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.

Plural Voting: As in a democracy, every citizen has a vote. However, some citizens, such those who who pass a test of basic knowledge, or who meet some other criteria correlated with political competence, can acquire additional votes.

Epistocratic Veto: Just as in a democracy, all laws are passed by a democratic legislature elected through universal suffrage. However, an epistocratic body with restricted membership retains the right to veto rules passed by the democratic legislature. Just as judges can veto legislation for being unconstitutional, so, perhaps, a board of economic advisors might have the right to veto legislation (such as protectionist policies) that violate basic economic principles.

Weighted Voting: During the election, every citizen may vote, but must at the same time take a quiz concerning basic political knowledge. Their votes are weighted based on their objective political knowledge, all while statistically controlling for the influence of race, income, sex and/or other demographic factors. With such data (which will be made public), any statistician can then calculate or estimate, with a high degree of certainty, what the public would want if only it were informed. The epistocracy does what the informed public would want, rather than what the uninformed public in fact wants.

The big question, of course, is what counts, and who decides, political competence or basic political knowledge. I’m less troubled by this question than many. We could just use the type of questions we’ve been using on the American National Election Studies. We could use the questions we’ve been using on the American citizenship exam. These are easy, objective, easily verified questions, but we have good grounds to think that the capacity to answer them is correlated with the kind of social scientific knowledge that really matters.

One somewhat paradoxical-sounding, but surprisingly reasonable, idea is that we could use democratic procedures to choose a public definition of political competence, which we in turn use to selected epistocratic voters. For instance, imagine that to vote for president, one must pass a “voter qualifying exam,” but then imagine that this exam itself was selected through a democratic vote. This may seem strange—if democracies are competent to choose a legal definition of competence, why aren’t they also competent to choose a president? But there are two reasons why this is less paradoxical than it sounds. First, the problem with democracy is not that citizens fail to understand, in the abstract, what counts as a good president. Rather, they have good abstract standards, but they are bad at applying their standards, at selecting a person who meets them. Second, the question “What counts as political competence?” is a much easier question than, say, “Should we have free trade or protectionism?” The latter question requires social scientific knowledge most voters lack, but the former question does not.

Conclusion: The Better Hammer

There’s no doubt that in the real world, any epistocratic system would suffer government failures and abuse. But the same goes with democracy. In the real world, special-interest groups would try rig both systems for their benefit at the expense of everyone else. In the real world, both epistocracy and democracy will be imperfect and flawed. The question we should ask is which system would work better

Governments are like hammers, not poems. The point of a government is to produce good outcomes. Democracy has had a good run. But it has an endemic design flaw. It’s time to experiment with a new system, to see if we can improve upon the design.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. This article was adapted from his new book Against Democracy (Princeton University Press), released September 7, 2016.

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