may soon follow suit. In the United States, the political parties are more polarized than ever before, with the most right-wing Democrat to the left of the most left-wing Republican. As a result, the United States faces gridlock and tribal politics rather than compromise solutions.

These movements are driven by low-information voters and the politicians who serve them. The past few decades have been perhaps the best in human history, with more people around the world rising out of absolute poverty than ever before. But many Western voters, ignorant of the social sciences or even of basic political facts, see change all around them, feel left behind and neglected, and strike out in fear and resentment.

When we take a close look at the science of voter behavior, we should not be surprised to see democracy producing poor results on occasion. What’s surprising is that democracies do not fare even worse.

Democracies contain an essential flaw. By spreading power out widely, they remove any incentive for individual voters to use their power wisely. In a major election or referendum, individual voters have no greater chance of making a difference than they do of winning Powerball. They have no incentive to be well informed. They might as well indulge their worst prejudices. Democracy is the rule of the people, but entices people to be their worst.

What if there were an alternative? In my forthcoming book Against Democracy, I describe a new system of government called epistocracy. Epistocracy is meant to do what democracy does well, but guard against democracy’s downsides.

In a democracy, every citizen automatically receives an equal basic right to vote and run for office. Most modern democracies are republican democracies, containing checks and balances, with judicial review, constitutional constraints, multicameral legislatures, contestatory forums, bureaucratic autonomy, political parties and the like, all intended to slow down politics, prevent majoritarianism and protect minority interests.

Epistocracies retain such structures. The essential difference is that in an epistocracy, the right to vote is apportioned, to some degree, according to knowledge. An epistocracy might grant everyone the right to vote, but weigh some votes more than others, or more might exclude citizens from voting unless they can pass a basic test of political competence.

Democracy is the official religion of the West. Now is as good a time as any to question the faith.

Democratic Triumphalism

Most Westerners, left and right, embrace what I call Democratic Triumphalism. Triumphalism’s slogan is, “Three cheers for democracy!” It holds that democracy is a uniquely just form of social organization. People have a basic right to an equal fundamental share of political power. Participation is good for us—it empowers us, it’s a useful way for us to get what we want and it tends to make us better people.

Against Democracy attacks Triumphalism. Democracy does not deserve at least two of those cheers, and might not deserve the third, either.

I argue that political participation is not valuable for most people: it does most of us little good, and participating in politics tends to make us mean and dumb.

I argue that citizens don’t have any basic right to vote or run for office. The right to vote is not like other liberal rights. A right of free speech gives a citizen power over herself; the right to vote gives her power over others.

Democracy, I argue, is not an end in itself. It has the kind of value a hammer has. It’s just a useful instrument for producing just and efficient policies. If we can find a better hammer, we should use it. Indeed, epistocracy may be a better hammer. Perhaps a liberal republican epistocracy might outperform liberal republican democracy. It’s time to experiment and find out.

A Crash Course in Voter Behavior

Political scientists, psychologists and economists have studied voter behavior for over sixty years. They’ve conducted thousands of studies and amassed a huge amount of data. Their findings are largely uniform and depressing. In general, voters are ignorant, misinformed and biased. But there is tremendous variance. When it comes to political information, some people know a lot, most people know nothing and many people know less than nothing.

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