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.
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.
During election years, most citizens cannot identify any congressional candidates in their district. Citizens generally don’t know which party controls Congress. During the 2000 U.S. presidential election, while slightly more than half of all Americans knew Gore was more liberal than Bush, significantly less than half knew that Gore was more supportive of abortion rights, more supportive of welfare-state programs, favored a higher degree of aid to blacks or was more supportive of environmental regulation. When asked to guess what the unemployment rate was, the majority of voters tend to guess it is twice as high as the actual rate.
And so on. In general, voters in most countries can identify the incumbent chief executive, but know little else beyond that.
These kinds of surveys overstate how much knowledge citizens have, in part because they only ask easy questions, such as who the incumbents are or whether crime is falling. But democracies ask citizens to choose among political parties offering different policy platforms. To evaluate these platforms, citizens need at least some grasp of economics and political science. There’s little reason to think they are informed about these things. On the contrary, American voters, both left and right, have systematically different beliefs about the economy from professional economists, and these differences are not explained by demographic factors.
Citizens aren’t just ignorant or misinformed, but irrational. Few citizens process information with an open mind; most citizens disregard any information that contradicts their current ideology. Voters suffer from a wide range of biases, including confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, motivated reasoning, intergroup bias, availability bias and prior attitude effects.
It’s no surprise that most voters are ignorant, misinformed and biased. Our individual votes make no difference. When it comes to politics, smart doesn’t pay, and dumb doesn’t hurt.
An individual vote for the worst possible candidate produces the same results as a vote for the best possible candidate. Abstaining from voting produces the same results as voting. A well-informed vote produces the same results as a badly informed, misinformed or irrational vote. An individual vote after careful deliberation produces the same results as voting after flipping a coin or dropping acid.
Information matters. Which policies people prefer depends in part on how informed they are. Even controlling for the influence of sex, race and income, highly informed citizens have systematically different policy preferences from ignorant or misinformed voters. For instance, high-information voters favor free trade, globalization, immigration and civil libertarianism. Low-information voters, regardless of their demographics, favor the opposite: they tend to favor Trump’s platform.
Political Liberty: Who Needs It?
The democratic faith holds that the right to vote is the most important right of all. On reflection, it’s a strange view. Consider: your rights to choose an occupation, to control your sex life, to choose what and when to eat, or to buy and sell as you desire, give you significant control and autonomy over your own life. In contrast, your right to vote does you little good.
Most people talk as if the right to vote has major instrumental value. They say your right to vote allows you to consent to government, to control and shape political outcomes, and to protect yourself from being dominated by others.
But none of this withstands mathematical scrutiny. How we vote matters; how any one of us votes does not. Casting an individual vote has roughly the same power over political outcomes as praying to Jupiter or blowing one’s nose. Democracy empowers the majority, but it does not empower any of the individuals who form that majority.
The probability that your individual vote will change the outcome of a major election or referendum is roughly on the order of the probability you will win the Powerball. Winning the lottery is worth hundreds of millions, but it still doesn’t make sense to buy a ticket. So it goes with voting. Imagine Trump promises to pay you $10 million if he’s elected. Though his victory would net you $10 million, it’s not worth the effort to vote for him, any more than it’s worth buying a Powerball ticket.
Many people understand that individual votes matter little. They instead invoke the symbolic value of the right to vote. In Western democracies, we treat the right to vote as a metaphorical badge of dignity and equality. We imbue people with the equal right to vote in order to express that they are full and equal members of the national club. Many philosophers believe that democracy necessarily expresses that all citizens have equal worth.